I’ve had a remarkable life. I’m not famous, nor have I overcome obstacles forced upon many people based on where they were born or their race or gender. I was born a hale white male in America, and I have multiple college engineering degrees, easy access to healthcare, a respectable individual retirement account, diverse and upbeat friends, a loving family, a beautiful home with several raised bed gardens and a refrigerator full of food, and no worries that I don’t impose upon myself. I’m aware that almost half of the 7.7 billion people on Earth will go to bed hungry tonight, and I’m in the top 0.001% of what most people consider privileged. That’s so rare it’s remarkable.
A mentor once asked me, “So what?” Another asked, “Who cares?” and a third asked why they should continue listening. My answer has always been: because this is important to everyone. But, I’ve never been sure where to begin.
Statistically, I’m an oddity. Many people follow in their family’s footsteps, but I’m the first of my family to graduate high school and not go to prison. My biologic father, Edward Grady Partin Junior, is a high school dropout and convicted drug dealer with multiple arrests spanning his adult life. His father, Edward Grady Partin, was a high school dropout, dishonorably discharged marine, rapist, murderer, thief, lier, and adulterer; he’s most famous for his surprise testimony that sent Jimmy Hoffa to prison in 1964. He went to prison in 1980 for, among many things, perjury. His father, Grady Partin, never attended high school, and was a drunkard who abandoned his family during prohibition.
I grew up in and out of the foster system beginning as an infant in 1972, when my teenage mother, Wendy Anne Rothdram, had a nervous breakdown and abandoned me at a Baton Rouge daycare center. No one knew where my father was at the time, and for the next seven years I was in the Louisiana foster system. I emancipated at age 16.
I wasn’t alone. Each years, there are 400,000 foster youths in America out of 40 million children, approximately 1 out of every 100 kids. More are not labeled as foster kids, but are being taken care of by someone other than their parents or are homeless, and they may not be documented by government systems used to allocate resources. Few people realize these statistics, and statistics rarely evoke empathy, but I’ll try.
Many foster kids are never adopted and emancipate from the system, many before they turn 18 years old because a judge signs a legal document that declares them legal adults despite their youth. Emancipation removes most safety nets of youth and grants some freedoms of adulthood.
An emancipated youth is tried as an adult for any crimes, with harsher sentencing if found guilty. They can sign contracts, leases, and loans; and are held legally and financially liable. They can not buy tobacco or firearms until 18 years old, despite their status as an adult, nor can they buy alcohol until 21. They can join the U.S. military at 16 years old and begin serving at age 17, where they will ironically have practically unlimited access to tobacco, alcohol, and firearms. They can not vote until 18, even if in their military service they are sent to war by elected politicians.
Some kids are emancipated because the parents request it, and a judge signs a piece of paper that severs the parent’s legal and financial responsibilities; usually this is allowed in court because the child has a history of destructive behavior, even after considerable efforts to improve, and parents may request emancipation of their child because there aren’t many other options.
Most kids who are emancipated had been in the foster system for many years, and were considered by social services as unadoptable and unfosterable. Few adults hoping to adopt a child hope to adopt a 16 year old, especially one with a troubled history, and I’ve never met a child in the foster sytem who didn’t have a troubled history. Usually, unfosterable kids request to be emancipated from a system that doesn’t want them, anyway, and they join a society that hadn’t helped them very much and they justifiably don’t feel they owe anything to society once they are a part in it. They can drop out of school, unchallenged, and are free to buy their own healthcare insurance and sign legally binding contracts for things like apartment leases, car loans, credit cards, school loans, PayDay loans, and commitments to the military. They can’t vote for politicians that may improve their situation.
The most rare emancipation is a kid requesting to free themselves from their biologic family. I did that at age 16, and then I was allowed to join the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. My service would be dependent upon graduating high school and passing a series of army training schools, and I graduated high school in 1990 with a 1.87/4.00 grade point average, barely passing and only .37 points away from being withheld another year, and almost not meeting my contract with the army. I was lucky.
Six months later, I was a paratrooper in the 82nd’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, a part of America’s Guard of Honor and on call from the president of the United States to deploy anywhere in the world within 18 hours, independent of Congressional approval, and dropping in to foreign countries by parachute if necessary. I was armed with the most advanced weapons America could afford. I had just turned 18.
In 1990, shortly after I had graduated high school, a few thousand paratroopers from the 82nd landed in Saudi Arabia and drew a “line in the sand” to begin Desert Shield. I was an anti-armor trained infantryman, and became the youngest of 560,000 American soldiers in the first Gulf War, fighting against the largest fleet of armored vehicles the world had ever known. A single TOW anti-armor missile costs $1.2 Million dollars, and I had access to a few of them, which is a lot of resources compared to the $180 I had to scrape together to pay the Louisiana court system for my emancipation.
