There are two types of foster kids, if movies and T.V. shows are to be believed. First, there’s the angry youth who just needs a little bit of tough love in order to kick his Krokodil/vandalism/schoolyard fight habits, which he will inevitably get in the form of two naive but well-meaning foster parents. They’ll rescue him, he’ll be grateful, adoption happens, everyone is happy.
The second is the adorable, innocent foster child who longs for kisses but get kicks instead, who wants a cotton blanket, but is instead forced to wrap herself in scratchy ass wool. Fortunately she’ll meet two naive but well-meaning foster parents (or one insanely rich dude) who will rescue her, she’ll be grateful, adoption happens, and everyone is happy.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure I have to tell you that I was never in state foster care. Instead, I was voluntarily enrolled at age six in a private school for “perpetually disadvantaged children.” I was placed in a home of 12 other kids and two houseparents and though they assumed most custodial duties, I was neither up for adoption nor forcibly removed from my mother’s care. I still saw her during some summers, when I lived at her home.
The main difference between my experience and state care was that the school I enrolled in was a private philanthropic endeavor. Some of my peers and housemates came from state care or were state wards, and others came from loving but unstable homes. A lot of us fell somewhere in between.
In many ways, it was similar to an orphanage or foster care; group homes, surrogate parents, spontaneous bouts of cheerful singing...in either case, misconceptions abound both about state care and private care systems like mine. I made a handy little list, put together from experience where I had it, and by asking my state-raised peers when I didn’t.
1. All foster kids are orphans
Probably the most common misconception I run into is the orphan one. If I’m trying to explain that I did not live at home growing up, I usually get “why, are your parents dead?”. What a great conversation opener! Pro tip: if someone says yes, you've just made it awkward.
2. Non-orphans are surrenders, their parents didn’t want them.
Someone did a newspaper article on our school once and called it “The School For The Unwanted”. Do I have to really debunk this? Or could people just not be assholes once in awhile?
3. Foster kids are mostly crack babies.
Ah, the crack baby. Despite the fact that the whole crack baby thing turned out to be overblown panic, I still hear this one a lot. Sometimes interchangeable with the prom night dumpster baby, the elusive crack baby grows up and divides his time between gaming the welfare system, smoking lots of rock, and writing all of Ke$ha’s songs.
3. Most foster kids are black.
Sometimes, if someone is trying to be delicate, they’ll swap out “black” for “inner city”. Another variation of this is “[insert race here] people never get their kids taken away/surrender their kids.” Weirdly, people are very attached to this idea and will ignore you if you try to set them straight, probably because they have a Doctorate in Orphanology or something.
4. Foster care is punishment for delinquents.
Boys get this a whole lot, believe it or not. The idea is that foster children are constantly teetering on the brink of a lifetime of felonious behavior, or that kids in foster care are there because "they did something". To address this, you need to understand that 8% of kids in foster care are juvenile offenders. If you're adept at mental math, then you can easily understand that 92% of foster kids are not juvenile offenders, and if you ask a foster kid what they did wrong to end up in care, you are 100% douche.
5. Kids get bounced from home to home which is why they suck so bad at school and life.
If kids are bouncing around, it’s usually between foster care and their custodial parents during reunification attempts, not necessarily a string of group homes. The idea is to create permanence, which is why most kids are placed with foster parents and remain there for a good long while, whether they are eligible for adoption or not. The average number of placements is three. I lived in only two homes over 11 years, which is actually pretty normal. Also, I only had to repeat second grade five times, thankyouverymuch.
6. Foster kids usually have deeply ingrained behavioral problems.
When foster kids aren’t thieving, they’re usually spray painting bad words onto orca tanks. Not that you can blame them, though, right? It’s probably all that fetal crack they did. I had a summer job where my boss admitted to my face that had he known my background he wouldn’t have hired me since all kids from my school are well known thieves/liars/prostitutes/ne’er do wells.
7. Foster kids can be snatched back by their parents at any time, so you should never adopt one or your heart will be broken.
If reunification is on the table, it isn’t a free for all. It’s a court ordered process. Once a kid is eligible for adoptive placement, that’s it. No more reunification. The idea that a birth parent can swoop in before the ink is dry on adoption papers is untrue. I often hear people say that they would adopt here before going overseas, but that they don’t want to get close to their child only to have him be cruelly ripped away by his birth parents. I feel like you would at least Google this before making that kind of blanket statement, especially if that’s what’s keeping you from adopting.
8. Every foster kid has special needs, you’d have to be crazy/a saint/an idiot to take them on.
If by special needs you mean “needs you to not be a sanctimonious gratitude whore”, then yes, foster kids have special needs. They need you to be patient. They need you to understand that they got dealt a shitty hand. They need stability. The darker part of this misconception is the idea that the foster system is stuffed to the gills with disabled children who were burdens on their parents. To be fair, sometimes an agency will identify a kid as having special needs, and that can be confusing, because it isn’t the traditional definition. A “special needs” foster kid could have a disability. Or they could have siblings that need to be placed with them. Or they could be ancient, like 13. Or they could have asthma.
9. Most foster kids have RAD so they can never have good relationships.
Oh, the eyerolls. RAD, if you don’t know, is Reactive Attachment Disorder, and it’s serious business. It is an extremely rare, extremely severe disorder that presents in kids younger than five, usually infants. It’s typically the result of neglect or abuse, and it can mess up the kid’s internal relationship wiring, causing them to be either socially inhibited or socially uninhibited in DEEPLY dysfunctional ways. A kid with RAD isn’t an angry kid, or a sad kid, or a shy kid, or a kid whose parent did not co-sleep. A lot of foster kids are distrustful in a sort of “fool me once” kind of way, but they are more than capable of having good relationships. I am not now, nor have I ever been ashamed to tell my parents that I love them. Because I do. I even have a dog I’ve never strangled or impaled.
10. The cycle of abuse will always continue.
I’m neither naive nor an apologist; some foster kids have been abused and neglected. I know many survivors personally. We come from poverty and ineptitude and broken homes. But if you could, imagine the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Now imagine that everyone defines you by it, and that no matter what you do, you’re told you will never be free of it. Everyone studies it, dissects it, and eventually concludes: you are damaged and always will be. That’s what the “cycle of abuse” misconception feels like. Yes, abusers are more likely to have been abused themselves. However, too often people imagine that EVERY abused child will grow up to abuse more people. Maybe they don’t blame them for it. Maybe they even pity them for it.
A lot of people who were abused as kids go on to pop out a few chitluns of their own. Do you know how they describe their first parental emotions? Fear, primarily, followed by anger. Fear because the idea that they will destroy their children has been so hammered into them, so ingrained and internalized, that they feel like we are dooming their own children just by wanting them. After that comes the anger; looking at your child and realizing how easy it is. It is easy to love them. It takes no effort whatsoever to not despise them. It is simple-effortless-to touch them in love and not anger; in tenderness and not brutality. They feel lied to. They have hated themselves thoroughly and prematurely, only to discover quite suddenly that they are more than their blood, their genes, or their experiences.
Foster kids face problems, I’m not denying that. The prevalence of behavioral issues, continued poverty, and instances of abuse are higher among them. We shouldn’t discount that, but coming from abuse or struggling with behavior is neither damning nor insurmountable, and these aren’t issues that are even unique to foster kids. Besides that, “some” kids are not “most” kids, and they surely aren’t “all” kids. It’s a simple matter of refraining from making snap judgements. We can all do that, right?
(Image: Peeradach Rattanakoses/Shutterstock)