Tag Archives: Social work

Orphanhood and Batman: Redifining Foster Children’s Labels

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It has been a long time since anyone looked at me and used the term “orphan,” but it happened this week. In a clinical sense, the word may fit, but its connotation implies weakness. As my mini me told me, “Aren’t Batman and Superman both orphans? So that’s it, you are my Batman.”

While I do not look good in capes, I do want to redefine the term “orphan” away from the idea of victimhood of foster children, and instead define it by eternal superpowers. Orphans do not have parents as children and are raised by strangers. While they do lose the grounding of being consistently parented, foster children have an inner strength that others do not gain until adulthood. They can use that energy to become their own heroes as adults.

Foster children are children who are taken away from biological relatives due to abuse, neglect, or parental addiction. They are placed in temporary homes until they can be reunited with a safe family member, or even adopted. Many are left in children’s homes or on the street. Homelessness, academic failure, drug use, and suicide rates are very high for former children in care. My goal as a former foster child, is to help others become advocates for themselves, create their own family, and encourage girls in foster care to redefine their strength as they become women.

I was taken from my mother and placed in foster after I was found in her basement starved, abused, and left to die. For years, a lingering court case against her and others kept me as an emotional prisoner to her apologies and to biological connections I lost forever. I was adopted, but both of my adoptive parents died within months of each other, when I was 13. Orphan-hood was in my blood it seemed and so I navigated alone. I watched foster brothers and sisters come and go, some living a life of crime, depression, and drug use. Others, who succeeded, went on to love themselves and won their internal battles against those who left them at their most vulnerable.

Without any guidance, good or bad, as a developing child the brain takes in the environment with little shelter. For some orphans, we see only the bad and keep ourselves in a bubble. For others, they absorb attention and affection anywhere they can, and often the abusers of the world hone in. Orphans are, after all, a weak link. In some ways, this is true. My weakness was and is a codependent helping of others. Out of guilt and maybe shame, I blamed myself for whatever happened in that Brooklyn home as a toddler and infant. That guilt led me to try to fix anyone and anything. It led me to poor boundaries personally. My real solace was found in being alone. When I was not fixing friends or lovers, I sought out time with myself by wandering aimlessly to recoup. It gave me a convenient excuse for not taking care of my own heart. 

While my past did dictate my solace, it did not lead me to victimhood, in fact I was determined to rewrite my story. I  had loose connections with some foster brothers and sisters. Some were good influences and believed in my few talents. I never drank or partied, in fact I was basically a very short adult, even as a teen. I studied hard and became absorbed in books. What my favorite writers like Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath could not heal for me was a sense of belonging to something. I was introspective, very much self-aware, and a mother hen. As I look back, I grew very attached to women teachers, friends’ mothers, strangers even. I sought out maternal attachments everywhere.

Some were positive, some were not, but I concluded that rather than seeking out answers from the past, searching for long-lost family, (which proved disastrous emotionally), having my own child was the biggest part of my healing. After years of quiet envy listening to friends complain about their parents, siblings, extended family, I wanted something of my own. On January 22, 2003, whatever higher power exists, decided I needed a little blue-eyed girl to put my heart into, to build walls around, and to help design her own future with strong roots.

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It has been 12 years of non-orphanhood for me! In my eyes, becoming a mother shatters that term altogether. I finally got the normal I heard so much about. It has not been easy. Everything I wanted for her did not happen as I expected. But I got the up all nights, the lioness protection, the graduations, the crying, the sadness, the pain, and the joy of childhood laughter. For the first time, I found myself playing hopscotch and picnicking in the park. I started to love who I was and was proud of my new lineage. I had photos to hang on the wall, photos that resembled me, the good parts of me. With this new piece of me, I strived to become better. I stumbled a few times, but she helped me believe in myself and improve myself. I am forever in her debt.

For other fellow successful orphans, a strong network of close friends, or animals, or successful relationships, became their family, but the commonality is that we all tried to rebuild what many people took for granted. While my girl cannot be my only grounding, which I’m learning painfully as she gets older, I finally have let myself become more vulnerable to a deeper adult relationship and a sense of not being alone. I may even have another child or let someone lift ME up when I need it. For this orphan, that is a huge feat.  After all, what I want my daughter to see, and other former foster children to see, is that Batman or not, every orphan has the opportunities to find success amidst the ruins of our childhood enemies.

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Handle with Care: Time to Step Up

In 2013, the state of Texas was startled to see the number of children’s deaths in foster care rise. The state passed legislation this month demanding regulations and oversight of foster homes. It includes stipulations that frequent home visitors be assessed, community relationships be monitored , that work, finances and mental health issues be looked at before children are placed in temporary homes. Some of these basic ideas are truly monumental. My hope is that other states jump on the bandwagon.

Me, a year after entering foster care.
Me, a year after entering foster care.

