The Power Of Family And The Resilience Of Youth
If you live in Appalachia, or for that matter, if you’ve ever lived in Appalachia, you are a part of our family. It defines us. This week on Inside Appalachia we’ll hear about family found in unexpected places — like a West Virginia family who got a letter from a sister in Austria they didn’t even know they had.
And a young man in North Carolina was inspired to learn old-time music when he saw a jaw-dropping performance by a fiddle player named Fred McBride. Turns out they’re related.
But not everyone has a family to turn to. We hear from several former foster care children who are trying to find their way in the world without their biological mom or dad. They talk about the uncertainty of being taken from their families and put into foster care.
About 400,000 children across the U.S. are growing up inside the foster care system, overseen by government employees who are overworked, and agencies that are historically underfunded. When the opioid epidemic hit, foster care systems saw a massive increase in the number of kids in their care. West Virginia has been hit particularly hard. The state has the nation’s highest rate of children removed from their home and put into foster care.
Roughly 6,900 children in the state are in foster care, an increase of almost 60% over the past six years. And while state officials point to improvements in the past several years, others argue these reforms don’t go far enough, including 12 foster care children who are now suing the state.
One of the plaintiffs is 18-year-old Geard Mitchell, who was shuffled between group homes, psychiatric hospitals, and detention centers, since he was 11 years old.
“I was a child, a very young child at that, facing a courtroom,” Mitchell recalled. He said he would like to see the state of West Virginia devote more resources towards more positions for Child and Protective Services workers. And he would like to see more advocates and mentors become available to help advise foster children. “I definitely needed, like, a bigger brother, like someone that had been through it, someone that could teach me how to get through it.”
‘One Day You’ll Be A Kid Again’
And we hear an inspiring letter from 12-year-old Lauren Hensley, who was adopted by her foster mom. Her advice to other children who are put into foster care? “I know you’re scared. I know you’re hurt. You’re sad, mad, and you think what happened is your fault. You have to be brave. One day, you’ll be a kid again.”
Compared with younger children, teenage foster kids are far less likely to be placed with a family. Every situation is unique, and not all foster families are good. But when it works out well, it can make all the difference. Roxy Todd brings us the story of one young man, J.J. Cayton, who found a foster home.
J.J. is a student at Glenville State College, and said he wants to help other foster children, and focus on getting kids into safe homes when they are aging out of foster care. He volunteers with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. He made a short video for the group to share his story.
Three Brothers — Sent Down Different Paths
Traumatic experiences like abuse, neglect, parents divorcing, even a house fire can negatively impact a child’s ability to thrive. Children in foster care each have very different stories to tell — even within a single family. Willie, Mike and Howie McCormick entered foster care in the 1990s when they were in middle school.
Their mother was accused of neglect, in particular, educational neglect, since none of the three brothers had been attending school regularly.
The three brothers were sent to live with an emergency foster family for a few days. It was the last time all three would live under the same roof. The eldest brother, Willie, was sent to a psychiatric hospital after he had a confrontation with his foster dad. Then he spent the remainder of his time in foster care living in a group home in Huntington.
Mike, meanwhile, was sent to several shelters and group homes, while Howie, the youngest brother, lived with foster families.
Mike says his experience in foster care wasn’t that bad. Before entering the foster system, he remembers there was a lot of instability in his life. They moved around and lived in a lot of different houses. But in group homes, life had a lot more structure. He remembers sports and extracurricular activities, learning skills like auto mechanics and basic carpentry. “They kept the kids busy, they had their own swimming pool and their own gymnasium.”
Mike took advantage of state resources that paid for him to go to college. He got an undergraduate degree in history and then a master’s degree in teaching as well from Marshall University. Now he teaches at Lincoln County High School in southern West Virginia. Howie is a photographer, and Willie sells cars.
They’re doing okay, despite the fact that they didn’t get to spend a lot of their middle and high school years together. “As twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-olds, we had no control over anything that happened to us. The only thing that we can control is how we reacted to it,” Mike said. “I think we all can adapt well to whatever situation we're in, because we all ended up very differently.”
Their story was recorded by Glynis Board. Roxy Todd and Zander Aloi helped produce.
Family You Didn’t Know About
Margarete Bogenhuber grew up in Austria without any knowledge of her real dad, and without any brothers or sisters. Years later, after her mom passed away, she discovered she had roots in West Virginia. When she worked up the courage to reach out to her Appalachian family, she expected them to be angry. But something else happened. They formed a bond that’s lasted several decades, and traversed an ocean.
Last summer, reporter Emily Allen joined up with the Nestor family at a recent reunion to hear their story. Emily is a Report for America fellow.
A Family Reunites Through Music
More than a few families with strong musical traditions call Appalachia home. For Lucas Pasley, a fiddler, banjo player, and singer-songwriter from North Carolina, family musical traditions were not some flowing stream to draw from. They were more of a deep spring, hidden in plain sight. One of our Inside Appalachia Folkways Corps members, Trevor McKenzie, tells the story of how the family reconnected through music.
Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Lucas Pasley, Fred McBride, Dinosaur Burps, John R Miller, Marisa Anderson.
Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Glynis Board edited our show this week. Catherine Moore also helped edit. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.
You can also send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.
Inside Appalachia is an award-winning production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.