When we hear about foster care in the news, the headlines are seldom sunny. Kids are abused by foster parents. Kids are bounced between a dozen homes. In Austin earlier this year, 2-year-old Alexandria Hill died in a foster home after being removed from parents who, it turns out, were not abusing her.
But even when you’re not hearing about it, and when the story isn’t horrifying, more than 400,000 children around the U.S. are living in foster homes, and a massive, state-to-state bureaucracy is trying to ensure their welfare. There are successes and failures, of course, but mostly the outcomes are in between.
This is perhaps the clearest lesson in a new book, “To the End of June” by Cris Beam, which displays this system in all of its emotional, social and political complexity.
Beam, who left home at 14 and became a foster parent to a teenager while still in her late 20s, uses her own story as a diving board. She had a brutal childhood. Her mother resorted to prostitution. Food supplies dwindled. “I remember being afraid,” she writes.
With an easy, poised rhythm, Beam portrays families facing questions about how to care for kids and even love them, while not becoming so attached that they cannot give the child back to the birth parents. “The basic tenet of foster care, and its core complication, is that foster care is meant to be a temporary solution,” she writes. “We may have better and more creative ways to shove the puzzle pieces together, but the game was shattered so long ago, it’s never going to integrate perfectly.”
Often the foster child — the main character — is too young to speak. Oliver is “a round baby, with slightly crossed eyes, a mop of soft brown curls, and a drooly wide grin.” Beam’s friend Steve and his partner Erin are loving foster parents living in Austin. The teenage birth mother, Caitlin, signed away Oliver on a paper napkin.
But then Caitlin gets her act together and wants Oliver back. We follow Steve’s emotions, since he had planned on eventually adopting Oliver, and his tight-rope walk between wanting to help Caitlin and also wanting her, perhaps even for Oliver’s sake, to fail.
A lesser writer would hastily marshal our sympathies, but Beam leaves things messy. Steve has good reasons for wanting to keep Oliver, but the system must focus on reuniting families. There are no villains here, and only very human heroes.
Many books with a half-journalistic, half-personal approach fail on both fronts, allowing facts to feel less authoritative and personal experiences too generalized. Beam has found a way to tuck her facts into stories so that they are emotionally resonant. We learn that “a child abuse investigator can enter anyone’s home at any time without a warrant” in the midst of one terrified family’s story.
She seldom expresses outrage at moments that may confound her readers, like when she learns that many of the case workers making crucial decisions about whether to remove a child are fresh out of college themselves.
Instead, Beam is guided by her own interests, and has a stronger sense of empathy because she has struggled personally with the big questions, which come back again and again as prayer-like refrains. When is poor parenting really just poverty? Who can define neglect and abuse when our cultural notions of both have changed so much over time? Whipping your kids, after all, was accepted not that long ago. There aren’t ever going to be answers to some of these questions, because state power and child welfare will always be defined in new ways.
Race is always lurking. The foster care system, she explains, is “akin to the criminal justice system” and “experts argue about the sources of disparity. Is the root problem there one of poverty, inequitable opportunities, institutionalized racism, or one giant pile-up of minor discriminations? Again, the answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes.”
Beam should not be faulted for being light on prescriptions. We’ll never know how to fix this system without deep investigations of the hardest parts of the policy puzzle, and she chooses caution rather than the outrage that often accompanies headlines. “The rate of removals today has less to do with the literal rate of physical abuse or neglect,” she writes, “and more to do with a fickle public intermittently enraged by what they hear on the news.”
She has given us a far deeper picture than a shocking daily news story, but still the questions linger: How can we improve the system, and how can we avoid tragedy?
To the End of June
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26