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Pondering Child Homelessness in the Wake of Dasani

Last week, thanks to Andrea Elliott‘s five-part series in the NY Times, the name Dasani came to mean much more than a label found on the side of a slender, blue-hued, plastic water bottle.

The series, which profiles young Dasani and her family as they experience various dimensions of homelessness and institutional forms of support and challenge, has received a significant amount attention in the mainstream press as well as across local contexts including our twitter stream, classroom discussions, hallway conversations, and, in one instance, a bus ride debate.

I am still very much mulling over the intricate layers of information and analysis of child homelessness that Elliott’s narrative offers, so in the meantime I thought I would share a collection of resources that I have gathered to help my own ongoing analysis and sense-making:


Additional Resources (taken from the Reading Club and other sources)

A Reflection on: “Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital” — “Tanisha”

While looking for some reading to pass the time over Thanksgiving Break, I came across the novel, Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital a non-fiction account of twelve patients encountered by Dr. Eric Manheimer during his time as the medical director at Bellevue.  Though I wasn’t aware when I picked it up, the second chapter entitled “Tanisha” is the story of a young girl in the foster care system who found her way to Bellevue.

Though I could spend this entire blog simply summarizing the chapter, I will instead encourage you to read it, and will devote this space to a reflection on Tanisha’s story.  Though I had no idea this story was hidden in this book, and it was only a small portion of the entire book, its memory lingers with me.

Tanisha had spent sixteen of the seventeen years of her life in foster care, with the exception of one home, that of Abuela, the only loving and supportive home that Tanisha ever had, only to be removed after Abuela’s death. Tanisha was then placed in an abusive home followed by neglectful home in a cyclical pattern that was without end.  Though Tanisha’s stories of abuse, neglect, and horror haunt me still, there are so many positive, yet cautionary lessons that are to be taken away.

First and foremost, Tanisha was a fighter.  She advocated for herself.  She did not give up on herself.  She was strong willed, intelligent and even when placed in vapid surrounds, kept herself sharp and alert.  It is what allowed her the ingenuity and wherewithal to walk herself from Flatbush to Manhattan and to ACS in order to avoid either being killed or killing someone in self-protection.  I say this only to say that there are some positive results to this story, but not all of the children put into foster care who experienced these same misfortunes would necessarily find the same conclusions.  To do so takes a uncrushable spirit like that of Tanisha.

Secondly, “Dr. Eric” as he is so lovingly called, went far above and beyond what is expected? required? of doctors.  Tanisha wasn’t his patient, but he went out of his way to learn about her story, to not give up on her, to find a way to extend her stay in Bellevue in order to afford her a safe place to stay, to buy her notebooks and both model and encourage her to write down the thoughts and feelings, but also to follow through on that act…reading what she wrote, taking it seriously.  I want to call his actions heroic in some sense, but instead, perhaps they could be more appropriately labeled as “aware” or “available.”  He never gave up on finding Abuela’s daughter and talking to her, telling her about Tanisha, taking the one in a million chance that perhaps they would be willing to take her back into the family.  His actions, if nothing else were most certainly out of the ordinary.  I wonder, and am glad I won’t have to know, what would have happened to Tanisha had it not been for the hospital staff and most notably, Dr. Eric.

Because it is impossible to avoid this revelation, Dr. Eric goes out of his way to find Abuela’s daughter who had held the family together, and to offer Tanisha’s story to her, and ask her to consider being a foster family to Tanisha.  They found ways to keep Tanisha in Bellevue in order to avoid her being put back into the system before a decision could be made.  They never gave up on a happy ending for her, and in the end she did get her happy ending.  And the reader walks away feeling as if justice has prevailed.

But I think more critically now.  Tanisha is one girl.  And granted not every child in foster care has this traumatic experience.  But for those who do, what about the many children who cannot get themselves to Bellevue?  Who cannot find their way to a Dr. Eric to be listened to, protected, and advocated for in a way that they were unable to do for themselves.  Where are they now?  How many are there?  How do we reach them? What outlets do they have now to reach out to people who can provide them the support and help they need?  I hope others will have a chance to read this chapter and reflect upon these same questions as they pertain to court-involved youth, in particular those involved in the foster care system.

Neverending “June” — Or: The burden of care


Jef Aerosol public art, near Rue Mouffetard, Paris. For more about Jef Aerosol, see: http://www.jefaerosol.com/
(Photo by Lalitha Vasudevan, 2012)


I started reading “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care” by Cris Beam a few weeks ago. At this point I feel it necessary to say that I am usually a fast reader, a habit nurtured by years of reading voraciously by flashlight as an adolescent, long after “lights out.” And yet, I can only read this book in small chunks, 30 minutes at a time. Beam’s writing is engaging and her style brings stories of foster children’s and foster families’ everyday lived realities into conversation with institutional and legislative history, current social science research, and large scale demographic data sets. In short, her book is compelling. However, I find myself pausing to ponder after each scene is depicted or after one of countless bon mots dropped carefully along the reading expedition.

With the end of the book looming near, I find myself wanting to start the book again, as if I’m hoping for different realities or for the existing ones to change. And it is from this unsettling place of seeking agency that I recently read a related article in the Sonoma Index-Tribune: “The arduous journey of the foster child” by Jaime Ballard.

