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What Makes a Good Parent…and Who Gets to Decide?

Recently, the New Yorker published an article describing the experiences of a woman named Niveen, whose little boy was placed in foster care and ultimately given to another family despite Niveen’s efforts to get him back. Based on a single story from a single article, I certainly don’t want to pass judgment on whether anyone made the “right” decision or even whether a “right” decision existed to be made. But I was struck by the demands that were placed on Niveen. She was required to take a parenting class and then demonstrate parenting styles that the professionals involved in her case approved of. Niveen, an immigrant, described having to learn to “parent American style,” which the handbook described as being a democratic style that balanced the child’s freedom and responsibilities (p. 54).

My own immigrant mother is highly skeptical of raising children democratically. When I became a teacher, she advised me that I should only give children choices when I actually wanted to give them a choice–if I wanted to know what color marker, or which flavor ice cream, for example. If they needed to sit down, take out their book and start working on something, then I should tell them clearly to please do that.

When I was younger, I got into trouble at school when teachers told me I had a “choice” between, for example, being quiet and not getting a sticker, and then I would get angry that my teachers pretended that I had options when it seemed like I really didn’t. But my parents and more directive teachers eventually made clear what was expected of me and how I was really supposed to interpret “Would you like to sit down now?” As I got older, I became comfortable responding to both teaching styles. When I became a teacher myself, I was able to help my students understand and interpret different teaching styles as well.

I offer this story not to say that my mom’s parenting style is “better” or “worse,” but simply to say that it is a particular style with particular results. Sometimes my parents’ style conflicted with the teaching style of my school, but I think that conflict was ultimately a good thing for me. Well-meaning professionals who want to help parents do a better job need to be aware that there are a lot of ways to be a good parent, and that our assumptions about what being a good parent means are grounded in our own cultural backgrounds. It would be a shame to separate children from loving families simply because those families aren’t doing things the way we would.


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.

Possibilities of Virtual Dialogue

A recent op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, When Children are Traded, about the private re-homing of children who are adopted (often internationally) is a compelling addition to the larger sphere within which the YMEJ course contextualizes its work.  I came across the op-ed piece in a backwards way: I first found a link to a series of letters to the editor written in response to the piece.

Check it out here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/29/opinion/when-an-adoption-doesnt-work-out.html

While I could use this post to disentangle the broad narratives Kristof infuses in his piece, I am more interested in the conversation the piece sparked, since I read the response first.  More specifically, it caused me to wonder about the dialogue surrounding foster care in mass media and the space certain medias create for people to speak back or engage in dialogue.  The opinion/response was posted by the New York Times and therefore, I am aware that many other responses may not have been shared on the website. Next, I looked at which letters had been chosen for inclusion in the paper. One came from Westchester Child and Family services — part of Kristof’s op-ed questioned American adoption agencies for being leery to accept foreign adoptions that were not working in the US.  Another response was from the Children’s Law Center and the final letter came from the Center for Adoption Policy.   I immediately noticed the absent voices: parents, children, teachers, social workers.  This lead me to Kristof’s original op-ed piece and the comments section at the bottom of the website.

What I find fascinating is in the opinion pages the New York Times makes a point to explain who is writing the opinion and whether or not they are affiliated with a group, agency etc.  In the comments section, anyone can leave a comment.  But the comments are divided into sections, NY Picks, Readers Picks and All comments.  The freedom to respond is still mediate and moderate, which causes me to question the role the New York Times website, itself, plays in constructing a response to the op-ed.

I call this into question because the conversation and comments that interact with the article demonstrate a wide range of responses and perspectives.  Though the comments include many more parent voices, I still had to search to find young peoples responses and even responses of people who were adopted or lived in foster care.  Which begs the question, whose story is Kristof telling?  What can those of us involved in the YMEJ graduate seminar do to get involved in these conversations? How can we generate our own conversations in the public sphere? I hope this blog is a starting point and look forward to the virtual dialogue that unfolds.

