The Voiceless in a Failing System

Imagine a teenager -- let's say she's a 13 years old with purple, butterfly hairpins -- who lacks a voice, a family and even a home. Now, stop imagining, because she's real and probably lives within 100 miles of you. I see her often in my line of work. The truth is, she exists all over our country, yet many of us remain unaware. We remain unaware of all of the young boys and girls who lack a voice, a family and/or a home because they remain in a system that leaves them powerless.

At one point, I was in that position, not as bad as that 13-year old girl, but I was voiceless and powerless in a system where I was the inferior and the problem. Now that I work with youth in the foster care system, I remain aware, on a daily basis, that there are thousands of children who face the same problems every second of their lives.

When I was just two years old, I was pulled away from a home of abusive and mentally ill parents who did more than dabble in their fair share of drugs and alcohol. From that point on, I moved four times within a year. By the time I was five years old and living in the home of a relative, I was reminded, regularly, that I was "the problem." I was the child who needed to be fixed, yet whose voice was ignored in decisions.

Let's now go to me at 13. I live in a "permanent and stable" home where things are obviously not working. A social worker in a black dress with an official badge comes to my school and tells me that multiple people reported abuse in my home. Later that day, she comes to my house, and she decides, within minutes, that the home is fine. She recommends that I get more counseling. I go to the police station, as you must do in these cases, and the officer tells me that I am an "asshole who needs to do more community service and respect the people around me." Even though multiple people reported something wrong, I remain the problem -- not my home, not my caregiver and definitely not the system.

In this country, the plights of youth in the foster care system are often brought to attention in the abstract, with former foster parents or social workers commenting on the difficulties and the problems of the system. Yet, the voice lacking is that of the youth who experience the system, because we're who foster care really affects. We're the ones who cry in the middle of the night. We're the ones who experience abuse. We're the ones who suffer.

I escaped the system luckier than most. I fought, and continue to fight everyday, to rise above my past and create a life for myself. I graduated from a top-25 university with my bachelor's degree in history. Yet, it wasn't easy getting there. I am a success story, one of the 2% of former foster youth who graduate from college.

I am lucky, and have people who support me, like my grandfather, who I now think of as a father, my aunts, who treat me as their son, the famous actress, who was a friend to me as a child, the lawyer, who pushed me to succeed and bought me clothes and the generous woman who runs a non-profit, and has essentially become like a mother to me. Most people in the system never get that support. Yes, I am a success, but the fact that I struggled everyday is a problem -- the fact that many youth struggle everyday, without help, and never escape a tragic fate IS a problem.

Rather than focus on the successes of youth in the system, we need to focus on the failures. We need more of the youth who are homeless, who are in jail and who lack even a high school diploma to speak out. While you may call me a "success," I am not a success of the system. Rather than focus on me in the present, we need to focus on the failures -- the 13-year-old me -- because those are what really define foster care. The successes are not a reflection of a successful system, rather they're a reflection of luck in a failing system.