Foster care is intended to be a temporary safety net for children suspected of having been abused or neglected. In some cases the birth parents may successfully complete parenting classes or drug treatment programs and can be reunited with their children. When reunification is not possible social workers try to place children with other family members or with a family that wishes to adopt. Sadly though, some children are never adopted and find themselves experiencing multiple foster placements. Some never do find a “forever family.”
The statistics regarding what becomes of youth who remain in the foster care system long-term are not promising. This is why the story of motivational speaker and author Derek Clark, who was in foster care for thirteen years, are that much more inspirational. While his story may be especially poignant for other foster and adoptive youth, we can all take heed at what the has to share about thriving in spite of adversity.
Derek Clark’s story is powerfully inspirational. He entered the foster care system at age 5 and spent the next 13 years in foster care. He has documented his youthful experiences in a series of books. Derek is also a singer, rapper and songwriter, who has transformed his pain and loss through musical creativity. Derek currently travels around the country speaking, rapping and singing about his story. He has a gift for connecting with young people, and at the end of a presentation that includes teens, he will usually find himself surrounded by his new admirers with requests for autographs and the opportunity to speak with him one on one.
Derek’s childhood story is brutally surreal. While his mom was seven months pregnant with him, his birth father beat her and kicked her stomach. Derek survived that beating, but later learned from his childhood records that he was brutally abused the first year of his life. His mom went into hiding when Derek was a year old and they lived in his aunt’s garage. His birth father eventually found them and threatened to kill them both. Fortunately he did not have a chance to follow through on his threats but was arrested for a string of armed robberies. In later years Derek would learn that his birth father was in Folsom prison for the criminally insane.
Derek’s mom eventually married another man when Derek was about three years old. From the age of three to five years old Derek would urinate and defecate on furniture and other things in the house. His stepfather punished Derek by sticking his head in the toilet. On one occasion his mom, fearing his step-dad was holding his head underwater too long, yanked on Derek’s arm so hard she dislocated his shoulder. They never took him to the hospital though, and to this day he has scar tissue in his shoulder.
On one particular occasion, five-year-old Derek mouthed off to his mom and she became so furious that she dragged him upstairs to the bathroom where she proceeded to forcibly hold his hand under scalding hot water until it burned him. While doing this she also screamed at him that he was a devil child. Derek stated that in that moment, as he cried and screamed for his mommy to stop hurting him, something broke inside him. Not shortly after that event his mother and step-father turned him over to the county services, yet kept his sister and brother. Derek shares that they dropped him off at a youth shelter in Oakland that looked like a warehouse, but had sixty beds inside of it.
In later years when Derek had access to his childhood records he was shocked to read what was written in his psychological report. The report stated he could not count to ten, did not know his ABC’s, did not know simple words like dog and cat and had a vocabulary that primarily consisted of cuss words. The report also stated he was fascinated with knives, violence, death and murder. Derek was disturbed to read within his report that they believed he had an IQ of a two-and-a-half-year-old. He was especially troubled when he read that they considered him to be mentally retarded. A social worker had also written in his file that he was not considered adoptable and that if they could not find him a suitable foster home he would be institutionalized.
Derek was eventually placed in an at-risk foster home and discovered that his foster parents were not going to give up on him. He tested them along the way with his outbursts of anger and by getting into trouble for vandalizing property or threatening other kids. His foster father would make him work hard on the farm doing things like shoveling manure to encourage him to redirect and work through his anger. Derek, already six-foot-five inches tall as a teenager, towered over his five-foot-two foster mom. She was incredibly loving, but he learned that her experiences as a juvenile hall teacher had taught her well about knowing when to be tough and put her foot down.
In the span of two years, when Derek was sixteen and seventeen years old he suffered even more tragedy when his birth sister was murdered, his foster brother was killed and his best friend was murdered. Derek, on the verge of losing it, was expelled from high school. He was ready to give up and wasn’t sure what would have happened if his foster parents hadn’t planned an intervention. They took him to a three-day retreat for foster youth. Derek didn’t want to go and at first refused, but they asked him to do it for his deceased foster brother and he went grudgingly. After listening to other foster youth stand up and speak about their stories he was told it was his turn. He tried to refuse to participate, but they pushed and prodded him to talk about his anger issues which only made him get angry. In the midst of him finally blowing up and expressing his rage he was shocked to hear the people present tell him how great he was and that they loved him. He said that something inside him cracked in that moment. He started to cry, the first tears he had shed since he could remember. He said that in that moment he saw his life with new eyes.
Derek turned his life around and not only got reinstated into high school, but also managed to work diligently enough to get a 1.8 GPA in order to graduate. At first Derek, also known in those days as Diamond D, pursued his love of rapping and performing. He even won a rapping contest called the Battle of the Bay and received a production deal as a prize. His music dreams didn’t take off as he had hoped, but he still moved forward with the intention to take responsibility for his life. In his twenties he learned to play guitar and the ukulele and he continues to this day to write songs. Eventually Derek began to write books about his life experiences.
When Derek speaks with young people about his life he doesn’t pull any punches, and they respect his candid sharing about his past. He continually encourages people to open up their hearts and have attitudes of gratitude and he affirms that when you do life gets so much better. He also stresses the importance of not getting involved with drugs. Derek never tried drugs because he didn’t want to be like his mom or dad. He believes that people end up in jail and do drugs because they don’t have a purpose. Derek also counsels that “who you hang out with affects who you are” and encourages young people to hang out with good people.
Derek Clark always shares the following advice in his motivational and inspirational talks around the country:
- You have a choice to turn things around.
- Take ownership of your own actions and emotions.
- Have a high opinion of yourself.
- You cannot continue to hurt yourself because someone hurt you.
- Don’t let mistakes control your life.
- Share your stories because others need to know they too can survive.
- Practice H.O.P.E. – Help One Person Everyday.
- Think about where you are and look to where you want to be.
- Get creative, because creativity lets it out.
The message that former foster youth Derek Clark shares in his books and motivational talks are incredibly inspirational. He models for all of us that even if difficult, challenging or tragic events occur in our lives, we don’t have to define our lives by those events. If we happen to make poor choices one day, we can always make a fresh start the next. We get to choose how we want to write and tell our stories. We get to choose the direction of our lives, based on the present, not on the past and we get to choose how we respond to what life throws in our direction.
Written by Michelle Fairchild
Top Image from Casa’s Forgotten Children Campaign