A Strategy for a Strained System

NPR’s “All Things Considered” recently ran a feature story entitled “Strained Foster Care System: A ‘Meter of Our Social Programs.’” By interweaving the stories and commentaries of Claudia Felder, a 21-year-old young woman who spent over 10 years in the foster care system, Claudia’s adoptive parent and social worker Kim Felder, Chris Beam, author of The End of June, and Alex Morales, CEO of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, Arun Rath creates a complex picture of a foster care system struggling to support the 400,000 kids in its care. That is equivalent, Beam reminds us, to the total number of students in all Chicago public schools—elementary, junior high, and high school combined.

While it is important to recognize that there are foster care stories with happy endings, as in the case of Claudia Felder who found a social worker who would listen and in her a mother to trust, Morales reminds us that others whose lives are mediated by the courts are not so lucky. In the LA foster care system, for example, there are only around 3,000 homes, a fifty percent decrease from five years ago. As Morales describes, “The children have no place to go when they come into the care of the government or courts,” so young people are shuttled to group homes, institutions often characterized by bleak conditions and overcrowding. Beam adds that for many older kids who don’t end up with families by the time that they are 12 or 13, adoption no longer seems like a viable or even appealing option. Instead, many decide to run out the clock and age-out of the system. But that, Beam argues and Claudia confirms, is a dangerous solution. Independence without family support is a challenging endeavor. “You need to have somebody in your life,” Claudia explains.

So what do we do? How do we repair a broken system representative of a broken society? While there is neither a silver bullet, nor single answer, Beam identifies the need for more outreach influenced by a redefinition of family.

“ …what we really need to be finding for them are families. And by family, I mean one person to say, you know what? I’m going to stick by you. I’m going to care about you. I’m going to love you for a long time”

Beam’s definition of family may seem simple, yet its essence is complex and compelling. Family need not be traditional. Family need not be biological. Family is connection, care, and consistency. All youth need a family.

For More Information:


Foster Youth And Higher Education

According to research from Casey Family Programs, a national charitable foundation working to improve the lives of children in foster care, estimates suggest that only about 7 to 13 percent of youth from foster care enroll in higher education. Out of those who matriculate to postsecondary institutions, only 2 percent of young people from foster care obtain bachelor’s degrees, in comparison to 24 percent of adults in the general population. Such sobering statistics reflect the critical need for policymakers, child welfare agencies, government officials, higher education systems, and educators at the secondary and postsecondary levels to address this issue facing approximately 20,000 youth age 16 and older who transition or “age” out of foster care each year.

Recently, several colleges and universities across the country have answered the call for action by creating programs that help foster care youth to fund and complete their college education. One such initiative, the Seita Scholars Program at Western Michigan University, has received accolades for its work supporting the educational attainment and life outcomes of youth and young adults (12-25 years old) who have lived some or all of their years in foster care. The program, now in its fifth year, provides tuition assistance and extensive student support services including mental health counseling, life skills training, and career planning to foster youth who have lived in foster care on or after their 14th birthday. Seita Scholars experience on-on-one coaching to help them navigate both the challenges of college life as well as those of the adult world more broadly, including filing tax returns, applying for Medicaid, and budgeting their weekly expenses. Given that many students from foster care do not have a permanent residence, the program ensures that a WMU dormitory is kept open through school recesses and summer breaks and organizes community meals and activities on holidays. Academic tutoring is available to all scholarship recipients as well as career advising and assistance with locating internships and employment opportunities in the Kalamazoo, Michigan community.

The Seita Scholars Program is an example of a comprehensive approach to assisting youth and young adults who age out of foster care. Its success can be attributed, in part, to its focus on the future rather than the past. While acknowledging and not diminishing the fact that many of its students have experienced trauma and harrowing life experiences, the program’s emphasis is on moving forward and equipping youth with the tools to manage difficulties, access resources, and succeed in college and beyond.

For more information, please visit:

Click to access SupportingSuccess.pdf



Selling yourself for a home

I recently came across the article about Davion, a 15-year-old orphan living in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Having spent his life in the foster care system, Davion took a pastor’s message that God helped people that helped himself, and therefore took to a local church to make a plea that someone adopt him.

This story caused me to take pause to think about both Davion’s bravery, but also how discouraging it is that the children in our foster care system feel the need to take to a pulpit, a platform, a stage to market themselves as valuable humans worthy of a home and family, something so many take for granted.  To stand in front of a group of strangers hoping that one of them might want you or know someone who might want you is utterly heartbreaking.

