National Foster Care Month: Starting Out From Behind

Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinBing

The magnitude of foster care in America is startling. More than 700,000 youth of every race, ethnicity, culture, and age group are impacted by foster care each year. For kids in foster care, turning 18 isn't a source for celebration. It's a reason to panic. 

Young people are told that they can achieve anything, if they put their minds to it. They are told to work hard and believe in their dreams. They are told that they hold the future in their hands, but not everyone has the same opportunities. Some youth have to overcome neglect. Some have had physical, sexual and emotional abuse.  There's a major contradiction for children in this society, and as a foster care alumn, I know it all too well.

At 2 years old, I was placed in Foster care due to the death of my mother and the incarceration of my father. By eleven, I had lived in six different Foster homes, and three different group homes. I have lived with so many different families I had become well versed in many diverse religious beliefs-- Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Baptist, and Jewish. I also lived in multi-racial homes. I remember living with a Caucasian family and attending an all white public school in the suburbs of Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Reflecting on what Foster Care meant for me now that I am older is bittersweet.  It was painful to wake up to complete strangers—and to go to school each day and hear "Foster Child".  It was painful to not be around my blood—my given family--to switch schools, and homes every other month. It was painful to ask for water and ask to go to the bathroom when your room is right across the hall. It was painful but it was a motivator.   It motivated me to get involved in community organizing.  And pursue higher education. It motivated me to want to learn from Civil Rights leaders like Marian Wright Edelman, Bill Lynch, George Gresham, Gerry Hudson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and NAACP leaders Benjamin Todd Jealous, and Roslyn Brock.

Being in Foster Care was my success, because it made want to help young people that are in the system and help prevent other young people from experiencing Foster Care altogether. Foster Care was my biggest motivation. It allowed me to endure pain in order to forever experience joy, and the work I do every day as the Northeast Regional Director of the NAACP is what Foster Care, and the juvenile justice system prepared me for. 

May is National Foster Care Month. I am sharing my story because I want young people who may be experiencing these things right now to know that there is hope. I share my story because it is unique and should shine a bigger light on the real issue. There are hundreds of thousands of young people in the United States whose experiences are identical to mine. Today I stand on the shoulders of the millions who have endured foster care and the juvenile justice system before me. The Civil Rights community has a unique opportunity to build awareness and take strategic action to address the struggles that millions of foster youth face while in care, and as they age out.

Every year, over 30,000 young people age out of the foster care system with no place to go and no support network to rely upon. For them, the opportunity ladder is grim. Less than 3 percent get a college degree, 50 percent end up homeless, 81 percent of males get arrested, and 70 percent of women end up on public assistance. We don’t want these outcomes for foster care youth who age out of the foster care system; we must make a conscious effort to do better.