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How The Science Of Possessions Can Help Foster Kids
This article originally appeared in The Houston Chronicle as "Essay: Foster children face a tough journey - but one simple, household item can make it better"
In his nearly 17 years in foster care in Houston, David Daniels never had a suitcase, even though he lived in eight homes and three shelters.
Daniels entered foster care after parting with his biological parents who struggled with substance abuse. During the many moves that followed, he remembers placing his pajamas, underwear, a Yolanda Adams gospel CD and a Harry Potter journal in two black trash bags, cinching them shut, then slinging them over his shoulder.
That lack of luggage “made me feel unstable,” says Daniels, who happens to be a successful flight attendant now, interacting with his and other people’s luggage daily. “You feel like the throw-away kid, unwanted. Quality luggage is essential to a person’s life journey. It says: I matter, I’m important.”
Across the country, children in foster care often transfer their clothes and personal items like Daniels did, in big trash bags or even flimsy plastic grocery sacks. The problem isn’t trivial, even considering the other, monumental challenges these children face. The impact of this seemingly small indignity can be profound. It can exacerbate, or confirm in a child’s mind, the feelings of instability, powerlessness and even worthlessness.
Those feelings are especially concerning these days. During COVID, the number of children without placement across Texas reached an all-time high of 200, Lisa Bourgoyne, program director for The Children’s Assessment Center, says. Many children spend days in CPS office spaces with their caseworkers and nights in temporary placements until a suitable foster care home can be found. Each time they move between these temporary spaces, they have to pack up their belongings. The crisis has only sharpened the need for individual, decent luggage to help ground them emotionally.
“The commonly occurring moves from place to place are difficult enough for children,” Bourgoyne says. “Kids often come to us broken, and we want to bring hope and healing so that they can grow up to live healthy, productive lives.”
In fact, research has shown that the simple routine of being forced to transport worldly belongings in a trash bag can have far-reaching implications for foster youth, from their development, interpersonal relationships and even future success in life. On the other hand, research has shown that the simple act of supplying a child with a $20 suitcase sends the message that the child and his or her belongings have value in this world.
People often link their self-value to their possessions, particularly young children, who still see their cherished possessions as a representation of the self, says Rice Business professor Jaeyeon Chung. In a recent paper, Chung found possessions not only affect how we see ourselves, but also how we end up performing across various tasks.
The symbolism of the trash bag might lead children to wonder, “Am I a person of a less value? Or, is my cherished doll or toy just trash?”
Business owner Aprili Amani, now 33 years old, grew up in foster care both with family and non-family in Indiana. The one move to a relative’s home in which she had to use a trash bag still haunts her. She describes it as “one of the most embarrassing moments of my youth.”
“It did strike me, even in my youth, that we didn’t have the basic needs fit for moving — as were seen in commercials on TV, or what we would see around us,” Amani says. “It felt like people were looking at us and judging our worth based on what we used to move in to the next place. This is pretty sad for me to recall.”
Those types of thoughts and feelings only add to the number of challenges the country’s some 424,000 children in foster care each day already face as they enter the system. The average age of children entering care is eight, and many come from homes marked by domestic violence or drug use. One third of kids entering U.S. foster care in 2019 were young people of color.
Of Texas’ some 32,000 youth currently in foster care, nearly 6,000 live in the Houston area. Houston kids spend more time in care and have more placements than other kids in the state, says Arnold Valdez, director of family care services at Houston’s DePelchin Children’s Center. The distinction, he says, stems from the urban make-up of the area and the high number of custody cases languishing in court.
Moves for these children are often fraught with both emotional and developmental challenges. Departures from unsafe homes are many times rushed, and they can be dramatic. Children may have just five minutes to grab a few of their belongings before rushing off with an investigator from Child Protective Services.
“They’ve just lost everything that they know, sometimes even their siblings,” Valdez says. “It’s incredibly traumatic. That transition is something that a child never, ever forgets and that will affect them for the rest of their lives.”
Subsequent moves to different foster care homes due to space constraints take an even greater toll. Each time a child moves, they’re set back an estimated four to six months both academically and developmentally. “The move triggers previous trauma,” Valdez says, “and it becomes increasingly difficult for them with each subsequent move.”
In this environment, a trash bag sends a terrible message to children already at a low point that, “your whole life is trash,” Valdez says. DePelchin sources donations to make sure every child they place leaves with their own new suitcase or duffel bag. This small gesture ultimately has a huge impact.
Luggage, and essentials like deodorant or toothpaste, boost children’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. “And it’s incredibly important for them to establish their self-worth,” Valdez says, “because there’s a stigma with being in foster care.”
For foster care kids, knowing they have value is far more than a state of mind. While it can help them establish healthy relationships later in life, it helps fortify them more immediately against bullying.
Without a positive sense of self-worth, foster kids are at deep risk of experiences such as those of Daniels, the flight attendant: “I was suicidal at 15 because I felt unloved and unwanted,” he says. “With this cycle of bouncing around from group homes to shelters, it’s hard for us foster kids to know who really cares about us.”
Though the challenges of Houston’s foster children can seem overwhelming, city residents can actually have an important impact “resetting the tone” for them by donating luggage at a difficult time. “It is possible that these kind gestures can make a positive impact on how children see themselves and how they perform in life,” Rice University’s Chung says.
After a major luggage drive last year, DePelchin received an outpouring of new suitcases. But they still need help during National Foster Care Month this month, and beyond. And while replacing a garbage bag with a decent suitcase may have the starkest symbolism, new children’s clothing, including pajamas and underwear also are in high demand, DePelchin officials say.
Gift cards — evanescent as they are — are also a powerful form of donation. That’s because it’s profoundly empowering for foster kids simply to be able to choose their own luggage or clothing, Valdez says. “Choices help give them a sense of power and control.”
For former foster child Daniels, with a job that takes him all over the world, every day is a reminder of the way physical objects can represent a feeling of home. A simple suitcase with one’s name on a luggage tag resonates emotionally over a lifetime, says Daniels, who now advocates for other children.
“It’s symbolic,” Daniel says. “It’s these small things that really do matter.”
Jaeyeon (Jae) Chung is an Assistant Professor of Marketing with the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.
Blumberg is co-president of the Texas chapter of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.