Think of the first stranger you saw today. Now, imagine that you have to go and live with that person. How would you feel? How long until you would feel comfortable?
It sounds impossible.
Now imagine doing that as a child.
It’s exactly what children in foster care are asked to do, often more than once.
This scenario is what author Shenandoah Chefalo asks the audience of every one of her keynote speeches to imagine. But she doesn’t have to imagine it. She’s already done it.
Chefalo is the author of Garbage Bag Suitcase: A Memoir, which is about her childhood growing up in unstable conditions with her biological mother and about years spent in foster care before aging out of the system at 18.
Until she sat down to write this book, though, she never really planned on telling anyone what she had experienced. “It was my plan to never tell my story,” Chefalo said. (Chefalo’s own husband didn’t even know many of her childhood stories until she started writing.)
After spending 20 years working in criminal defense, mostly with her attorney husband, Chefalo decided to obtain a coaching certificate to become a life coach and “help our clients make better life choices,” which became the impetus for her book.
Chefalo had been surprised at how many clients mentioned they had been in the foster care system themselves, so she did some research and found that a large percentage of inmates in state and federal prisons had spent time in foster care as children.
She also found that many adults who aged out of foster care will never complete high school, not even 3 percent will attend college, and less than 1 percent will receive a degree. Half of them are unemployed, and more than “80 percent will become a parent and receive some form of public assistance within two years of aging out,” she says in her book.
Adults who spent time in foster care are also disproportionately more likely to be diagnosed with mental illnesses such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and addiction and are more likely to have been homeless at some point in their lives. Men who have been in the foster care system are more likely to be convicted of a crime. Children who age out of foster care often don’t even acquire basic life skills like the ability to balance a checkbook.
Learning all this made Chefalo think about her own life.
“How come all these bad experiences happened to all these people, and not me?” she asked.
Besides being gainfully employed, Chefalo has a college degree, which she worked nine years to obtain. She isn’t in prison and didn’t have a child until she was in her twenties.
But while she might be an exception in many ways, she didn’t escape unscathed. In Garbage Bag Suitcase, Chefalo says that “if you’ve made it through the system and are still managing to function in society, you will find that you have lifelong issues that affect you day in and day out.”
Children who were in foster care have issues with food and money and can lack people skills, she continued, recounting her own battles: binging on food, mishandling or overspending money, and struggling to engage with and trust other people.
The circumstances foster care survivors find themselves in or the issues they experience really aren’t surprising, she added.
“I turned 18 halfway through my senior year of high school,” Chefalo said. “As soon as you turn 18, the state’s done with you. If you’re homeless, are you really worried about math? If I’m worried about food, clothing, shelter, I’m not really worried about my spelling test. It’s not that you’re not capable. (Then you think), if I get pregnant and have a kid, I can double or even triple the assistance I can get. And I’ll have someone who unconditionally loves me—and no one in my life loves me.”
Chefalo posits that foster care survivors (and some people in the general population) often make incorrect or harmful decisions because they are functioning within a “trauma brain.”
“We have these people who are walking among us who have difficult childhoods,” she said. “You become an adult and you expect that anything that happened to you has been fixed. We have these kids aging out of the system with no home, and we have this society that judges them. And we never ask why. They are functioning from their trauma brain.”
Chefalo is speaking out about her experiences in foster care because she believes that the system needs to be “reimagined.”
“How can we adjust, how can we fix it?” she said. “If you drop a plate and it chips, you try to glue the chip. But if you drop a plate and it shatters, do you try and put it back together? I think the system has been shattered. It’s been this way since I was in care.”
While Chefalo noted that she was fed and clothed while in a foster home, that’s where the care stopped. “I wasn’t physically abused any longer,” she said, but “my emotional needs weren’t met.”
In her book, Chefalo talks about alternatives to traditional foster homes, including boarding schools like Crossnore School in North Carolina (which has since merged with Children’s Home) and the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania, the nonprofit organization Boys Town, and attempts to foster “the whole family approach.”
Crossnore’s website notes that it offers group residential foster care, educational services, outpatient therapies, foster care and adoption services, life skills and traditional living skills, and follow-up aftercare. Milton Hershey School started as a home and school for orphaned boys more than 100 years ago and now “thrives as a cost-free, private, coeducational home and school for more than 2,000 children from families of lower income,” according to Keri Straub, senior media relations manager for the school. Boys Town’s website advertises child and family services, including “group homes in-home family services, foster care, parenting classes, and behavioral health services.” And “fostering the whole family … targets adult parents and minor children without a stable residence where the children are at risk of placement in out-of-home care,” Chefalo says in her book, describing a pilot program in Minnesota.
In Garbage Bag Suitcase, Chefalo describes the difference between boarding schools and other facilities for kids in need of a stable home. “The idea of a boarding school for foster youth should not be confused with orphanages, residential treatment facilities, or group homes. I believe that to truly be successful, the priority is on being a school. Think ‘Harry Potter.’ In addition to putting all the foster kids on an even playing field socially, like any school, there will naturally be great students and students who struggle. Perhaps most important is that this school offers a safe and stable environment for children to live in. I believe the ideals of security and education can turn around our failing system.”
“At the end of the day, I think foster kids are lacking stability and security,” Chefalo said. “No amount of love can fix what’s happened to me. Love makes us feel good (but) there’s so much insecurity for a foster kid.”
For traditional foster home placements to be more successful, she continued, “we need to have better matching of kids to foster homes. It can’t just be a ‘we’re looking for an empty bed’ situation. I think we need to be having more training for foster parents—I’m really disappointed with the lack of funding in that area. You can’t afford not to train. (And) I don’t think (foster parents) go into it for the money. I think they stay in it for the money. The system is disappointing—they don’t have the skills and support they need, then they stay for the money.”
“We have to remember that these are kids,” Chefalo added. “That means that they are human beings, and no two are alike. We just need more options. Not every kid is going to do great in a Crossnore setting, as much as I love it, as much as I know it would have been great for me. Sometimes (foster homes) work. But sometimes they don’t. We don’t need less options, we need more options.”
People who aren’t foster parents can make a positive impact, too. For example, “organizations need funds, and the ability to raise funds so people can try to do what they need to do,” she said.
There’s also a more hands-on approach.
“For me, mentoring is a huge piece,” Chefalo said. “It’s a way anyone can get involved, and it can happen in all kinds of ways—supervising recess at an elementary school, kids who have aged out and are on college campuses get mentors around the country. They don’t have enough mentors, of course. I’m a huge advocate of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates)—shouldn’t every kid have someone who is only thinking about them. Doesn’t a kid deserve that?”
Even the little moments can be big.
“A teacher telling me ‘good job’ in sixth grade … was a life-changing moment,” Chefalo said. “These little seeds that we’re planting. We don’t always get to see those seeds bloom (but) we’re changing them for the better not for the worse.”
“Think of all the people you’ll interact with today. What if you interacted from a trauma-informed way, instead of an ‘I don’t know you, you’re not my problem’ way? What if they needed that one positive reaction?”
So far, Chefalo has sold around 3,000 copies of Garbage Bag Suitcase. The text has won several awards, including the 2017 Independent Publisher Award for Best Adult Non-Fiction Personal E-Book, the 2016 Midwest Book Award for Best Non-Fiction in Political Science/Social Science/Culture, and the 2016 Pinnacle Award for Best Memoir.
Shenandoah Chefalo is the co-owner of Good Harbor Institute, “a consulting and training organization that translates evidence-based research on trauma into skills and actions.” She travels the country making speeches and conducting training.