When I think about the “success stories” of the foster care system — and yes, I use air quotations over those two words — my mind doesn’t shift to the famous orphans-turned-millionaires and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe (who barely conquered the demons of her childhood) or Eddie Murphy. Nor do I think of the fictional phenoms like Oliver Twist and little Orphan Annie, who both attained quasi-happy endings in literature and motion picture.
Honestly, there’s only one name that comes to mind at the mere mention of those two words, “success story.” That name is Risa Bejarano.
Risa was a subject in the 2003 documentary “Aging Out,” which followed three young people as they aged out of the foster care system in California and New York. Risa’s story stood in stark contrast from the other two youths because she’d found a semblance of stability with her foster mother and was excelling academically, even preparing for her first year of college at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
But just as everything was finally going her way, Risa’s “success story” was cut tragically short. She was killed, shot to death in a Los Angeles alley.
Her story resonates with me to this day, not just because of the sheer tragedy of her death, but the very fact that although many tagged her as the “one who made it,” very few recognized the continued support she needed, despite her successes. It was as if her high functioning encouraged a lack of assistance from others.
As a college graduate, noted keynote speaker, award-winning poet and all that jazz, most around me have dubbed me with that grand title of “success story,” especially those that work within the child welfare realm.
And I have always rejected it, for three reasons.
I haven’t made it! I’m just trying to live! Along with all the regular people, I’m still a massive work in progress with the added difficulty of sifting through boatloads of past trauma. Calling me a “success story” often creates the illusion that I’ve figured something out. I’ve reached a pinnacle. Yeah, no. Not really.
Differing Definitions of Success. To some, having a degree is a success. To me, not being poor is a success. And until I get to a place where I can say that I’ll never be impoverished again, that success-exuding degree is superfluous to me. You see how polarizing those subjective interpretations of one word are? Sheesh!
Possible Distortion of Current Realities. I was placed in foster care because my mother was an addict. A lot of what I experienced before, during and after care, had to do with my mother’s addiction. I’m grown now. And I still don’t have a mother.
The very thing that caused my entry into foster care is still a constant in my life and it’s a suffocating thing to live with. Sometimes, when I’m called a “success story,” it’s as if people are looking at me through a veiled lens and not acknowledging that I’ve struggled to get to this point. And more importantly, that I’m still struggling just to keep myself from cracking at the fact that I’ve been motherless for over 25 years. That title often ignores the fact that I’d give every accolade I have (including the privilege of being considered a ‘success story’) for a real family.
I know that people are coming from a beautiful place when they say it. I also want to point out that I don’t speak for all former foster youth, and this may very well be a “Sade thing.”
On the flip side, it’s cool to say you’re proud. It truly touches me since it wasn’t something I heard often as a kid. So that’s a better compliment. Or you can just not say anything at all and treat me as a fellow professional in the field.
But please, don’t call me a success story. Because success is truly subjective. I mean, look at Risa.
Rest in peace, Risa. Your story changed my life.