Several states have lost control of public and private sector social service systems that literally leave kids out in the cold. Florida felt the heat after two foster children who were unknowingly missing for several years, turned up dead. They suffered years of abuse from parents who continued to take stipends for their care after their deaths. New York, Texas, California, Florida, Alabama have all had very public tragedies unfold. In some states, “lower” level sex offenders have been found taking in foster children.

Very few states have made it officially unlawful to even place children in the care of parents whose spouse/boyfriend/son/daughter are sex offenders. What does this reabuse already do to weakened foster children?
The truth is the system is overwhelmed. With nearly 400,000 children officially in foster care in America, solid families are few and far between . The New York Times reported on a homeless foster child this winter living in and out of shelters in NYC. Her story is nothing new, but it was a startling piece on a loss of childhood. Displaced foster children are the face of homelessness in America. It is a distressing trend. They live on cots next to offenders, violent criminals, the mentally ill in some cases. And they are CHILDREN.

Children are put in foster care due to physical/sexual abuse, neglect, or because of a parent’s drug addiction. The intent is for the child to be temporarily placed until they can be reunited with a biological relative or rehabilitated parent. Oftentimes, that reunion doesn’t happen and children are shuffled from home to home.

I was put in foster care at age 5 after I was found locked and hidden in my mothers-basement abused, not fed, unable to walk or speak. I was found with other siblings who were also abused and left like dogs to rot in the dark. While my experiences were painful, they helped me grow into a better person. And more able to appreciate the chance to be a mother and have a relative/family of my own. They make me love stronger: I know the value of my life because I was nearly robbed of it.

I saw the shuffling of kids in and out of the system. Some are probably still on the street. Some are dead, some are in jail, but others are very successful. Some found their rock in foster care, had a school mentor, were successfully adopted or somehow left their ghosts behind.

Abused children are sometimes at risk for reabuse. Without the protection of a solid foundation they are often left flailing in the wind. While foster care is intended to be a refuge from instability; neglect, violence, sexual abuse, starvation, torture and even murder happen in foster care here in the United States. Sadly abuse happens even more so in biological homes.
Continue reading Handle with Care: Time to Step Up

Not All I Can Give

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Me and Mini me starting off the New Year right and cold!! I love seeing her little smile as we squish a new friend in between us down the hill. Seeing mini me’s face light up makes the world feel right. I am so blessed.

This new year started off surrounded by people I love and by new people I had never met. While the holidays are generally a mix of gratefulness and a looking back for me, I took careful stock of the smiling faces on New Years Eve. It gave me hope for deeper love in my life. Resolving to love and live better, I opted to assess what I have in my life and what I need. This churning of ideas and desires in my head can be overwhelming. Realizations sometimes come to me at odd hours. I am still sometimes a scared little girl awake when the sun is still hiding. At other times, I am a woman of great strength, great passion and quite charming. This is a part of me I need to see more.
With the temperatures at an all time low, I think of the thousands of children who may not have the warmth of inner strength to draw upon. Stories of young foster children stuck in cold city shelters plagued me this holiday season. My gratefulness for the chances I have had as a former foster child, and the warmth I have in my life now as an adult, builds me up in confusing times.
My resolve this year is to tap into the reserve of strength I have and impart that strength on others rather than let ghosts of the past blur my vision or block my path.
Selflessness is the only way to feel alive, whether it be selflessness as a parent, mentor, advocate, teacher, friend, lover or artist. It is all a giving. This new year I need to take less and give more.

One Less!

Recently, I participated in research that looked at the quality of life of adult children of the foster care system. Most of the work, while fulfilling, was also equally disheartening. I mulled over distressing numbers and statistics, secretly finding where I personally fit in those numbers so long ago as a child in the system. Success and peace in my own heart has been a gift for me; one I do not take for granted.
This video, and the heart and soul behind it, inspires a positive washing over me. I feel renewed, and I see the harrowing statistics in varying lights. While it is important to value and learn about the negative, it is equally important to celebrate strength and foster care’s many heroes.

So many wake up each day, fighting to keep the nearly one million children in the system from being stuck in the system. Counselors, teachers, artists, social workers, and advocates work to heal the distorted reality a child faces when removed from their own families, abused or severely neglected. The confusion can be never-ending when a child is taken from its family at 5, and moved from family to family for many years, sometimes never adopted; sometimes back out on the street as they become adolescents. Sometimes physical, sexual abuse is recreated in foster care.

However, there are benevolent foster parents, guardian angels, who bring love to a child who had never had love or physical and emotional safety. Thousands are opening their hearts, their classrooms and their minds to the unique positive qualities that foster children possess; helping them become part of that smaller number that finds personal, emotional, and professional safety and satisfaction.

I will post several videos over the next few days. Some might be tough to watch, but they are all a personal stories of triumph. What better way to start the week than to see the beauty in overcoming tragedy!