Fixing Foster Care: Your Summer Reading List

As a foster parent and librarian, I’ve seen some shit. As we work to confront the structural racism of policing, foster care has come up as an equally broken world which actively and disproportionately harms Black and LGBTQ youth and their families. Which, no shit.

I’ve had friends ask me how they can help, how their church can get involved, or where they can donate. There are ways to get involved on the ground, but first, it’s vital to read about the past and present realities of foster care, and to listen to current and former foster youth. If you don’t center those voices first, work can quickly turn into white saviorism and charity that doesn’t address the problems because you haven’t read about the problems to identify them. And I don’t mean the stuff people know about, like funding, or complicated court systems. I mean the real hard stuff, like realizing that white parents and CASA workers can — through their own implicit bias — be agents of harm rather than good, too. The system involves everyone, here.

As such, this list elevates work by former foster youth and adoptees, rather than the glossy Rachel Hollis-type foster parent memoirs (which are all too often Extremely Problematic!). If you want to help on the ground, help in your mind first with these reads. Is every book explicitly about foster care? Nope! But every one of these will prove enlightening when it comes to looking at foster care in a new way. Now run, don’t walk; as a public librarian, it’s my duty to tell you to go put these books on hold (and if your library doesn’t have it, ask them to purchase it!).

To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care by Beam, Cris

This was one of the first books I read about modern foster care, and it was profoundly informative. Think EVICTED but for foster care.

The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care by Bernstein, Nina

Yes, it’s a long book, which is appropriate for a long, winding story. This National Book Award finalist follows the story of Shirley Wilder, a young runaway in the beginning, and eventually her son, Lamont.

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Chung, Nicole

Foster care is deeply connected to adoption, particularly transracial adoption, and for this reason, Chung’s book is included here.

They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E.

I didn’t think I would wind up with over 70 highlights in my Kindle while reading this, but the structural way white women are often the faces of Kind, Noble, Saintly foster mothers is mirrored from the days when they were the Kindle, Noble, Saintly slave owners.

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Joyce, Kathryn

In my experience as a foster mother, I have had my local Dept. of Social Services (DSS) liaison reach out with offers of “Foster Parents Night Out” (aka, free babysitting) and Christmas gifts from local churches who have decided that providing their time and resources to foster families will be their area of ministry. This follows the trend of churches looking at foster care and adoption as “widow and orphan” ministry, and this book dives deep into what that looks like (spoiler alert, it’s often unethical as heck). Personally, until churches work to keep kids out of foster care by offering their services and resources to families in crisis (Care Portal appears to be a model that offers up this strategy), I’ll be abstaining from the free babysitting (however kindly intentioned).

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Speaking of the phrase however kindly intentioned, did you know Malcolm X was a former foster youth? “A Judge McClellan in Lansing had authority over me and all of my brothers and sisters. We were ‘state children,’ court wards; he had the full say-so over us. A white man in charge of a black man’s children! Nothing but legal, modern slavery — however kindly intentioned.” Bonus content: the academic paper However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs begins with this quote.

Adoptionland: From Orphans to Activists by Myung Ja, Janine

Many books featuring the voices of adoptees focus on personal stories, and while this book begins with that, it then takes it a step further by extending those stories to activism. As the blurb says, “These stories are usually abandoned by the very industry that professes to work for the “best interest of children,” “child protection,” and for families. However, according to adopted people who were scattered across nations as children, these represent typical human rights issues that have been ignored for too long. For many years, adopted people have just dealt with such matters alone, not knowing that all of us — as a community — have a great deal in common.”

Three Little Words by Rhodes-Courter, Ashley

Listen to former foster youth!

In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption by Roorda, Rhonda M.

The Association of Black Social Workers opposed domestic transracial adoption for a long time. This book gives voice to an underheard voice in the conversation: Black adoptees.

Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth by Siegal, Erin

Children continue to be stolen from their families through unethical international adoption, ICE, and border patrol. Foster care sits adjacent to this, particularly as children detained by ICE land in foster homes.

In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories edited by Simon, Rita James & Roorda, Rhonda M.

This book provides a broader look at transracial adoption through the lens of adoptees rather than adopters. While not specifically about foster care, the point of view can and should be applied to children living in homes that do not match them racially, because the experiences are often very similar for foster youth.

Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption edited by Trenka, Jane Jeong & Oparah, Julia Chinyere

This book includes many Korean adoptees, as well as adoptees of color, and Native voices, such as Sandra White Hawk, Founder and Director of First Nations Repatriation Institute and Native adoptee.

So you’ve placed your holds. What now?

Listen to foster youth. Listen to them hard. Listen to them often. If you’re a foster parent or prospective foster parent, join groups that support and elevate the voices of former foster youth; they have a lot to say, and so often, it goes unheard. Unheard because it’s hard, unheard because white foster parents want so badly to adopt that they’ll say indignantly, well that’s not ME, *I* would never improperly care for my child’s hair, or skin, or talk about their biological parents as though they were trash, or practice “colorblindness” or make their children dance and protest for the camera before murdering them in cold blood. If we want to fix the broken system of foster care, we have to start with ourselves.

Oh, and PS: don’t use Another Place at the Table as a foster parent tool. Or as I call it, Another Place at the Table for Whatshisname. It’s not good, fam. Stop putting it on foster care reading lists, omfg, kthnx!

Librarian, author of HELLO LOVELIES! (Audible Originals, 2019), writer, foster mom, regular mom, cool mom.