Do the Media Help Keep African American Boys in Foster Care? Part II

Published on
March 16, 2011

Matthew Crawford wants to be a police officer. Terrell Williams works two jobs and goes to college. Claude Eakins works as an advocate helping young people in the foster care system.

They all have two things in common: they, too, were once in the foster care system and they believe media reports regarding foster youth made their time in the system and their lives now more difficult.

(Read the first post in this series for an introduction to foster care and the media.)

Former Alameda County social services director Chet Hewitt believes the way young African American males are depicted in movies, how they're described in literature and how a Black youngster involved in a violent incident is described in news reports all affect the public's perception of Black youths.

For example, Matthew Crawford, 21, who was in foster care since infancy, recalls a case a few years ago when a young man was caught with a gun in transitional housing at Cal State East Bay. The dorms had been opened to give young people who had turned 18 and aged out of the foster care system a place to stay in the summer. Most of these young people were in college but had no families to stay with when school was not in session.

"The dorm eventually closed, the victim of state budget cuts and media reports that prompted parents to make anxious calls to Cal State East Bay's president about campus safety," said Randy Morris, division director of the Alameda County Social Services.

"The media made it seem like he was running through the building with the gun and it wasn't even like that," said Crawford. "They didn't need to blow it up like that."

He was even more concerned because the media reported the young man had been in foster care.

"If you calling a person 'foster youth' you're basically taking the human out of their label. Like they're foster youth and they're not like everybody else," said Crawford. "Anything that you do wrong, 'oh he only did that because he's in foster care' where, if you pay attention to regular kids who are with their mom and dad, half the time they're doing worse stuff than the kids who are in foster care."

Since being "emancipated," the term used when a foster youth turns 18, Crawford has taken criminal justice courses at Contra Costa College to prepare for a career in law enforcement. He stopped going to school to work to support himself. He works as an intern at Fresh Start Café, part of Beyond Emancipation, Alameda County's primary provider of services for former foster youth. He is also working on getting his high school diploma and plans to eventually go back to college.

Terrell Williams lives in Daly City, works two jobs, attends City College of San Francisco and has "a lot of extracurricular activities."

He is involved with California Youth Connections, which promotes the participation of foster youth in policy development and legislative change to improve the foster care system and strives to improve social work practice and child welfare policy.

He entered foster care at age 5 and spent the next 13 years living in 13 different homes "in Fresno, San Francisco and all over the Bay Area."

He bristles at the stereotype that he believes the media paints of Black youth who get out of foster care and don't do anything.

"Yeah, other than go to jail or stuff like that," he said. "But that's not the case with everybody. A lot of us work very hard to make it through the foster care system."

He believes most people – including reporters – don't understand how the system operates.

"It's really hard because you have to know about all the services you can access," he said. "You have no family, you've just got to be independent, you have to learn right from wrong, try to remember what you were taught when you were little and just not be a statistic."

Claude Eakins, 24, is another young man who is not a statistic. He spent ten years in the foster care system and now is an advocate for transitioning foster care youth at the county's Independent Living Skills Program.

He believes he was fortunate because he was placed with an aunt who showed him a lot of love and support. It made it easier for him to stay focused.

"If you don't think about it, it's not that hard because you know that, okay it's easier to do a bad thing than it is to do a good thing," he said." But, if you put your dedication into that good thing, anything is possible."

They all agree that the media is more likely to do a story that perpetuates a negative image of them – and members of their generation.

"I see the media not wanting to cover that good stuff," said Eakins. "Because everyone knows that the media loves promoting bad more than good because you get better ratings."

KTVU news director Ed Chapuis said that's not true.

"Actually, it's the opposite," he said. "Viewers have told us through research that crime stories in general don't resonate with them. KTVU tries to focus more on issue-oriented reporting and the major stories of the day. There are good stories in our newscasts that highlight positive things young people are doing. "

He specifically pointed out a story KTVU did on the McClymonds High School football team that went undefeated in the 2010 season.

"All 16 seniors have received college scholarships and the coach is giving them their "letters" but they don't have jackets to put them on. So, they are working on raising the $5,000 needed to get everyone jackets. And they're half way there. Very positive, inspirational stuff," said Chapuis.

These young men have success stories to tell.

Williams' efforts with California Youth Connections led to passage of AB 12, which will eventually let youths stay in the foster care system until their 21st birthday.

They have all overcome great odds to get to where they are today. They'd like the media to do more positive stories, especially about young men of color and to stop painting all young people of their generation and ethnicity with the same brush. They are convinced no one in the media cares to tell the stories of their success.

"Not everyone is beating down our door to come interview us," said Crawford. "Let's say we went out and shot somebody, they're going to be asking 'why did you do it?' But if I saved a cat, they're not going to put my picture up there."

CBS 5 anchor Dana King agrees with Crawford but she said the reasons are more basic.

"It's easier to do a crime story. You just have to show up,'" she said. "It is harder to think about enterprising a story because it takes time."

And in today's news media, with shrinking budgets, reduced staffing levels and increased workloads, reporters apparently don't have the time to think about doing the type of stories that would present young men like these in a more positive light.