Sea Change:

a seemingly magical change, as brought about by the action of the sea.

(This was written for a Media for Social Change Symposium at USC in May 2013.)

Growing up, my mother, as the oldest girl, was frequently left in charge of her siblings when their mother disappeared for days, leaving no food in the house. She has very clear memories of crunching on uncooked rice by the handful from a cardboard box. When my mother was 11, in 1968, she finally told somebody about the abuse she suffered from the latest of many step-fathers, and, dysfunctional though it was, the only family she’d known was destroyed, scattered like wheat chaff across the plains of Kansas, and everyone blamed her.

She has memories of stuffing her clothes into trash bags in the middle of the night and being carted around the county in a stranger’s car. She remembers trying to make herself small in the wide back seat of a Buick until she was off-loaded into another stranger’s house. She remembers being unwanted and feeling ashamed because her siblings were who-knows-where, because of her, and she couldn’t do anything about it.
My mom on her wedding day.

When she was 17 she started dating my father. She didn’t know how to trust anyone but, like most abused or unwanted kids, she recognized love when she saw it and grabbed on tight.

During her senior year of high school, my mother won a scholarship to a small college a hundred miles away, but she didn’t go because she couldn’t imagine how she’d get there, how to register for classes, find a place to live, or buy groceries.

On my mother’s 18th birthday, my parents were married because, as my mother said, where else was she going to go? So she settled down to live life on the farm and had me instead, at age 19. Marriage was her lifeboat, until it became the sea and she realized she had no idea how to swim. She had my brother a few years later and was divorced soon thereafter.

In foster care, my mother learned that people were expendable, because she had been expendable, and to this day finds it impossible to trust anyone.  Even me.

Before taking the Media for Social Change class this semester, my vision of child welfare was like a memory of movie whose plot I’d forgotten but for a few standout characters: a bee-hived social worker with dangly earrings; disheveled, ruddy-faced kids; chain-smoking, ill-equipped parents; and my mom. I saw child welfare as a system of overtaxed good-hearted people who’d been let down by life or funding, and who were left to do their best on their own.

In this class I learned that their best as a parent might be leaving the kids home alone when they go out into the gritty streets to earn a buck, catch a buzz or track down a bag of diapers. Doing their best as a social worker might be leaving little kids in a dingy apartment with a shell-shocked mom and helping her file a restraining order against their dad, because at least there they can be together. The carpet might be threadbare and speckled with broken Cheerios, and maybe there are bars on the windows to keep the bad man out. But at least there the bad man has a face they can all recognize.

In this class we heard from well-heeled experts about far-reaching theories, about neighborhoods devoid of children, and prospective child-centered laws as black and white as the ink they’re written in. We learned about commitment and complexity from seasoned practitioners in Watts and Compton, why defining home for a child is not a matter of choosing one address over another, but more like reviewing all the evidence and then making your best guess as to what might be least damaging to the butterfly wings of a child’s heart.

We learned about love from a former foster youth who spoke a torrent of poetry, her words like raindrops soaking our skin, puddling beneath our desks, and mingling with our tears. We heard from a young man how it feels to be lied to by a foster parent, what it’s like to be kicked out with no explanation. We saw first-hand why trusting people never gets easier, how that feeling of being alone in a crowded room never goes away.

We learned that being in foster care is like living in a hurricane and all you can do is hold on. We heard from parents in recovery who bear a burden of guilt we can’t even imagine; we heard from children what it was like to watch their mother destroy herself, and how they all carry that destruction with them, even now.

We heard from the agents of change, mostly women who smart and driven, women who know that change is the gradual wearing away of old beliefs. They said if you have an idea about how to change something, commit to it. Be the relentless wave and rise up. Be willing to collaborate but unwilling to give in. Be willing to speak loudly for yourself and for those who can’t speak at all. Be eager to solve the problems you see. Be creative in your solutions. Try, and then try harder.

But within the din of so many voices and opinions, so much advice and tears, we felt the powerful force of foster youth roll over us again and again, moving the air around us, reshaping the ground beneath our feet. We heard their voices rise above the white noise and grow clearer, until they all hit the same note. Their message is definitive: Listen to us.


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