These three words identified me, within my foster records, as a baby girl who would be hard to place due to my ambiguous ethnicity and questionable beginnings. My social worker, in England, listed the names of the potential adoptive parents who had looked me over with a “negative reaction.” There didn’t seem to be any surprise that I had been met with this kind of response. My earliest history had marked me as an unwanted child.
I was the product of an affair. Neither my birth mother nor my birth father wanted to raise me. I was secreted away into foster care and marked, labeled, and tagged as lesser than other babies born into loving homes with parents who adored and embraced them.
I had been categorized as one of “those children” who—through no fault of my own—was marginalized because of the decisions and actions of my parents, along with the judgments of strangers. My parents had left me as an orphan, and the stigma associated with that title disfigured my sense of self-worth.
In America today, there are some 500,000 children and youth in foster care. They are America’s orphans. The ways in which we, as a society, respond to their circumstances and needs will most certainly influence how they view themselves, over the course of their lives.
I’m a grown woman, yet I still ache over the little girl—the first me—who was judged and diminished within my foster records. That girl had been relinquished by her parents, removed from her first life, and labeled as “strange looking, dark, unwanted, and difficult to place,” by those in the business of protecting and safeguarding children in the system.
Recently, I spoke with a U.S. Congresswoman who has a heart for foster kids. She relayed the story of a young intern who shared with the Congresswoman her struggles while in foster care and the trauma of being removed, time and time again. Home after home, rejection after rejection.
The young woman expressed how she had battled with feelings of worthlessness and depression, and had faced moments where taking her own life seemed a better choice than living the life she was in.
This young woman’s story is not an isolated one. Of the 500,000 children and youth in U.S. foster care today, how many of these kids carry around the weight of a scarred self-image? How many of them feel unseen and unheard? Invisible? How many of them find it hard to trust? How many of them feel lost and unloved on the inside? How many of them have been adversely labeled due to circumstances surrounding them that have absolutely nothing to do with who they are, or the potential that they hold?
All too often, we don’t ask these questions to those of whom foster care directly impacts: the kids. If we asked them, we just might hear what the Congresswoman heard. And, perhaps, that’s our fear. We’d have to look deep into a system that is set up to intervene when children are neglected and abused, and we’d have to see that this very system, although well-intended is—more times than we’d like to admit—causing the children it serves further harm.
Our government is parent to 500,000 orphaned-children. I wonder if it really understands their needs. If it asked its children, our government might learn that it’s hard to trust when life has shown you that people will leave, neglect, hurt, and harm you. It might also discover that living with the daily reality of rejection scars one’s self-image and sense of self-worth. Might those who govern genuinely look into the lives of these kids and experience just how unfair it is for anyone to judge them and label them? Would they be willing to stand in their shoes for just a moment?
Until you are willing to stand in another person’s shoes, that person does not exist to you because you don’t know their story. We need to stand in the shoes of America’s 500,000 orphans because they exist, and they should matter to every one of us.
Oh, how I wish that someone could have told me, as a foster child and international adoptee, that removal from the arms of my birth mother didn’t mean that I was bad. That removal was not of my doing. I wish that someone could have told me that I wasn’t unwanted. I wasn’t a broken child. I was in a broken situation. There’s a difference.
And, as much as I longed to find a way back to the girl who lived before intervention and adoption, I wish someone could have told me that home can’t be found at some specific place on a map.
Home is a state of mind. Home is a knowing, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that someone loves you and will always be on your side—even when trust comes hard and self-worth seems fleeting.
What if we committed ourselves to sharing these messages with the foster kids in our communities? Whether we foster them, adopt them, or mentor them, could we—together—help ease their burden and give them a stronger sense of self?
I understand that there are real and urgent reasons why children are removed and placed into foster care. I also know that one parent cannot adequately look after 500,000 children. It takes a village. And, I just want to wake that village up because we are powerful in numbers. America’s orphans need us not to slumber while they suffer.
It seems to me that, during these very fragile and confusing times in the life of a foster child, we might do a better job at reminding them of their worth and of their innocence. We might expand upon our own compassion and empathy to give foster kids what they really need: unconditional love. Because when a person feels seen and heard—without judgment—they feel valued. And, that goes a long way in building a stronger sense of self-worth for children and youth in foster care. These kids have never been difficult to place—society just hasn’t taken the time to stop, listen, lean in, and find them.
Michelle Madrid-Branch is an author, speaker, international adoptee, and global advocate for women and children; specializing in the areas of adoption, foster care, abandonment recovery, and identity reconciliation. She is the author of Adoption Means Love: Triumph of the Heart. Michelle’s mission is to ensure that the adoption community is heard, seen, valued, respected, and understood. To learn more about Michelle, visit: MichelleMadridBranch.com.