As he does quite often, Joe Wild Crea, a Permanency Specialist at Ampersand Families, said something the other day that made me pause and take a fresh look at our work. He was preparing for a presentation to high school students to help them learn about older kid adoption. Joe talked with the students about the concept of “the other” in order to think about ways to help make school a more positive place for kids who are living in the world of foster care and adoption.
Joe hit the proverbial nail on the head. The youth with whom Ampersand Families work experience being the other in virtually every area of their lives. The experiences of abuse, neglect, trauma, loss, separation from family and life within the child welfare system combine to create the perfect storm, leaving many of our youth in the extraordinarily lonely predicament of being the other no matter where they are.
In our work we get to know youth who are weary. It’s exhausting and disorienting to have nowhere to refuel and to never feel the peace of being understood and welcomed. “Our kids” say things all the time that remind us of their struggle to belong: “there’s no way others can understand my experiences…no place quite feels like home….no one is really my parent…am I moving to another new neighborhood and another new school?”
Listening to Joe’s thoughts, I had a moment of clarity about an unspoken truth of the child welfare system that there is no general community understanding that the children and youth involved are quite literally our children. The responsibility for parenting them falls squarely on every taxpaying citizen by virtue of the fact that we as a community (through our courts) have severed their parents’ legal rights and declared the children to be under the guardianship of the commissioner of human services. We are their parents. We rely on our public child welfare employees, courts, elected leaders along with foster parents/residential program staff and others to assure that they are well cared for. There’s the rub.
In real life, with children who actually belong to us, there’s no way we’d turn them over to others (no matter how competent and loving) to make all the parenting, nurturing, academic, medical, spiritual, diet, exercise, activity and relationship decisions on our behalf. On the occasion when we share decision-making in one or more of those spheres, we would expect to know exactly what’s being done. We would expect to proactively advocate for our child to assure that needs are being met and potential is being nurtured. That’s what we do when a child is one of us.
Children being parented by the child welfare system are those kids, others, them. Because there is not a consensus that these children are our children, there is no community expectation that some actual person bears ultimate, parental accountability nor does anyone claim ultimate parental responsibility for the care to children parented by the bureaucracy of the child welfare system.
The suggestion here that no one is in charge is not to imply that there aren’t lots and lots of well-meaning, hard-working, effective professionals involved in Minnesota’s child welfare system. Of course there are. Even so, the truth is that being parented by people is different than being parented by the system. Systems don’t flex, bend, advocate, fight, love and invest the way parents do.
So, here’s my question: How can we help the community at large come to understand the fact that we have a communal parental responsibility for nearly 1,000 children in Minnesota?
If Joe is successful in helping his group of 10th graders grasp just how much their behavior towards the foster /waiting /system kid other matters, maybe a teen or two can find in school a brief reprieve from the burden of being the other.
While the 10th graders do their part, we at Ampersand Families will continue to vigorously press for opportunities for each of our kids to shed some of their otherness in the embrace of family. Speaking of which, this month at Ampersand Families we celebrate three teens’ moves to their adoptive families, one court finalization and at least one new match. And so it goes.
Thanks for your help and support.