When we started the journey of Away From Home to explore youths’ experiences in institutional placements in foster care, I knew that group homes prevented important family relationships and friendships from happening. I knew they had problems. But I thought institutional placements had a purpose. Once this study began, what became clear was the weight of the nuances in the stories of young people we heard and believed, as well as the structural inequities, harm, and oppression institutions subject to those who live in them. After this study, it has become clear to me that institutions must be eliminated.
Below is the Foreword in the report 'Away From Home Youth Experiences of Institutional Placements in Foster Care' published today.
I don’t have the language to fully explain the guilt I carry for my youngest brother.
The last time we lived together, I was seven years old, and he was five. We lived with our biological mother for only a year before we found ourselves in the foster care system, again. The system separated all five of us kids and placed us in different homes. I didn’t reconnect with my brother again until I was 14—seven years of being disconnected, not knowing where he was.
His adoptive aunt and I rode for an hour into the deep woods of Connecticut. We arrived at a campus with several buildings. Fences reached high into the sky with barbed wires towering on top of them. A police car that read Department of Children and Families was parked at the entryway.
As I completed the paperwork to sign in, the security guard asked me to go through the metal detector. Then the guard pulled out his wand and patted me down. We went through the first set of doors. Those closed before we went through the second set. The security protocols made me feel hyper vigilant. All I could think was, “Damn, my little brother must be a very bad person to end up in a place like this.” Who was this sibling I was about to visit?
I remembered my little brother as curious, energetic. He could never stop talking. But at that moment, he was hollow, empty. His words were slow paced and lacked inflection, making his voice almost unrecognizable. My brother felt soulless.
Once I walked into the room, I could tell it was my brother. But there was something disturbingly different. I remembered my little brother as curious, energetic. He could never stop talking. But at that moment, he was hollow, empty. His words were slow paced and lacked inflection, making his voice almost unrecognizable. My brother felt soulless.
“Why haven’t you ever called?” he asked. Immediately I was scared. Staff warned me that he was violent, that I had to be very careful not to trigger him. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I hadn’t called because I was couchsurfing at the time. I was too busy surviving. He changed the conversation to show me the scar on his chin from staff restraining him. “Look at what they did to me.”
Despite both of us being desperate for sibling connection, for almost 10 years, I believed the story the system told me about my brother: that he deserved to live in institutions because he was violent, dangerous, and bad. The narrative the system told us about who we were was so loud that it drowned out the simple truth that was right in front of my eyes: my brother had experienced impossible loss, and was suffering as any of us in his situation would. It took a decade before I finally got to know who my brother is, before I realized how wrong the narrative the system told us was. The guilt I carry from failing to understand my little brother earlier is hard to shake or fully explain.
The narrative the system told us about who we were was so loud that it drowned out the simple truth that was right in front of my eyes
When my brother was nine, the system placed him in an institution after his adoptive mother died suddenly. He was deemed too emotional, so they placed him in a group home. He continued in group homes with the exception of one year until he aged out of foster care at 18.
Prior to group care, my brother, like so many of us in foster care, had foster parents repeatedly tell him, “I love you.” “You are family.” “You are safe with us.” But each move brought a new home, new rules, new people, betrayed trust, and a broken heart. There is something that fundamentally messes with the core of your being when you believe people love you, when they take you in, when they make you promises, and then they dispose of you. Then, the system moves you, and asks you to trust and love again.
Added to this is the heartbreak of losing your adoptive mother. Added is the heartbreak of being shipped away to a group home because your emotions are “too much” for those around you. Added is the heartbreak of being looked at differently by your own family.
During this study, it became clear to me that I judged my brother’s failure to comply with a point-based behavior system more than I cared to ask him what he needed or how he was doing. I couldn’t see the injustice of him being violently restrained because I couldn’t hear past the assessment that he was “bad.” I did not question the rationale of the system, which found it acceptable to take away his visits when he had a bad week. I expected him to thrive, to develop herculean personal resilience all the while stuck in a setting impossible to get out of.
Too many have succumbed to the convenience of group homes and institutions, rather than commit to the work of placing youth and teenagers with family.
I wish I could say that I am the only one who has accepted the false stories the system has told us. But I am not. I wish I could say that my failure to see my brother’s wholeness was due at the time to my young, adolescent brain. But it was not. So many people who work in the system have also failed to see the truth, failed to see youth in their full humanity. Too many have succumbed to the convenience of group homes and institutions, rather than commit to the work of placing youth and teenagers with family.
I dedicate this work to my brother, and to every young person whose institutional placement experience widened the gap of feeling loved, made feeling cared for inconceivable, blocked the opportunity to go to college, to work, or to achieve their dreams. You have been wronged. Through this report, I want you to know: We see you, we hear you, and your feelings and experiences are valid. It is my deepest hope that the truth in this report will drive the rest of the world to see you, hear you, and do what they can to fight the oppressive structures you were forced to survive.