The Surrogacy Factor

Alain Large-newest“I’m never leaving this place.”

I will never forget the discouragement and hopelessness behind Marcus’ words. He and I had bonded during our time at MacLaren Hall – an asylum-like facility for Los Angeles County’s abused and neglected children. He had just heard the news that I’d be leaving in a week, to be placed with a relative. I would stay in this arrangement, known as kinship care, until I emancipated at age 18.

Even though our lives took different paths, Marcus and I are both alumni of a peculiar academy, where graduates receive no diploma and the optimism of the future is replaced by an inexplicable apprehension. The academy is called foster care. The commencement process is known as aging out. And for so many that cross its proverbial stage, it becomes a journey down a difficult road.

My journey began with an all-too-familiar narrative for foster children: I was born to two drug-abusing parents and, along with my four siblings, would spend most of my childhood surrounded by gang violence, prostitution and poverty. My mother frequently was incarcerated while my father, though present, was physically and verbally abusive when not under the influence. I was at risk of becoming a statistic: gang member, incarcerated or dead.

However, my trajectory changed because of the opportunity to live in kinship care. Unlike many foster children, I had an older sister who was willing to take in my siblings and me. I also had a Christian community that became an extended surrogate family. I was able to graduate from high school and college with a support network I obtained because of my sister’s sacrifice.
In many ways I am viewed as a foster care “success story.” I agree. I have been fortunate enough to impact foster care policy as an intern at both L.A. City Hall and Capitol Hill. However, even with the support of others, it was still extremely difficult to be in foster care and even more difficult when I emancipated. I was a young man dealing with the residue of a broken childhood and the constant reminder I would never return home to my parents.

And as lucky as I was, kinship care isn’t perfect, particularly because the caregivers often don’t get resources adequate enough for raising the children in their homes. That is why it is essential that children who spend a substantial amount of time in foster care or emancipate from its system obtain support specified to meet their needs.

Many times foster children are like nomads, kept in a limbo of foster and group homes with little stability. For too long children have been told “be patient,” “wait,” and that their desire for a forever family has to be delayed until the process of lawmaking runs its course. How can we tell children the bureaucratic process is too difficult and the resources too scarce to provide them with safe, loving and permanent homes?

Our nation lays witness to the outcome for thousands of children who exit foster care with no consistent support network. We are essentially subjecting them to a system that, more often than not, produces ill-prepared men and women. Fewer than 50 percent of former foster youth are employed 2½ to 4 years after leaving foster care, and only 38 percent have maintained employment for over one year. Statistics concerning education for foster youth are even more dismal, with only 2 percent of foster youth obtaining a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Every child who ages out of foster care without a support network is a child that our system has failed.

The term “foster” is synonymous with temporary or makeshift. What children aging out need isn’t temporary care – they need surrogates. They need a host of long-term, stable connections with individuals committed to improving the educational, emotional and vocational outcomes of these youth. I would call this process “Systemic Surrogacy.” Advocating for surrogate care at a systemic level would not only improve outcomes, but identify a sustainable network for children to help support their aging out process. This system, tailored to individual youth, could help alleviate some of the adverse outcomes associated with emancipation.

I think of Marcus often, wondering what became of him. What I do know is that thousands of children like him age out of a system with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and the uneasiness of their futures. I couldn’t bring Marcus with me then, but I believe I can make the transition process much more successful for others now.

Published on May 29, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign.

A version of this column originally appeared in:

A Release Date From the Past

Cherish - Large-use this oneOver 13 years is what I served in our nation’s foster care system. At an early age, I was removed from my birth mother. She was just a teen, and already struggled with an addiction to men and drugs, which she sold and used. My father, well, he was non-existent. At the time of my birth he was in prison. I didn’t grow up knowing what a father was, neither did I realize I missed having one.

I was born an orphan. I may as well have not existed to my parents as they were caught up in their addictions. My needs and my life weren’t significant enough for them to change. When you grow up not having a set of parents to give you a portrait to reference love, truth and purpose, you feel like you missed something. I grew up watching the examples of other people’s lives, feeling I was looking from a doubled-sided glass mirror that I could see out of, but no one could see into.

