So I promised last week to write about homeless youth, and I have not done so. I’m sorry. But two events this past week have left me heart-broken and seriously questioning why I bother doing this work. Why keep this blog? Why write for children at all? Who cares?
The first event was that a teen friend of mine was raped. She lives in an upper middle-class, progressive town. She comes from a good family. She goes to a good school. She is not an “at-risk” youth. And when she went, almost overnight, from being a girl to a raging teenager complete with angst, overtly flirtatious behaviors, and cutting, we worried. We thought she was going down a scary path. But we did not think that she had been raped.
And I thought (once I’d stopped crying, sort of): nothing I do or say or write will ever stop this from happening. There is nothing I could have done to prevent this.
Certainly there are organizations working to help kids, make their lives better, help them to recognize the signs of danger and react to avert it. But let’s face it: those organizations aren’t usually targeting well-off communities with lots of money and progressive values. They’re in the country, they’re in the city, they’re where people are poor and uneducated and more “likely” to abuse and beat their children. Which is probably as it should be because there are so many kids who need help, and certainly the kids in those demographics do need help.
But they weren’t there to protect this girl. And they weren’t there to protect me when I was a kid. But let’s face it: violence doesn’t belong to the poor. It doesn’t belong to the stupid. It doesn’t belong to the working class or the high-school drop-outs. Violence is equal-opportunity, folks. Violence is everywhere. And it’s often directed at kids. And the unfortunate truth is that it will always exist. There is nothing any of us can do to squash it out completely.
So why bother? Why tell stories? I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the books I thought rape survivors needed to have access to. Am I really going to go back to that list blithely and find a book on it to mend this girl’s shattered heart? Probably not.
So why bother?
I went to see the opening screening of Ask Us Who We Are at the Green Mountain Film Festival on saturday. It purports to be a documentary about foster care youth in the state of Vermont. It also interviews a few birth parents and several foster parents. The director, Bess O’Brien, who was on hand after the viewing to answer questions, admitted to having known nothing about the foster care system before deciding to make this film.
The film did a lot of things really well. It talked about the horror that gets some kids removed from their birth home–though it almost exclusively talked about drastic physical violence with only one mention of (probably sexual) abuse, one mention of drugs, and no mention of emotional abuse or neglect that is severe enough to get children removed from parental custody.
It was honest about the difficulty foster kids have trusting and behaving in new settings and their devastation at having their home ripped out from underneath them–no matter how horrible those homes were. It talked about the difference between being placed in the home of a non-parent family member (called kinship care) and being placed in the home of strangers, and it gave some of the pluses and minuses of each. And above all, the film will inspire people to want to become foster parents–which I believe is its primary intention–by showing the simple, powerful story of how kids are taken from horrible homes, how they lack the skills to love and trust, and how they can learn to do so in stable, happy placements.
It’s not that it’s not a powerful film or one worth seeing, but there is at least one area in which I found the film really disappointing, basically an outright lie. It glossed over the question of abuse in the foster care system almost entirely. The one outright mention it allowed to the subject was a foster parent glibly saying that for every case of abuse in the foster care system, there are 10,000 non-abusive, good foster homes. And since this is the only mention of non-parental abuse in the entire documentary, it comes off as a statistic.
Now, as someone who was abused as a child in my foster care placement, I took issue with this. And since half–yes, half–of the people I know who have lived through foster care were abused in at least one of their placements, I know that this “statistic” is, well, bull-shit.
When I asked the director about this discrepancy after the viewing, she basically waved her hand and said that abuse barely happens in foster care, that her story was about kids’ quests for love, and that there were plenty of news stories about foster care abuse so she didn’t need to include it.
And I admit, I was devastated. Was I not a child who desperately needed love and sought it out? Was my quest, though not answered in my foster home, not important? I felt like she was saying: “Look at the pain these children and adults struggle with. Look at their incredible resilience! But not you, I’m not talking about you.” And I left, somewhat unrationally asking, “why don’t I count?”
I think subconsciously this has been a question I have always asked. I have spent most of my life feeling like an outsider. And I think that’s because no one ever told me that the things I lived through weren’t fair and they never told me I was amazing for having survived them.
And then I realized that that is why I write. Because that woman may not be telling my story, but I can. And the truth is, none of us really are alone. My story is not just my story. There are kids who are living through what I did. There are other adults who lived through what I did. By writing the deepest and most honest stories I can write, I am telling a story that someone can read and recognize herself in and know that she isn’t alone. I can tell someone that what she’s living through is not fair, and that she is amazing and resilient, and that she can get through it.
So that’s why I write for children.