How to Overcome the Foster Care System as a Black Boy

Black boys deserve love, not expectations of failure

Photo: Fran Polito/Getty Images

AsAs a foster youth, I entered conversations about family history with a sense of dread. When a classmate would share a family tree that stretched back generations, I’d be terrified, fearing that I’d be asked to do the same. Many kids in foster care share similar feelings because we often lack a sense of belonging and connectedness within specific communities.

As an adult, I now realize that I’ve always attributed my educational obstacles to the fact that I was a foster youth — without understanding the role that being a Black boy affected my foster experience.

To understand my past, I had to confront it with deep self-reflection — a practice I’ve come to believe is critical for foster kids to move beyond a survival mindset. I had to learn to trust, confront childhood trauma, and redefine the role that family would play in my life — while also attempting to get an education and maintain a level of financial stability that would allow me to continue to live in the Bay Area.

Foster youth need support in order to feel valued and connected; unfortunately, our experience tends to do the exact opposite. To avoid having to explain the complexities of our lives in school settings, we put up a facade that we come from a “normal” home. We quickly learn that being a foster child is something to be ashamed of, and we go to great lengths to conceal it from our peers.

For context, I spent about 17 years in the foster care system. Every household I lived in had a Black single-parent matriarchal structure, and I spent the last 12 of those 17 years in the same home. Even while I was in the system, I had a keen desire to do more than survive once I got out — but had no clear pathway or guidance to do so. Since the majority of my efforts focused on forging a path that didn’t exist, it limited the amount of time I had to create a sense of identity.

During a recent trip to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, I started to realize how this lack of exploration has affected my life. For the first time in years, I felt that same dread of being expected to know about past generations of my family. Even more than fear, I felt a sense of shame. As I listened to my co-workers share passionate stories about the injustice their families experienced, I was ashamed of what I didn’t know. I was embarrassed to say I didn’t know. I tried to understand why I felt this shame even though I knew I wasn’t the only Black person who’d experienced a lack of knowledge of family history while growing up.

Even while I was in the system, I had a keen desire to do more than survive once I got out — but had no clear pathway or guidance to do so.

As I stood in the church where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered famous sermons, I couldn’t help but ask myself how my path might have changed if I’d understood the power of my identity as a Black man at a younger age.

While efforts to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline are well underway, another pipeline continues to flow at an alarming rate — the one from foster care to prison and homelessness. I’ve often heard friends complain about the pressure they receive from their family to succeed in school and their careers. But imagine everyone in your life expecting you to fail at every turn; that’s what life in foster care is often like, and it cultivates a sense of fatalism.

However, I also realized — quite frighteningly — that as a Black man, I likely would have still had this freedom to fail even if I didn’t grow up in the system. From second to 12th grades, I lived in a predominantly Asian and White suburb. I often felt unseen by my teachers in the classroom. I started to compare myself to my classmates, and I noticed that the majority of them had two parents in their household. I had none.

Two of my elementary school teachers, Ms. Brown and Mr. Karten, changed my educational journey for the better. They helped me focus less on the fact that I had to work harder to achieve the same goals as my peers and more on how to prepare for obstacles I wouldn’t be able to avoid. I felt a sense of belonging and self-worth in their classes. I always assumed they somehow knew I was in foster care.

But I realized they hadn’t gone out of their way to help a struggling foster child who lacked the level of support at home that his peers received from their families. They wanted to help a struggling Black boy who’d been predestined for failure by teachers who may have decided it wasn’t worth the extra support that would be necessary for him to function on the same level as his peers. After my experience with Ms. Brown and Mr. Karten, I maintained a 3.0–3.4 GPA throughout middle and high school — without ever knowing that my skin color was a bigger obstacle to overcome than being in foster care.

According to a study by the National Foster Youth Institute, only about 3% of foster youth make it to college — and only half of those graduate. This stat fueled me through the five-year journey to receive my bachelor’s degree in business administration and to develop new skills alongside my diploma. Embracing vulnerability, learning to trust and depend on others, and creating a new sense of family are the most challenging mindset shifts I’ve had to make coming out of the foster care system.

From the start, I knew I had to do whatever it would take to become a part of that 3%. I didn’t want to feel like I was a part of some elite club; I wanted to prove that the classroom is the best place to shift both foster youth and Black boys toward a pathway for success. Too many Black boys with disabilities, Black boys who are immigrants, and Black boys who are members of the LBGTQ+ community are growing up thinking not only that they aren’t loved but that they aren’t worthy of love. We need to change that message.

I’m now 28, and I’ve been out of the foster care system for 10 years. Yet, more of my life has been spent in the system than outside of it. In those 10 years, I’ve started a career and made strides toward securing financial stability. But more crucial to creating a sense of identity, I’ve also formed a relationship with my biological mother, learned about her childhood and the traumas she experienced, and met four siblings. I acknowledged and confronted the sexual and psychological abuse I suffered. I continue to be a positive role model in the lives of my niece and nephews and play an active role in advocating for the transition age (18–24) of former foster youth. These accomplishments give me a sense of belonging and space to now focus on learning more about my identity as a Black man and how it shaped my life experiences.

It’s imperative that we intentionally create space for all Black boys to explore all elements of their identity so they don’t have to live with a deficit-based mindset.

Has mastered the art of turning pain into power. He explores how people can utilize past traumatic experiences to fuel their passions and reach their goals.

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