Make Foster Care Work for You

Steve Jobs once said:

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.”

That’s a very limited way to go through life, Jobs observed:

“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

His quote is the ultimate source of entrepreneurial inspiration, but I’d like to put a little foster care spin on it.

When you grow up in foster care, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is, and as a foster kid, you are to be grateful for what you have. It’s implied that because of where you come from, you should be happy that a family that wants you, even exist. Even if that means tolerating their verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Or if being grateful means you have to tolerate getting one meal a day, while their naturally born kids get three.

That is a very un-empowered life. Life can be much more victorious, once you discover one simple fact: The system, and everybody in it, are meant to work for you. You can change it, you can influence it. You can find the family that you want to live with, the social workers that you’d like on your case, the love that you deserve.

Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same.

I know this, because this fundamental belief is how I made it through foster care. It manifested in many ways, but one example are the letters and emails I wrote to my attorney:

“Hello Ms. Bowler, this is your client Michael Place son of Tamara Place,” one email began.

“I am sending you this letter to ask a couple of questions about this place that I am in, called Hawthorne Cedar Knolls. They are conducting something that I consider a questionable program and I just wanted to figure out if everything that they are doing is legal or is authorized by my rights, and if you can do anything for me.”

I was 14 at the time.

And then one month after my fifteenth birthday, I faxed a letter over to my attorney so she could forward it along to the presiding judge over my case.

“To whom it may concern” it began, “I feel like I am discriminated against by the residents of Hawthorne Cedar Knolls. I constantly hear comments like ‘You homo!’ I’m so afraid of coming out, or just being who I am…Even the out kids have stated “oh, we are going to get beat up now,” I concluded with fear.

All of my self-advocacy eventually paid off, and I went to a LGBT group home, in Queens, N.Y., where I lived relatively comfortably until me and my sober mother reunited.

So, for all of you still in care, take my story as evidence that you are worthy. Your life, and your happiness, is just as important as anyone else’s. And always remember that the system and everybody in it are meant to work for you. If something isn’t working, you have EVERY right to speak up about it. It is your safety and well-being that should be the focus of every staff or team member surrounding you.

Take that with you today and everyday moving forward, and make the system work for you.

Michael Place is the founder and project leader of Mind The GaP.

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1 Comment

  1. I cannot agree more with the author’s point that the system and everyone in it is meant to work for the foster child and, in particular, the attorney for the child.

    Prior to 2008, there was heated debate regarding the proper role of a child’s lawyer in neglect and abuse, permanency and termination of parental rights proceedings which was resolved with the promulgation of N.Y. CT. RULES, § 7.2 (McKinney 2011) and the adoption of the state bar standards. Now, an AFC takes a client-directed approach in advocating the client’s position in all proceedings before the family court. Under rule 7.2(3) of the New York Rules of Court, the AFC must zealously advocate the child’s position unless the child “lacks the capacity for knowing, voluntary and considered judgment” or if “following the child’s wishes is likely to result in a substantial risk of imminent, serious harm to the child.” In 2010 the phrase “law guardian” was replaced with “attorney for the child” or “counsel for the child” in nearly two dozen sections of the CPLR, Domestic Relations Law, Executive Law, Judiciary Law, Family Court Act and other statutes. At that time Family Court Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, the New York City court’s administrative judge, stated: “I think that it is quite a bit more than semantics. We think the words ‘attorneys for the child’ make it crystal clear that we are dealing with a lawyer who is an advocate for the child. Use of the word ‘guardian’ can suggest more than a role as an attorney. It might suggest a role as a parental substitute to both the public and perhaps to court workers, and that is not what the attorney for the child’s role is” (NYLJ April 20, 2010).

    As an attorney for children, I believe it is critical for foster youth to be an active participant in their lives. The bottom line is it is their lives, their experiences and their futures being discussed. Nationally, this view has resulted in the formal adopt resolutions, by national and state child welfare police and practice organizations that support young people’s active engagement in permanency planning and other required court hearings in abuse, neglect, and dependency court hearings. More than 25 states have passed legislation or court rules that explicitly give young people the right to attend their permanency hearings, including New York (N.Y. Fam. Ct. Act. § 1089(d) (McKinney 2012)). These states also have clearly stated that youth are a party in their own proceedings and, presumably, have access to the same information contained in the reports as the other parties in the courtroom.

    I would take the author’s advice one step further. Not only make use of the people in the system but empower yourself and attend your own court proceedings.

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