Burning down the house

For 23 out of my 30 years as an art therapist, I worked with kids in foster care. And I’ll probably always continue to be involved with that system in one way or another. How could I have worked so long in a system that is such a nightmare? Why would I want to continue?

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My Block, girl, 8 years old

The children we worked with were poor, abused, neglected, unheard, invisible. With few exceptions, they were beautiful kids, although sometimes it took awhile to be able to see that. They were depressed. They were filled with rage. Sometimes they acted out in aggressive ways. Kids who have been told all their lives that they’re worthless tend to destroy things, their own or other people’s. They often try to destroy relationships. I don’t think any of us ever thought of their behavior as “wrong,” though. They had been given no other way to express themselves to show the world how they were feeling. One thing we never did:

We never blamed the child.

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Untitled, girl, 12 years old

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The Boy in the Scribble Scrabble Suit, boy, 7 years old

Sometimes, when behavior got really out of control, we did have to contain kids. This involved hospitals, residential treatments, changes of placement. Sometimes it involved the criminal justice system. Heartbreak city for everyone. But we did what we had to do to keep everyone safe. One thing we never did, though:

We never blamed the child.

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Untitled, boy, 10 years old

So many of my colleagues were just such superstars. Foster care is filled with people who are ready to jump in and do their best, who care deeply about kids and their families. Really, why else would anybody work in foster care? The system’s a nightmare, the options always feel very limited, and the money’s lousy. But the mission is pure wonderful. We tried to create safety for children and those around them, to listen to what they had to say about their lives, to help them start to trust others and love themselves, to feel better, to act better. We tried to help their families get back on their feet. This usually involved a great deal of struggle for the kids and everyone connected to them. We were often frustrated, with the system, with the kids, with the parents. We tore our hair out when they made bad decisions, which they did frequently. In the end, there were successes, and there were failures. One thing we never did, though:

We never blamed the child.

The relationships I formed with the children, teens, parents, and colleagues during these years have enriched my life in the most profound ways imaginable.

Why is it any different for whole communities that are poor, abused, neglected, unheard, invisible? I don’t blame anyone for trying to contain the violence in Baltimore, but I do blame those who want to blame the victims, instead of offering them support, services, caring, safety from the storm, listening ears, respect. If we all tried to offer those things, it would change all our lives in the most profound ways imaginable.