Ending Stigma Associated with Youth in the Foster Care System

By Poppi O’Donnell. This story was originally published by The Chronicle of Social Change.

Delinquent. Orphaned. Troubled. Aggressive. Neglected. What do each of these words have in common? They are all words used to stereotype and confine youth in the foster care system.

As a foster youth I often struggle internally with the decision to reveal my foster status and at which point to do so. I wonder how the person will react, will they treat me differently now that they know this about me, and how do I explain myself afterwards?

Growing up in the system can be difficult for a number of reasons, but being embarrassed about your own identity as a foster youth because of others lack of exposure to the term is absolutely ridiculous. It feels like you can’t truly be yourself. You are constantly trying to conform out of fear of being ostracized, so you leave out this big part of yourself and end up being incomplete as a person.

Imagine growing up surrounded by kids who live with their parents and who have people that they can call mom and dad, but you have to go home to people who are just there to help out and who don’t really care about being your mom or your dad. You begin to feel really self-conscious — like an outlier.

No one really acknowledges that there are people like you who exist, and if they do it’s always the same kind of person: someone no one wants to be.

The media (TV, music, internet, radio, etc.) has always reflected foster youth in a really negative light. Most of what I’ve seen on TV talking about kids in the system makes us look one way or another. Either we are poor disadvantaged kids with a crippling struggle that we can’t seem to surmount, or we’re miracles because we actually achieved some level of success.

Take the movie Annie, for instance. She’s portrayed as a poor, underprivileged orphan girl whose success lies in the fact that she was taken in by some wealthy old man, not in her actually making the best of her situation and pulling through it to be the best she can be. Basically her success relies on a miracle. On the other hand, political figures talk about us like we’re charity cases and the general public remains wary.

This takes a toll on our feeling of acceptance because we see ourselves being reflected nowhere in society. We become ashamed of own identity since all we see are these sad, abnormally fragile children who are filled to the brim with problems. And we spend life feeling like we’ve got a secret we can never be liberated from; it’s ingrained in who we are, and society tells us that our secret is makes them uncomfortable. So we keep ourselves hidden, for the most part, in order to appease the general public’s ignorance.

It’s not our fault that we were put in this situation in which we don’t live with our parents or have a mom and dad we can talk to and who will be there no matter what. Society doesn’t seem to understand that we are not to be labeled, we are not a statistic on the map, failure is not fixed into our destiny. Society doesn’t seem to understand that we are people, too.

People’s reactions vary, however; some people are accepting but not educated about the foster care system and others are educated somewhat but they lack the capacity to think past the negatives. We need more of the general public who can be a) accepting and b) educated about the foster care system and those in it so that youth don’t have to be ashamed of being foster youth.

A poet named Nayyirah Waheed once wrote “where you are is not who you are” in the poem called “Circumstances.” People think that because we’ve been through a lot we must be tainted or incapacitated in one way or another. They reject us because they get these images in their head of who we should be but not necessarily who we are.

Yet the thing is that we are just kids like anyone else. We deal with more unfortunate events in our life than most people do at our age, but we have resources and support and like any normal person we try to work through our baggage. Nobody wants to be a statistic.We enjoy doing the same things as other kids and we do have opportunities to do so.

We have interests in the same things as other kids, we have jobs, we are good students, we can be fun and smart and driven and talented, we are capable of taking the right path and doing the right thing, we are capable of having normal feelings and leading normal lives. We are normal.

Poppi O’Donnell is a high school senior and enjoys writing because it’s the only form of expression in which she feels she can get all her ideas and feelings into one condensed piece and have it be beautiful and whole. She wrote this story as part of a Media for Advocacy Training with California Youth Connection and Fostering Media Connections.

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