Inspiring Women Interview with Lara B. Sharp

Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She teaches women how to speak up: for themselves, for others and for social issues. Recently she interviewed Lara B. Sharp, a writer and contributor to Surviving Foster Care. With permission we have republished most of the original interview found at Inspiring Women Changemakers

Anj: What prompted you to start sharing your experiences?

Lara: I’m writing a memoir about my childhood called ‘Do the Hustle’. I grew up in NYC, with an extremely eccentric, but oddly feminist mother, who had a drink and drugs problem. She also suffered from mental illness.

My mother was in and out of mental intuitions. She eventually lost custody of me, and I ended up in foster care. I write about whatever is on my mind. That day was on my mind when I spoke to my sassy, fancy, New York City Literary Agent, Terra Chalberg, of Chalberg & Sussman. She has been amazingly supportive and is very excited about my book.

Straight up, this world needs more extremely imperfect foster care to basic life success stories, because it actually happens. People need to know that!

Growing up in the system, I did not know that, and it would have been enormously helpful for me to have known!

As a foster child, I got a very clear, totally incorrect message that my life would always and forever be absolutely terrible. [Related: You have more than two choices – god or prison.] It was difficult, and I took the long road to normalcy. I got myself into many, extremely crazy situations. I made some hilarious mistakes, often based on being extremely socially inept, and I’m totally honest about all of that in my book.

Getting here, to my occasionally peaceful, mediocre, somewhat middle class life, was a slapstick, vaudevillian, herculean effort. I didn’t do anything right, or normally, but I got here in the end. I was supposed to become a junkie, and a hooker, and die on a street corner, the victim of a violent crime, or I was supposed to end up in jail. That was spoon fed to me through the media, based on having been a foster child. But, I didn’t do that. I basically rebelled!

Anj: What would you like to see change about the way children from care backgrounds are portrayed in the media?

Lara: Well, for starters, I’d like to see a much less negative media and social narrative… Look at it this way… I’m Cuban… Imagine if the large majority of books, TV shows and films REPEATEDLY portrayed Cubans with a fruit bowl on their head, dancing to Samba music, in a tobacco field. That would be weird.

Over time, many Cubans would begin to feel really offended. In today’s society, that would be called out as inappropriate. We have had a huge push in America, for more reality-based, less negatively biased, and more appropriate, and truly representative portrayals of people of color, of the LGBTQ community, and of women, within our society and within our pop culture.

Foster youth are still facing a false, ridiculous, negative stereotype. Although there are a few exceptions, for the most part, foster youth, and adults who were raised within the foster care system, are usually portrayed as criminals, sociopaths, killers, sex workers, drug addicts, and sex offenders.

We’ve changed that quite a bit, with regard to other underrepresented, formerly maligned demographics. We see many more representative, realistic voices and characters, for other formerly disparaged members of our society, thankfully. I’m not seeing that happen very often at all, with regard to people who have been, or are now, in foster care.

I’m super tired of turning on my TV, and checking out an episode of Criminal Minds, and Law and Order, only to find that, once again, the drug-addict sociopath who is eating women and children’s heads, is being described as ‘someone who grew in the foster care system’.

I’m 48 years old. I grew up in foster care and I have yet to kill, or cannibalize anyone. Over 400,000 people are in the US foster care system today. We aren’t ALL monsters. We get really, really terrible PR. I’m not saying that a lot of us don’t end up having a nightmarish adult life. A lot of us do.

Sadly, a lot of us become exactly what we are told, exactly what society expects us to become, from every possibly angle. And, why wouldn’t we, when we were literally never told that our lives could go any other way? I refuse to be ashamed of having grown up in foster care. I’m too busy being proud to have bloody survived it!

I want people who have been though the foster care system, to say shamelessly, “me too”.

We shouldn’t be made to feel like we have to keep it a dirty little secret. We aren’t all killers, sex offenders and sociopaths, anymore than all women who have been sexually harassed, are lying, attention seeking, gold diggers, who should hide their horrible experiences, out of fear of some sort of societally-applied, false, totally incorrect form of slut shaming.

The constant, negative representations of people involved with the foster care system, adds to the lifelong stigma that we face, just for having been in care. We were children, who were abused. Don’t socially and culturally vilify us for that, as adults. Many former foster youth do grow up to be thriving adults.

Those of us who do eventually reach a level of normalcy have had to work extremely hard to get here. We are bloody well impressive. I want to see that represented in our pop culture. And, if I don’t start seeing that soon… HEADS ARE LITERALLY GONNA ROLL… Just kidding… Maybe…

Anyway, I’m hoping that my upcoming memoir, ‘Do the Hustle’, helps, maybe just a little bit, to do exactly that. If nothing else, I have a special ability to humiliate myself, which has been pretty consistent throughout my entire life, so at least my book will hopefully give some people a laugh.

Anj: What can each of us do to support your mission?