My platoon was part of a small force that led the front line and captured and destroyed the Khamisiyah Airport, which we didn’t know had a large stockpile of chemical weapons including the nerve agent serion and several types of mustard gas. I became one of a handful of survivors of the only known chemical weapon exposure in the subsequent two decades of Gulf Wars. That, by most people’s opinion, I believe, is remarkable.
I returned to the United States in the spring of 1991, 18 years old and finally able to legally buy tobacco and a firearm and to vote; though at the time, every state except Louisiana would require me to be 21 before I could buy a beer; Louisiana has a different legal system than the other united states, and the drinking age was 18. Of course, the first thing I did after the first war was return home for a vacation, and I believe it was a well deserved repose. I didn’t drink alcohol then, but I love my home state. I returned to America’s Guard of Honor in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and by most opinions I had earned the right to be called an adult; yet it would be another three years before I’d be considered adult enough to legally buy a beer in any state other than Louisiana, even North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne. I still laugh about that, often over a beer with diverse and upbeat friends.
But, it’s not all funny.
To this day, more than 60,000 men and women from the Desert Storm allied forces are still suffering from the aftermaths of Desert Storm and the Khamisiyah explosion. They are classified as having “Desert Storm Syndrome,” and their healthcare is overseen by an office of the Veterans Administration called the Office of Agent Orange, a name carried over from the Vietnam conflict and still treating soldiers suffering from the Agent Orange chemicals America sprayed across Vietnam in the 1960’s and 70’s. I don’t know what the Vietnamese call the services that treat their people who suffer from Agent Orange, or whatever they call it in Vietnam, and I can’t recall what our office was treating before the Vietnam conflict, and those histories are fading into one long, continuous story that few people recall.
Today, in 2022, I’m fortunate to be alive and hearty – though no longer hale – and able to write this, if only to share our story and hopefully help posterity stop the cycle for the sake of their children.
Since leaving the army, I’ve paid attention to what happens to other foster youths. The statistics are alarming if you also consider the prison and education systems that are linked to foster care and also impact all of us because of the costs and consequences.
Of emancipated foster youths, 85% will go to jail; 33% before they’re 21 years old. They will join 1.7 million incarcerated people in America, almost 1 out of every 120 men, women, and children living here, and their peers will be inmates with an 80% recidivism rate. Mentorship is limited. 52% of males will have a learning disadvantage, labeled everything from dyslexia to mental illness to simple illiteracy. 85% of female inmates are labeled similarly. Almost all are released from prison on probation, and often return for minor infarctions that are practically overlooked for people not on probation. Many have children in and out of prison, and those kids often enter the foster system, and the cycle perpetuates itself under society’s watch.
Most foster youths and prisoners share a common, horrible history: sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. They are released into society with untreated trauma, usually labeled as PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
They share symptoms with many soldiers returning from war who develop PTSD, and we never know what drove those soldiers to join army to begin with, and they may have layers of trauma so deep that it’s difficult to identify one cause. But no matter the cause, people with PTSD do not blend well into society, especially in jobs or careers dealing with people – we’ve all seen tempers flair in public – and they struggle with ways to earn a living and maintain healthy relationships with friends and family. That adds to stress, increases desire for drugs, alcohol, and other diversions, and perpetuates the cycle.
Remarkably, convicted felons loose their right to vote; they probably would have a lot to say, if given the chance.
Every person I’ve known who goes to prison comes out with PTSD, more frequently so than combat veterans I’ve know, and they emphatically say it’s worse than any words or stories or films have conveyed. It brings strong men to their knees, weakens spirits, and destroys hope. Prison punishes people who have suffered enough, and, statistically speaking, it doesn’t reduce crime or measurably improve society or reduce recidivism rates.
The 85% of emancipated foster youths entering the prison system face a bleak future, and it’s not much better for the rest.
Fewer than 15% of emancipated foster youths will attend college, and fewer than 3% will attend graduate school. Those who don’t face few job prospects or the experience and mentorship to be entrepreneurial. Those who do will accumulate debt and for the rest of their lives they will be financially shackled to the system we all share: life. Emancipation is a temporary freedom, an opportunity that’s equal but not equitable; the difference is not subtle.