From around ages 1 to 4 I was bounced from one home to the next. I was adopted by the time I was 5. But instead of a bright beginning it was another road filled with instability, insecurity, abuse and loss. It is like I never left the system. At around 11 I returned to foster care, moving between foster homes, shelters, group homes and detention centers, from one failed placement to the next failed adoption. I was shipped from the south to the north, and lived in care in two different states.

I had approximately 20 different placements. I carried all I owned in black garbage bags. In between placements I was homeless—I slept on random couches or in abandoned apartments, and spent sleepless nights wandering in parks dark enough not to be spotted. Sometimes my homelessness was self-imposed because I knew no one wanted me. I ran from the abuse and the callus that grew from not being able to even feel anymore. Honestly, I was tired of being reminded that I was unwanted.

No one wanted to foster a teenager, unless it was for supplemental income, a babysitter, to do chores or serve as a placeholder for their pain–the punching bag of their emotional wounds, a sexual toy for their pleasure. I attended 14 different schools. Nothing in my life lasted very long. Nothing was predictable except constantly feeling rejected and unloved.

My life was marred by pain that seemed to get deeper and deeper. I remember many people saying “I Love you,” but rarely did I ever feel love. I suffered in silence repeatedly through sexual, physical and emotional abuse. It seemed like a cycle from which I could not break away, no matter what home I was placed in or whom I encountered. No safety came from the arms of the system.

I went through so many experiences, my memory had been impaired to the point that I had no timeline of the things that occurred in my life—memories seemed to bleed into each other. I didn’t have pictures or a recollection of memories reinforced throughout my childhood because even they were scattered among the multiple people and places I had bounced between.

Still, thanks to the kindness of a friend and her family, I was able to fight my way through and finish high school. My early adulthood was spent trying to put the pieces of my life together so it could make sense, give me some frame of reference, and help me find me, find who Cherish was. I had to read about a lot of my life in foster care from documents that I requested when I was 18. It is funny having to learn about yourself through written assessments from workers who visited you for not even an hour a month, if they showed up at all.

Then there was my release. I had finally grown out of the system. I found my birth parents, and while they weren’t what I expected, I learned to forgive and I have a relationship with each of them. I was blessed with a full ride to a Big Ten school. I became the first in my family to complete high school, college and graduate studies. I work in the field that I felt kidnapped and imprisoned me, to make a difference and represent hope for children who feel unloved and marred by negative experiences. I was just like them, but I was determined I WOULD NOT be another statistic, or represent the demeaning title of “state ward” or “system child.”
It is not what you go through, it is about not allowing your circumstances to become your future. Just like a camera takes new pictures, you can create new memories that develop a better portrait of the life you choose to live. There is a release date on your pain and freedom from your past.

A version of this column originally appeared in:

Instability

Dylan LargeMy foster father always had a stressed look about him, the look that told me he had to try hard to make ends meet. He gave me a lot of freedom while he was busy working as a lawyer and consultant. But even with that freedom, he’d ensure I’d make the right choices. If my grades slipped up, he’d scold me. If I had to do a science project, he’d put his busy schedule on hold just to help me, even if it meant staying up all night. He didn’t always have time for me, but when it was the right thing to do, he was there.

In October of 2007, after living in his home for nearly 5 months, he asked me if I wanted to go to Chicago. We had gone several times prior, because he had family there. The day before he invited me, I’d heard him on the phone, talking with someone who seemed important. I thought nothing of it, and said yes to the trip.

When we were there my foster dad took me to Six Flags, bought me some new clothes, and even took me out to a really expensive restaurant. While we were at dinner, the Chicago Bears football team walked in, and proceeded to sit down. It was amazing, and I was having the time of my life.

But at dinner I felt the rug pull out from underneath me when he told me he had accepted a job in Washington D.C. At first I was super excited. Then he said, “I have to move and thought bringing you to Chicago might soften the blow.” I couldn’t contain my sadness. I started crying. Although I never told him, I always hoped he’d be the one to adopt me. I thought he’d rescue me from an unhappy life I couldn’t control, one where I was bounced from home to home.

