It was a scene that I would see play out time and time again during my 13-year career, serving some of our nation’s most vulnerable youth. A child comes into care needing foster care, and the youth and their caseworker shows up with a couple of black garbage bags full of everything the child owned in the world. Now, I’m not really trying to play on your sympathy by asking you to imagine what it must feel like for a child to be removed from their family and watch their clothes and toys bagged up like trash. That such a scene requires empathy is self-evident, but not the point of this article. I want to discuss how, despite my best efforts as a leader and administrator, I could not stop this from being the case. It’s a national problem that is not unique to my agency, and yet, there does not seem to be an answer to it. I guess I’m writing this article in the hope that someone could solve the problem that I could not.
I Tried the Obvious Only To Fail
Lest you think I was incompetent, let me reassure you that I tried all of the obvious answers. As a private provider, I didn’t have access to the youth prior to their arrival in state custody and their placement with our agency. So in that regard, there was nothing I could do to stop children from showing up with all their belongings in a garbage bag. Starting where I could, we put out the call for donated luggage, and the public readily supplied us with enough baggage to get the job done.
My next step was to issue the directive that any child who showed up in our building with garbage bags as luggage was to be issued proper luggage. As a seasoned manager, I knew how to deliver the message with the appropriate intensity, and as a Marine veteran, my directions were rarely ignored. Moreover, I knew this was taking place as I would see staff helping the youth with luggage, and so it was a win in my mind. I’d solved the problem, or so I thought.
I Kept Seeing Garbage Bags Over and Over
The first time I knew that I had a bigger problem on my hands was when I started to notice youth, who I personally knew received luggage, sitting in our lobby with their belongings in black garbage bags. I question the staff and the foster parents, and no one seems to know what happened to the luggage. You see, it is common for youths placed into foster care to occasionally have to replace from one home to the next. Somewhere between them leaving our office for their first home and returning to the office to go to another new home, the plastic garbage bag came back to life.
In some cases, it was just that their personal belongings grew in number, and thus, they had a nice piece of luggage next to two or three garbage bags full of belongings. So we would give them some more luggage, and lo and behold, the garbage bags kept coming back.
A National Problem with No Easy Solution
In doing some basic research, I realized that I was not alone with regards to this problem. It’s a nationwide issue in the foster care system, and there are actually countless nonprofits that exist solely for the purpose of providing foster kids with luggage. There was actually no shortage of luggage in the foster care system, and rather, a lack of a functional answer seemed to elude us all. Towards the end of my time in foster care, I had finally settled on the belief both the adults and youth involved were just overwhelmed.
As much as I tried to impute the importance of a piece of luggage on foster parents and staff, the truth of the matter was that when a child is disrupting a home, the luggage isn’t your primary concern. Sadly, and perhaps most tragic, no matter how much we try to impress upon the youth that they have value, as does their belongings, they don’t believe it enough. The youths themselves readily load up their belongings in a garbage bag as they feel a garbage bag is indeed where their property belongs. I don’t accept defeat easily, but Hefty and Glad would be thrilled to know their garbage bags were sturdy enough to take me down.
Foster Care is in Dire Need of Solutions
The simple truth is that running a large foster care and adoption program is hard enough on its best day. For every child that we see through to permanency, it seems that a new problem raises its head. That means when we find a solution to anything that maligns our system, we need to embrace it with all of our might. If you find an outreach program that recruits more foster parents, then run with it. If you find a platform that helps you certify more quality parents at a faster pace, then buy it. Finally, if, by the grace of God, you find a system that permanently eradicates the plastic garbage bag from foster care, shoot me an email, and I’ll buy you a drink. How did a plastic garbage bag become the unofficial luggage of foster care? I have no idea, but I’ll celebrate with you the day that it is no longer so.