A few days ago, a classmate, who’d recently read articles I’ve been featured in or authored, asked me if I was ever in foster care. Immediately, I contemplated lying, as I rarely ever disclose that information to people I don’t know or in situations that would warrant negative perceptions.
But I decided against it, since he obviously knew the answer before asking. Then he proceeded to ask me if I’d received special treatment from my professors at the University of California, Berkeley, because I’m a former ward of the court.
His question threw me off for many reasons. For starters, we’re barely acquaintances, and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. But what bothers me most is this continued belief that there are immense privileges to being a part of the foster care system.
As a practitioner, I’ve heard everything from “foster kids are offered free housing” to “former dependents are afforded more financial aid than any other group.” As a former foster youth, I recall group home staff reminding us to be grateful we were saved from our “unsafe” families.
Holding this belief can impact the way we interact and deliver services to foster youth. If we believe young people have an excess of supports, it can encourage callousness amongst providers, decrease empathy and create this notion of the “undeserving” youth. Further, it promotes a false depiction of foster care being a “perfect” system and savior to foster youth, potentially quelling their own perceptions and feelings about their experience in the system.
Now, before I obliterate this belief, let’s define privilege.
1.a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most.
The idea of privilege is that certain benefits are bestowed upon one group, leaving others without said advantages. Foster youth aren’t privileged, because what they are being offered has historically been an expectation of children outside of the system.
Offering foster youth a grant through the federal Chafee Educational and Training Voucher program can’t be considered a privilege if most college students are able to rely on parents to offset the cost of college. Even young people within the squeezed middle class have the opportunity and resources to plan ahead for college in ways most youth within the system don’t.
The Fostering Connections to Success Act, which allows for the expansion of foster care until age 21, is a more blatant example of the prevalence of this “privilege” stance. Instead of regarding extended foster care as a necessary tool in promoting foster youth successfully transitioning into adulthood, it’s often presented as a privilege that youth should feel greatly appreciative of, and that stance is often conflicting.
I asked a former co-worker about her views regarding extending foster care and she detailed the ungratefulness many of her clients had expressed while opted into it. She explained that when there was no expanded foster care, youth were completely on their own at 18 and oftentimes experienced homelessness. Because of this, they should appreciate the privilege of having a safety net.
Later in the day, I casually inquired about her college-aged son and whom he relied on for housing, financial, and other physiological supports. After admitting that he was supported by both his parents, I asked her why she and her husband continued to support him beyond his adolescence. She replied without question, ‘Because he’s my son and needs it.’
Not that it was a privilege but a necessity. Why is it so hard to regard foster youth similarly? What some are viewing as privilege is actually the reconciliation of equity for system-dependent youth.
Unfortunately for me, the illusion of foster care privilege is following me even to graduate school in spite of the fact that I’ve worked my tail off to get into this prestigious program and have over 10 years of experience in child welfare reform via direct services, policy work and training.
In the eyes of my aforementioned classmate, my work ethic holds very little merit to this invalid idea of my “privileged” upbringing in the system. Apparently, I’m cursed by my “Orph-irmative Action.”
My mother would be so proud. Oh wait…