Fostering a new perception

A conversation with the president of the new Kentucky Chapter of the Foster Care Alumni of America

A lot of articles begin with an anecdote. Look here at this young teenage boy, a victim of circumstances beyond his control, with no permanent place to call his own. Feel sympathy for him; then breathe a sigh of relief as a loving, supportive family adopts him at age 14. Rejoice as we flash forward to today and see that the disenfranchised teenager of then is now an accomplished university professor who gives back to the very community he came from. Let’s call him a success story, then compare his life to national statistics on others in his demographic.

At their best, anecdotes like the one above can humanize complex topics, especially socially charged ones like the American foster care system. At their worst, anecdotes are forgettable filler material that comes at the expense of exploiting the personal lives of the people sharing their stories. Journalists aren’t the only ones who run the risk of doing this. Nonprofits and other organizations also like to put real-life faces in front of their advocacy campaigns and promotional materials.

J. Jay Miller wants children in the foster care system to know their options when agreeing to speak in such occasions. Kids often feel obligated to retell their story out of loyalty to the person or organization that asked. After all, they know it’s for a good cause. Still, the process, however well intentioned, can make them feel uncomfortable or even re-traumatize them.

“People will take advantage,” says Miller. “We want to make sure people who choose to share their stories know their options. They don’t have to share that story. That is OK. We call it strategic storytelling.”

The “we” Miller refers to is the Kentucky Chapter of the Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA), a group he co-founded and launched last year. The goal of the nonprofit is to connect the alumni community and transform foster care policy, practice and research. The group is open to foster allies and alumni, which is defined as broadly as anyone wants it to be. The group is still in the rudimentary stages, though Miller hopes to gain more traction this month. May is Foster Care Month.

So far, 55 have joined.

Miller, who teaches in the School of Social Work at Spalding University and is a foster care alumnus himself, hopes the group can offer support to those who need it and help change the public conversation about the very existence of foster care. “We can’t look at (foster care) as a problem,” he says. “We need to look at it as a service for people in need. It is a solution.”

And if you have to frame it as a problem, consider it a community problem.

He continues, “People see it as a state problem. It’s not a state problem. It’s not a someone problem. It’s an everyone problem.”

What that requires is less sensationalism on both sides. Miller likens foster kids and foster parents to airplanes. You typically only hear them mentioned when one crashes (or goes missing). Those who do well for themselves are deemed “success stories” that beat the odds. Neither approach is fully accurate.

Adds Miller, “It is just part of your identity.”

Sometimes, being removed from your biological home and placed into a different environment is the best thing for a child. Sometimes, the foster kids who wind up on the news are there because they left the foster care environment. Sometimes, a person’s time in the foster care system was not a defining moment, only a temporary hiccup in an otherwise typical existence.

The average length of stay in foster care is only a year, according to Miller. The system is designed to protect and reunite families when possible. Yet, many people who were in the system for that length of time are unwilling to identity as an alumnus. “People are worried about the stigma,” he says, “but we need their voices. We need to understand foster care in a holistic way to get complete picture.”

Similarly, says Miller, the voices of the state’s youth must be heard. Not just as anecdotes full of gruesome details or as an “against the odds” success story, but in academic research and policy decision-making, too. In their own way, they are experts.

All of his academic research interests center on one question: How can we bring in the voice of foster youth? Recently, he studied what Kentucky youth consider success. For example, if a youth left high school with a plan — maybe to get into a specific trade — and executes that plan, then they consider that success, whereas others only see a dropout or lost potential elsewhere. “Language is very important,” explains Miller. “We have to ensure that we are speaking the same language with the same meaning.”

Miller believes that too often adults take the approach that minors must be protected from themselves. He disagrees. There can be access and consent issues when dealing with minors, and those can be intensified by a foster care situation, but he believes the benefit of capturing their perspectives is worth it.

“We need to get to a place where they can be consulted,” he says. “They need to have a say. They know their places.”