To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Careby Cris Beam
“Casts a searing eye on the labyrinth that is the American foster care system.” — NPR’s On Point
Who are the children of foster care? What, as a country, do we owe them? Cris Beam, a foster mother herself, spent five years immersed in the world of foster care looking into these/i>/b>
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A New York Times Notable Book
“Casts a searing eye on the labyrinth that is the American foster care system.” — NPR’s On Point
Who are the children of foster care? What, as a country, do we owe them? Cris Beam, a foster mother herself, spent five years immersed in the world of foster care looking into these questions and tracing firsthand stories. The result is To the End of June, an unforgettable portrait that takes us deep inside the lives of foster children in their search for a stable, loving family.
Beam shows us the intricacies of growing up in the system—the back-and-forth with agencies, the rootless shuffling between homes, the emotionally charged tug between foster and birth parents, the terrifying push out of foster care and into adulthood. Humanizing and challenging a broken system, To the End of June offers a tribute to resiliency and hope for real change.
“[A] powerful . . . and refreshing read.” — Chicago Tribune
“A sharp critique of foster-care policies and a searching exploration of the meaning of family.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Heart-rending and tentatively hopeful.” — Salon
An NPR Best Book of 2013
One of New York Magazine’s 10 Best Books of the Year
A Chicago Tribune Noteworthy Best Book of 2013
Boston Globe Top Nonfiction of 2013
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2013
A 2014 ALA Notable Book
"A triumph of narrative reporting and storytelling, as well as a thorough and nuanced analysis of an American institution deeply in need of reform. . . . Beam writes about social outcasts without stereotyping them. She gives them a much-needed voice and does what too many adults in the foster-care system can't, or won't: She advocates for them."
—New York Times Book Reivew
"Beam invites the reader inside the system for sometimes uncomfortably close but always compassionate visits with parents, children and workers. . . .She takes comfort in the 'countless academics and organizers and families with countless good ideas.' It’s this conclusion—rather than the admission that she doesn’t have the answer, even with her many lenses on the system both inside and out—that makes this a challenging and refreshing read."
"Heart-rending and tentatively hopeful"
"Informative, poignant, passionate, and persuasive . . . Almost certain to generate a sense of urgency in readers to fix a broken system that has sometimes managed to fly beneath the radar."
"Beam's intimate immersion into this system, as both a parent and an author, has brought great empathy and insight into a world most people never contemplate. Beam's book will likely change hearts and minds, and hopefully social policy."—Bay Area Reporter
"In this compassionate, rigorous book, Beam describes the failures of foster care, often by way of the moments of light and hope that are inscribed in its brokenness. It is her largeness of heart, manifest on every page, that makes her arguments impossible to ignore, and that informs the deeply engaging stories she so eloquently narrates."
—Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree
"Packed with messy humanity, To the End of June is an urgent and necessary book. It would break your heart were it not for the recurring tales of good people trying to do the right thing, and an undercurrent of rage at what life has served up these kids. Cris Beam brings careful listening, unflinching poise, and her own experience as a foster mother to this account of how the state tries to step up when parents can't."
—Ted Conover, author of Pulitzer-finalist Newjack and Coyotes
"To the End of June is a clear-eyed and heartfelt look at foster care in America. It will astound you and appall you. Cris Beam has written an extraordinary book about ordinary people trying to save kids' lives. She has cast a ray of light into a dark and hidden place."
—Tim Weiner, National Book Award-winning author of Legacy of Ashes
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Read an Excerpt
King Solomon’s Baby
It was an unusually warm October in Brooklyn; the men had switched their puffy coats for crisp white tank tops, and the young mothers pried back the plastic casings on their strollers. All two thousand people from the Roosevelt housing projects seemed to be tumbling outdoors, leaning on cars or gathering at the bodegas, slanting their faces toward the sun to soak in the last bits of warmth before winter. You couldn’t tell, on a clear morning like this, that the Roosevelt Houses still tipped the scales in the 81st Precinct with their homicide rates, that by nightfall the bodegas would fill with toothless addicts buying loosies for a quarter. A bright morning like this could make anybody grateful.
