Growing Up in the Care of Strangers: The Experiences, Insights and Recommendations of Eleven Former Foster Kids

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Edited by Waln K. Brown and John R. Seita
William Gladden Foundation Press

175 pages. $27.95.

It’s a “lofty goal” to protect the best interests of a child when parents cannot do so, say the editors of this riveting collection of personal accounts of 11 alumni of America’s child welfare system. But when so many children “leave care just as damaged and at risk” as when the court decided they needed safeguarding, the system that can fulfill a caring parent’s role has yet to be invented.

Ranging in age from mid-20s to late 60s, white, black, male and female contributors are college-educated professionals who each survived multiple child welfare placements. All are now committed to helping other such children. All have worked with children in care, trained children’s services professionals or taught students of social work, administered placement programs or researched youth at risk.

The contributors’ paths were no less rocky than those of other foster children. What worked in their lives within the system? Each singles out the one person or group that helped them beat the odds.

Editor Waln Brown’s own account, “Confessions of an Ex-Juvenile Delinquent,” describes his parents’ corrosive fighting and his father’s disappearance. When Brown joined a gang in seventh grade, his mother placed him in an orphanage, starting his downward spiral through juvenile detention, a state psychiatric hospital and a reform school. Brown named his foundation, which published this book, after that school’s director.

Editor John Seita also had an absent father and an abusive mother. When he was 8 years old, the court removed him from his home. In the next 11 years, he moved 15 times, through multiple foster homes to group homes, orphanages and detention, seeing himself as “worthless human garbage.” Many of the system’s problems, Seita concludes, occur because its leaders have never been “consumers of its services and seldom do they seek guidance and input from their clients.”

Dr. Debraha Watson, who endured years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse as an orphan in several foster homes, believes it’s up to foster care workers to change what she calls a “heartless system.” Her prescription for change? Keep siblings together; screen, monitor, and train foster families carefully; monitor children’s progress and cries for help; advocate on foster children’s behalf “as you would your own children”; avoid multiple placements; and find a “holistic approach” to aging out.

“Foster care professionals must learn to listen to the voices of foster children, both present and past,” says Rosalind Folman, whose story closes the book. “We know what hurts us and what helps us.”

Folman said she became “a dead child walking” through years of emotional neglect under kinship care, a current favorite of child welfare experts. Through her own experience in an orphanage, Folman makes a strong case that a well-run institutional home is superior to living in such kinship care.

All contributors to this collection believe that the advice and insight of adults who grew up in the system must be considered when making policy, along with the voices of the young now engulfed in the system.

The editors note that placement also “takes a toll … on the professionals charged” with children’s care. They offer this book as feedback from fellow professionals-cum-survivors to all involved in child welfare: “judges, policymakers, administrators, probation officers, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, caseworkers, social workers, foster parents, house parents, guardians ad litem, CASA volunteers, child welfare advocates, educators and program staff.”

As trained adult professionals who were once part of the system, they now are hoping to help fix it. (850) 668-8574, http://www.williamgladdenfoundation.org.