I was born a ward of the state in Maine, and I grew up in the foster care system. I was blessed to have been placed with families who cared for, supported and guided me, and to have been loved by incredible women who gave me the discipline and confidence to develop a successful career as a dancer and actress. Growing up in foster care shaped who I am today. May is National Foster Care Month, and for me, it is an especially meaningful time of the year, when I join the millions of children, youth and adult Americans who reflect on how this system has had a profound effect on our lives or the lives of friends and loved ones.
I'm continually astonished by the sheer number of children and youth in foster care—currently more than 513,000—and am especially concerned by the overrepresentation of African-American youth in the system. We make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet did you know that more than 32 percent of foster children are African American? Furthermore, even though the rate of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect are virtually the same in white and black families, research shows that black children are removed from their families at higher rates, tend to stay in the system longer, and are less likely to be referred to available support services that, if offered in a timely manner, might result in keeping families together rather than tearing them apart, often irreparably and forever.
While I recognize the need to take children out of harm's way, foster care isn't the end of the story, and, frankly, shouldn't be the beginning either. As a member of the black community and as a mother of two, I am jolted each time I hear young people recount stories of arriving home to find social workers waiting for them; being handed a trash bag in which to pack their belongings; taking a silent car ride to an office where they too often are separated from their siblings; and later being brought to their new "home" with "foster parents" they have never met. Many, like me, are lucky to land in the homes of dedicated and caring adults who truly want to help, but the emotional fallout and disconnectedness of losing your siblings, parents, and friends— your family—can keep you at loose ends and haunt you forever.
Each year, more than 30,000 young people "age out" of the system or run away, without permanent family connections and the safety net a family relationship provides. Many of these youths experience homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, substance abuse and teen pregnancy. They need substantial support and services—preferably in the context of family—that will anchor them and provide the crucial preparation for adulthood that is necessary to forge a path to a happy and successful future.
Family permanence is important to helping every foster child live life to the fullest. For a foster child, permanence means offering an enduring family relationship that is safe and meant to last a lifetime. Permanence can be achieved through reunification, legal adoption, guardianship or permanency pacts. All provide a child with physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, as well as the stability of being cared for by a loving, stable adult or family.
A lifelong family can be achieved at any age. While the public often focuses on young children in foster care, there are many teens and young adults in the system who still yearn for a permanent family connection—someplace to return to during college break, a dad to walk a young woman down the aisle on her wedding day and "grandparents" for their children when they have a family of their own.
As a child in the foster care system, I was fortunate to have caring adults and mentors who led me to study ballet. Classical ballet became my anchor. I learned discipline and dedication, time management and the value of hard work and determination. My "team" of committed teachers and other special adults, who supported and encouraged my talent, passion and participation, also provided me with companionship and guidance as I navigated the sometimes troubled waters of young adulthood.
But many foster youth never get a chance to have that special network of family, mentors, and community that I had, that dedicated team of people committed to providing a stable, caring environment.
And those young people—no matter what their age—long for it.
This month, to kick off National Foster Care Month, I was one of 600 participants in the National Convening on Youth Permanence, a two-day conference in Washington, hosted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation/Casey Family Servicesand Casey Family Programs. In addition to the many social service professionals and policy makers involved in the event, young people played a prominent and powerful role. They used their own voices to advocate for their lives and futures in front of elected officials and policy makers.
Social movements in America have a history of not giving a seat at the table to the people most affected by the systems in question. I am proud to be part of the burgeoning movement for family permanence in foster care, because it is a model of inclusion. And while the event took candid assessments of the many flaws in the nation's foster care system, including the unmet needs of African Americans and other minorities, the participants also highlighted positive outcomes of foster care. Rather than a "woe is me" attitude from the young people in attendance, I heard the message of "Wow is me!" Raising up positive stories gives important guidance and inspiration as we battle to repair the negative outcomes of the current system.
During the event, I paused to think of one of my wonderful foster mothers who wanted—and tried desperately—to adopt me. But she was white, and I was African American, and in those days the laws prohibited interracial adoptions. Although our government has discarded such draconian laws, today's foster care data reveal a system that cries out for reform. As a nation, we need to discuss the disparities in the system and how institutional racism contributes to disproportionate negative outcomes for black youth.
But the system isn't the only thing that needs an overhaul. African Americans need to come together to support the large percentage of our children and youth who end up in foster care. I, for one, have made this a deeply personal commitment. In 1990, I started the Rowell Foster Children's Positive Plan, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping foster children thrive through fine arts, sports and job opportunities. While I certainly don't expect everyone to start an organization, let's give children and youth in foster care a fighting chance by helping them to identify a "forever family" who can support them through the tumultuous transition years to adulthood—a time when even the most stable person needs someone to lean on. I want to see the African-American community rise up to care for, and support, all of our sons and daughters.
If there was one constant message from the youth at the conference, it was this: Talking about the issues is fine, but we want change. We want what all kids want and need—at least one committed, caring adult who is there for us and who sticks by us through the good times and the bad. Someone who loves us, no matter what.
Yes, we must urge our public officials and policy makers to listen to these young people—and to all of us who have experienced foster care. We must make the system work for us. But we, as a community, must also be a part of the change. We need to join in making permanency pacts and giving our young people the guidance, love and support that every child wants and deserves. You can make a difference. It can be done.
Victoria Rowell is the author of "The Women Who Raised Me."