Authors: Cris Beam
Copyright Â© 2013 by Cris Beam
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
To the end of June : the intimate life of American foster care / Cris Beam.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Foster home careâUnited States. I. Title.
For the kids
I'm going to write a book about all the places I've lived in foster careâtwenty-one homes. It's called
, 'cause that's when I'm going to be adopted. I never got what I was promised, though; that's why it's hard to believe.
Fatimah, age 16
Now I've got to change the name of the book. It's going to be
To the End of June
I was planning on adopting in November but then they kept saying next month, next month. It happened at the end of June.
Fatimah Imani Green, age 17
I don't care about being a writer no more. I used to want to be a journalist, but why, what's the point? What's the point now of anything? .Â .Â . Why do something where I can leave my mark on the world? That used to be important to me. But now, if I can just get some kind of job, take care of me, take care of my kid, then die, that's enough.
Fatimah Imani Green, age 19
N MY MANHATTAN APARTMENT BUILDING
, a mother leaves her two-year-old daughter, Alicia,
asleep in her stroller just outside her front door, alone in the hallway for hours. For months, I've been tortured by the sight of this child. I live in a pretty safe building, so I'm not particularly afraid that Alicia will be kidnapped; I'm more concerned about what's happening
their apartment to render this behavior acceptable. And I hate seeing the terror that streaks Alicia's face when she wakes up alone, surrounded by strangers gathering at the elevator.
Alicia's mom abandons Alicia to the hallway because she and her husband are hoarders. Their apartment is so crammed with junk that she can't squeeze a stroller filled with a sleeping baby through the door, and she'd rather Alicia continue her nap outside. I know this isn't a great way to grow upâthe apartment is filthy and foul-smelling and most definitely a fire hazardâand my friends in child welfare say the hallway situation is a clear case of neglect. They say I need to call Child Protective Services immediately. And yet, I stall.
I know more than a lot of people do about foster care, from both research and personal experience, and I'm not sure that making that call would make Alicia's life any better. It could make it worse.
I know that there are more than 400,000 kids in foster care in America today.
I know that foster children are twice as likely to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder than are veterans of war.
I know that, in some states, they're more likely to be abused in foster care than they are at home.
I know that kids stay in foster care for about two years on average nationwide,
and three years in New York.
More than a million adults are directly or indirectly employed to ensure their well-being, and $15 to $20 billion a year
are poured into overseeing their health and management. And yet nobodyânot the kids, not the foster or biological parents, not the social workers, the administrators, the politicians, the policy expertsâthinks the system is working.
I wrote this book to find out why. We're a country of innovators, a country that claims in everything from television programming to presidential platforms to love its children, a country proud of its flawed judicial system. And yet none of these cultural themes resound in child welfare: there's little innovation, love, or justice in foster care.
It's a strange phenomenon, this foster care as
, as someone else's problem. Because foster care is intricately woven into so many facets of American society; it's an intimate partner to education and to poverty, to substance use and to mental health; it's tied to national issues like the deficit and unemployment and health care, and to our specific history with racism and class bias and power. A lawyer who has done litigation in foster care for decades once told me that foster kids are our country's canaries in the coal mine, and he's probably right: they're the most vulnerable members of society, and they reflect society's spikes in things like poverty and violence. If we were looking at foster care and foster kids, we could learn a lot. I wrote this book to look.
I also wrote this book to ask, albeit at a slant, a very personal question, and a very old one. I left my mother's house when I was fourteen years old, and I never saw her again. I was also never put into foster careâthough, like Alicia, I probably should have been. I imagine the adults around my child self gazing in the other direction, the way we all do with Alicia.
Like most children, I didn't know exactly the way my family was different from other people's families, but I did have a sense that things weren't right. My father left when I was eight years old and my brother was two. That left my mother, a wrung-out mass of hysteria, to take care of us. At first, my mother was sure we would starve to death. I counted cans in the cupboard and rationed our food. Then she said prostitution was her only solution, and the men started staggering in. She gave me a deadbolt for my bedroom door in fourth grade. She began staying out late, sometimes all night; sometimes we had babysitters and sometimes we didn't. I remember being afraid.
My mother got a day job as well, and she said she loved us, but she also drifted into the corners of her own confusion, and we lost her far too often. She had headaches that would last for days, when she couldn't leave her room, and then she had so many men, with their work boots and their mustaches and their awful sweat smell, who took her away from us too. She often proffered vague suicidal threats when we visited my father. One Christmas she promised she'd be dead by New Year's.