Slicing through the center of these projects is DeKalb Avenue, with its run of single-family homes and middle-class aspirations. But that fall, one of these houses stayed locked up tight against the sunshine. The eleven kids, most of them teenagers, weren’t allowed to go outdoors. In that house, in that family, outside spelled temptation, and besides, it was the Sabbath. So the kids, sequestered in their jewel-colored Nikes and their tight jeans, had to swallow their frustration and excess energy like a belly full of bees.
The house on DeKalb had a history. One hundred and twenty years before any Nike sneakers thumped up its three long staircases, and sixty years before the projects rose across the street, the place had been an evangelical “House of Rest.” Such houses dotted the East Coast at the turn of the century to provide divine healing along with rest, teaching, and “spiritual quickening” for the sick or the wayward. In a way, the essence of the place had reemerged. In a way, beyond the stone lions that flanked the stoop and behind the beveled glass front door, a kind of holy crusade was revving up.
Bruce Green, a tall black man of forty with round cheeks and a quick smile, had bought the house on DeKalb in 1999. He grew up in the Roosevelt projects on his block, and most of his children are foster kids, raised on the same rough street diet he was—in Brooklyn, or Queens, or the Bronx. His wife, Allyson, is from Belize, and, although she may be more stridently religious than he is, they both wanted a large home to raise a large family, to protect their children against the many dangers of their city through the power of their God and their unwavering attention. What they didn’t expect was that their children would come directly from the city itself, and that they’d be embroiled in several battles that would test their faith in just about everything.
The latest and largest battle was over a baby, born to a mother addicted to drugs and delivered to the Green family, after placements with a few other foster parents, when he was just over a year old. When I met baby Allen that Sunday some years ago, he was two and a half, and his biological father, also a former addict, was working with the courts to win him back. And at the core of this battle spun the core questions of foster care itself: Who decides the correct way to raise a child? Who makes the moves on the moral chessboard where a family’s right to privacy opposes a child’s right to protection from harm? And who should get to keep a child: the parents who nurse and tend him, or the parents who brought him into the world?
At the beginning, Allyson put the quandary in biblical terms. She told me the story of King Solomon.
In the story, two mothers are arguing over a single baby; both women believe the child to be hers. King Solomon procures a sword and offers to cut the baby in half so they can share. One mother agrees to the deal, but the second pleads: she’d rather have the baby alive and with the other woman than dead. Allyson is this second mother—she knows that if Allen were remanded to his birth father, destructive as this father may be, she’d rather have Allen physically and spiritually alive than eventually feeling imprisoned with her. Plus, she knows all of her foster children understand that if they leave, they can always come back. Allyson will always be “Mom.” She hopes, in fact, that some of the other birth parents orbiting the Green household can make bigger strides and do right by their kids.
“I was blessed to have four children of my own, that I gave birth to,” Allyson said, her thick Belizean accent pounding her harder consonants. Allyson is four years older than Bruce, and she’s pretty; makeup rarely graces her chocolate skin, but her hair is straightened and highlighted and it falls in loose waves down the fitted blazers and silky blouses she wears, even on warm days. Next to Bruce’s baggy jeans and T-shirts, Allyson’s leather boots and stockings render her the sophisticate at first glance. But she’s the one doing the dirty work: changing diapers and making dinner, wiping up the endless spills. “Then you have this other parent, who’s been through hell and back—the dad, the mom, any one of them—say they want to turn their lives around. It would be very inappropriate of me when I have the right to raise my own children to not give him that fair chance. Why would I want to take away his one little thing when I’ve got four of my own?”
But that was at the beginning. That was back in the fall, when the case with Allen’s dad was still theoretical and it looked as if the courts would lean in Allyson’s favor. Bruce and Allyson fell into foster care the way anyone falls into the traumas or miracles of their lives: by a mix of happenstance and hope. The year was 2000, and they already had three kids of their own at home—two little boys, Jalil and Bruce Junior, and a daughter named Sekina who was just becoming a teenager. (Allyson’s other son, born to a different father, was back in Belize.) Then one night, they got a phone call from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS)—the organization that handles child welfare for the five boroughs of New York. Bruce’s sister’s kids, then two and four, were being removed from their home; it wasn’t safe for them to even stay the night. Could Bruce and Allyson take them? Of course, they said. Anyone would.
