Everything happened so quickly. I was laughing, talking trash and schooling kids on the basketball court in the gymnasium of my after-school program one evening when I was suddenly asked to leave the court and follow an administrator to a conference room. I was 12 years old.
As we walked down the hallway, I couldn’t help wondering if I was in trouble, since that was the norm. Instead, I found myself walking into a situation that forever changed my life. I was met by my social worker, who was standing in the room along with my two of my siblings. She shared with us that we were not going to be returning home to our mother, with whom we had been living for the past two years.
No explanations or goodbyes; instead, we gathered our book bags and were driven to the Department of Social Services, where our belongings, packed in duffle bags, were sitting in the middle of the floor, ready for us to leave a situation that was all too familiar. This wasn’t my first time being abruptly yanked out of my living situation, and it wouldn’t be the last.
At birth I was abandoned by my parents, who left me in the hospital as they struggled to escape drug addiction, criminal activity and poverty. I was then placed in permanent guardianship with my great-aunt, who raised me and my two siblings for 10 years. When I was 10, my mother was no longer on drugs and fought to regain custody of us. By the summer of 1998, my older brother, younger sister and I were moving in with her and my 16-year-old sister, of whom my mom had previous custody.
I remember moving in and thinking that things would be better for us; I finally got the mom of my dreams. But those dreams quickly dissolved. My mother, who had suddenly become a single mother of four, was trying to figure it all out with little resources, guidance or support. She typically left us home alone while she spent long hours at work just to make ends meet. She was overwhelmed by the daily routine of being a mom, and she began to lash out with physical and emotional abuse.
After two years, she felt it was better to place us in foster care. What she did not realize is that the system that had the responsibility to protect and “do no harm” became a place where I experienced multiple traumas, including being separated from her and my siblings.
As I grew older, I realized that my story wasn’t unique. Many of my black peers also grew up in foster care. How many black kids were being snatched from their homes because their families simply couldn’t take care of them? We did not deserve to be placed into state care but instead needed to have holistic support that addressed the needs of our families.
Instead of being reunited with my mother and siblings, I became this commodity, like countless other young people who lingered in the system. At the age of 18, I was told “See you later,” with my belongings stuffed into garbage bags yet again. I was tossed out and had to figure out how I was going to navigate life.
According to national data, there were approximately 428,000 children in the U.S. foster care system in 2015. Over half the children placed into foster care (pdf) that year were children of color; black children made up 23 percent of those children. In 2015, more than 20,000 foster children of color aged out of the foster care system without reuniting with their families or finding permanent homes.
Foster youths are also one of the most disadvantaged groups in the United States. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, nearly 20 percent of those who age out of the system end up homeless, and nearly 60 percent of young men who grew up in foster care have been convicted of a crime. Being in foster care, separated from their families, also takes its toll on children: Twenty-five percent of kids in the system will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are many theories as to why black children enter the foster care system at much higher rates than other groups. These theories include racial bias among social workers in reporting, as well as institutional practices and policies that reek of racism and lead to poverty and substance abuse and inflict physical harm. Either way, it is important to highlight how the child-welfare system is set up to penalize families instead of providing resources and preventive services to preserve the family structure.
It costs more, both emotionally and financially, to take children out of the home than to keep them with their families and provide support. There must be safety nets provided to families that are struggling, because the cycles of abuse, abandonment, neglect, poverty and suffering will continue to spill over into future generations. Institutional practices must also be confronted and dismantled. Foster care is supposed to be a temporary haven until families are in a place where they can care for their children; during this process, it is imperative that dignity, worth and compassion are preserved.
Being trapped in the foster care system can feel inescapable and debilitating. Losing a child to the system is equally challenging. I could easily have fallen through the cracks like many other young people who leave care. The reality is that we will all be affected by the adversity that young black people face in foster care until society finds equitable ways of supporting black families and their children. We must empower and give agency to families that are often marginalized, unprotected and subjugated to racist practices, while also holding the system accountable to ensure that every young person can succeed.
This piece was written in observance of National Foster Care Month to shed light on the adversities and challenges that thousands of children and their families experience, as well as to pursue hope. You can learn more at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.