“To the End of June”: Cris Beam Examines Child Welfare System

Author and professor Cris Beam has a new book, To the End of June, that follows not only two previous award-winners about trans teens—one nonfiction book, Transparent (2007), and a young adult novel, I Am J (2011)—but also her memoir called Mother, Stranger (2012).

Kirkus Reviews calls her latest “(a)n engrossing, well-researched examination of important social issues.” To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care is Beam’s intensive study of our child welfare system.

There’s undoubtedly some personal history that goes into the making of this book. For one thing, Beam was an adolescent runaway herself. She’s also been a committed foster mom of a trans girl.

From the publisher’s description:

The book mirrors the life cycle of a foster child and so begins with the removal of babies and kids from birth families. There’s a teenage birth mother in Texas who signs away her parental rights on a napkin only to later reconsider, crushing the hopes of her baby’s adoptive parents. Beam then paints an unprecedented portrait of the intricacies of growing up in the system—the back-and-forth with agencies, the shuffling between pre-adoptive homes and group homes, the emotionally charged tug of prospective adoptive parents and the fundamental pull of birth parents. And then what happens as these system-reared kids become adults? Beam closely follows a group of teenagers in New York who are grappling with what aging out will mean for them and meets a woman who has parented eleven kids from the system, almost all over the age of eighteen, and all still in desperate need of a sense of home and belonging.

Focusing intensely on a few foster families who are deeply invested in the system’s success, To the End of June is essential for humanizing and challenging a broken system, while at the same time it is a tribute to resiliency and offers hope for real change.

In a recent interview, Beam offers Will Boisvert, Publishers Weekly, a sympathetic viewpoint regarding the challenges of foster kids and the related challenges of foster parents:

Their parents have betrayed them and they’ve been put into a home they didn’t choose; they feel a fundamental contract has been broken. They want to control the next break, and the only control they have is to try to leave. They hope foster parents will hold onto them, but they push until the parents say: ‘Stay, I really want you.’ There’s also guilt. Kids feel like they’ve broken something up, which turns into violence and self-harm—’I’ve left mom and dad, now all I can do is break stuff.’ It’s a lot to ask of foster parents to go through those trials.

He asks Beam, What did you learn about the nature of family?

The families that really last are flexible and resilient. In foster care, you need a real openness to a changing definition of family—to inclusion of past characters, even if they’re unsavory. Because they’re going to keep cropping up. The families that work are the most supple.

Laura Miller, Salon, explains Beam’s ultimate stance regarding the foster care system:

Although she’s far from doctrinaire about it, Beam comes down on the side of what’s known as a ‘family-based model’ of child welfare, which insists ‘we should make every effort to keep the biological family together.’ ‘We realize now,’ one advocate tells her, ‘that the outcomes for children in foster care are going to be worse than if they had stayed in the home. Even if there was some neglect.’ A former foster child explains, ‘If you have the choice of being abused by your mother or abused by a stranger, you’d choose your mother.’ The better solution, of course, is to focus resources on helping parents keep and care for their kids, rather than on removing them from their homes…

‘To the End of June’ is cautious rather than tendentious, welcoming (with reservations) such policy changes as a switch to ‘waiver operations,’ in which the state pays agencies a flat fee for handling its child welfare needs, rather than per-child allotments, which offer an (unintended) incentive to keep kids in the system. This, Beam believes, will encourage investment in ‘preventive services’ designed to keep families together whenever possible. Other projects, like You Gotta Believe! in Brooklyn, try to save older foster children by concentrating on locating the person ‘who cares about this kid’ (anyone from an older sibling to a former teacher or neighbor) and developing and reinforcing that relationship. Bureaucracy and love make strange bedfellows, but love — committed, patient, forgiving — Beam argues, is the only thing that can do the job.

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