Where I live At? Group Home Living and Aging Out of Foster Care

(Excerpt from upcoming book)

He sat across my desk looking for a way to say it without giving away the details. Devin is 17. He’s been in placement since he first learned how to read. Placement is a social work term for the kid’s been in at least one group home or youth residential facility. Devin’s been in eight different group homes; and he’s trying to tell me he doesn’t want to go back to the last place he was living at. I run a school for youth who don’t like school. If we can’t help him find an alternative—ask Devin and he’ll say it’s his best friend’s father agreeing to have him stay with them—the Department of Social Services may have to interrupt his education in order to establish his living status. I’m also an administrator who doesn’t act like an administrator or what my students call ops, as in operatives; as in double agents who say they’re youth advocates but have to follow a system that works against young people. Devin has proof that he’s in open and safe hands. But he’s still learning how to trust again. So it’s baby steps until he’s in a setting where the ground is steady enough for planning the big moves he sees in his head.

There are many other youth facing the same or similar or worse situations. Like Devin, they will soon age out of the foster care system; and it will be up to him to figure out what he plans on doing with his life once he’s 18. He’ll still have services nationally designed and state financed for him until he reaches 21; maybe even have some form of aftercare offered to him towards independent living. But right now, he’s in a bind. He can’t be with his parents or relatives because their homelife helped put him in foster care. He has options but doesn’t like them. He finally found the right school for him but has to leave. And he’s got three weeks to decide.

This is the part where a protective staff puts their resources and hearts together for the sake of one student’s future. And this we do for the next ones to follow. Because these days it’s no longer a surprise to find out that a High School student is in foster care or that they’re homeless while still managing to keep good grades which is why teachers can’t just be teachers if they want to figure out why their students are failing or stopped showing up altogether. School administrators can’t follow the usual formula if they want their numbers to improve. We’re now forced to look at the faces and stories behind the numbers and come up with alternative ways to fulfill our professional missions within the rules and policies presented to us.

He can’t be with his parents or relatives because their homelife helped put him in foster care. He has options but doesn’t like them. He finally found the right school for him but has to leave. And he’s got three weeks to decide.

Devin will eventually make a decision or a decision will be made for him, whether he likes it or not. The ideal situation for Devin may not be the ideal plan for the district or State, especially if funding is involved; and funding is almost always at the core of the matter— Who’s gonna pick up Devin’s tab for foster care services? But what we want to focus on here is what happens to him after he exits the system. Does he automatically go to his biological parents? Does he even know who they are? How does he go about finding them? Does he know his blood by name and address but can’t afford to go back to them for fear of placing himself in an environment not healthy for his overall welfare? Are there other options in terms of living arrangements where he’ll be able to reinvent himself once he’s 18? Does he have friends who can take him in? Does his girlfriend have options he can benefit from? If he’s a young father, what then does reinventing one’s self looks like if he can barely support himself? Will the streets be his only recourse or will he attend a community college with a dorm just to have a place to stay? If Devin is too young to be in an adult homeless shelter yet too old to receive childcare, where does that put him? Did he receive life skills and job readiness classes? If he has a criminal record, what employer is willing to hire him without judgment or fear? What crime lord in his hood is ready to exploit his dilemma?

There’re even more questions. How’s his self-esteem? Does he have any mental or physical challenges? Does he have a history of drug and/or alcohol abuse? Is Family Court involved? Does he have healthcare, transportation to and from, a follow up person who monitors his progress? If he were female, there’d be the added potential for pregnancy concerns. If he’s same gender loving but off the radar, will he be able to still get the help he needs or will he need special placement for the sake of our ignorance and his protection?

Before I became interested in what happens to young people once they age out of foster care, I was what many youth residential facilities call a team leader which meant I was responsible for the cottage I was assigned to. A cottage, in this sense, is not a quaint little house set off a mountainside or by a lake, but one of the temporary youth homes within a large landscape that can hold as many cottages as the facility allows, along with onsite educational, recreational, counseling and medical centers. Think of it as one of several group homes within an enclosed setting where the services don’t have to come to the staff because they’re already there as part of the day to day services offered to the youth residents and their parents or guardians. As one of the several team leaders on site, I managed my cottage, trained and supervised my residential staff and provided therapeutic counseling and family mediation to the young males on my watch (female team leaders were assigned to the female cottages) and the often frustrated parents and even grandparents who came with the contract.

