5 Insane Realities Inside The Foster Care System
Foster care isn't exactly a glass half full of puppies and butterflies. Some kids luck out and get adopted by Angelina Jolie. Others, like Stephanie, endure insanity after insanity until they're old enough to tell everyone to get bent. Stephanie was raised in British Columbia's foster system from age 12 to 19, and her experience involved, among other things, entirely more murder than most people are comfortable with.
If You Don't Want Your Kids Anymore, You Can Just Give Them To Foster Care
One day, when Stephanie was 12, her mother and new step-father told her they were going out to run an errand. It must have been a hell of an errand, too, because they're still on it. They never came back. Stephanie had been voluntarily placed in foster care. That's something you can do, apparently, if you get bored with just threatening to sell your kid on the black market. Statistics on parents voluntarily giving up their kids are vague -- it's not a well-studied subject, presumably both because of the difficulty in tracking the numbers and the difficulty in performing cold statistical analysis while staring into your whiskey and repeatedly listening to "Cat's In The Cradle" -- but one study in New York City estimated that up to 20 percent of foster children aren't taken by force.
"Next time, I'll study something less depressing, like baby elephant suicide rates."
We can't tell you what her parents were thinking, but it's probably safe to say they weren't doing it very straight. Like 31 percent of children who enter the foster care system every year in the U.S., Stephanie's family had been torn apart by substance abuse. In the year before that fateful errand run, Stephanie's mother had lost her sister to suicide, started drinking heavily, and separated from her husband. She then "immediately started dating this new guy who was really abusive to me and my siblings," Stephanie says. "We would get into arguments and fights, so my mom signed me over into foster care." Stephanie estimated that she bounced around 20 different foster homes. She was just part of the 20 percent of children in the foster system who move more than 10 times. Only half stay in one place for a single year. And every trip was a surprise.
"Some were a big house or facility where the government's footing the bill," Stephanie says. "There are other places where the people get benefits from the government for taking in needy children. They might have kids of their own, they might have adult kids, they might be childless. They might live in a mansion, they might live in an apartment. You never know until you're on their doorstep."
Being shuffled around so often made Stephanie feel like a worthless bundle of red tape, and in some ways she still lives with it. She has absolutely no attachment to material possessions, even personal things like family photos. "I don't even care. I've posted ads with my address [when I move]," she says. "'My front door's open, come take what you want.'"
On the plus side, that does sound way easier than moving a couch.
Your Foster Parents May Not Have Your Best Interests At Heart
The first home Stephanie lived in was a nice place. The kids were supervised by shift workers, and while Stephanie had problems with a couple employees, she got the impression that they genuinely cared about her and their job. She had gotten extremely, extremely lucky, and she would find that out soon enough.
You see, some private families see foster children as an easy government paycheck, rather than a serious commitment. The government even sternly warns potential parents that the money is only enough to pay for child-raising necessities, but in Stephanie's experience, that didn't stop some parents from seeing cartoon dollar signs when they looked at her. "I think people have this idea that when you go to a foster family, it's like the middle-aged couple from Free Willy and they'll be patient with you for the rest of your life," Stephanie says. "A lot of people view it as, 'I'm going to take in this kid, the government's going to pay me $1,000 a month, and I only have to feed him $200 worth of groceries! Whoo! $800 payday!' A lot of people don't realize that sometimes there's a lot of care involved. Some people genuinely give a shit about you, but others you suspect that as soon as you leave they're going to be looking for someone easier to provide that income. It's like a revolving door."
"I'll miss you(r monthly check)!"
It could have been worse, though: "I feel like I stand out because I've never been sexually abused," she says. "Not before foster care, not during, not after. And that's a goddamn miracle." She's not exaggerating. One study found that 7.6 percent of kids enter the system because of sexual abuse, and once you're in the system, you're about four times more likely to be sexually abused than a non-foster child is. Because abuse often comes from your peers, if you live in a group home, you're 28 times more likely to be a victim than that same, stupid, well-adjusted child. It says something pretty profound about the foster system that "I didn't get raped!" counts as an inspirational story.
You're Surrounded And Changed By Bad Influences
When Stephanie was 15, she got in trouble. "I fought a girl at a party, [and] totally knocked her out," she says. We all got into some scrapes in high school, but this was different. "She fell two stories over a railing. She was pretty hurt. She had a broken hip; her ribs were all bruised up. I got 18 months [in juvenile detention] for that," she says.
Spoiler: When legal confinement is the first form of actual structure you have in life, that's a bad thing.
This actually does have something to do with Stephanie's living situation, so stay with us: When you go through 20 homes in six years, it's basically impossible to discipline you. After all, if you were a teenager and you knew that after a few months you'd probably never see this particular set of substitute parents again, would you strictly observe your bedtime? Of course not, which means that most of Stephanie's free time was spent smoking weed and partying. When you get a bunch of troubled kids partying together, they don't always sing campfire songs and teach each other to break dance.
No campfires, but something was getting lit.
