Care Leavers

I encountered the term “care leaver” for the first time a few weeks ago.1 It refers to people who were formerly in some type of foster care situation (Australian and U.K. usage). It sounds very awkward to my ears, though it made sense once explained. Adverbing is, perhaps, an empowering aspect of the term, centered on the individual. And “leaver” is a value-neutral word: one could leave the grocery store, or a job, or an abusive situation.

I started wondering about equivalent terms in the American context. I have seen references to children who “age out” of the foster care system, which is descriptive but not quite the same sort of label. It’s also quite passive—it’s not that they left, it’s just that time marches onward.

This apparent passivity may reflect a certain helplessness with which foster care can be framed. (Note that I’m not a social worker, or particularly close to issues of foster care. Okay, caveats in place.) There are a lot of American kids in foster care (even though those numbers have, apparently, dipped in recent years). A lot of them are kids of color. African American kids are still disproportionately represented (26%, down from a third of the foster population in 2002), as are Hispanic kids (21%). The Native American kids are still a small total percentage of the fostered population, but in 2012 they still entered the system at almost the same rate as a decade earlier (13.0 versus 14.1 per 1,000).2

This is just one data set, and the brief report does not grapple with the reasons for the demographic shifts (though it does note that the changes are driven by certain states, which suggests where the interested researcher should begin reviewing policy shifts, migration patterns, etc.) Nor does it engage with the population of children in informal care situations. (Okay, caveats in place.)

But: foster care participation is largely presented in economic and racial terms. (When speaking of the U.S., it’s hard to have a meaningful discussion of one without the other. The histories of Australia and the U.K. are also fraught, though different in the specifics; but I’m not well-equipped to discuss those cases in depth.) 2015’s Annie isn’t black because Quvenzhané Wallis is a bankable young actress. She’s black because, despite looking like only a quarter of foster kids, she meets the default expectation of what foster kids look like.3 The U.S. doesn’t engage well with issues of race or class, and has a really hard time engaging with both at once. Negative stereotypes (lazy and shiftless) dovetail with more sympathetic critiques (systemic barriers and lack of opportunity). Whether you buy into ideas of innate inferiority or systemic inequalities, there’s still a sense that things can’t change, at least in the near term.

We know Annie is black in 2015. We know her adoption is a fantasy. We know that, in real life, she’d remain in foster care until she wasn’t. She wouldn’t get to leave. She’d just age out. She would still be society’s problem (somebody has to pay for the increasingly frayed safety net of a severely undereducated and nearly unemployable black woman, and thanks to Ronald Reagan we’ve got a handy term for that).4 And that’s…just kind of the way the real world works. It’s the system. There’s a lot of passive voice, a lot of time passing, and not a lot of kids empowered to walk out the door and leave.

  1. Shurlee Swain, “Stakeholders as Subjects: The Role of Historians in the Development of Australia’s Find & Connect Web Resource,” The Public Historian 36, No. 4 (November 2014), 38-50. 
  2. “Recent Demographic Trends in Foster Care,” U.S. Department of Health and Family Services, September 2013, (accessed 15 January 2015). 
  3. Note that red-headed Annie’s parents died in a fire, thus preserving the possibility that they might someday have virtuously pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and resumed their parental duties. The 2015 parents’ fate remains a mystery, leaving the audience to assume that they are, perhaps, still out there somewhere, not being good parents. Their adorable moppet deserves better, in the form of a wealthy multiracial nuclear family. The systemic changes are a side note, period appropriate but largely irrelevant to the story: the vast political shift of the New Deal and a privately-funded literacy effort are simply signaling devices for one character’s development. 
  4. Josh Levin’s article looks art the history of the woman whose example got the “welfare queen” ball rolling, despite welfare fraud being one of the less troubling crimes of which she was accused. “The Welfare Queen,” Slate, 19 December 2013, (accessed 15 January 2015).