Orphans Of The Living, by Jennifer Toth
This particular book gave me the awkward and unpleasant experience of both deep agreement and deep disagreement with the author about a subject of considerable personal relevance. It is widely acknowledged that the United States has struggled without a great deal of success in dealing with the orphans of the living in various state programs. This book looks at the lives of a handful of people who endured the foster care system of various states and explores how it is that none of them have managed to form lasting and loving bonds with others and that their lives, already traumatic to begin with, only became more traumatic as a result of the experiences that they had through the intervention of the state into their dysfunctional and broken families. It is not clear how it is that one can provide temporary aid to brace families going through trouble without creating lasting patterns of dependency and without giving the government authority that it simply will not be able to use in a manner that ends up helping the people it wishes to help. The author, with her hostility towards biblical Christianity, is not well equipped to point the reader towards solutions, but merely wallows in the failures of the state to properly protect and care for children.
Coming in at about 300 pages long, this book is a narrative look at several cases of children who grew up in foster care as a way of shining a light into the darkness of foster care and its failures. We begin with Damien and Sebastian in Oxford, North Carolina, both part of failed families who had a sort of relationship with each other in a group home and both of whom struggled to relate to their families and keep those families together in the face of the desire for placements. After that the author looks at Jaime, and her struggles to raise herself out of poverty and the failures of her promiscuous and addicted mother, involving some rather conservative religious institutions and her own struggles with rape and alcoholism. The author then looks at the Jerry Springeresque life of Angel, who marries her elderly foster father and has several children as a teenager who, like her, are caught up into the system from the beginning, while seeking to have fun and explore her identity. Finally, the book ends with a look at Bryan, a young man from Chicago who struggles with narcotics and crime but finds people willing to give him chance and encouragement despite his struggles.
In reading a book like this it is worthwhile to wonder what it is that the author expects to be done about the problems that she writes about. On the one hand, it is obvious that she expects society as a whole to be willing to pony up a lot more money to take care of abandoned and neglected and abused children. She recognizes the perverse incentives that people have to disguise the truth in order to get children placed and the ways that social work is often low paying and not filled with a great deal of prestige and that children who are not taken care of by their parents and do not have a strong basis of family and community support are likewise not going to do particularly well. This book shows that the state actively seeks to make life more difficult for people once they are caught in the grips of the foster care system, whether it is children facing abuse in group homes or whether it is the way that children of failed parents love those who are simply unable to take care of them because of their own addictions and brokenness, or whether it is the way that the state has a great deal of power but no sense in how to use it for the benefit of children in breaking cycles of dependency and failure.