I actually started off as a high school teacher for incarcerated 16-21yrlds, but my natural ability to relate to hard to reach students led me to switching to a career in counseling instead, although I’ve always felt that teaching and counseling work hand in hand. Because the personal affects the academics and vice versa, so by the time I left New York City to provide family mediation for at risk youth in North Carolina, I was already applying counseling theories and interventions specifically modeled for marginalized youth. And since every professional assignment I took on up to this point involved Black and Brown adolescents and young adults, my thought process when it came to serving as a behavioral interventionist came from a foundation that considered racism as a form of trauma individually, collectively and generationally. But now I was at a work setting where my clients didn’t look like me. Maybe one or two out of the usual 20 or so caseload. And it wasn’t necessarily about race but more about Black folk not being able to afford sending their troubled sons and daughters to a residential treatment facility. The other being the strong anti-therapy sentiments in our communities, especially in the South where the majority of African Americans preferred Jesus over mental therapy.

I had to pop a few mental balloons on each side of the divide before they were able to step out of their assumptions on effective intervening, anger managing, gender, sexuality, good, bad, smart, slow, normal, abnormal. Whatever else they’d learn to be fact was now being dissected in a way they had never experienced before.

I had a staff of seven residential counselors straight out of undergraduate college and either interested in pursuing a career in youth development or just needed a job. Their duties included sleepovers which was always the toughest part of the job for them because it meant being away from their homes for weeks at a time, including weekends, and living alongside the same kids they fed, disciplined and handed medication to. I had never been a team leader of anything before, but I knew I could bring parts of my self to the challenge; uncommon sense approaches that my employer hadn’t considered, like junior counselors not only looking after their assigned teens but facilitating general life skills workshops; not only disciplining them but inspiring them. And not only giving them their meds, but joining me at the family sessions, sometimes sitting behind a two-way mirror to observe, take notes and later provide feedback essential to their own professional development.

My staff was also half rural White and half urban Black with attitudes about race and culture already set in their minds. What was apparent from the day I met them was how such attitudes had a direct affect on their counseling skills. I had to pop a few mental balloons on each side of the divide before they were able to step out of their assumptions about effective intervening, anger managing, gender, sexuality, good, bad, smart, slow, normal, abnormal. Whatever else they’d learn to be fact was now being dissected in a way they had never experienced before. To me, this was what the calling was all about if you were there for the commitment - to allow yourself to learn from damaged people even younger than you and offer solutions your college professor couldn’t find in a textbook. I was also there to remind them that youth advocacy wasn’t about advocating for only populations they felt comfortable working with; that being a youth advocate means advocating for all youth or you’re part of the problem and not the solution. Some of them went on to becoming team leaders in their own right. Some returned to college for their graduate degrees. And some just plain quit after realizing the amount of commitment it takes to be a team leader in training....

The Art of Reaching Troubled Youth

It hadn’t occurred to me prior to writing about young males to add visuals to my books. Before You Fly Off, inspired by my own teenage daughter, offered hard to reach Black and Brown girls an alternative tool to addressing their self-destructive behavior and learning more productive ways to express themselves from learning effective communicating to relationship concerns. Barely one hundred pages each, I broke the conversation in two books. I use the term ‘conversation’ because that’s how I write. Like the angry young man or the girl bully is sitting right in front of me or next to me, being more open to receiving intervention because there’s no judging here; no red pen or agenda to kill their sense of originality for the sake of conforming to standards that we know now do more harm than good to their emotional lives. 

When a mother approached me at a book signing and asked, What about the boys? Or more specifically, what about her son? I went into immediate action on a motivational book for Black males in their upper teens and nearing adulthood. I was advising both High School and college students at the time, along with group homes and youth detention centers, so the material was literally taking turns sitting in my office. But unlike with the girls, there was so much more to talk about with the boys. Their self-esteem issues were just as alarming as the criminalization of problem Black girls in schools, with the added burden of living in immediate and surrounding communities that still don’t allow our sons to fully express their emotional selves, as they learn to perfect their hyper-masculinity or what they’ve been taught to understand as socially appropriate maleness, Black maleness. And this is when the idea of adding visuals to match the various topics, too difficult to talk about for most maybe but now with images they could relate to or even see themselves in, helped shape the continued success of Message to a Youngblood – A Conversation with Our Sons.

But Chris has an artistic gift for translating anything I asked him to draw from. Show me what struggling with your studies looks like? Show me a good day. Show me a couple in love. How does functional depression look like to you? What can freedom look like in the hood?... We were beginning a kindred partnership we both under-estimated until readers started asking about the artwork.

I had already known Chris Evans through his mother, a single parent determined to keep her 21yrld off the streets and out of police bullet range. Chris was creative but not focused; kind but easily aggravated. He was like most young Black males I meet. Angry at the System for leaving them with very few options and angry at Black parents for dropping the ball. But Chris has an artistic gift for translating anything I asked him to draw from. Show me what struggling with your studies looks like? Show me a good day. Show me a couple in love. How does functional depression look like to you? What can freedom look like in the hood?... We were beginning a kindred partnership we both under-estimated until readers started asking about the artwork.

