"Don't Call Me a Foster Kid"

Hank Mattimore
Reproduced with Permission

Just recently I was watching TV with my foster grandson when the mattress company commercial came on the screen…the one that asks people to donate money so that children in foster care might have warm clothing for the cold weather. I asked Tony if the commercial embarrassed him at all. He admitted that the company probably meant well but "it sort of gives the impression that we are all poor kids and need to be pitied."

His comment reminded me of the stigma our foster children are made to bear in our society.

I am proud to be a foster parent but I find myself sort of dancing around the word when I refer to Tony as my foster kid. He much prefers that I simply call him my grandson rather than his foster grandson. I'm good with that. I understand that teenage kids in the foster system don't need to have their legal status branded on their chests. Just being a teenager is tough enough without attracting notice by having an additional label added to your name.

Foster kids already know they are different from their classmates. They are aware that their school trip permission slips and Medicaid authorization slips are signed by "guardian" not a parent. They are conscious that their teachers and school administrators "know" they are foster kids and that in some cases they are watched more closely than other students. Wanting more than anything to merge in seamlessly as just another normal kid, their legal status makes them stand out in a crowd.

It's hardly a secret that many foster kids, even those whose foster parents would allow it, do not feel comfortable inviting their friends over for a sleep-over. This is especially true for kids who live in group homes but it is also true of kids in family homes. As Tony would say, "It's just too awkward."

Ironically, this "awkward" situation is made worse by the media, which throws a spotlight on the failure of our foster care system to produce successful outcomes for kids transitioning out of foster care. When the public sees headlines like "70% of incarcerated adults spent at lease some time in the foster care system," it doesn't give them much incentive to welcome foster kids in our communities or make it easier for foster kids to own up to their status.

No one seems to "get" that kids entering the foster system were admitted because they were deeply troubled kids already. By definition, they came to the system because they were abused and neglected by their birth parents. Of course they have attachment and abandonment issues. Of course they act out. Those early childhood years were traumatic. Granted that the foster care system needs improvement, it's more than a little simplistic to blame everything on those trying their best to salvage kids when the kids have been deeply harmed before they were even placed in their first foster home.

I would like to see a dramatic change in the way we look at foster kids. Sure the system can improve. We need to invest in these children by providing better training for foster parents and by giving foster parents adequate resources to do their job right. We need to assure a more stable system so that kids are not bounced from one foster home to another. We need to make more of an effort to keep siblings together in care.

But, just as important is a change in attitude on the part of all those people who take care of children. From teachers to coaches to administrators, we have to begin to realize that the negative "tude" we have towards foster kids is part of the reason so many give up on life and waste their lives in prisons. When a kid says, "Don't call me a foster kid," he is already buying into the expectations that he will fail. That's a tragedy for all of us.

I told Tony that I'll go along with his request not to referred to as a foster kid as long as he understood that there is nothing bad about being a foster kid, that he had done nothing wrong and that foster kids are perfectly capable of succeeding in life. "Is it a deal?" I asked him. "Yea, grandpa. That's cool," he smiled and gave me a high five.

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