One former foster child’s simple approach to fixing a broken system

There are currently more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. While the pandemic has made life more difficult for these vulnerable kids, many say the foster care system itself has been putting them at risk for decades. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sat down with one former foster child who is now on a mission to fix the system by helping families stay together.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are currently more than 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S. And while the pandemic has made life even more difficult for these vulnerable kids, many say the foster care system itself has been putting them at risk for decades.

    Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sat down with one former foster child who's now on a mission to fix the system by helping families stay together in the first place.

    It's part of our Race Matters series and Charlayne's ongoing reporting on racism in America.

  • Valencia Polk, Grandmother:

    Ready for your popsicle?

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Meet 61-year-old Valencia Polk.

  • Valencia Polk:

    Hold it right here…

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Her six grandchildren came to live with her after Child Protective Services removed the children from their parents due to neglect allegations.

    It was a lot to take on, but the grandmother never thought twice. Then, after a few months and without warning, all six of the children were taken from her and put in a foster home. She was never given a specific reason.

  • Valencia Polk:

    They told me: 'We're going to take the children.'

    I cried, of course. They're my kids.

    'Why are you going to take the kids?'

    'We don't think you can handle it.'

    When they took them, they were sitting on the floor doing their homework. And they came and got them, screaming and crying: 'Please, please, help me, help me, help me.'

    And then I had to leave. I said, 'I have got to go back in the house,' because I just felt I was going to fall on the ground.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Polk says the children were physically and verbally abused in foster care, adding they were dirty during supervised visits.

    The trauma led each of the children to start shutting down in different ways. Eight-year-old B.J. stopped doing his schoolwork.

  • Valencia Polk:

    He told me out of his own mouth, he said: 'I don't want to do better until I go home.' That's what he told me. So that's what I'm dealing with.

    The 3-year-old that's in there, the boy wouldn't say nothing. They thought he was deaf and dumb. They were teaching him sign language. I told them, I said: 'He's not deaf and dumb. You broke him.'

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Then, just as suddenly as they were taken away, three of the children were given back to Polk, again, without explanation.

    All this is avoidable trauma caused by a broken system, according to Sixto Cancel. It's cases this one that led the 29-year-old former foster child to start a nonprofit called Think of Us.

    It collects these kinds of stories, brings them to Washington, and advocates for change that would help families the Polks stay together. On this night, Cancel visited the Polks with Valerie Jackson of Monarch Family Services, the child placing agency helping Polk obtain permanent guardianship.

    Sixto Cancel, Founder and CEO, Think of Us: This is how we find out, is by talking to real human beings.

    Like, we have to hear from all sides.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I met Sixto Cancel near the Polk home in Houston, Texas to hear more about his ideas on what needs to change — ideas fueled equally by his own traumatic childhood.

    Just how typical is what we have just seen?

  • Sixto Cancel:

    This is a story that we see over and over and over. And all the time, we see these small barriers as, like, a deposit for an apartment or the need for more food being the barrier that actually blocks families from staying together. Or these technicalities that a family might need to be licensed to take care of their children, their relatives.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Yes.

    But even in your own life — I mean, you're now 29, and you had this experience like — in a way, like this family since you were 11 months old. What was that like?

  • Sixto Cancel:

    Unfortunately, my mother couldn't take care of us because of her drug addiction. And by the age of 9, I was adopted, and it was a pretty abusive and racist adoption.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    What do you mean?

  • Sixto Cancel:

    I was placed with a Puerto Rican white-looking woman who, while the light-skinned children got to go to a private school, she told me, because I was Black, I would have to go to a public school.

    And I would experience different types of abuses based on who I was, and so, by 13, found myself couch surfing and trying to prove to the agency what was going on. But it was this tall, Black-looking kid against this white short-looking Puerto Rican woman. And I wasn't believed for a very long time, until I started to record the abuse.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And you came up with a solution by watching what is one of my favorite shows, "Law & Order."

  • Sixto Cancel:

    yes.

    So it was — one day, I was watching "Law & Order," and that was the moment where I realized I had to find evidence, I had to build evidence. So, after that, I was able to be put back into foster care.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    What was it like in those foster homes?

  • Sixto Cancel:

    It was a roller coaster. So, fostering is a calling, and some people are called to do the work, and some people really see the mutual benefit of being able to survive leveraging that stipend that they get from the government.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    It was only after he aged out of the system at 23 that Cancel discovered he had family members less than 60 miles away who would have taken him in. But, he says, they were never contacted.

  • Sixto Cancel:

    We see this still happening today.

    But what is encouraging is that we're also seeing a lot of movement around making it better. There have been laws that have been passed in the last three years, that people are really working hard to change this.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    How much of it is — do you think is about race? Is it — is that — does it happen to all children, regardless of color, or is there a disproportionate impact if you're a person of color?

  • Sixto Cancel:

    So, what we know right now is that 53 percent of all Black families will experience a child abuse investigation. Ten percent of all Black children will experience foster care. That is twice the rate that — of white children.

    And so what we see is an oversurveillance of child welfare in communities that are poor. I think, when you think of foster care, you think of child welfare, you think of folks who have probably been physically abused, sexually abused, emotionally abused.

    But 64 percent of the cases actually have to do with neglect issues that are coming from poverty, right? The lights, water are not running, not enough food.

    So, we created a system that was supposed to be about protecting children from abusers, but what we really have is the majority of the children in foster care are experiencing high poverty issues.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    So how did you get involved in this program that you're working with now?

  • Sixto Cancel:

    So, I started Think of Us with the premise that we should be fixing the system, re-architecting it in a way that we address the core problems that are around it.

    And so I truly envision that, right now, we can move from being a system that is mainly focused on placing children with strangers — right? — foster parents that they don't know, that we can move that to a system that supports grandma, uncle, cousins, people that the children already know and they're already related to, and figure out: How do we support them in taking them in?

    Right now, only 33 percent of children are actually placed with a relative.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Where are the rest of them, in group homes?

  • Sixto Cancel:

    We see that they're in foster homes, in group homes.

    And the difference that we're also seeing here is that, when they are placed with a relative, that states are not supporting those families the same way that they would support a foster parent. On average, a foster parent gets about $800 in reimbursement a month for a child, but, for many states, they provide no type of support or very little support to an actual grandparent or an aunt and uncle who's taken them in.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I have seen you say that, despite all of the division that we see politically these days, you have got some cooperation between the parties on this.

  • Sixto Cancel:

    One of the things I'm so encouraged by, on child welfare particularly, is that it is a bipartisan issue.

    But I think we need to go even further, right? We have a lot of agreement around foster care, but sometimes we think differently about kinship care, the idea when grandma takes in her grandchildren, that she should just do that. And we need to shift our thinking to say, 'No, we should support grandma in being able to make sure that grandma has all the tools and resources that we would give a foster parent to make — keep that family together.'

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    So, what keeps you going? What makes you hopeful? You have used that word, so what is it?

  • Sixto Cancel:

    I'm very hopeful, because, at the basis of what's happening right now, the money's changing in child welfare, what can be financed. The rules are changing in child welfare.

    But what I really want people to know is that this is an opportunity for us to ensure that children and young people get families, and that we grow up with families, and that every child should be able to feel someone who loves them past a contractual agreement.

    And this is the opportunity where we get to do that.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And you're hopeful that we can do this?

  • Sixto Cancel:

    I'm confident that we can do this.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, Sixto Cancel, you make me hopeful just listening to you.

    Thank you.

  • Sixto Cancel:

    Thank you.

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