At the time of this post, Davion has not yet found a home, though it is reported that several people have inquired about him.  This is discouraging to hear though as it would be a joyful ending that Davion had found a home but equally troubling at the precedent it would set.  Would foster parents or foster homes take to “auctioning” off children, or exploiting them in some way to move them along?  However it also raises the concern that perhaps the foster care system is too “out of sight out of mind” for most Americans, and Davion’s step to the front of the church is symbolic of how the entire foster care system should be a more central point of conversation and policy making in this country.   However, in doing this a balance would have to be found that bring foster care to the spotlight without exploiting the children who are a part of it.

I hope Davion is matched with a family–someone to take him to football practice and provide him what he has waited so long to find.  That would be my hope for every foster child.  The question is, short of every child in the foster care system having to sell themselves on a stage, how do we take the burden and place the system on the stage instead?

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. ***)

Righting (and re-writing) portrayals of court-involved youth through media/ted representations

In the next few weeks, we’ll be rolling out digital publications produced by first group of YMEJ grad students, culminating in a digital anthology — all of the pieces were shared as part of an exhibition called “Let’s Start Something: Reframing Perspectives on Youth, Justice, and Educationand early this autumn we’ll publish the complete anthology online.

As a preview, here are a few pieces from the collection:

1.anak ng new york”  — by Alexandra Thomas
Click on panels to reveal more layers of information, context, facts, and resources

From the author:

Anak ng New York is a project designed to give alternate views on care and young people in the Foster Care System in New York City. “Anak ng” means “children of,” or colloquially, “son or daughter of” in Tagalog. The homepage of this website provides a single, and perhaps the most stark, view of foster care in NYC. There is a tick mark for each of the 13,000 young people currently in the system. However, behind each panel is another view. There are resources, narratives, poetry, and artwork, which exemplify the diverse and complicated ways in which we can understand foster care and the lives of the young people within the system.

Click on the 4th panel on the 1st row for a compilation of responses from adults who work at various points along the foster care landscape in support and in service of foster youth: Top Ten Questions And Answers for Future Involvement with Foster Care Youth” — produced by David Gajer.

2.  Those Unspoken Truths
 — by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Ellen Chan

From the authors:

Those Unspoken Truths is a collaborative project that merges poetry and photography and explores ways youth would like to be known. We see the exploration of photography, the asking of the question “who am I?”, as well as the responses, as initial steps toward creating a platform for discussion and inquiry around the ways we come to know youth and the ways in which youth let themselves be known.

In Hawaii: Building networks of support for foster youth

The informative blog kept up by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation (@NE_Children) recently shared a video produced by the Epic Ohana organization about initiatives being undertaken in Hawaii to support youth in their foster care system (watch film below).

The video centers on the idea of social capital, which has been illustrated in the form of four vignettes that correspond to each of the four colored puzzles pieces: Family, School, Community, and Peers.


Social capital is a concept that has its roots in social theory, largely associated  in social sciences with the musings and writings of Pierre Bourdieu, and plays on the economic definitions of capital, or simply: assets, wherein different assets can gain you varied access (and thus power) in a given situation or circumstance. Social capital, therefore, calls attention to the (varying) value embedded in the social networks with which we are associated. (And for those social capital scholars out there, this is, of course, a gross oversimplification.)

Epic Ohana’s short film highlights the importance of increasing and strengthening the social networks of foster youth so that their family, community, peer, and school networks are not waning but rather are robust and reliable sources of capital: human capital, cultural capital, etc.

What is always most compelling to me, however, is the simultaneous awareness of youth of the significance of the social networks they belong to for their own sense of self and the oftentimes inability to know how to leverage the tremendous assets found in those social networks to sustain their future trajectories. I suspect part of the reason for the latter is that for too long young people’s social networks have been vilified rather than seen as a source of strength or as rich wells of what Luis Moll, Norma Gonzalez, and others have long referred to as “funds of knowledge.”

But that’s enough chatter — you probably just want to watch the video (just over 9 minutes long, and full of young people’s voices — not one of those talking head films):



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