RALEIGH In 2014, more than 14,800 children spent time in foster homes in North Carolina, with nearly 10,000 remaining in care at the end of the year.
Not too many years ago, 23-year-old Marcella Middleton was one of them. From age 2, she spent much of her childhood in foster homes – at least 16 placements.
She told her story during a foster care seminar at the Legislative Building in Raleigh. Her testimony about problems faced by foster kids – most of whom have suffered abuse or neglect and need the love and support of adults – was as eloquent and powerful as any speech heard on the House or Senate floors this year.
A recent graduate of UNC Pembroke, Middleton is a rare success story from the foster care world. In general, an expert at the seminar said, outcomes for young people transitioning from foster care are “deplorable.”
Middleton said she never considered any of her foster families her family, but rather “just people I lived with.” At one home, she ate jail food because the lady worked at a jail. At another, she got in trouble for saying the word “liar.”
She went through a phase when she didn’t speak.
“Why talk? Why even make friends?” she said. “Why even do anything? I’m going to move. I’m not going to see these people ever again. I’m going to meet new people, and then I’m going to meet new people, … then I’m going to meet more new people.”
Middleton also told a story about how she and her sister were devastated when denied the opportunity to go to Disney World as foster kids, even though the mother of a friend took a second job to pay for it.
A bill that passed the state Senate unanimously this session and awaits action by the House would address situations such as that other barriers faced by foster kids and families, said Sen. Tamara Barringer, the bill’s sponsor and a former foster parent. Senate Bill 423 would establish a “prudent parenting standard,” giving foster parents more say in whether children under their care can participate in extracurricular and social activities, such as sleepovers, without approval from the courts or social services agencies.
“As long as you’re acting as a prudent parent, you’re not going to be held liable if a child falls out of a tree or gets hurt on the football field or whatever,” Barringer said.
The bill also removes barriers to foster teenagers getting driver’s licenses by allowing them to purchase car insurance with consent of the courts. Right now, Barringer said, laws in many ways require foster kids to “sit on the sidelines of life.”
“They don’t get to learn to drive,” she said. “They don’t get to go to senior prom. My daughter’s in Washington now with her eighth grade class. They don’t get to do that because there’s nobody to sign the permission slip.”
The bill also would allow foster parents to purchase insurance, which Barringer said would remove an obstacle to potential parents worried about liability if anything goes wrong.
Today, Middleton works at the Center for Family & Community Engagement at N.C. State University, where she trains social workers and foster parents to help them become better at working with foster children. She also is an aspiring musician with her own YouTube channel, where she explores issues of music, fashion, beauty and – of course – foster care.
She supports the Senate bill because it would allow foster kids to “be normal, be young people, because they’re supposed to be.”
She should know.
Patrick Gannon is the editor of the NC Insider news service.