Guest Post by Nikky Greer, MyFosterCareStory.com
Why is the foster care system so complex? Everyone knows it is broken, so why don’t policymakers fix it? Whose fault is it? Who suffers?
These are some of the questions that plagued me as I began developing a research project centered on the foster care system. I wanted to help young people and children in foster care, but didn’t know how. As I learned more, I was surprised. Foster kids aren’t the only ones suffering under current foster care policy. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. One question at a time.
Why is the foster care system so complex, and how does it work? There is no simple answer. It is complex because determining how best to keep kids safe, to protect the rights of families and children, and to develop a system that gets kids into adoptive homes (when needed) is a complicated task. I learned pretty quickly that there are different perspectives in foster care: there are the kids, the biological families of those children, the foster parents and families, and the professionals who work in a variety of settings (e.g. family protective services case managers, judges, lawyers, advocates for the children, even law enforcement).
Each of these perspectives has a different space for sharing what happens to them in foster care. Social workers publish in professional journals. Lawyers and judges publish in different journals. As it turns out, as they train for practice, social workers and lawyers often don’t read much of what the others have written and learned. For a long time, children who had been in foster care had no place to be heard. Thanks to the web and more recent books (like This Is Mine: My Story, My Life) that is changing. Foster parents and bio families are still struggling to be heard. All of these groups have at least two things in common though. First, media has a lot to say about them and who is at fault. Blame is shifted in the media to whomever makes the most sensational story. Second, all of these perspectives are subject to policymakers’ ideas about how foster care should work and how much money is spent on it. Policymakers get the most feedback from professionals, often through academic journals written by social workers, court workers, psychologists, and sociologists. That means that the voices of fostered youth and foster care alumni, foster parents, and biological families are underrepresented when policies are being developed. Even when research is based on what happens to the people in foster care, it is from the perspective of the researcher.
It is safe to say that policymakers are interested in helping children who suffer as a result of abuse and neglect. It is also safe to say that there is no consensus on the best way to do it or how much money should be invested. These are academic and political issues, as well as human rights ones.
As an anthropologist concerned with human rights, political issues and academic debate, a very special tool in my skillset is a holistic approach to problem solving and research. We are trained to understand how complex social systems work by studying their parts. We believe that the best way to understand the big picture is by better understanding the pieces that make it whole. So for me, the best way to understand the foster care system was to go to its source: the people who participate in the system everyday, from all its different perspectives, or parts, to get the most whole picture of the system.
This research project tries to understand foster care the way it is, not the way policymakers intend it to be. But how it is understood varies from one perspective to the next based on experiences. That means my goal as a researcher is to collect those experiences, to compare and contrast them. If we truly understand the needs of each group better, we can write more effective policies.
Here is where I need help though. The strongest research projects are based on a lot of data. That means I need to collect a lot of stories about foster care experiences from many perspectives. I decided to do this in two ways. The first way is a traditional anthropological research method: the fieldsite. We go to one area and spend a long time with the people there trying to understand the way things work from the perspective of the locals. For this research, I chose a city and am spending time with foster care alumni, professionals, and families and collecting their stories. The second method is one more often associated with sociology: it is a broad survey. I developed a website to collect and share more stories.
This website, www.MyFosterCareStory.com, is a way for me to collect more data and is also a sounding board. It is place where you can tell your story about foster care—no matter which perspective you represent. There are four separate qualitative surveys on the website. Surveys that ask me to rate things on a scale or a pick one choice to best describe something often leave me wishing there was a fill-in-the-blank option to describe what’s really happening. That’s what I did with the online surveys at www.MyFosterCareStory.com. They ask about your experiences and let you describe them, rather than using a scale or multiple choice. Each survey is oriented toward a different perspective: foster care alumni, kin and biological families (or friends who had a special connection to the situation—like a best friend’s parent or a youth pastor), professionals and social workers, and foster families. Just click on the survey picture on the home page that best represents your experiences. The surveys collect some demographic data to put things in context, but they are mostly the kinds of questions I ask at the local field-site. They are about collecting your stories!
Whether you got to share your story with The 90/Ten Project or not, you can share it (or share it again) for this research. It is also a place for your family or friends to share their experiences. The project is still in its early stages, so I need to hear from everyone. And if you don’t want your story to be publicized online, but do want your story included in the research data, that is okay too. It doesn’t have to be put online. Many people want an opportunity to be heard, but for some it is too painful. Like with most research, names are changed to protect the identities of the participants.
I do not know what the data will reveal about what makes the system broken. But I do know this much so far: everyone in foster care is suffering. Kids are bumped around and treated unfairly, often without anyone asking what they want at all. Foster parents have their hearts broken. Biological families are torn apart and parents’ dreams of reunification crushed. Professionals are burned out, underpaid, and, in the trenches, often go unheard too. Of course, there are stories of hope and success out there too that can give us clues to what could work better. I think the first step to making things better is understanding. The only way to understand all those perspectives is to hear your stories!
A Note from Malinda Phillips, Founder of The 90/Ten Project:
I encourage you to support this important research. It is through valuable projects such as this that we are able to make improvements for others who are struggling. Please share this post with others. Your voice matters!