I was 14, and I was angry. I was mad because the person I thought would become my dad was choosing a job over me. He hurt me, and I hated him for the longest time after that. But he was being offered the job of a lifetime. Who wouldn’t take it? He had the opportunity to pay off his debt and make his life something wonderful. You couldn’t really blame a guy for trying to get ahead.

I felt endlessly conflicted. I experienced intense anger because even after I moved to a new home, he thought he could still have a say in my life. I started acting out, being rude, and disobeying orders. When he found out, he came to see me and told me to cut it out — that I could do things well, or not do them at all. He always had high expectations for me, and talked me down from my behavior, but that incident upset me even more. He left, yet continued to have a stake in my life. It wasn’t fair.

Being tossed around without anyone to hold onto was the foundation of my childhood. I bounced around between 23 different homes during my time in foster care. I was placed with a family at the age of 13. I lived with them for 9 months. We were even discussing the possibility of adoption. Then the family told me “Dylan, you weren’t the boy we wanted you to be.” Just like that, I was living somewhere new. Despite being rejected and repeatedly abandoned, I clung to hope that one day I’d be adopted. I viewed that as being loved. What child wouldn’t? But the person I had the highest hopes for let me down, like everyone else did.

Published on May 25, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign.

A version of this column originally appeared in:

Finding my Breakthrough

Gilbert LargeIt started when I was three years old. I was taken away from my biological parents in New York City and put into a foster home in upstate N.Y., along with my brother and sister. Being so young, I had little memory of being with my real mother and father. I thought these people were my family.

I’ll always carry the memories of the abuse that I had to go through while I was there.

My brother and I were frequently tortured by our foster mother. If we didn’t perform well in school, she would punish us. On a few occasions, she would put duct tape on our mouths, tie our arms around our backs, and tape our feet to the bed. This happened three or four times. Sometimes we wouldn’t eat for days.

I remember several nights, when my brother and I were both laying in bed sound asleep, that she came in and hit us. I had so many scars on my body. I remember thinking, “These people are my family. What am I not doing right?”

By the time I was 9, I left the foster home to live with my biological father in the Bronx. We were told he was ready to take care of us again. It was really hard for me to leave my foster home because I didn’t understand what was happening.

As soon as I moved back with him, the abuse began again.

It became a routine. Every Friday, my father would get drunk. When he was drunk, he turned into a different man—he’d get mean and hit us. Sometimes he’d use a belt. Other times he’d use his bare hands. He’d tell us that we were stupid, and that we would never be anything, or become anybody. I became so sick of the abuse. Eventually, I got to the point where I just couldn’t take it anymore.

So at 15 I ran away. Throughout the next several years, I found myself running from place to place, desperately trying to find somewhere to call home. I eventually went back to my father’s for a short time. From there, I ran away to Covenant House, which housed homeless youth. I liked it there. It almost felt like a dorm. They fed you three meals a day and people seemed to really care, and really listen. But it wasn’t a place that I could stay permanently. From there I bounced around multiple group homes, and an independent living program, before I wound up where I am now, living at my biological mother’s house.

When I first arrived at my mother’s I was 22 years old, and at that point, I had no high school diploma or a GED. I fell into a deep depression. At night, I would sit in the park and drink. I was hanging out with all of the wrong types of people. I was lost and felt like I was searching for some type of closure.

But then one day, I heard a voice telling me that this was not who I was supposed to be. I cleaned up my act. I got my high school diploma, and auditioned for a film in New York City called “Know How,” which featured real foster children telling their life stories on the big screen. I landed the part, and loved every single minute of it. After that, I enrolled in JobCorps, where I was certified to work in any hospital as a receptionist. I also joined AmeriCorps, which allowed me to travel across the country helping people in need.