Bruce, who looks a little like Jay-Z with his bald head and soft jaw, stayed pretty private about the exact circumstances surrounding his sister’s ordeal, but typically, this is the way a child is removed:
First, anyone who suspects abuse (by seeing marks, hearing shouts, noticing absence from school, and so on) can call a hotline. There are certain “mandated reporters”—doctors, police officers, teachers, daycare workers, and social workers, mainly—who are legally obligated to make these calls, but really, anyone can do it. The local city or county agency sends an investigator to the house to interview the parents and the kids, and to look around the rooms. A child abuse investigator can enter anyone’s home at any time without a warrant.
Usually, the investigator just opens a file on the family and follows up on anything that seems suspicious or untoward on that first visit, but if the parents pose an immediate danger, he can take the kids then and there. This is what happened with Bruce’s nephews.
Then the investigator has to find a place for the kids to go. He brings them back to the office, where a social worker starts making calls—usually to family members. In child welfare-speak, this is called “kinship care,” and New York State law requires it as the first line of outreach, though this law is often ignored. Still, it’s why the boys were placed with the Greens. If the child is older, say, a teenager, he might be able to indicate some adults with whom he could stay, if they’re willing to foster him. This works only in some places, however; several states require that all foster parents be licensed via weeks of state-approved parenting classes before they can take in kids, even if they’re related. Luckily for the Greens, ACS provides emergency licensing; Bruce and Allyson could shelter the boys first and take parenting classes later.
Once a child is settled for the night, his case gets passed from ACS to one of the roughly thirty foster care agencies the ACS contracts with, each with its own mission, style, budget, possibly a religious affiliation, and so on. At this point, ACS pretty much gets out of the way, and the foster agency handles the licensing, any troubles with the kid, connections with his birth parents, and so on. Which agency the child is assigned to is usually a matter of sheer luck, as they vary in aptitude as much as they do in approach. The kids too are subject to this roulette; if the ACS worker can’t find a kinship match, the child is shuttled to whichever agency has an available family on its roster.
After Bruce and Allyson took the call and accepted the nephews, they were sent to an agency near their home for their licensing. Because Bruce’s sister terminated her parental rights without a fight, they were able to adopt the older child. But the process took six years. The younger boy, who was severely autistic, ultimately had to be institutionalized. With four other kids in the house, Bruce and Allyson just didn’t have the extra reserves to take care of him.
But still, they wanted more kids. Or rather, their daughter, Sekina, wanted a sister; the house was full of boys. When I first met Sekina, she was a bubbly and outgoing sixteen-year-old. She looked like a girl version of Bruce: same round cheeks and full lips, same large dark eyes that could spark with mischief or anger in turn. But Sekina’s hair was what got her attention. When I met her, it was shoulder-length and streaked through with pink and neon purple, but I would see it red, blue, platinum, short, shaved, and razored through with her name curled around her skull.
Sekina started pestering Bruce and Allyson for a sister; now that they were licensed with an agency, she reasoned, they could just go back and ask for a baby girl. But Allyson was tired. She started longing for her life before motherhood, when she could go out with her friends on Friday nights, or take some space to herself. But with these desires, Allyson said, came illness.
The doctor called it depression. She called it her “mental battle”: between what she wanted to do, and what she was supposed to do. “I didn’t want to be tied down with no children. I was crying all the time; I wanted to be free. So I get down on my knees and I pray, saying Lord help me. And after that is when the dreams come to me.” In Belize, Allyson was raised primarily by her grandmother, along with thirty-two brothers and sisters (“My father was a bit of a rolling stone,” she admits), and her grandmother had dreams, too. Her grandmother’s dreams were prophetic, or instructive, so Allyson learned from an early age to trust their messages.
