Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Have You Asked?

 A Simple Request for Social Workers, Counselors and Those Working with Kids
Photo Courtesy of Sophia Chefalo
For over twenty years, I said nothing. I hid my status as a foster care survivor from almost everyone I knew. The label “foster kid” had brought only negative judgment throughout my childhood, and I couldn’t think of any good reason to share this secret in my newly created life. To protect the truth about my past, I cut ties with anyone who had known that I was in foster care. And, when I embarked on my college life and then my professional career, it was a topic that I tried to avoid at all costs. I became quite good at covering up the truth. I even resorted to telling little “white lies” in order to avoid the chance that anyone would discover that I had been raised in foster care, aged out at 18, and was left to my own devices by an overwhelmed system. 
But one day in 2011, my life came to a screeching halt. After spending over twenty years working in law offices, focusing on criminal defense and divorce matters, I had become burned out at watching essentially the same kids and the same parents circulate through the system.  They had different names and faces of course, but the stories were all very similar to my own beginnings: families that were at or below the poverty line, unemployed, single parent homes, addiction issues, mental health issues.  The similarities went on and on.
Person after person reminding me of someone I had known when I was in foster care. Mirror images of my biological mother, foster parents, foster siblings, even the court staff and workers, responded the way they had when I was in the system.  It was like being stuck in my own version of the movie Groundhog Day. So, without any real plan in mind, I Googled “Foster Care Statistics.”  It changed my life. I had no idea how many children were in foster care in the United States, and I had little understanding of the horrendous job the system as a whole was doing to care for these children.
When I was in foster care, I knew of very few other foster children. At school, often in rural areas, I was not exposed to other foster children outside of the home I lived in. We had no support groups. I thought I was the exception, a broken child from a broken home. When I realized that I wasn’t alone, I knew that I had to share my story so that I could help others like me.
That’s what started this journey: a mission of educating the general public on the real effects of the foster care system, and how it effects the criminal justice system, the welfare system, the prison system, unemployment rates and the countless other facets of society that so many foster youth continue to be a part of.
In this quest I am asked almost daily by social workers, case managers, supervisors, youth ambassadors, and the like, “What was the one thing that happened that allowed you to become successful?” 
I understand why they are asking the question. I aged out of the system with no support, and yet I managed to graduate from college, establish a fulfilling career as a legal professional and life coach, and now have a wonderful family of my own. I understand that they are curious to know if there is one thing that could be repeated to make success happen for other youth trapped in the system.  But there is only one thing I can point to that allowed my life to turn out the way it has, while so many others struggle: I had a stubborn belief in myself.  I knew that I would make it, no matter what life threw at me. And, I refused to let anyone take that belief away from me.
Now, I challenge those working in the system to ask tough questions, “Have you asked your children what they need or what they want out of life?” I often find that case workers are so busy filling out forms and answering telephone calls that they often forget to actually ask that simple question of the children they oversee.
In my practice as a life coach, I counseled with a social worker to help her move through a difficult point in her life. As we chatted, she made a comment that she felt trapped in her job because she did not have the resources to help even a small portion of the children on her caseload. She lamented that when she asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up and they said “a doctor, lawyer or veterinarian,” she knew that those types of jobs where unobtainable for them given their circumstances.  
Initially, I was caught off guard by her comment. “How come they can’t be those things?” I asked.
“Well, you have a student who is failing most of their classes, and who is not able to do their current work. How are they ever going to be able to become a doctor, it’s unrealistic?”
I thought for a moment about what she was saying. It was something I saw a lot in the court system. “Why is it your job to tell them no?” I asked. She sat for a moment staring at me. While we sat in silence, I couldn’t help but wonder why any of us thought we were in a position to tell someone they couldn’t do something. I had been told as a straight “A” student in high school that people like me don’t go to college, instead we get jobs to serve the rest of the world.
Instead, isn’t it our job to encourage the dream? After all, for children living in the foster care system, they hear “No” more than anything else.  They hear things like “You can’t do that,”  or, “You can’t be that” from a lot of people. As a society, we should be the ones to say, “That’s a really big goal, and this is how you can do it!”
So, I challenge you. Have you asked yourself, your family, your co-workers or the children, what their big dream is? What they would do if they could do anything in the world? Have you asked?

This article originally appeared as an OpEd piece for Youth Today. To learn more about my work please visit www.garbagebagsuitcase.com and sign up for my newsletter and blog notifications.

Thursday, July 16, 2015



Before we reform the Criminal Justice System, we need to take a closer look at the Foster Care System

