In the Spotlight: Foster Care’s New Narratives

Watch the trailer for Know How, a film by and about children in foster care.

Project Ubuntu’s 38th week was spent volunteering at Hope Village, a volunteer village set up to rebuild homes in Minot, North Dakota after flooding destroyed 4,100 homes and displaced 12,000 people.

There I met two outstanding teams from AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, which mobilizes groups of young people for a year of full-time community service.

Among these talented idealists is Gilbert Howard, who is in this film about children in foster care.

Gilbert was born in the Bronx, and spent half his childhood navigating the neglect of his parents, each of whom suffered from addiction. The other half, though, he was “tortured” by foster parents who housed his two siblings and him in upstate New York. Gilbert’s stories from this time of his life are miserable, but being ages 3 to 10, he couldn’t have known there was another way.

Half a million children in the United States are living in foster care, and half of them will not complete high school.[1]

We don’t have a good “system” for children who need a family, and in fact it’s intertwined completely with the same “system” that incarcerates and institutionalizes youth, then dumps them “out of the system” when they reach legal age.

Sometimes biological parents are not able to care for their children, but we as a community have to try to provide those parents resources they need. It’s unfortunate that through the system we are quick to take children away from parents, but slow to try to rehabilitate the parents.

This issue is drastically worse, though, because of the unlikelihood the children will end up in a loving home. It’s hard to find good foster parents, yet easy to find abusive people who make the situation even worse for the youth.

So what’s wrong with the system? We are. This is not the fault of bureaucracy or lawyers or even politicians. Responsibility rests on the people who are building a community that excludes half a million of our children.

The biggest solution I can see lies beyond the neglect of biological parents, the malicious exploitation of bad foster parents, and even the ugly, power-driven debates of those who run the system. The solution resides in the opportunity of the community at-large to act.

From my experience, our lack of action seems largely based on a fear that children in foster care are dangerous. The dehumanizing narratives we tell about children of struggling parents creates apathy and a hesitance to act.

Alli Dean, who hosted me during Week 23 of Project Ubuntu in San Antonio, works for a non-profit that tries to place children in foster care back with their biological parents or with new parents. But every day she is rejected by prospective parents because the children “available” don’t fit their desires of age, race or gender.

I spent time with teenagers she works with, and one told me an elaborate business plan for an adoption service of pets who are unwanted because they are no longer puppies or kittens. “People think they can’t be trained and that they’re damaged but we want to find them homes,” he told me, unclear as to whether or not the allegory was intentional.

Gilbert’s experience was similar, being told “no one wants you” by abusive foster parents, and essentially being told the same message by his biological parents.

But then he found The Possibility Project, where he met a mentor in Paul Griffin that recognized his humanity, and didn’t write him off as useless or threatening. Gilbert acts in “Know How,” a film to bring Hollywood-level cameras to the forgotten faces of our nation’s youth in foster care.

The film shows its stars are just as “normal” and no more “broken” than the rest of us. This story, therefore, can challenge the damaging, dehumanizing narrative about foster youth, which we hope inspires more adults to step forward and provide for these children.

Great foster parents are living examples of our purpose in life – to love, and to multiply the presence of love – and we should uphold these humble servants of love for the heroes they are.

I personally came to know the wonders of this love through my aunt and uncle, Nancy and Larry Bumgardner, who have spent most of their adult lives in Durham, NC as foster and adoptive parents. I feel the weight of their work manifested every Christmas, when their home is filled with filia love – that of kinship or family – that transcends last names and skin color but upholds the strength of unconditional love.

Our great charge is to take our experience of filia love and transform it into agape love – unconditional love for everyone, or seeing everyone as “kin” merely by virtue of also being people.

In English we translate the thing that ties us together as “humanity,” and our recognition of it propels us toward the Zulu proverb of “ubuntu.” When love flows from person to person, there is no ultimate “us and them” because there is no person who is enemy. Fear builds walls, but fear serves power. “Power at its best,” though, notes Martin Luther King, Jr., “is love implementing the demands of justice.”[2]

 

 


[1] These figures are referenced in The Possibility Project’s video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0TZD3c-L34.

[2] King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1967. “Where Do We Go From Here?” Annual Report Delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, Atlanta, GA. Accessed 25 May 2013 at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~gmarkus/MLK_WhereDoWeGo.pdf

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