Monday, April 18, 2011

Orphans of the Living

What is it about me?  If I don’t currently have a foster placement then I’m reading or thinking about foster care.   Case in point:  I just finished this book last week- Orphans of the Living: Stories of America’s Children in Foster Care.    And now I’m going to briefly write about it.

Orphans of the Living was written by journalist Jennifer Toth and it chronicles the early lives of four children navigating their way through the U.S. Foster Care system.  Two of the children in these stories are considered “success” stories while two are considered “unsuccessful.”  Although foster homes are mentioned in some of the children’s cases, this book could easily double as a study for the juvenile court and detention system, as at least three of the children in the book spent much of their time in foster care in the “care” (or perhaps I should say jurisdiction as “care” seems to be an oxymoron) in detention centers.  Some of the children also spent some of their time in “children’s homes” which I’ve concluded is pretty much the politically correct term for what most people refer to as an orphanage.
The most sensationalized yet true account was of a young foster girl “Angel” who legally married (with her mother’s written consent) her foster father at the age of fourteen, just two years after her foster mother had died.  Not only that, but she had five children with her former foster father/husband before she turned 19.  Did I mention that Angel’s foster father was 69 years old?  Excuse me- I just threw up in my mouth a little bit!  You too?  When I was reading Angel’s story I thought “This is just far too ‘Jerry Springer’ to me” which is ironic because further into the book, sure enough, Angel was delighted to appear with her husband on The Jerry Springer Show- twice.
Each of the children in these stories had truly tragic backgrounds.  The most common reason for their removal from their families was drug addiction.  Sexual abuse both before the children’s removals and afterwards was rampant in the book.  Some of the accounts of the abuse were described in greater detail than other accounts and I would warn that reading about it is not for the faint in heart.
This book just reaffirmed to me that addiction, abuse, and even poverty and crime are so cyclical in nature.  When I read about a couple of the foster children who were placed in detention centers only to be told by their parents “I was there, too, when I was your age” I couldn’t help but think back to a commercial years ago that showed a dad come into the room with some drugs and he started chewing his son out and said ‘Where did you get this?  Who taught you about these things?” and the boy yelled back “It was YOU!  I learned it by watching you!”  A concluding voiceover somberly announced  “Parents who do drugs have children who do drugs.”  Although the commercial was often parodied and not taken seriously, it contained a lot of truth. 
Orphans of the Living was overall, depressing to read and yet I was drawn to it.  Why?  Because I simply cannot ignore some of the statistics the author cited in her introduction.  
Toth described today’s foster care system as “tired” and “destructive”. 
"A system that feeds 40 percent of its children onto welfare rolls or into prison, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Only 17 percent of foster care “graduates” become completely self-supporting two and one half to four years after discharge.  While more than half (54 percent) finish high school, a little less than half (49 percent) are gainfully employed as adults.  Almost 60 percent of the girls give birth within a few years of leaving the system.
Without the backbone of a stable childhood environment and the opportunity to bond with responsible adults, these children are at great risk of falling through society’s safety nets.  Former foster kids are three times more likely to become homeless.  Major metropolitan areas report that as much as 30 to 40 percent of their shelter population has passed through the foster care system."
None of these findings were particularly new to me and I don’t know that I necessarily have a solution to the problem of the increasing amount of children entering the foster system and particularly, older foster children “aging out” of the system, but this is what I DO know: Our most serious social problems begin AND end with the family.
What can be done to prevent the cycles of abuse and addiction?  Are these problems so deeply rooted into families that it’s useless to talk about prevention and we must now use all of our energy and resources (including tax dollars) just keeping up with all of the resulting repercussions of broken homes and wounded children?  Any thoughts?
Also, can anyone out there recommend or share any SUCCESS STORIES of children who successfully “graduated” from the foster care system?  I need to hear some good to balance the bad.


Shine said...

I completely agree with your statement, "Our most serious social problems begin AND end with the family."
I feel that for those coming from broken homes, backgrounds of grief, trauma, loss, abandonment, etc., understanding the importance of "family" is difficult. Many physically cannot even attach emotionally to another person. Why should they feel "family" is important when their "family" taught them a very different definition of family than I know? Their definition is based on those cyclic behaviors and the horror it created for them. Many of the discussions I've had with individuals coming from those backgrounds, "family" is almost a hated, vulgar word, and often associated with those destructors in their lives that were supposed to be "family." It's almost like there is no way to actually prevent the cycles of addiction (which often is correlated with abuse) and abuse anymore, as you said.
The "family" is being attacked on all sides; drugs, abuse, poverty, emphasis on career over family, under-education. It seems to me that one way we can begin healing damage is for society to start understanding the importance of being a strong, healthy families instead of portraying people that are emotionally stunted and laugh at the novelty of coming from a "dysfunctional" family as "the norm."

jendoop said...

Thanks for reviewing this book so that I don't have to read the disgusting details. It is horrid what is happening right under our noses in a free country with the greatest privileges on earth. Awareness is the first step?

I can point you to a foster success story, although I don't think that her success is due to being in foster care. My friend Emily had a very traumatic family life and went through many homes, including relatives. She has a PhD, recently joined the LDS church, had cochlear implant surgery, has reconciled with her mom and has tried to reestablish a relationship with her father. She is nothing short of amazing and is writing a book about her life.
This is a link to her blog-

This is a link to a story I wrote about her for a website-

Julie said...

I also just finished reading this book and the cycle of poverty and abuse is heart-breaking. The inability to "save" these children makes attempts by people who care seems futile. But I know that our family may be the one to make a difference for a child, so we are willing to be a part of this system.

JMBMOMMY said...

Glad I stumbled upon your blog. I need to pick up a copy of this... I have a wonderful friend that remained in foster care from late elem years to mid teens.. and is a precious, beautiful, full of JOY mom of 2, wife, and teacher! We are adopting 3 little girls that have been in FC--and I have NO doubt each will have very successful life stories--they are truly wonderful!

Mary said...

I hope every day my own children have success stories, although none have been adopted through foster care in the US. I'm always amazed at how many children who are adopted (not just foster care) are mistreated. I am working with one AMAZING 17 year old in therapy, and have worked with her since she was 12. Her story is horrific to everyone who hears it, and yet she finally ended up in a great family 4 years ago and is doing well. She's the kind of kid with an internal make-up that I think would do well anyway, no matter what. I always feel lucky to know her.

Anonymous said...

Just ordered this book from the Lending Library.