  Earlier this week, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people who he said were serving sentences disproportionate to their crimes. They were all serving time for drug-related offences. After he commuted their sentences, President Obama called for reform to the criminal justice system. He was quoted as saying, “In far too many cases, the punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime.”
            President Obama is calling for a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system. This would entail a federal review of solitary confinement, the restoration of voting rights to former felons, and the passage of a sentencing reform bill by Congress.
            I agree with the President. The criminal justice system has been out of balance for a long time. As a nation, we must face the fact that while we represent roughly 5% of the world’s population, the United States makes up 25% of the worlds total prison population. Simply put, we imprison our citizens at a higher rate than any other nation!
            I believe that there is more to the issue than simply passing sentencing-reform bills. We need to understand who is in prison, and why. Where do these prisoners come from? On a personal and socio-economic level, what if anything do they have in common? When asked about prisons and inmates the average American believes in generalizations like the idea that inmates come from low-income households, raised by single mothers from urban areas. It's stereotyping at its best. However, there is one common thread that (in some estimations) unites over 80% of the United States prison population: at one point in their lives, they were all foster children!
            We have known for decades about the foster-care-to-prison pipeline, yet we continue to do nothing to address the source of the problem. For decades, politicians have called for reform to the criminal justice system, the prison system, and increased spending on law enforcement. While at the same time, our society continues to cut programs in schools, sports and extra-curricular activities for children. It seems, that music, art and social wellbeing aimed at single parent households and children are the first to go.
In tough economic times, families struggle to make ends meet. Many times they are unable to provide for their children. Desperation can lead to bad choices and result in the system taking control of their children. With over 400,000 children currently in foster care, we are at a point of critical mass. Caseworkers are overwhelmed. Qualified foster parents are in short supply. Sometimes, we remove children from a situation only to place them in a new home that is no better than where they came from. Without a review and overhaul of the foster-care system, we may never see the results in the criminal justice system that we so desperately want and need. 
            Over the years, my husband, a criminal defense attorney, has dealt with many people in crisis. He has expressed his frustration at how difficult it is to get out of the system, once it gets it grip on a person. Many times, with costs, fines and conditions of probation, single parents are set up to fail. He understands that the system itself, from judges, public defenders, prosecutors and probation officers are overwhelmed. He says that it could be as simple as “without demand, there is no need for supply.” He is referring to the cheap heroin that is overtaking our small Northern Michigan community.
            After there was a crackdown on the ability for people to get prescriptions for serious pain medications, they resorted to the purchase of illegal narcotics. With that increased demand, there was a flood of small time drug dealers willing to satisfy their need. Thus, without the demand, there would be no suppliers.

            Applying this simple economic principle, if we create reform designed to eliminate the conditions in our society that impact impoverished parents, help restore educational programs, and address the theories of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) study, we will produce fewer desperate families and thus less of a potential supply for the foster care and criminal justice system.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Understanding the Outcomes of Foster Care

“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try”-Unknown

Did you know that we have over 400,000 children in the foster care system each day in the United States? It's appalling and most States are seeing spikes in the number of referrals they are getting this year, and it is estimated that by the end of the year 2015 we will have close to half a million children living in foster care. 

What perhaps is even more astonishing than the pure volume of children living in care are the atrocious outcomes that face them once they age out of the foster care system.  On average over 23,000 children age out of foster care each year. Meaning, they attained an age (18 in most states, but some have increased this number to 21) where they no longer have support systems in place.

Of those we who age out, less than 58% will graduate from high school. Only 3% will move on to college, with less than 1% actually graduating. 71% of the females aging out will be pregnant by 21 and nearly 95% of the males aging out will become imprisoned within 20 months of aging out. 1 in 4 experience PTSD.

Aging Out of Foster Car

The numbers go on and on. Former foster youth make on average 54% less than their peers, are disproportionately unemployed and using public assistance.

The numbers don’t lie, and we must understand them if we want to understand why we need to make significant changes to the foster care system, it is the breeding ground for all of our other social systems in this country.

There is no one agency, no one social worker, no one government, no one parent, or foster parent to blame for the state of our system. The truth is, we have all failed these children and we continue to fail them each day that we choose to do nothing.

There are solutions and organizations that are working hard to change these outcomes. For more information on dealing with children in trauma please check out the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (http://www.acestudy.org) This study shines significant light on the link between childhood trauma to long term social and health consequences.

If you have a study or organization that you would like me to take a look at, please contact me or leave a comment on this blog. I am specifically looking for any studies that relates to foster care and PTSD, an issue that I don’t think many have considered looking at yet. In the following posts I will be discussing some solutions that are working at various points around the country and profiling some interesting individuals who are doing incredible work.

As always you can contact me via my email at shen@garbagebagsuitcase.com , via any of my social media outlets or from my website www.garbagebagsuitcase.com.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Introducing. . . Garbage Bag Suitcase


Garbage Bag Suitcase is my forthcoming memoir of my wholly dysfunctional journey through a childhood filled with neglectful, drug and alcohol addicted parents, constant moves in the middle of the night, multiple schools, lack of food, and loneliness. Forgotten birthdays, drug-fueled parties and empty pantries were the norm in whatever household I ended up residing in.

But Garbage Bag Suitcase is also more than that. After overcoming my many adversities from my childhood and my time in care, I have set out on a mission to reform the foster care system. It is time to educate the general population about the atrocious statistics that surround these children and the outcomes that await them after their time in foster care.

Many people do not understand the relationship between the foster care system and other social agencies, including but not limited to the criminal justice system, the welfare system, unemployment, homelessness, mental health services, alcohol and drug addiction and that most foster children are condemned to a life in poverty.

There are over 400,000 children in foster care every day in the United States alone. Out of those children, nearly 23,000 age out every year. Once they age out, less than 58% will graduate from High School. Over 50% will become homeless within the first year after leaving the system. And, by the age of 24 less than half will be employed.

The numbers don’t get better. By some reports it is believed that over 80% of our prison population is made of individuals who, at some point in their lives, had been foster children. The toll that this failing system is taking on our children, on our communities and our tax dollars must be reformed, and new solutions must be implemented. We owe it to our children. 

If you are interested in learning ways in which you can get involved, along with me, to reform the foster care system, please contact me at any of my social media sites or join my newsletter at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com. None of us can change the past, it has already happened, but together we can make the best of today, and make tomorrow great!