Foster Youths Re-Writing their Past

“When you go through the system, you train yourself not to remember your life, so I only remember my life from second grade on.” — Sade, former foster youth.

Sade and her siblings officially went into the system when she was 13. Her mother was a drug addict and physically abusive. That’s all Sade knew. Anger and rage become the words that identified her.

Group homes added new chapters, perpetuating the tale of a violent child. A child who deserved to be locked in a small blue room with a small window as a “time-out.” Time-outs sometimes lasted months.

Now, emancipated out of the system, Sade shares with us why she started to tell her story.

About 26,000 foster youth come out of the system yearly and many of them don’t know their own story. They don’t have the baby books overflowing with first steps, first foods, or first words. Their stories are buried in a file, written by various people over the years who have in one way or another come into their lives.

As an infant, James was placed in the foster care system. He didn’t learn why he was taken from his family until he turned 18. Leaning over a file filled with notes from one placement after another – a formal adoption that failed, a stint in juvie, a few months at a relative’s house, time in a group home, more time in a foster home – James finally found out what started this journey. Hiis father had been arrested for driving under the influence, and infant James and his older half-brother were in the car.

As he relives his story, we hear about the abuse at the hands of a foster father, running away from home and the reason for juvenile hall being a way for the courts in South Carolina to deal with an “incorrigible” youth.  As James reaches the end of his foster care narrative, the issue of story and voice are still at play.

According to ChildFund International, ChildFund Alliance is creating a Free From Violence campaign to see that protecting children against violence is included among the next set of priorities for the Millennium Development Goals.

We need to make sure children around the world, and those in our own backyard, have a voice and can tell their story in a safe environment, as they are living through it. This way, they too can be shielded from the abuse and neglect that sometimes follows youth from their original home into a system designed to protect them.

In both of these stories, James (a white kid from the Carolinas) and Sade (an African-American girl from Los Angeles) ended up in the same place. James just graduated with a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Southern California and Sade is currently enrolled in the same program. Each learned how to look at the world through a different lens to rewrite their future.

We need to find a way for youth to participate in their story as they are living it. Not have it locked up with a key given only as a present on their 18th birthday.

Mira Zimet is an award-winning educational and documentary filmmaker. She has been producing videos for over fifteen years. Recently, she launched The Storyboard Project to give foster youth transitioning into adulthood the opportunity to tell their story using a visual medium.

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Judith Fenlon
About Judith Fenlon 167 Articles
Money & Business Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change