I recently came upon the poetry of Nayyirah Waheed, a poet who elicits intense emotion and unrivaled beauty. Her choice of simple words with unique grammar, dashes and no capitalization, brings a profound need to relate her poetry to the lived human experience. Here is one example that I came across in my exploration of personhood.
Wow, right? A poem, so simple, eight words that speak loudly to me and causes me to pause to think about my work. As a clinical social worker, what immediately draws me to this poem is it’s ability to be related to the lived experience of children in foster care. To me, I translate the connection as ‘where you are in your lived experience is not what must define you; it is just where you are’. Simply put, a place in time. But, as I ponder this a bit more I ask myself, “Ok, I understand but how do you help clients see it this way? How do you not let what happened or where you were define who you are?” Seems impossible, right?
In my previous post, I looked to philosophy to understand what I mean by personhood and I think it has relevance here. John Russon (2003), proposes that “complex self-identities” (personhood) is created through the relationship between the self and other (p.26). If we believe Russon’s thoughts and examine the foster care experience, we deduce that an individual would develop through their experiences. However, Russon is not proposing that we become the other, with ‘other’ in this case referring to the foster care experience, just that we are influenced by it. The exploration of the intersection of experience and personhood throughout this project is to understand how strong and lasting the relationship can be.
With this in mind I propose that we think of ‘foster care‘ as an adjective, generally speaking, as the description of an experience. Hence, the foster care experience rather than being in foster care, or a child living through a foster care experience rather than foster child. In this vain, I look to the narratives of those who have had such an experience.
Recently, Oregon Public Broadcasting shared a piece entitled “I Was So Broken’: 14 Years in Oregon’s Foster Care System”. The story focuses on Mia Storm, a now 32-year-old mother, who shares her foster care experience. Her first person narrative includes her multiple placements, horrific abuse at the hands of her paid caregivers, as well as being prescribed psychotropic drugs that she defends were given to control her behaviors, not symptoms related to mental health illness. Mia sums up her foster care experience in the following way:
My whole life is remembering those foster homes. I lived in bags and boxes. I was sent from one place to another. There was nothing that was mine, nothing that was sacred. That is what I experienced. I believed that nobody loved me.
What we learn from Mia is that her foster care experience frames her past and also impacts her present. She is currently managing the memories of being in the child welfare system and the shadow it casts on who she is today, tarnished by trauma. Mia works to be a good mother to her daughter and feels that she has made many positive choices in her life; however, her past lived experience is ever-present. Her foster care experience impacts her view of herself and how she faces the adversity today and as she sees her future. Unfortunately, Mia’s story is not unique in my practice. Children, like her, still face the same struggles navigating themselves in a broken system. Who they were before their foster care experience is not who they are during or after.
I end my post with another powerful poem by Nayyirah Waheed that could be viewed from two perspectives: share with children that are in child welfare as well as read it from a professional helper view point. As a clinical social worker, I listen to first person narratives of lived experiences from children and work to form a relationship with them to explore who they are now despite the child welfare system. We must realize that just as memories are formed through interactions between the self and other, the understanding of the lived experience is found the same way.