Once Stephanie found herself in a rougher group home, it only got worse, much like how locking a bunch of drug dealers up together for long stretches of time mostly just makes them better at dealing drugs. "There were two incidents in juvenile [detention]," she says. "I got an extra six months for cutting a girl's hair off during arts and crafts. ... I got another 12 months because this girl verbally invited [me and another girl] to fight her, and we took her up on it. It was pretty bad. Charges were pressed. So it was three assault charges. I'm definitely not proud of that."
Thanks to the impossibility of discipline, Stephanie went from a terrified 12-year-old abandoned by her mother, to a 15-year-old with three assault charges on her record. The system works!
You Watch People Disappear Into The System
While in juvenile detention, Stephanie became friends with Andrea Joesbury, a runaway who would later become a prostitute in Vancouver before being murdered at the age of 22 by Robert Pickton, a serial killer we've personally declared more terrifying than any horror movie villain. "I was still in the [detention] center when that whole scenario started to play out in the news," Stephanie recalls. "I remember us all sitting around and speculating if anyone we knew was a victim, because it was all these skid-row prostitutes. I remember watching it, and then finding out that it was her. ... That's one of the scariest things ever. What if I had been the one? I got in my fair share of trouble, what if I had been the one who got in that car or went to that party?"
Andrea was a kid who had slipped through the cracks of the system, leaving behind a household full of physical and substance abuse for a system full of, uh, physical and substance abuse. She wasn't unique: Between 2010 and 2015, Stephanie's home of British Columbia saw 51 deaths in the system, mostly from neglect, while nationwide, it was 320.
In 2013, 4,765.6 of the 238,280 children to leave the American system had "other outcomes," which is a euphemism for "transferred to another social services system, ran away, or died." It's unclear what happened to the other 40 percent of that one kid, but maybe that's a sign we should be keeping a closer fucking eye on them.
That wasn't even the only murder Stephanie would be connected to, because she's apparently the Forrest Gump of Canadian violent crime. In her very first month of foster care, she very nearly became an unwitting accessory to one of the most widely reported and discussed crimes in Canadian history. After some of her fellow foster children had viciously beaten and drowned 14-year-old Reena Virk, a mutual friend and -- you guessed it -- foster child, they came to Stephanie and asked her to hide Reena's sweatshirt and shoes in her closet. Finding that exactly as suspicious as you did, she went to a staff member, who went to the police.
Pro Tip: If people start acting like Law & Order guest stars, go to the police.
In one of the worst reunions ever, Stephanie later ended up in the same juvenile detention center as those girls, but the resulting fallout paled in comparison to the initial shock. Just as she had started to come to terms with her mom abandoning her, one of her new friends was murdered and three nice girls she thought were also her friends were among those responsible.
Remember: We're not talking about the plot of some mind-bending thriller movie. This is the real life of a girl whose family just didn't feel like arguing with a teenager.
There's A Reason They Call It A Cycle
Stephanie aged out of the system when she turned 19, which is the polite way of saying that, since nobody adopted her and her mom never took her back, the government welcomed her to adulthood and showed her the door. In 2013, 23,000 Americans aged out of the foster care system, and shockingly they don't tend to do well in life. Stephanie can testify to that: She found herself in a jail cell just days after getting out.
"Ten days after my 19th birthday, I got arrested for giving a friend some pot," she says. "I spent the night in lock-up, [and] the next day was my mom's birthday. She had to come down to the courthouse and pay $250 bail. Then we went back to my house and I actually had a gift and a card and a cake for her. So it was like, 'Hey, thanks for the $250, let's party!' That was the moment, being on adult probation and realizing I could go to real jail where there wasn't arts and crafts, that changed the way I did a lot of things."
If she didn't, then every cake she'd see from then on would be checked for files first.
But at least she got to party with the mom who, uh, sent her into foster care in the first place. She still sees her sometimes today, with mixed results. Stephanie's 31 now, but her mother still refuses to talk about why she sent her away. For those of you who cringe at the political discussions that ruin your family reunions, know that it could always be worse.
"There's a part of me that's never forgiven her. Not just for foster care, but over the years I can't even begin to explain the ways she hasn't been there for me." For one, she says, "I was eight months pregnant and had to pick her up from her DUI, and then I had to go to court for her because she skipped town."
Hopefully not by driving.
As you might guess, Stephanie doesn't budget a lot of money for Mother's Day cards. "There's a part of me that loves her because she's my mom, and I recognize her alcoholism as sad. But it's not an excuse for behavior. If I became an alcoholic tomorrow, I wouldn't choose men over my children."
Stephanie has children of her own now, which is kind of hard to navigate when your only role model dropped you on someone's porch like a flaming bag of poop. The government realizes this, which is why after both of her children's births, Stephanie was flagged for a social services investigation.
Anything that could actually help her was still a good couple of months
of red tape and unanswered voicemails away.
Hey, if you screw up a kid's life with your wildly incompetent and dangerously negligent system, the least you can do is keep an eye on the next generation. That way, if things go south, you can take those kids and put them in that same wildly incompetent and dangerously negligent system. That's what that "Circle Of Life" song was about, right?
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For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Surprises To Expect When Both Of Your Parents Die and 6 Awesome Lessons Teaching Troubled Teens Teaches You.
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