The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Book Review: To the End of June
Foster teen interviews author and foster mom Cris Beam
Ricki Rupine
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To write her new book, To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, author Cris Beam spent five years with older foster children, foster parents, and biological parents. She also did a ton of research about how the foster care system has changed over the years and how different states use their child welfare money. Beam concludes that what’s most important to kids in care is getting to stay with an adult who loves them and sticks by them, whether that’s a biological parent or a foster parent.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: I was a high school teacher, and I’ve known a lot of foster kids. Before my daughter Christina became my daughter, she was my student. They ran out of space in her group home and they wanted to put her into juvenile hall though she hadn’t committed a crime. We agreed that was terrible, and I said, “Stay with me.” I was outraged that a system supposedly designed to protect children would put her in juvenile hall! That made me want to look into why a $20 billion system was failing the kids so spectacularly.

Q: While researching, did you ever worry that you didn’t have enough information?

A: There’s a lot of data, a lot of studies on foster kids, but almost no research on foster parents. Most of the research is anecdotal. No big studies of who foster parents are, their educations, their backgrounds, their professions, why they chose to do it. No surveys of how they treat the kids. And this is who we give our children to!

Q: Tell us about your own childhood.

A: I left my mom’s house when I was 14 because she was mentally ill, and it was pretty bad there. I moved in with my dad, and someone suspected abuse there and called protective services. Nothing came of it, but I was in terror that I was going to get removed.

I never really got over the guilt of leaving my mom. And I had a feeling of loss, too. I noticed that a lot of foster kids, even if they hate their biological parents, feel that sense of loss. I wanted to learn from them how they manage the loss and grief and how they find their resilience.

Q: Did you train to become a foster parent to Christina?

A: They put her with me, and we set up a bedroom, got into a routine, put her into a new school, and then the agency called and said, “You’re not licensed; we have to move her.” Then they said they’d put her into a home with sex offenders! She’d never been a sex offender! I said, “How do I get licensed?” and they said, “It takes 10 weeks, and meanwhile we’ll put her in the sex offender home.”

image by Monk-Getty Images; Julien Capmiel

So we found a friend who was licensed and she said she’d take her, and on the books she became the licensed parent. In reality, Christina came back and lived with me. Christina aged out at 18 [this was in California], but she wasn’t ready to leave then, so she stayed with me until she was 20.

Q: It seems to me that agency workers just want to get kids off their roster. What do you think?

A. Certain individuals care about the kids, but they’re bouncing off a huge bureaucracy. Overall, I think you’re right: The agencies are not taking good care of kids, especially teenagers. They should follow them well after 18 or 21, provide real services, and make sure they’re OK. Kids need more than Independent Living classes and even mentors. Kids need someone to love them well past 18 or 21, through their first big break-up and their first job.

Within the system there are good people wanting to do good things. As a system, though, it’s not working as well as it should. That’s why teenagers often feel like they’re interchangeable parts. They need human beings to care about them.

Q: How did your parenting of Christina differ from the foster parents in your books?

A: I made a lot of mistakes because I wasn’t expecting to be a parent. Christina kept visiting her biological mom, and I would get so upset with her because every time she’d come home angry and breaking things and just a mess. Her mother was very cruel to her. I’d say, “I love you, I’m here! Why are you going to see that monster who treats you like crap?!”

I now know why Christina went back to her bio mom, from the research I did on the book. I saw so many kids do it, and I saw good foster parents talk to the kids when they came back from those visits…. Maybe I was jealous because I couldn’t go back to my mom. I wish I’d been more mature.

Because she was a teenager, fortunately, Christina knew that some of her “bad” behavior and freakouts were really not because of me. She knew it was because of abuse in old foster homes or her biological home.

I didn’t have great parenting myself, so I didn’t know what to do. But I did stick it out. I just kept saying “I love you. You’re my kid. Let’s keep working on this.” You need training, yes, but it’s really about sticking with the kid no matter what.

Q: What advice would you give to a teenager in care who is thinking about running away because she feels alone and misunderstood?

A: I have a lot of respect for teenagers. Sure they have an impulsive streak, but teenagers are resourceful and smart. Teenagers I know who’ve grown into successful adulthood, who’ve found love and stability and peace, have connected with adults who will be there for them and help them. So if you’re unsafe, do what you need to do, but run away to a safe place. Run to an adult who will take care of you; don’t run to the streets.

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(WEB-2013-09-13)

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