Lara: People can start by not hiding the knives when they find out they have a former foster child coming to dinner! That’s not even a joke. I support a fantastic organization called Foster Care Alumni of America and they can use some more support.

If anyone is looking to work in a career field related to helping foster children, I suggest, rather than automatically just becoming a social worker, they consider majoring in Public Policy because we need a lot of changes on the policy level.

That is where the real change can, and needs, to happen. We need public policy changes to help social workers, struggling with low wages and massive caseloads as they try to help foster children. A large amount of abused children just end up being further abused after being removed form their home and placed into the foster care system.

Foster homes and foster parents, need to be much more regulated, because many of them simply aren’t cutting it. I’m sure it would shock many people to know that many foster children literally end up doing child slave labor. They are taken in for the money, and they become the free housekeeper, gardener or babysitter.

There is a lot of abuse, every kind of abuse, happening in some foster homes. Meanwhile, good foster parents are struggling, because many foster children are extremely challenged, making fostering them difficult, so they need more support. I was safer in the group homes, which were horrifically institutional, than I ever was in any of the foster homes. Again, this is a policy issue.

When I was in foster care, being constantly moved, I rarely had a toothbrush, and my luggage was literally a black trash bag. We all had garbage bags. But we were abused children, not just a bag of garbage. Imagine being a young child with no family, being moved around to strange places with nothing except for a few personal belongings in a torn, black trash bag.

Anj: What could parents, guardians, teachers… do to prevent bullying?

Lara: Abused and neglected children, especially foster kids, are often the victims of bullying. Home isn’t safe, and school isn’t safe. I stopped going to school, because of bullying. I went back to school in my 30s, and I got my High School diploma, and I went on to college. I’ve lived on both sides of that fence. Guess which side was way better?!

Most people who drop out of school end up living their entire life with no education, and many foster youth drop out of school. In America, many people cannot even obtain a trade job, without a high school diploma. In many states, you cannot even become a hairdresser without obtaining a GED, which is a High School Equivalency Diploma, based on a test (equiavalent to GSCEs in the UK).

Bullied, traumatized children are often unable to focus on learning the required class materials, so they fall behind and drop out. Often, they do not have the required knowledge to pass the equivalency test.

School is very important when a child has a dysfunctional home life, because it might just be their one and only path out, so when a kid drops out due to bullying, it can have extremely negative, lifelong repercussions.

I don’t know how to prevent bullying, especially because, according to recent studies, a bullying child may also be a child living in an abusive situation. Bullying, shunning, and ostracizing also happens in adult life.

I got an email from an extremely successful, 46 year old, married mother of three, working in the finance industry. She told me that nobody in her life knows that she was raised in the foster care system. Not even her husband of sixteen years. She said, ‘I’d be bullied out of our country club, within minutes.’ Meanwhile, she is a miracle.

Our society can be a bully. My experience of being bullied as a child, has made me into an adult who will always stand up and speak out, when I see an injustice. I’m not afraid to do that – I’m afraid not to do it. I was subjected to an atrocious amount of bullying, as a ‘dirty, homeless, smelly foster child’, and I believe that the experience has made me into an exceptionally compassionate person.

I know exactly how it feels to be shunned within your own social group, and even within your own society. I remember watching the movie, ‘Pretty in Pink’, and for the first time, I realized that I wasn’t alone. For me, that was enormously helpful.

Pop culture and the media have the power to improve society. Thankfully today, we have lot more TV programs, films and books, focused on the issues of bullying. Having been bullied, when I see something, I say something. I speak up at work, online, and even in the grocery store. I’m also doing that with my memoir. In my opinion, that means that the bully lost and I won.

Anj: How can society encourage foster children and/or adults who were previously in care?

Lara: When you meet someone involved, or formerly involved, with the foster care system, don’t automatically assume that we are a psychological mess. Don’t automatically respond to us with fear, and trepidation. Give us the benefit of the doubt. If we are a mess (because some of us are, and I certainly was when I was younger), I’d appreciate people showing us some compassion.

Residents of the foster care system cannot change the fact that we were abused and neglected, no more than someone can change their ethnicity.

I’m making that specific comparison intentionally, because having grown up in the system, for me and for all of us, is literally an immutable characteristic.

We cannot go back in time and change it. We will always be someone who experienced the foster care system for the rest of our lives. Only bigots, racists and homophobics prejudge, and vilify people, based upon stereotypes of immutable characteristics.

Listen to the people who have actually been in the system, and those who are in the system now, and read our narratives, because a large majority of the people who talk about us, and write about us, based on what I see in our media and within our pop culture, seem to have never even knowingly had an actual conversation with any of us.

Support the many efforts being made by the survivors and the thrivers who have personally experienced the foster care system. Help us to reach out to those still in care. Help us share our own voices, with those of us who have been made, incorrectly, to feel that we need to hide our past, so that we can give them, and ourselves, and everyone else who doesn’t know anything about the realities of having been in foster care, a better story – our own, true story.