By GEORGETTE TODD
NOV. 20, 2020
A version of this article was first published on The San Diego Union Tribune website
I was 14 when I entered foster care in the back of a police car. That long, quiet car ride behind a partition was one of the scariest moments of my life. With every minute that passed and mile we traveled, I grew more anxious over the approaching unknown. It was 1993. The internet was in its infancy, foster care was almost never talked about on television or in the movies, and I didn’t know anyone personally from the system. Heading straight into foster care, I had no idea what happened to children who didn’t live with their own families.
I didn’t know what was going to happened to me or my little sister, who was holding my hand just a little too tightly.
What led us both into foster care was an absence of a family. Our mother had just died, our biological father and stepfather were incarcerated, both for very different reasons. With what little family we had gone, and no close ties to our community, social services had stepped in to find a home for us. Our social worker had contacted what known relatives there were, but no one had stepped up. Our aunts and uncles didn’t have the space, money or emotional pull to want to take us in, or there were priors. While residing in my first “receiving home,” an institutionalized homeless shelter for children, I quickly discovered that we would be spending the rest of our childhood in foster care and we might end up separated.
“Teens are unadoptable,” our social worker said. “No one wants teens, especially a sibling set. It’s just how it is.”
It was a miracle my sister and I were never separated in Imperial Valley or then in San Diego, though there was that daily threat that hung over us in each home and facility we lived in. We moved 12 times in the span of four years. This trend of moving foster children around is still common as the average number of moves for a child in foster care is over four moves every 1,000 days. The reasons for these moves vary and are not solely attributed to a child’s behavior. Emergency facilities are designed to be temporary, foster families are not always compatible, and caseworker turnover is also a contributing factor. Pairing strangers together can be a crap shoot. In one foster home, I remember calling my social worker to request she take me and my sister back to Polinsky Children’s Center after a couple of days. These particular foster parents had locks on all the cabinets and their refrigerator, they timed our showers for less than five minutes, and my sister and I weren’t allowed to sit on the furniture. I could put up with a lot, but when we were made to sit on the floor, that was it for me.
Children are in the foster care system not because they did something wrong, but because something wrong was done to them. Being ignored by their local communities and society at-large further contributes to their pain of neglect as well as their poor outcomes. I remember wishing in the midst of all my moves and familial disappointments that someone “out there” would care about me.
Thankfully, a Point Loma high school teacher, who wasn’t afraid of teenagers, took my sister and me into her home. We were pretty much strangers when we came to live with her. She provided us with much-needed stability and normalcy at a time when everything seemed hopeless. My foster mother alone restored my faith in humanity.
We are still close with her to this day, decades later.
The eighth-largest city in the U.S., San Diego is home to 1.4 million people, and nearly 2,400 of them are foster kids. San Diego County is responsible for the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens, abused and neglected children. Not everyone can be a foster parent but everyone can help in one way or another.
You can find a way to help or donate art supplies or electronics to the Polinsky Children’s Center. You can become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), which requires about 10 hours a month of your time. You can also support people who are creating change like those where I work, Connect Our Kids, which provides free cloud-based software to all child welfare professionals to help them fast-track their family finding and engagement efforts.
There are many ways to make a difference in the lives of foster children. They may not be your child biologically, but they are civically. I can tell you personally that the kindness of strangers takes on a much deeper and more impactful meaning for children in care.
For most foster kids, you’re all they have.
Georgette Todd is the outreach coordinator for Connect Our Kids and author of “Foster Girl, a Memoir.” She is on the board of directors for Angels Nest Transitional Living Program, which helps support former foster youth, and lives in Point Loma.