Allyson’s dreams were full of children, sitting on the floor with her grandmother. Her mother served them homemade apple juice. “I said, ‘Ma, why are you giving them that? They don’t want that stuff.’ And my grandmother says to me, ‘It’s not what they want; it’s what you have to give them.’ And finally I got up and understood.”
We were sitting in the living room, which, like most of the house’s common areas, seemed designed more for quiet contemplation than for entertaining children. The couches are low and comfortable, the lights dim and soothing. In the bathroom, a tile mosaic covers the large domed ceiling, and candles circle the tub. Allyson interpreted the apples in her dream to be symbolic of appreciation and knowledge, the gifts you give a teacher. “I’m here to be a teacher to these children—the same thing that was given to me by my grandmother, I’m supposed to give back.” Allyson told Bruce she wanted more children and the depression went away.
But what of her desire to be free, I asked, to live her own life? Allyson sighed and shook her head. “My will was to do what I wanted to do, but God’s will—God’s will was for me to do what I’m doing.”
So Bruce and Allyson called the agency. Per Sekina’s request, they told them they wanted to adopt a little girl. Or maybe two. Somewhere between the ages of six and ten, but definitely younger than Sekina.
“But they called us with a baby, sixteen months. A boy,” Allyson remembered, saying that at first they wanted to decline. “But when they told us he had been in three different foster homes already, it hit something in me. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, no. Bring him.’”
The baby was Allen. Sekina loved him right away; he was a baby after all. But then the agency kept calling. Their real emergencies were teenagers; couldn’t the Greens take in a few more kids?
Unfortunately for Sekina, the calls coincided with more of Allyson’s dreams. She dreamed of a woman saying, “This is my daughter; you have to take care of her.” That daughter was the Greens’ first teenager, Chanel, nearly two years older than Sekina. Then Allyson dreamed of a girl who looked like her niece, and a foster child named Fatimah showed up. And a white man, who was “spaced out” and followed Allyson everywhere. That was Russell, an autistic teenager. The dreams, and more kids, kept coming. Sekina never got her little sister; all the kids, save for Allen, were older than she was.
But Allyson couldn’t resist her dreaming. “Because when I resisted it, that’s when I got sick,” she said. “And ultimately, it’s not what you want, it’s what you’re supposed to do. This is what life is supposed to be. We’re supposed to be of service.”
So Sekina, in losing her place as the oldest child, became perhaps a little bit bossier, a little more specific about her position with her siblings. “I tell them all the time they’re not just adopting parents, they’re adopting a family, and if it weren’t for me, if I didn’t let them be here, they’d be out on the street,” Sekina told me one afternoon early into that next spring. She was straightening her hair, heating up the comb on the stove. The pink and purple streaks were gone, and she had decided, for the moment, to go for a natural brown. One of Sekina’s four foster sisters was sitting on the kitchen stool watching her, and she rolled her eyes. Sekina caught the look. “It’s true. But I like to help people. That’s why I want to be a pediatric nurse.”
Sekina had a particularly proprietary hold over baby Allen, claiming to anyone who would listen that he was the only foster child she originally wanted. And Sekina, maybe even more than Bruce or Allyson, was terrified of losing him.
“I’ll go crazy if Allen goes to his father’s—did you hear about Allen’s brother?” Sekina said, her eyes flashing as she ran the comb through her hair. “He’s HIV positive—and he was in the system before he was even born! They called us and asked if we wanted him and my mother said yeah, but the thing is, unless Fatimah gets adopted or something, we already have too many people here.”
Sekina was right: Allen did have a new baby brother, born to the same drug-addicted mother and a different father, neither of whom wanted him. The logical placement choice for this baby would be with the Greens, so Allen and his brother could grow up together. But there was the issue of space: even with four thousand square feet, the Greens were already at the legal maximum capacity with all of their foster kids. And there was the issue of Tom, Allen’s biological father: if he got custody of Allen in a few months or years, he’d separate the boys, potentially adding more trauma to Allen’s young life.
