Because of my young parents’ crass negligence, at age 6, I was pulled from their custody and placed in Philadelphia’s child protection services.
For 15 of my formative years I lived in three foster homes in Northwest and West Philadelphia, attending subpar schools with insufficient resources. My journey started in a home for girls only. It was a place where I was mistreated and always humiliated. I felt ashamed, insignificant and even invisible. The absolute worst was knowing that as a foster child I was marked “least likely to succeed.”
By the time I turned 7, I was moved to a second home where my three brothers and I could be raised together. There, I was violated by an adult. The nightly unnecessary trips to the bathroom to watch me tinkle eventually led to molestation, and thereafter, for many years to come, bedtime was anything but restful.
In retrospect, what I find most disturbing is how, despite a total of 10 social workers managing my family caseload, no one ever asked me about my safety or if I had had any concerns—a prime example of how the system can fail children. In spite of it all, I know that I was not and am not responsible for the terrible things that happened to me.
My well-being and self-esteem were secured the day my brothers and I were placed in care of Mrs. Edith C. Tumlin (1918-2007).
Although she had just three years of schooling, she deeply and completely understood the power of education. It’s no accident she was once awarded Foster Parent of the Year.
Her daily mantra was: “Read and learn something new.” Her sincerity, her thirst for knowledge, her affecting spirituality and sagacious wisdom, all wrapped in love, helped me to be a successful person.
This snapshot of my time spent in foster care shows how students in foster care can suffer loss, detachment, violation and trauma—and still make emotional adjustments for learning.
How can more children in foster care beat the odds, as I was fortunate to do, and succeed educationally?
Empathy Plus Expectations
I believe that, to eliminate the invisible achievement gap for children and youth in foster care, educators can begin by nurturing these students with dignity. We can start by offering them an empathetic heart and an active ear when addressing their educational concerns.
Then, we have to go further. Knowing that frequent moves, neglect and abuse cause emotional distress and put children at higher risk of poor educational outcomes, teachers must ensure students in foster care read well enough to become critical thinkers and learners.
We must set expectations that allow them to soar beyond their presumed potential and help them meet those expectations.
The most successful approach allows children and youth in foster care the freedom of choice. Reading literature of choice and reading about what they live will stimulate the joy of reading, propelling them to become great readers.
I can attest to this because I started my journey as a lifelong reader the day my fifth-grade teacher marched the entire class down the hall to the library, encouraging us to pick whatever we wanted.
With the love and support of that teacher, many others, and most importantly, my final foster parent, I was able to become the best adult and teacher I could be. It has been an honor to share the gift of reading with many students and foster children like myself. It is my hope that these recommendations will help spread the gift of reading to many more foster children and help to close the invisible achievement gap.
To stock school and classroom libraries with stories that reflect the experiences of young people in foster care, I offer these recommendations:
- “Maybe Days: A Book for Children in Foster Care” by Jennifer Wilgocki
- “Murphy’s Three Homes: A Story for Children in Foster Care” by Jan Levinson Gilman
- “Kids Need to Be Safe: A Book for Children in Foster Care” by Julie Nelson
- “Families Change: A Book for Children Experiencing Termination of Parental Rights” by Julie Nelson
- “Brave Bart: A Story for Traumatized and Grieving Children” by Caroline Sheppard
- “Robbie’s Trail Through Foster Care” by Adam Robe
- “I Don’t Have Your Eyes” by Carrie Kitze
- “A Mother for Choco” by Keiko Kasza
- “The Family Book” by Todd Parr
- “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst
- “The Pinballs” by Betsy Byars
Further, I’d like to share two books I used in to develop a mentoring and literacy workshop focused on improving the lives of young girls in foster care.
- “The Road to Paris” by Nikki Grimes
In “The Road to Paris” Nikki Grimes tackles foster care from a child’s point of view, creating a heartfelt and transformative tale about a little girl, her brother, and their journey in foster care. After being tossed from home to home, they are hoping to finally return to the care of their biological mother.
- “Pictures of Hollis Woods” by Patricia Reilly Giff
“Pictures of Hollis Woods” was named a 2003 Newbery Honor Book. Hollis Woods began life in a park of the same name, where she was abandoned by her mother. After many stays in many foster homes, at age 12 Hollis lives with the Regan family. They offer to adopt her, but she refuses due to her guilt over an accident for which she feels responsible. She is then placed with Josiee, an elderly artist who is fun and full of affection. Hollis wants to stay. There’s just one catch: Josie has frequent memory lapses, possibly suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s. If social services workers find out, Hollis could very well be returned to the Regans.