Children and Youth in Care: Writing Their Own Life Stories
''You know, children in foster care have wings, but they need someone to teach them to fly, someone to lead them in the right direction, someone to be there when they fall. I am here today because of those people who taught me how to fly.'' This quote comes from a youth in care, who submitted it to the Youth Leaving Care Hearings report My REAL Life Book. It describes the journey faced by all young people as they struggle to mature and find their way in life; but in this case, it’s particularly impactful as it comes from a youth in care (defined as a child or youth legally removed from his/her caregivers and placed in residential child welfare care).
For most of us, our families were able to help guide us during the tumultuous teenage years. Yet for children who are removed from their family home and placed in care, they are often unable to access this support. Thus children in care often face additional barriers during their journey of growth and development, and it’s important to recognize when they successfully overcome those challenges. As one Professional stated, “It takes a lot of courage from the youth we work with to overcome the obstacles they’ve been placed with.” These sentiments served as the impetus for establishing May 14th of each year as Children and Youth in Care Day, a day when “Ontario recognizes the enormous contributions that current and former Crown and Society wards make to the Province, as well as the strength, bravery and resilience shown by these children and youth in the face of adversity.”
I recently had occasion to attend the Youth Recognition Night sponsored by the Children’s Aid Foundation where young people who were graduating from care were honoured. When I walked into the room at a downtown hotel where we would be spending the evening, there was a sign that said “Pride is not found in being the best, but in doing your best.” This thoughtful piece of advice set a positive tone as a backdrop for the rest of the evening.
One of the themes of the night was that all children and youth in care have the capacity to write their own life story and reach their full potential. Nothing is predetermined by earlier experiences of adversity or maltreatment. We heard that hope and resiliency are key elements in moving forward and overcoming the demeaning words and negative predictions of others. None of this earlier history or experience is what defines children and youth in care or limits their capacity to live a happy and fulfilling life.
Another theme was the importance of children and youth in care having at least one support person who can encourage and stand beside them even in their darkest moments. We heard that ongoing guidance and connection are key considerations. They need someone to hang in with them and believe in their ability to ultimately make the right choices with supports. The words of Mark Twain were quoted as having some relevance: “Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe you too can become great.”
Many of these young people showed immense courage and a generosity of spirit in describing aspects of their life histories and thanking their social workers, foster parents and others for not giving up on them and standing by them over the long haul. They also wanted other children and youth in care coming behind them to benefit from their life experiences and not to give up hope for future success. A few of these young people said that despair and hopelessness are to be resisted at all costs and advised other children and youth in care to reach out to their worker or someone else they trust for help when they see these emotions overtaking them.
While those of us in attendance all felt this was an uplifting experience, it seemed to me that others would benefit from attending these events as well. I thought of judges and lawyers previously engaged with these children and youth who may have seen them at their lowest ebb. Wouldn’t it be affirming for them to see the vast potential and many accomplishments of these impressive young people? I also thought of the journalists who are quick to see the negative side of the child welfare system. Wouldn’t they have another perspective by hearing these youth thank their workers, foster parents, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and the Children’s Aid Foundation for their constant support over many years?
Finally, I left the hotel brimming with confidence that the future was in good hands and that these young people would leave a positive imprint and distinguish themselves in an infinite number of ways.