This is the first piece in a three-part series the newspaper is rolling out to call attention to how California youth experience that state’s foster care system. Like in Beam’s accounts, the voices of the youth who were interviewed for the piece call up questions about their caregivers and the conditions in which they lived prior to entering the system. Children being removed from their homes is a scenario that plays out over and over again in my mind in technicolor (and occasionally my mind drifts back to that vivid image of Elián González, the young Cuban boy who was forcibly removed from his relatives’ home; of course the circumstances were altogether different. Still, the image remains.) What must the circumstances be for a child to be removed and then placed in one of any number of placements that themselves may be viewed as “unstable” in a different light.

My friend and colleague (and YMEJ team member), Melissa Wade, is all too familiar with such stories and reminds me again and again that there must be an “imminent threat or danger to the life of a child” in order for a child to be removed. And in the same breath shares the story of a young person who was removed from her home because her parents were found guilty of “educational neglect,” or not enforcing her school attendance. One wonders not only who is making the consequential decisions that drastically alter a child’s path, but also how those decisions are informed. Who is on the side of the youth?

What stands out in the Sonoma news article as well as in Beam’s book are the many faces of pain evident in the words, actions, and postures of the young people who are held in suspended reality as a “dependent of the court.” To whom do I belong? To whom do I show allegiance? By whom will I be protected and nurtured? Who truly has my best interests at heart?

These are among the questions that lie underneath the sentiments that youth like Angie (pseudonym) express:

“I was a good kid, never did anything wrong, stayed out of trouble – but was always treated like a criminal by the courts.”

Or when Phoenix, another foster youth quoted in the article, says:

“Mostly I was a child of neglect and emotional abuse – being called names and yelled at all the time.”

These recollections are woven through a system that is characterized by and “strenuous and sometimes harrowing court proceedings” and “too few foster families available to care for children in need.”

Ballard’s article concludes with a note of advocacy: for more people to take on the role of Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA*. In some ways, the piece plays to the public’s desire to do something in response to reading about the situations that comprise (and often compromise) the wellbeing in these young people’s everyday lives.

[Millie] Gilson [director of the Sonoma County CASA branch] said, “There is a proactive point of order. I would encourage everyone to become a CASA, to get involved. Being a CASA is one of the most unique forms of citizen involvement, and it’s very much a staple of the foster care system.”

Both Beam’s and Ballard’s writings about the foster care system, albeit in two different locales, offer glimpses into everyday realities of thousands of children and youth and the families who care for them, both biological and foster. But as the stories they weave also suggest, there may be a significant role for non-family adults to play, thereby begging the question: Who is responsible for the care of all the children? (and relatedly, Who is implicated in their care?**)

Whether relying on the interested other — the socially engaged stranger — is a flaw or force of the foster care system is debatable.  But that children and youth need caring adults in their lives — to inspire and nurture them, to push and attend to them, to listen and provide guidance, to see them — is not.

*For more information about CASAs, including the process for applying to become a volunteer CASA, check out these resources:

**During last year’s YMEJ Seminar, Joe Riina-Ferrie (then a graduate student mentor in the course; now a member of the YMEJ Project/Teaching Team) pursued an inquiry into the idea of care. His yearend publication brought together this inquiry in the form of edited interviews with members of the seminar, including youth, other graduate student mentors, and other members of the teaching team. Listen to these multiple perspectives on care:

what is care?

New Books on Youth, Justice, & Institutions

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 5.26.06 PMTo the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care is the recently published book by Cris Beam that offers a layered, multi-faceted, and poignant exploration of New York City’s Foster Care System by focusing on the lives of the children and their families — both bio and foster — who are deeply affected by institutional and system-wide policies and practices. Beam writes based on her research — for this book, she spent five years interviewing and spending time with foster families — and from personal experience and positions the texts as an attempt to better understand why, despite the “more than a million adults [who] are directly or indirectly employed to ensure [foster children’s] well-being, and $15 to $20 billion a year [that] are poured into overseeing their health and management,” no one thinks the system is working. Beam’s book does not offer neat solutions. Instead, her rich descriptions and thoughtful prose offer different points of entry into the seemingly entrenched set of challenges that affect the people caught in the system at every level. Read the first chapter of the book here.

 Arts, Media, and Justice: Multimodal Explorations with Youth is a volume edited by YMEJ member Lalitha Vasudevan and Tiffany DeJaynes and brings together a collection of chapters authored by practitioners and researchers who worked with youth in a variety of arts-based and media settings. Central to all of the chapters is an emphasis on how, through exploration with the arts and media, young people involved with the juvenile justice system may be engaged as agentive partners in reimagining education in their lives. Ranging from photography and theater to media making and creative writing, the contexts depicted in this volume hold important implications for educators, the field of youth development, and policy makers in how we might better support young people who find themselves embroiled court-involved — the thoughtful and illustrative writings of the authors suggests that rather than emphasizing punitive measures, we might create conditions in which exploration of self and world may occur in meaningful, collaborative, and potentially transformative ways.

(**All proceeds from book sales go to supporting the work of alternative to detention and alternative to incarceration programs in New York City. ***)

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