By Erica Thomas
As children Steve Jobs, Eddie Murphy, and Domino’s founder, Tom Monaghan, spent time in the foster care system. Jobs and Monaghan were adopted; Murphy was eventually reunited with his mother. While these well-known names are often celebrated as examples of a foster care success story, other children in the system are slapped with detrimental labels – rude, immoral, juvenile delinquents.
As a “foster care success story” myself, I understand how feeling loved, safe, and accepted – things the average child inherently has – empowers a child to grow into a successful adult.
Labels create a narrative that impacts the system by deterring potential foster families and negatively affecting the mental health of kids in foster care. America is facing a shortage of foster care homes, especially within communities of color. It is imperative to debunk the stereotypes of the foster care system and, most importantly, the children in it. Insistent stereotyping causes known psychological and social harm to individuals. Aside from being labeled as ‘other’ to outsiders, the stereotyped group can become secluded and/or start to display aspects of the false stereotype to comply with expectations.
“Threats to social identity can harm people’s prospects for success, particularly for individuals who are already socially disadvantaged,” states researcher Peter Belmi. In 2015, Belmi and other researchers at Stanford University investigated the long-term, societal, and individual effects of negative stereotypes.
The evidence shows how even seemingly inconsequential moments – ‘like reading an article containing a negative stereotype or just remembering a painful instance of being judged unfairly’ – can impact one’s mental health.
“Social identity threats feel particularly disrespectful because they are tied to enduring group memberships. Stereotypes convey to people that they are being judged by their group membership and not by their individual merits,” continues Belmi.
Children enter foster care for numerous reasons, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with their behavior. The main reasons children enter the system are to escape neglect and abuse. They seek a haven from a physically, mentally, and emotionally unhealthy environment.
There are more than 400,000 children in foster care, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. 400,000 children who deserve a safe and loving place to call home. 400,000 children who deserve equal footing as they start their life’s journey.
To make any long-lasting change, society must scrap the preconceived notions regarding children in the foster care system. We need to begin to see each child for the individual they are and understand that each child has their own story – an individual circumstance – that brought them into the foster system.
About the author: Erica Thomas is a former State Representative for Georgia’s 39th district. As an adult that aged out of the foster care system, Thomas uses her platform to advocate for children and is the co-chair of the Kidsave’s EMBRACE Project task force.