Sunday, April 01, 2007

Too eager to label foster children

Photograph of Samara from
This weekend, I watched Leslie Stahl's December interview titled: Lost and Found. The topic was reuniting foster foster children with their biological families.

As a former foster child, I watched the interviews with mixed emotions. I began to feel deep concern for the children being interviewed.

There can be a thin line between news reporting and exploitation. I call it 'the Drew Barrymore' syndrome. Most adults learn to define the boundaries of their levels of self-disclosure. But young people are more transparent - and that transparency can make them vulnerable. (Are there any incidents from your life as a teenager that you would not like for strangers to watch on TV?)

The first teenager to be interviewed was 13-year-old Samara, who had been in foster care for her entire life, and felt depressed (wouldn't you?) Every holiday that went by that she didn't have a family to spend with was painful for her.

Samara has recently been reunited with her mother through "Family Finding." They showed a clip of Samara and her mother on Oprah. The mother had a look of joy and rebirth on her face. Why not? She had been given grace; an unexpected gift, a lovely young daughter, a second chance.

But Samara's face was clouded by skepticism. Understandably. Over the years of spending holidays alone, of not having a mother around her, Samara has taught herself not to cry, not be vulnerable.

As the clip from Oprah is shown onscreen, Leslie Stahl comments on the fact that Samara seems to be finding it hard to look at her mother, how she keeps looking away. Stahl attributes it to Samara's "mental problems."

Mental problems? Not necessarily. Too often teens-in-care are pathologized by the "professionals" in their lives.

Try this: Have you ever found it difficult to look at someone whose actions have hurt you? Can it be hard to trust someone who has let you down? Rather than labeling Samara as a troubled young teenager, I see her as a person of strength and courage. She has made the choice to forgive her mother, and their reconciliation will be a process. Life is not a Hallmark movie. The credits have not yet rolled. She is 13 years old and it troubles me that for the first 13 years of her life she has been given drugs and labels, when all she really needed was a family and love.

On to the next two teenagers in this interview, siblings Beverly and Melvin. They were reunited with their father -- only to discover that he was an alcoholic, their mother had died from a drug overdose and that their father has a total of 10 children, none of whom he has cared for.

In their interview with Leslie Stahl, Melvin begins to label himself as "defiant" because of his reluctance to build a relationship with his long-estranged father. But the look on his face, and that of his sister, is not a look of defiance. It's disappointment.

Imagine if you had built up hopes about your long-lost father. How he would come back into your life with a reason for being gone for so long. He was... abducted by aliens... in the Secret Service... stranded on a desert island.

But, all the time he had been thinking of you, right? He had always been thinking of you. In that dream, your father isn't off fathering other children. He's not drowning his sorrows in a bottle.

When dreams die, we feel sadness and anger. We feel disappointment. That is a normal reaction to facing the rift between what is ideal and what is reality. Teenagers are idealists; they want adults to display perfection. It is hard to face our frailty, our humanity.

Melvin listened to his father's promises to "be there for them always" with an impassive expression on his face. That's not mental illness. It's emotional survival. There is a very real possibility that their father will be unable to fulfill his promise to Melvin and his sister, and they will be left alone again.

Stahl, Leslie. Lost and Found: Leslie Stahl on Efforts to Place Children Back With Their Families. CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, Dec. 17, 2006.

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This is so right.

And you know if they had shown joy and openness the worker would have been concerned about RAD.

They were right to be cautious and disappointed.
This seems so obvious to me, you yondalla. Why is it not obvious to everyone else?

edit: me, to you, and to yondalla....

I wasn't an Englis major.

People are limited by the scope of their personal experiences. So, sometimes you have to point out the *obvious* to them.

Leslie Stahl is an amazing woman. I have read her autobiography. She had to work hard to break through the glass ceiling in order to be a success that she is today.

But, we all have our blind spots.

So, Christine, in answer to your question, I would say that Yondalla, you and I have been sensitized to the issues and challenges surrounding people in and from foster care.

We can remember and/or empathize with where young people are coming from...

I would also say that many journalists school themselves to "turn off" their empathy when conducting interviews.

My friend Stephen is a journalist, and over the years, I have watched him emotionally detach from many of the (sometimes horrific) stories that he has to face every day.

Anyway... that's my best answer,
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