Sekina wasn’t the only one on DeKalb who adored Allen; in a house full of teenage tension—especially a house with such strict rules about staying indoors—a toddler was a welcome distraction. That spring and summer, Allen could bumble around the warm house clad only in his diaper, reaching for anyone who would pick him up or keep him from bumping into the big glass table in the center of the living room. On nearly every surface there’s a sculpture or painting or something equally appealing for a toddler to yank on; Allyson says decorating is her way to de-stress. A wooden elephant stalks the center of the table; a curlicued stand draped in gray cloth props up a painting of a lion; a gold Buddha perches atop the television screen. But Allen focused on people more than things. He was a quiet child, and trusting, sticking one of his feet into a conversation with a half-smile on his face and then running away, hoping someone would engage in a game of chase. If no one did, he’d scramble back, still without a sound, and climb into an open lap, settling his head into a chest or neck to suck his thumb. Everybody loved Allen, but he wasn’t an easy baby at first.
“He used to cry a lot, and he was always angry—I’ve never seen a child who was so little with so much anger,” Allyson said, remembering that the first week he was with her, he only wet his diapers and didn’t soil them once. She thought he was constipated because of the poor diet in his last foster home. She still felt bad that a kid so young had been through so much change.
There are a lot of reasons that kids, even babies like Allen, end up shuttling from foster home to foster home before they get adopted or go back to their biological parents. In New York, the conflicts and the chaos start within twenty-four hours. After the child has been removed and placed with either relatives or strangers, the parents have the right to plead their case. The parents do this with ACS in a meeting called “family team conferencing.” The biological family, the ACS caseworker, and a community advocate together determine what would make the home safe enough for the child to return. Does the stepfather need to move out? Could Grandma move in? Does the family need help with food stamps or vouchers to get heat and hot water? Does the mother need anger management or rehab? The team draws up a plan and they set a date, generally several months away, to present it to a judge. If the parents disagree with the plan, they can get their own lawyers, to fight for their side. After this come the court procedures, the promises, the reunifications, the battles, the multiple placements, and all the things that foster care is famously bad at, which is safely sailing a child through a temporary boarding while everybody waits for a fairy-tale ending.
In this time period, which can be months or many years, everybody gets a different social worker—the child, the biological parents, and the foster parents. In this time, more lawyers step in and draw up more plans: How often will the parent see the child; what will visitations be like? Where will visits be held; what are the milestones toward reunification? Throughout this, a judge, who in New York City sees about fifty family court cases every day, makes the binding decisions as to who must do what by when.
Meanwhile, the kid has been living in a real house, with real foster parents, placed at a moment’s notice. If the foster family is a bad fit, if the kid doesn’t like her new family, if they don’t speak the same language, if there’s abuse, if they live across town (and sometimes across state lines), if the foster parents practice a different religion, send the kid to new schools, have unfamiliar styles of discipline, or if the kid simply misses her biological parents, there can be conflict. Foster kids run away; foster parents terminate relationships. It’s not unusual, while waiting for somebody to kiss the frog and the real parents to come home, for a foster child to live in ten or twenty different houses. Fatimah, Bruce and Allyson’s sixteen-year-old daughter, had been in twenty-one homes since she was five years old—and before she was placed with the Greens.
In Allen’s case, Tom wasn’t around for the family team conferencing meeting with ACS when his son was removed. He was in an inpatient rehab facility. ACS removed Allen from his biological mother when she skipped out on her own drug treatment program, and Tom didn’t find out about it until several days later. By then, Allen was living with his first foster mother. That woman, the story goes, found Allen too taxing and sent him back to the agency. The next mom wanted to go to Puerto Rico and couldn’t take Allen with her, so back he went again. By the time Allen was placed with the Greens at sixteen months, he had lived with four different “mothers” and his future was still uncertain.
Tom had followed Allen through all of his placements; he saw his son during supervised visits at the agency. He graduated from rehab and started taking parenting classes. Allen turned two at the Greens’, and then two and a half; he was talking more, smiling a lot, and running, running everywhere. And then a judge upgraded Tom’s status: he could start bringing Allen back to his apartment for weekends.
Meet the Author
CRIS BEAM is a journalist who has written for several national magazines as well as for public radio. She has an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University and teaches creative writing at Columbia and the New School. She lives in New York.
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