They may look just like everyone else, but we never know someone’s history just by looking at them. Each year, almost a half million youths enter life’s system far behind everyone else, and have to run just to stop falling behind. It’s tiring. Their social skills may not be as honed, their networking opportunities more limited to their peer’s networks, and they are often outpaced by people unaware of how deep and broad relative privilege impacts perceived success. You won’t recognize them by looking for a skin color or distinct facial feature: foster youths look like any group of kids.
Some succeed. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers and once the world’s wealthiest human, was adopted. Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s fast food chain, was adopted and spearheaded tax breaks for Americans who adopt. Neither had a college degree, and had remarkable lives.
Those are two examples 399,998 others each year are not as talented, disciplined, or fortunate. They end up in the prison system or in school, and then the job market.
The costs to society for failing prison and education systems are staggering. Not just the emotional costs for everyone involved, but also the financial cost. In the 1970’s to 1980’s, a shift in taxpayer money decreased mental healthcare and social workers and increased prisons and police; though shifted, the cost is still there. Over the past three decades, the yearly decrease in mental health patients matches the increase in prisoners 1:1, so money is shifted rather than saved. Taxpayers are charged $70,000 per year per prisoner for their food, shelter, healthcare, and armed guards.
I didn’t do well in high school math, but $70,000 times 1.7 million people sounds like a lot of food, shelter, healthcare, and armed guards, and it doesn’t seem wise to spend more reacting than preventing, yet for some reason many voters support reactionary spending and resist preventive spending, perhaps because they haven’t experienced delayed gratification. There’s plenty of money, and perhaps it could be used more wisely; a few fewer TOW missiles wouldn’t be missed, especially since they’ve only accounted for fewer than 20 destroyed tanks in four decades, and that the millions of dollars saved could be applied preventively so that everyone wins. It would probably cost taxpayers less if instead of training with $1.2 million missiles with negligible practical applications or arming guards without reduced recidivism, we shifted those funds towards more mentors and mental health outreach in public schools, or hired a few people to follow around low-level offenders and help them succeed, like an army of Jimminy Crickets perched on the shoulders of people who have suffered enough, helping them temper their choices with a bit of humor and a lot of compassion.
But, I’m jumping ahead of myself. I’d like to discuss alternatives soon, but now’s not the time. I’d like to share a bit more about why I’m writing this first.
I haven’t been to jail yet. I like to think I’m still young enough to do foolish things, so there’s still hope I could follow my family’s footsteps. But, I did well, despite my history, and may have broken my family’s cycle. After serving on America’s Guard of Honor, I utilized the army college fund and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering and a master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering; remarkably, given my history, I graduated with honors. My degrees say summa cum laude and magna cum laude, and I graduated in the top 10 out of approximately 60,000 students; coincidentally, the same number of people still suffering from Desert Storm Syndrome, or whatever label we apply to it. I invented a few things and cofounded a few companies, and those companies were acquired by bigger companies, and I retired for the first time before I was 30 years old.
By definition, and for many reasons, I’m one of the most statistically remarkable human beings alive, and I’m lucky to see that. I had very little to do with it.
Ever since I was emancipated, people have labeled me as successful. The few who knew my history asked what made me a statistical oddity – my words, rarely theirs – and I always responded with the names of my childhood mentors. I never hesitated. I never pondered my answer for a moment, not even the first time I was asked, and I haven’t wavered on my answer in three decades. Every single research study on success points to individual connections, and I agree. My foster parents, caregivers, and mentors are as deeply embedded in my being as any biologic mother or father could be. Without them, I would not be, and to honor my mother and father is to honor them. My story is their story.
But, because my biologic family and experiences in Desert Storm are a part of my story, my story is also a history of Edward Grady Partin, Jimmy Hoffa, and the 82nd Airborne’s front line in Desert Storm. To me, those stories are inextricable, they are a series of events from 1989 to 1991 that shaped who I am today. And, those coincidences about my situation happen to remarkable in themselves, and perhaps they will help my story reach more people and together we can improve the systems for 400,000 foster kids each year who aren’t as fortunate as I’ve been. Maybe we can start the process of stopping the cycle for kids who aren’t as fortunate as I’ve been.
To empathize is to understand how another feels. I can’t generalize how other foster kids feel because I only know myself, but I can share my experiences with you and hope it helps us empathize with each other. In the end, I hope to illuminate our shared histories – yours and mine – and I’d like to suggest a few small steps we could take to improve the outcomes of our systems of foster care, education, and prison. By improve, I mean to remove obstacles to success for more kids and spend less as taxpayers, or at least use existing resources more wisely, knowing that wisdom and empathy are inextricably linked.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. If you can help, please do. If not, please wish us good luck.
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