"Make as Much Noise as You Can": Kids Speak Out
If I met a girl like myself at 11, when I went into the system, I'd tell her 'Make as much noise as you can, so that the world can hear you.' If you don't, you get buried in everybody else's uproar. You gotta make noise, and you gotta make it loud enough so you can start to follow your own rhythm, find rhythm in who you are. - Lauren, 15
There are nearly half a million (408,245) young people in the U.S. foster care system, according to June 2011 data. That's twice the number since 1986. Journalist Nell Bernstein spent a year listening to young people who have been in the foster care system, interviewing 40 and surveying 121 more.
In A Rage to Do Better, Bernstein outlines some of the challenges facing these young people, and asks them to share their ideas about how to improve foster care. And while the problems facing our foster care system may seem insurmountable, the words of kids who have been through the system may point us in the right direction and offer a place to start.
A recurring theme of the kids' stories, Bernstein writes, is "the stigma young people in foster care carry, and their overwhelming desire to be free of it, to be seen in the world as themselves, actors in their own lives, not merely objects of pity, disdain, fear or even care."
Here's what these young people had to say about leaving what in many cases were unstable and unloving homes and entering the system.
How would you feel being place to place every four months, especially as a teen? ... I've been at the bottom so long ain't nothing else to do but come up. Being in the system gave me a rage to do better, a desire to want more from life. – Kenneth, 15
My mom gave me up because she was going through drug therapy and she couldn't get rid of drugs, so she had to get rid of something. She didn't want me to be mistreated, so she gave me away. – Charles, 15
I believe you can still have your family in your life as long as you don't see them as family. You can just see them as people that you were born into, and take whatever's there to get and don't ask for more that you're not going to get. – Karen, 22
The thing I would like to change about the system is the attitude of some of the workers? I would rather live the way I was than being forced to listen to people who put us down, saying we're never going to do anything with our lives. – Anonymous
There are near 100,000 foster children waiting to be adopted, according to the federal government.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act made it easier for child welfare services to terminate parental rights. It also sped up the adoption process, offering states monetary rewards for finding adoptive homes for children who are considered unlikely to be able to return to their families. In A Rage to Do Better, Bernstein asked young people whether they would have wanted to be adopted. Nearly two-thirds said no. Here's why:
I have had that option twice before and I refused, because I'm not comfortable being a child in a family. I'm too old to start over as a kid, and too young to start my own family. – anymous female, 18
I wouldn't have accepted it. I love my parents a lot and no matter what happens I will always do so. – anonymous male, 17
If I was adopted now it would turn my whole world upside down. I have friends, I go to church, I participate in the community. My grades are good now. That's not something I want to face. – Teresa, 15
Those who told Bernstein that they would like to be adopted often had entered the system very young and knew they would never be reunified with their families.
Even as a little girl I always thought I would never be back with my real family. – Female, 17
I had visitation with my brother for a little while after [my mother was arrested] but after about six months they just completely shut it off. ... He was adopted and with his family ... he acted like he was his adoptive parents' child from birth and didn't know who I was.... I think I would have been better off if I was adopted than going through the system because then I would have had a family ... I would be a much stronger person. – Christine, 21
There's nothing better than having a set of parents that really love you and want to take care of you ... being in foster care is like four people in a room, each in a corner. Being adopted feels like all of the people in the middle of the room, all talking to each other. – Charles, 15
"Children are taken from their homes and placed in foster care not because of anything they've done," Bernstein writes, "but because of what has been done to them." The children and teens Bernstein met talked often of being looked down upon, blamed for their situation and labeled "criminals."
A significant number of children who are in the foster care system do wind up in the juvenile justice system, incarcerated or on probation. And in California, Bernstein writes, 10 percent of juvenile arrests result in the offender being assigned to a foster or group home. Placement in foster care, generally thought of as a "rescue" strategy, is actually a sentence for some kids.
The challenge, Bernstein says, is to create and maintain the means for teenagers in care to have a greater voice in the decisions affecting their lives.
When you grow up at home, rules are made on an individual basis. Nothing's set, nothing was there before you got there. But in an institutional environment, all the rules are written for you ... [staff] are there to tell you what to do ... there's no humanity to it, even though they try to make it as human as possible in some group homes. ... I think the system needs to be community based, not institutions isolated from the rest of the world. ... keeping people away from their community, away from society, is not the answer because that creates institutionalization. – Karl, 17
I don't know how it escalated or where it came from, but it just seemed like I started out a normal kid that screwed around a lot and then I started feeling like a criminal. – Richard, 19
The probation officers think it's good to be in there (Juvenile Hall) ï¿½it teaches you a lesson. It don't teach you a lesson. It makes you worse, because you start believing what they're telling you. I felt like I was a criminal. Once you get put in the system, you consider yourself a criminal. – Victoria, 16
Across the country, more than 20,000 foster youth will turn 18 this year and with this birthday comes the responsibility of being "emancipated" from the system, and all of its supports. Some teens, Bernstein writes, literally spend their 18th birthday on the streets. Of the children she interviewed, 60 percent felt they were ready to be emancipated; but 40 percent felt they were not. Some teens talked with Bernstein about the concerns and uncertainty they felt about "aging out."
Getting a job is hard because you're labeled ... Four years of college and a dorm room should automatically be given to children in the system. – Edith, 24
[People] would say encouraging kinds of things, but there wasn't a lot of hands-on help. It was more, like, "Go get yourself a job," and we'll consider you successful if you can hold down a job and pay rent. – Jessica, 24
I feel lucky, there were people willing to take the time and help me. ... When I turned 18, good thing is, I'm staying in a foster home. If you're in a group home, oh my god, that's it. Your life ends right there. You get kicked out. My foster father let me stay until I went to college the next fall. – Duc, 21
Finally, young adults who had survived the transition to independence spoke out strongly about how education, especially the chance to attend college, was their key to the future.
I didn't realize it until recently, but my life is different now because I went to college. The way I live now, the way I think, what I do in my spare time, is all because I went to college. – Tony, 22
To learn more about children in foster care and about Nell Bernstein's book, A Rage to do Better:
- Read Julee Newberger's interview with Nell Bernstein, "Raising Their Voices."
This article originally appeared on Connect for Kids on Nov. 6, 2000. Connect for Kids is now SparkAction; this article was reviewed and updated in 2012.