The Truth About Suitcases

Gina Stevens, Program Director

As I was listening to the radio last week, the station’s host began to describe the plight of foster children moving into foster homes with all of their belongings in a trash bag. She urged her listeners to donate their old suitcases to a foster agency. With heartfelt encouragement, she explained that this would ease the kids’ transitions from foster home to foster home. She ended with, “You know, the suitcases that are just sitting in your closet can impact a life.” It was the third time in a week I had heard someone talk about donating suitcases to foster youth. As an agency that works with youth aging out of foster care, we often get calls from people asking if we accept donations of used suitcases. While I am grateful for every person who has a place for hurting children in their hearts, I want so much more for them than a used suitcase. Kids need and deserve so much better.

The lack of suitcases is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem. Due to abuse, neglect, parental drug or alcohol addiction, and parental incarceration or death, children have to be removed from their biological families and placed with strangers. Often, they have no time to pack their things or say goodbye to family members. Some children are at school when they are asked to report to the office, only to be met by a social worker who escorts them to a car and drives them to an emergency shelter or foster home. Others are removed when the police are called to their home and a situation warrants their removal. Or, maybe they are taken into the custody of the child welfare system from their car when their parent is found to be driving under the influence. The children are almost always separated from their siblings, who are placed in different homes.

As if the initial trauma of being removed from one’s home and placed with strangers is not bad enough, the scenario usually repeats itself.  Most often, foster children move from home to home and school to school. The cycle of bonds being formed and then broken is repeated over and over again. Because the goal of the foster care system is to reunify families, children often bounce from a foster home to a birth parent’s home and back to foster care again. We have youth in our program who entered foster care as infants and spent their entire childhoods bouncing back and forth, never gaining the stability they needed to thrive.

I have served as the Program Director at Fostering Youth Independence (FYI) since co-founding it in 2017. In the past seven years, I have not heard one foster youth mention moving their belongings in trash bags. Many youth have told me how scary moving to a strange home was. Would the people be nice? Would there be food that they like to eat? Would the food be locked up, as it was in other foster homes? Would they be allowed to watch TV? Would they have to do all the chores while the family’s own children did not? Would the foster parents buy them clothes and other items that they needed? Would they get to do everyday childhood things that non-foster kids got to do?

Having a suitcase to move what little belongings most youth have is helpful, at least in that moment of need. But to offer it as a solution or even to say it is impactful is ignoring the tragedy of life in the foster care system. Innocent children are forced to move from one strange and often unhealthy place to another due to no fault of their own. We must not overlook this fact. While helpful, suitcases do not wipe away tears, remove fears, or provide children with stability. On the list of critical developmental needs for children, suitcases are nowhere to be found.

The needs of foster children and youth are less about “something” and are more about “someone.” Every human needs someone to believe in them, teach them, discipline them, reassure their safety, and most importantly, love them. Many of us call these people parents or family. Since foster youth are removed from their parents and families, they have no one to meet their basic developmental requirements. In addition, what little stability they felt was ripped away from them. Despite this, they must continue growing up; they often feel alone, forgotten, unloved, unsure, unintelligent, and, sadly, unwanted. Yet, they are expected to mature into responsible, functioning adults.

Many things need to happen for abused and neglected children to believe in themselves, but it is possible. A caring support system can completely change their trajectory. I have witnessed it many times.

Demetri entered the foster care system at 12 years old. He spent most of his life living on the streets or in shelters, witnessing drug abuse, gangs, and physical abuse by men towards his mother. When Demetri was 16, he joined FYI and was immediately paired with a caring adult Ally. Today, he is a 20-year-old flourishing college student. His Ally has become his best friend and biggest supporter. He recently visited his childhood neighborhood and realized how lucky he was to have left it. He said, “FYI saved my life. Going back to my old hood helped me see that. If not for meeting you guys, I would probably be in a gang and have no future.”  When people show up for others, something magical happens. Perspectives change, growth begins, and confidence is found.

May is Foster Care Awareness Month. Foster care is a crisis that is highlighted once a year but should be remembered every day. Foster care systems are overloaded and cannot provide the stability children need. Foster children and youth need all of us to show up for them. It takes time and a tremendous amount of effort to form a relationship with a youth from the foster care system. It is also one of the most rewarding things you could ever do. If you want to leave an everlasting impact on a foster child, become a part of their life and show them how much you care. Nothing can replace human connection. Foster youth deserve exponentially more than a suitcase. They need someone to show them that they matter.

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