Who Should Guide Foster Care? Former Foster Youth, For Starters

by Waln Brown and John Seita

Logic dictates that to know how to improve a product or service, one should solicit feedback from customers and adjust the product or service accordingly.  This goes on all the time with successful businesses like Ford, Coca-Cola and McDonalds, but seldom happens in child welfare, resulting in a serious blind spot that jeopardizes the in-placement experiences and adult outcomes of foster children.

Rather, as Dr. John Seita learned by surveying 104 private Michigan child welfare agencies, only six of the responding agencies reported having board members who were child welfare alumni, and no agencies reported having a chief executive or any executive staff who had lived in placement.  This is almost certainly true nationally.

Furthermore, and just as logically, no matter how hard he may try, a male cannot know what it is like to be female, even though he may have a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies and also be a gynecologist. Common sense informs us that white people should not dictate policy for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and that senior citizens must populate the board of directors of  AARP.

Why, then, are foster youth subjected to programs, policies and practices designed and supervised by people who have not experienced out-of-home placement and who have not had to master the sudden and treacherous transition from dependent child to independent adult on their own?

For non-alumni to assume they know what is in the best interests of foster kids is egotistical, disingenuous and detrimental to our welfare; it is the precise reason why so many of us suffer in the care of strangers, falter upon emancipation and endure lesser … much too often dismal … adult lives.  The child welfare system that is supposed to act on our behalf as a caring parent is what harms and limits us most because it lacks the moral compass and experiential-knowledge only alumni possess.

Foster care alumna Claudette Braxtonexpressed her disdain for this absurd practice in our 2009 book, Growing Up in the Care of Strangers: The Experiences, Insights and Recommendations of Eleven Former Foster Kids. Said Braxton:

“This assumption by foster care professionals that it is not necessary to consult us about our placements or other important decisions happens to foster children routinely.  Seldom do the people charged with our ‘best interests’ ask us what we think is best for us.  Strangers make crucial decisions that affect our lives and they just expect us to cooperate like mindless sheep.  If we question or make a stink about it, we’re branded conduct disordered, antisocial, rebellious or some other pejorative term because we have the moxie to stand up for what we believe is in our own best interest, not someone else’s perception of what is best for us. What arrogance!”

This is not to say that only alumni are qualified to be good shepherds of foster children, however. Many of us can point fondly to a non-alumni foster parent, adoptive parent, guardian, social worker, case worker, house parent, probation officer, psychologist, administrator or staff member and say, “that person made a positive difference in my life.”  We must treat them as respected allies.

On the other hand, many of us have been harmed by incompetent or cruel child welfare professionals, too. We must show them the door.

The foster care alumni movement seeks to include non-alumni who share our mission to “make sure that every young person in out-of-home care enjoys a safe, stable and nurturing placement as well as a successful transition to independent living.”

Dr. John Seita is Associate Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University, and Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation. Their latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.

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