30 Years of Foster Care Reflections

30 Years of Foster Care Reflections

Teen girl looking away serious sitting with a group of teens
Written by Tony Parsons, Adoptee, C.A.S.E. Emerging Leader, Chairman
Published on: May 01, 2024
Category Foster Care

Experiences of the American Foster Care System

The foster care system. Infamous, dangerous, damaging, hope-draining. These are words that immediately spring to mind when I think abstractly about what the foster care system is and what it has done to so many children, youth, and families in America. But if I think on it more deeply, words like solidarity, grit, love, friendship, and change also come to mind. As I’ve just entered my third decade of life recently, I realize just how much of that life has been impacted by the foster care system, both positively and negatively, personally and professionally.

Despite it all, here I am, a beautiful amalgamation of all of these experiences, precipitated by a system that was never designed to serve people who look like me or produce individuals who, despite having the odds against them, still rise and wake up every day determined to make those case files that at one point could have been a death sentence, nothing more than a footnote in the story of our lives.

Missing Information & Identity

I don’t tell people I was in foster care but rather that I was born into it. My first three years of life were in the foster care system. To this date, I’ve never met anyone from my biological family. There are parts of me that want to, if for no other reason than to find out if I am the only bald one (seriously, who starts balding at age 13?). But then there are parts of me that want to write them off completely. I’m great, how could you just walk away from me? From your child, your brother. Some days, I am just angry, and others, I’m sad because there is simply a gap in where my history should be. Thankfully, services exist to help me fill in those gaps, and one day, I’ll probably start that work. But that is not today.

It would be fantastic to say that the first three years of my life were easy, but as I understand it from the stories and files, they were not. Apparently, being an abandoned child makes the already difficult and painfully slow foster care system operate even worse. I will say, though, that the saving grace for this entire story is that my first foster care placement would go on to become my forever family. And as much as I love them, and I very deeply do, this wasn’t without challenges. At that time, in the late 90s, I was the only black child placed in my all-white family. Thankfully, at least my adoptive parents already had three other adopted children, but if you didn’t know they were adopted, there was enough of a resemblance to think they were biological.

Now, it is funny to think about 20 years later, but I didn’t know I was black until I was 10 years old. Not only was my family all white (extended ones, too), I went to a majority-white school. I am proud to say that my best friend, actually, to this day, was one of the only other persons of color in that school. In this way, I can thank the foster care system and its impact on my life by giving me a friend for life and the love associated with it. In fact, I am the godfather to my best friend’s oldest son and an honorary uncle to her daughter, so love compounds.

After I was adopted, until age 11, I wouldn’t have many more experiences with the foster care system as my parents closed their foster care license after I was adopted. But when my adoptive mother passed away and my dad remarried, he and my stepmom, who had adopted 12 kids as a single parent, would later reopen their license. If you’re curious, I am one of 24 children in my family. My adoptive father was married three times. In his first marriage, he had two biological kids; in his second marriage to the person I called my mom, who adopted four, and when he married my stepmom, she had 12 already, and together, they would adopt or take guardianship of six more children. And it was during the years that we added the additional six that the foster care system came back into my life.

Advocating for a Better Foster Care System

To say it is humbling to add a member to any family is an understatement. But it is a beautiful thing I got to experience, and it was those experiences that drove me to become involved in a professional capacity with the foster care system and foster care reform. In 2014, I interned with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute as a Foster Youth Intern, writing policy and interning on Capitol Hill. Ten years later, I still have those friends. This further inspired me to write my undergraduate thesis on foster care policy in the U.S. and the role the political parties play in shaping those policies. If you’re ever interested in reading it, let me know 😊. In 2019, I participated in the National Foster Youth Institute’s (NFYI) Congressional Shadow Program (now known as the Congressional Leadership Academy), where I connected with 100s of other foster youth from across the nation, fighting for change. It was truly this experience that drove me to pursue child welfare work as a professional. To this day, the friendships I made from this experience are some that I hold the closest and value the most.

In 2020, I joined Youth Villages as their first Federal Policy Associate and later became their first Federal Policy Specialist. In this role, I fought and won many battles to ensure our brothers and sisters in foster care had more opportunities to become the people they wanted to be. One of my proudest accomplishments is helping to deliver $400M for older foster youth during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that wasn’t enough for me; in 2021, I joined the Capacity Building Center for States as a Young Adult Consultant, working directly with jurisdictions wanting to make the child welfare system better, focusing on youth and family engagement, prevention services, and race equity. In 2022, I was honored by the Treehouse Foundation, naming me a Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Champion, and NFYI invited me back to help staff Shadow Day and reunite with some of my favorite people doing the thing we did best at that time. In 2022, was also the year I joined C.A.S.E. as an Emerging Leader, and now, in 2024, I have the honor of leading the Emerging Leaders as the second chairperson in the organization’s history.

So much of who I am, the work I’ve done and will likely continue to do, can be tied back to the foster care system and my experience in and with it over the years. Truly, at this moment in time, I find myself at a crossroads as I prepare to finish my Master’s degree at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Now I have the tools to do so many things, and I am not sure what I should do.

I also want to say that my experience is not the norm, and I realize that. But I think it can be, maybe not having 23 siblings, but having an experience in and with foster care that doesn’t necessarily leave one bitter (though we have every right to be). We need a foster care system that prioritizes the voices of those with lived experience (bio parents, foster parents, foster youth). I am encouraged that the Biden and Trump administrations put in place Associate Commissioners at the Children’s Bureau that understand this and worked to see it happen. It has also been great to see so many foster youth servicing organizations incorporate lived expertise into their business models as well, at Youth Villages, this was a priority for us during my tenure.

Additionally, I benefited from having mental health support during my teenage years and into adulthood. The foster care system leaves mental scars; as a system, we have to do better at supporting all those who are impacted, not just the children. Trauma compounds and spreads. Let’s be real, let’s name it, and let’s work on it. The system and all those that work in also need to see the families and youth they interact with as experts in their own lives and work to make their goals a reality. No number of degrees and academic learning can make up for the lived experience; it simply cannot.

There is so much work yet to do to make the system one that cherishes and values each person it touches. Strides have been made, but there is still a long way to go, and the only way we will ever get there is by doing it together, in authentic partnership with those who have lived and are living it.

Written by Tony Parsons, Adoptee, C.A.S.E. Emerging Leader, Chairman

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