More young artists came on board with my following book, I’m Not Gay. I Just Mess with Guys Sometimes where we ask the question Why so many Black young and older men who have sex with other men choose not to self-identify as gay or queer, or other labels they feel do not represent their day to day realities. As a youth counselor and advocate, I see this as somewhat of a second sexual revolution where in the 60s it was about being whatever you wanted to be and sexing whoever you wanted sex. Now it’s more about lifting the labels that say who’s supposed to be with who.  It’s also a look at how the Black Community is being faced with having to choose between religious indoctrination based on the rejection of sexuality as an indefinite and returning to ancient African teachings where all masculinities and all femininities were recognized and celebrated before invaders taught us shame. And how do you say all that through art? But these great young artists I’ve had the honor to work did just that!

My next book project is on youth in group homes and residential facilities, as well as those aging out of foster care and the transition process between being a ward of the state to independent living. New artists like Carlos Gee encourages me to consider middle aged youth who are already pipelined to prisons. And 15yrld Jay reminds me to include transgender teens in the conversation. But as always, Chris takes front seat in leading the artwork to interpret the personal struggles of these amazing young people living adult lives.

Life Coaching Marilyn Manson and Drinking Moonshine

I was doing family mediation at a youth residential facility in North Carolina where my duties included supervising a staff of college graduates interested in pursuing a career in counseling hard to reach young men and women. But that’s going too far into the story without beginning where this essay couldn’t have been written had certain events not take their places. I had just ended a six-year stint as a writing and general life skills instructor on Rikers Island, after deciding that my salary being dependent on how many new inmates came through Intake didn’t sit right with me. Doesn’t lessen the tremendous value of and rewards from teaching the incarcerated. But I was at a point in my career life where alternative education and family mediation were crisscrossing, and I hadn’t yet figured out a way to bring them together.

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They Kill Grandmothers, Don't They? Policing the Mentally Ill, and Is My Mother Next?

I usually write for and about hard to reach youth. But the recent police killing of an emotionally disturbed grandmother turned my attention to not only the on-going over-policing of Black people, but more so on my mother who is currently at the final stages of Alzheimer’s where unexpected outbursts are the norm and caring for her requires both the fortitude of a well-informed son and the patience of a monk. The kind of patience a short-fused police cadet may not necessarily learn in de-escalation training, but close enough when the objective is to avoid shooting an elderly. 66yrld Deborah Danner of the Bronx, this week’s victim of police terrorism, was shot and killed by an NYPD officer after allegedly lunging towards officers while wielding a pair of scissors and a baseball bat inside of her apartment. The fact that this happened in her home is just as relevant as what was in her hands, because it shows a distressed person in a space they ought to feel the safest. Why this senior citizen had scissors and a bat in her hands is still up for grabs. What we do know is that neighbors called police for help and told them she was an elderly woman with a history of mental illness. How popo went from courtesy, professionalism and respect or CPR, as indicated on their vehicles, to shoot the grandmother twice in the chest first then ask questions later is what Sgt. Hugh Barry has to explain to a nation exhausted from weekly police killings of Black bodies and a Community already victimized by generational trauma from having to witness their skin color and voice be treated without courtesy, professionalism or respect.  

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(Message to a High School Kid Who Never Heard of a Winnie) 

Now that the Nelson Mandela hype is over, your young brain cells most likely forgot all about the significance of both his transition (we don't die, we change form) and his legacy. Your school teacher or college professor might have added him to their lesson plan, what with all the media attention on the 90yrld global icon. The same media who once considered him a terrorist for speaking against the mistreatment of Black South Africans; as in, I invade your home, call it mine and implement a system where you need a pass to get to one room to another and back just to keep the house that's no longer yours expendable, and then have you locked up or murdered if you got a problem with that.

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I recently saw a film by Selena Blake documenting the raping and murdering of same gender loving people in Jamaica, and how the police actually help promote this type terrorism. But the violence goes even further than that/gets deeper than that. Parents are known to abandon their children once they find out they were bullied or violated to avoid talk from the community. Neighbors report to police who they even think might be homosexual to stay on the 'right' list and island officials add to the terrorism by equating same gender love with incest and bestiality. There’re homosexuals themselves who beat up and burn their own, so that their communities don't target them. As difficult as it was to hear testimonies from lesbians who were gang raped by male thugs whose intention is to ‘fix’ these women, as in 'corrective raping', and seeing the scars on their arms from self-inflicted knife wounds as their way of dealing with trauma unresolved; as painful as it was to watch scenes of young and older males being slashed by machetes and burned to death by other Black people simply for being a sexual minority, it was important for me to watch the damn thing and learn.

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