Foster Care for a Better Tomorrow

On Tuesday afternoon, my phone went off with a news alert about something that had happened in Louisville, Kentucky. I live in southern Indiana, directly across from Louisville, and it’s a city that profoundly breaks my heart every day. It’s a city steeped in history—much of it rife with discrimination, racism, poverty, and violence of all kinds. Louisville is also a major corridor for human trafficking due to its proximity to major interstates (64, 65, 71, 75). The news alert I received on Tuesday afternoon, though, reported none of those things. Instead, it reported the death of a seven-year-old child, who had been living in foster care in Louisville.

The next day, WAVE-3 News shared a story that the child had been identified as seven-year-old Ja’Ceon Terry. He had been living in the Bellewood and Brooklawn foster care facility in Louisville, and he died at the children’s hospital on Sunday. As much as I would’ve preferred to learn that the child had some sort of health condition—that it was an inevitability of nature or a failure of medicine—that reality was dashed when I read that the Louisville Metro Police Department’s homicide unit was investigating his death.

And while there should never be anything routine about children dying, we know it happens. No child should ever die—and no child should die under suspicious circumstances while in foster care.

As an editor of memoirs of survival and trauma, I work with many adults who grew up in the foster care system in different areas of the United States of America. Each and every one has told me harrowing stories about some kind of abuse or neglect—even “only” emotional neglect—that they experienced while they were wards of the state.

Foster care is meant to save lives, to prevent violent deaths…and I’m including negligent deaths as violence, because there is nothing gentle about neglecting a child to death.

I don’t know what happened to Ja’Ceon Terry, and I more than hope—I demand—that we find out exactly what that seven-year-old boy went through. And I’m going to say it: if Ja’Ceon’s name was spelled “Jason” and he was white, his death would reach national headlines.

In the four days since Ja’Ceon’s death, no articles have been shared about him. No grieving relatives have been interviewed, listing off the things that made Ja’Ceon who he was—there’s no list of the things he liked or his hopes and dreams for when he grew up. And the absence of that information leads to a haunting question: who loved Ja’Ceon? Who is going to be grieving his birthday every year for the rest of their lives? Whose lives are forever changed by the loss of his life? I’m left to conclude that either my community and local news stations don’t care very much about justice for Ja’Ceon or that there was no one who did care about Ja’Ceon…or, perhaps most heart-breaking, both.

Ja’Ceon Terry deserved better in life, and he deserves more in death. He deserved the best, just like every child deserves the absolute best.

We should be outraged that he’s dead, just like we should be outraged that children in the foster care system are 42% more likely to die than children in the general population. While it may improve lives or circumstances for some children, foster care clearly doesn’t save lives if 42 out of 100 children die while in the system. According to a 2019 report, 5 children die every day in the United States alone from abuse and neglect—that’s 1,825 children per year. And 767 of them are in foster care…the exact system designed to protect children from abuse and neglect. To foster care for them.

We live in a country that is quick to praise a child’s resilience for surviving something many of us can’t imagine, such as growing up in foster care. But what these numbers should tell us is that it’s more than resilience that keeps children alive—it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle because they have barely more than a 50/50 chance of surviving the system that’s meant to ensure their well-being. And it shouldn’t be a miracle. It should be the standard that every child, in every home and in every neighborhood, survives their childhood.

For that matter, when it comes to resilience, I think we need to redefine it, using the definition Katherine Turner developed in her memoir, resilient.

Resilience isn’t magically returning to the way things were before a trauma as if nothing ever happened or pretending you’re able to. It’s getting your bearings and then refusing to remain where you are. It’s taking stock of what you’ve got and figuring out how to use it to get you moving forward, one slow and painful step at a time, knowing that if you simply don’t give up, you’ll make it where you’re headed.

resilient by Katherine Turner

Katherine, now an award-winning writer, is one of the 58% of children who survived foster care—she was fortunate enough to be placed in one home with her sister, where she remained until she was eighteen years old, minus a several-month stint in a group home which was rife with hazing and bullying from her roommates. Her two brothers were placed elsewhere, again and again, until they were eventually separated; both have spent time incarcerated for various felonies as adults.

I’ll say it again: foster care doesn’t always save lives. And even when it does, it doesn’t necessarily change the course of a child’s life or inherently equip them to break cycles of generational trauma.

Which brings us to the question many of us have when faced with stories like Ja’Ceon’s: What the hell can we do?

In my experience, it’s difficult to figure out how to improve until we figure out what needs to be improved. And we can start by taking a closer look at the system, such as by reading the memoirs of individuals who were in foster care (like Katherine Turner’s memoir, resilient). When we can see what the lives we’ve never lived are truly like, we can start to meet those needs. Because effecting change isn’t only a matter of helping people up—it’s about figuring out why they’re down and doing all we can to build a better society that keeps them from falling in the first place. Because when we hold each other up, we’re also holding on to each other.

And when we hold on, no one gets left behind as we all march toward a better tomorrow.

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