I was able to turn my life around, but others aren’t so lucky. I believe that the foster care system needs to be improved. People in care are taken advantage of, and don’t always know their rights. I want the next young person to have a better experience in foster care than I did. I want them to know that they have rights, and to not let the system break them down. I stand tall and I’m here right now representing hundreds of thousands of people who can relate. I want to tell those who are still struggling to NEVER give up. You are here for a reason. If you feel like you are in a dark place, know that your breakthrough is just around the corner. campaign.

A version of this column originally appeared in:

‘Working Hard on Myself to Grow Past the Pain’

Photo by Eric JohnsonRosie Perez is best known for her acting chops, cutting-edge choreography and dogged activism. But until now, few people knew that the Oscar-nominated talent spent much of her childhood as a ward of the state of New York. Her mother, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, seized her at age 3 from the aunt who had cared for her since birth and put her in St. Joseph’s Catholic Home for Children in Peekskill, NY.

Rosie recently penned her memoir, Handbook for An Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, And Still Came Out Smiling (With Great Hair). In it, she relates in sharp detail her experiences at the Home and two St. Joseph’s-run group homes, before being reunited with her beloved aunt as a teen.

In the book’s preface, Rosie, a recipient of the Children’s Rights Champion Award, describes coming to terms with her tumultuous past. We are grateful that we have the opportunity to excerpt the following for Fostering the Future.

The abuse and neglect from my mother and the time I was forced to spend in Saint Joseph’s Catholic Home for Children, aka “the Home,” have affected a big part of my life. And I’ve hated that fact. I’m a forward-moving and positive-thinking person, and it was hard to have that albatross hanging around my neck. I’ve hated my past so much that I’ve spent countless hours downplaying or even hiding bits of the truth of my childhood in an attempt to make it seem less severe, less hurtful, less shameful than it felt.

I hated the fact that my mother was crazy. I wanted her to be normal. Even when she acted normal — something that many mentally ill people can do, despite what you see in the movies — I was always walking on eggshells, waiting for the insanity to hit. And when it hit, it hit hard and fast — leaving deep emotional and physical scars.

People who are “normal” as a result of good parenting — even just decent parenting — are very lucky. Yeah, I know, everyone’s hell is relative, and blah, blah, blah, but those people are very fortunate. Am I bitter? No, not at all. Every child should have a loving and stable upbringing. There would be less violence and hate, for sure. But most of us didn’t, and regardless of what the experts say, trying to get past your past sucks. Most of us would rather just ignore it or numb it with any or all types of drugs, legal or illegal. Those of us who are a bit stronger — and I say that without judgment — try to avoid those options and deal with our past legitimately: through psychoanalysis, psychiatry, medications, spirituality, whatever. Truth be told, even when you work every day to do so, it’s hard to not lose it, or give up, or worse, fall into a depression.

That’s the worst — depression. I’m a relatively happy person who also happened to be clinically depressed for years (sorry, that just cracks me up). I know that it’s probably hard for most people, especially those who know and love me, to fathom that, because I’m a person who’s usually in a good mood, cracking jokes or telling funny stories. And the good moods are absolutely, 100 percent authentic. It’s just that there was this underlying feeling of blah, or sadness, or even fright, which at times I was aware of and at other times I was not. I refused to let this hold me down. I wanted to move on. I wanted to fully enjoy the wonderful life I’ve worked so hard to obtain.

I finally resorted to seeking professional help, the one thing I had resisted for years. When my shrink diagnosed me with dysthymia — a sneaky, chronic kind of depression — I was actually relieved. God bless America two times for that, as my Tia Ana would say. It’s most common with people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yeah, I had that one too. Still do. But now at least I had a starting place and could take some kind of ownership of the healing process.

After a couple of years of therapy, and I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, I noticed that my depression wasn’t there and the PTSD subsided considerably. I felt joyful, secure, and empowered. My inner strength and sense of self had never been stronger. I guess I allowed time to play its role, and I did my part by working hard on myself to grow past the pain. Gosh, I sound so full of shit there. Let me be more honest: I grew past most of the pain and continue to do the work. Every day gets better.

Excerpted from Handbook for an Unpredictable Life by Rosie Perez. Copyright © 2014 by Rosie Perez. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A version of this column originally appeared in: