I’ve always said to experience being a foster youth is to imagine being a part of “The Hunger Games” — a background character thrown onto a platform and shoved into an arena with more questions than answers. That’s what it was like for me at least, and what it felt like to be in a strange home in a strange part of town, surrounded by only unknown faces at the age of 16. I was definitely terrified, but not so much of who or the where, but of the why. Why were we here? Why was I there? Why are there so many of us? No one really answers these questions much like in “The Hunger Games,” There are no answers, only structured cycles and repetition of the same old game.
Being a foster youth isn’t necessarily a death match against one another, but more of a clear distrust of the systems and officials provided. You are not provided a clear distinction of what is going on, nor who to trust, which can create difficult and combative situations in group and foster homes. Through my own experience, I was given a Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) identification number and had to hand over all my personal belongings, including my phone, and so did everyone else. I remember my first call I received was from a caseworker who referred to me by the number first before my name. Such procedures and rules often dehumanize and make an unreal situation feel even more inhumane.
To stop the cycle of repetitive care and juvenile justice is to first understand how the cycle begins. A home is not always abusive, and a child is not a criminal for simply doing what they believed they needed to do in order to survive. A home can be unstable, distraught, food-insecure, but no less loving. From my own eyes, I have seen loving homes in unsurvivable situations strictly due to income and financial crisis. Yet, in some rulings, any lack or vacancy requiring Social Services’ attention leaves way for Social Services to interfere and remove a child if deemed necessary. Though it can be said that while these children and their families often need more support financially and housing aid, a violent removal of their own child is no solution or answer to the problem. There are a majority of cases where once a child has been removed, there can be no guarantee that they will be placed with extended family or even provided stable care, as many children experience reentering foster care. There is more anger, hurt, and confusion as we often do not know why government officials and court systems are involved when some situations are not always violent or cruel — just simply in need of help.
Racial and familial bias can occur between the courts and social service systems, as a child is seen through the history or records of what happened within their previous home. There is clear bias depending on whether a child has repeated foster care or juvenile detention and how this might reflect on their sentencing or hearing. Children are often exposed to either pre-determined rulings based on their parents’ actions or their own decisions often made under extreme and dire circumstances. As previously stated, to break the cycle, it must be first understood whether or not the circumstances regarding DCFS placement or juvenile detention was due to food insecurity, lack of financial stability, or housing. Many children often are experiencing survival through choices made for them or situations occurring around them. There isn’t much of a choice to have, even if it’s to keep themselves and loved ones safe.
I truly believe that change can happen if more are able to see that so much crime and unsafe situations occur simply because of lack and need, not because of vicious and cruel intentions. This goes not just for those in foster care and other systems alike, but for those pushed into only rough situations. Heightened focus on needs, such as housing, food, and employment, would provide much more change than the overcrowding of prisons and group homes. These cycles are not the solution for foster youth and those experiencing juvenile justice. It is a current and unfortunate wave, but more opportunities and guided programs will make way for a new cycle and for a new way of life to begin and grow.