Opinion: He had family just 58 miles away. So why were endless foster homes his only option?

Back • Publication Date: October 4, 2021 • Rights & Justice

There was always something about Sixto Cancel, the way the Bridgeport teenager carried himself, his direct gaze, the fact that he spoke in full paragraphs. He seemed older than his years.

I met him in 2011, when he was writing a college essay in which he called himself “America’s Angriest Colored Child.”

And who could blame him? Cancel’s life reads like a roadmap to hell. The fifth of 10 children, he never met his father, and his mother, addicted to heroin, was not around. Before he turned 1, Cancel entered Connecticut’s foster care system and over the years lived with more families than he could count, including families that beat him, called him names, and put locks on the refrigerator. A church usher once took him in, but decided the fit wasn’t right. Cancel found out on a school trip that his stuff had been packed yet again, and that he’d be moving to a group home.

He spent his formative years with his clothes in a trash bag, shuffling from one placement to the next. How could he not be angry?

But he earned scholarships to Virginia Commonwealth University. He won an award from Connecticut Voices for Children. He appeared on ABC with Katie Couric in a show about foster care. Along the way, he learned the power of storytelling — not storytelling for a story’s sake, but advocacy storytelling, something meant to bend the arc. He started a D.C.-based nonprofit, Think of Us, dedicated to amplifying the voices of foster care clients. Foster care policy — most policy, really — is too often made miles away from the actual issue. Who else to better shape how we move forward than people who’ve lived the business end of policy?

In September, Cancel published a guest essay in the New York Times. He shared some of his own story to hammer home this: Children in the foster care system deserve better than congregate care.

The response — including a letter from former Department of Children and Family Commissioner Joette Katz — was instantaneous. Katz’s letter credited Cancel for the state’s decision to vastly reduce its reliance on congregate care, increase the placement of children with family members, and shift state funds to mental health supports.

“Sixto’s voice is an important one to listen to,” she wrote. “I did, and Connecticut has been the beneficiary.”

Think of Us recently published a study, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, that is heavy on lived experience in the country’s foster care system. Youths equate group homes to prison. The trauma of being in foster care gets ignored and is often compounded by more trauma meted out by a system that is supposed to protect them. Medication is a panacea to dull the hurt and — coincidentally — keep the youths’ behavior in check. Young people are pushed into a world for which they are ill-prepared. Along the way, they are told — as Cancel was — that this is their only option.

“They blame themselves, and they internalize this blame,” Cancel said. “All young people believed they were in a group setting because there were no other options. They all had a relative or family friend they could have lived with, but they didn’t get that support. People think young people are in these group home settings because they misbehaved.”

In fact, it’s because the system pushes them there. Traditionally, the foster system was not designed to find a family member or friend to foster a child. Cancel realized that when he attended a family reunion three years ago in New York. He met cousins he didn’t know he had, and as he listened to their stories, he realized he had aunts and uncles who’d fostered strangers’ children. Certainly they could have taken in their nephew.

“At that very moment, and it was numbing, I thought, ‘How did this get missed?’” Cancel said. “For so much of my life, I was told there was no other place for me to go. That wasn’t the actual truth.”

As he listened to family stories, he took out his phone, called up Google maps, and typed in his last foster home address and the address of his family in New York.

“All this time, they were 58 miles away,” he said. “I could have lived with people who would have treated me like family, who were family.”

Foster children age out of the system and, with scant support, too often end up homeless or in jail. Just 3 percent earn college degrees, Cancel said. Homelessness and incarceration are hugely expensive, as opposed to wraparound services that would help ease these young adults into a productive life, Cancel said.

Next up? Cancel will finish his last few college credits, and then he has his eye on earning an MBA at Howard University. If that august body is paying attention, they could use the likes of Cancel, who still marvels that he and his fellows seem to have the ear of powerful policymakers.

“I went from having no voice to being able to have a voice and to channel the voices of so many young people,” Cancel said. “I am walking the halls of the White House. That sometimes seems so surreal.”

Susan Campbell is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” “Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker” and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl.” She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.

Authors: Susan Campbell •  Source: Greenwich Time • View

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