Where was Child Protective Services during those years, from second to eighth grade, before I left my mother's house for good? I lived in a mostly white neighborhood of detached single-family tract homes, the last stop on the commuter rail line from San Francisco. It was a neighborhood of scrubby front lawns and strip malls, the kind of area where kids are molested or neglected as much as anyplace else; but still, I wonder about the neighbors, who may have noticed that my mother's car would go missing all night long. Did they think about making a call, or were they worried, like anyone, about the authorities nosing in their business? I didn't tell anyone about getting molested, but I wonder about the doctors who evaluated me for a mysterious illness that lit up my abdomen and wouldn't go away. I think about my teachers, who must have watched a girl who was manic about her stars and straight As suddenly failing classes in middle school. But perhaps I looked like dozens of other adolescents hitting bumps in a mediocre public school in a mediocre town.
I think about my father, too, who says he never knew how bad things were because we never told him, and of course: I had a fierce interest in protecting whatever glossy sheen I could maintain. I always knew somehow that we could lose my mother, and despite all the pain, I didn't want to. Above all, I didn't want it to be my fault.
I think about all the kids who are removed for far lesser crimes than my mother committed, and I worry that it was an accident of circumstance that freed me from foster care. People noticed, but because of who they were, or what I looked like, or where we lived, or a combination of all these factors, they didn't do anything about it. Race and class weave themselves through every tricky turn of foster care; they did in the early eighties when I was a kid, and they still do today.
Even still, had a call been placed back then, I wouldn't have been saved. My guilt would have compounded into a toxic knot for not covering her better, protecting her more. I left my mother's house without foster care intervention. But I've struggled, like every foster child I've ever met, between two opposing agonies: she didn't want me, and I'm the one who left. The guilt, still, is immeasurable.
So this is my question: How do the foster kids do it? How do they live with the guilt of leaving? How do they swallow the betrayal that still chokes my throat some thirty years on? It's been said that the economic impact of child welfare reaches upwards of $100 billion
âin adult criminality, mental illness, homelessness, and so onâand this backsplash is traditionally pegged to the structural failings of a battered system. But I'm also curious about the a priori traumas, the kids' more primal psychic battering rendered by loss, then reinforced by a terrible system. I wrote this book to tease the two traumasâfamilial and societalâapart, if only just a bit.
My adult experience with foster care was similarly shrouded in a strange kind of secrecy. I became a foster parent when I was twenty-nine, somewhat by accident, and the ineptitude I witnessed in my small corner of child welfare was shocking. I had to find out whether somewhere we were doing better by our kids.
My journey began with a phone call from a probation officer in January 2001. It went like this:
“We have to put her into juvenile hall.”
The probation officer was talking about a seventeen-year-old named Christina QuiÃ±onezâthe child who would become my daughter.
“There are no more beds in the group home, so that's where she'll have to go. It's only for a while.”
I had been Christina's teacher in a Los Angeles public school for poor and disenfranchised teenagers, so this was not my first adult encounter with the foster care system, but it was the most stark and brutal. Los Angeles has one of the largest child welfare programs in the country, and a good number of the kids, like Christina, are officially categorized as “hard to place.” Christina was transgender; she had lived in ten foster homes and run from several. Although she was happy at her latest group home, she was threatened at her school when some gangster students discovered she had been born male. She ran from the high school to protect herself, which was a strict violation of her home rules, and her bed was immediately given away to another child on the wait list. Her probation officer, her social worker, and her case manager, who were all professionals paid by the state, claimed she had to go to jail. There was simply nowhere else to put her.
“I'll take her,” I said to Frankie,
the probation officer, and suddenly we were polite strangersâcool and methodical, outlining the life of another human being. A moment before we had been fighting viciously: I was adamant she wouldn't go to juvenile hall. Seemingly relieved to get Christina's file off his desk and on to his next case, Frankie took down my name and address, filling me in as “guardian.” He warned me that he wasn't sure this would workâafter all, I wasn't a licensed foster parent and I had no biological ties to this child. He reminded me that juvenile hall, unlike legitimate foster homes for hard-to-place teenagers, always had plenty of beds.
Of course, I was scared of parenting, and scared of taking in a teenager who was bitter and sad and mad at the world. I was also scared by the bad reputation of “foster kids” and “child welfare.” Nobody was a hero in that family story.
Frankie was right. A week after I became Christina's guardian, after we'd settled into a routine of sorts, setting up a bed and a dresser in the dining room, and explored school and job options and whipped up a new rÃ©sumÃ© and established house rules, Frankie told me I couldn't keep her. I'd be arrested if I tried. But good news: he'd found her a bed and it wasn't in juvenile hall. It was in a group home for adolescent sex offenders.