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Orphans of the Living: Stories of America's Children in Foster Care

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In the first book of its kind, Toth presents the stories of five kids caught in a system in crisis, and chronicles the complexities of a culture that both liberates and hobbles its dependents. In addition to speaking to social workers, judges, officers, counselors, and psychologists, as well as to the remnants of shattered families who can't or won't raise their own childr In the first book of its kind, Toth presents the stories of five kids caught in a system in crisis, and chronicles the complexities of a culture that both liberates and hobbles its dependents. In addition to speaking to social workers, judges, officers, counselors, and psychologists, as well as to the remnants of shattered families who can't or won't raise their own children, Toth goes directly to the kids - capturing their voices and lives with striking clarity and poignancy. These children were thrust into an overburdened and antiquated machine designed to care for Dickensian orphans, not today's "throwaways, " who are abused and neglected, often by substitute parents no more prepared to care for a child than were the biological parents. Following the children, Toth travels to foster care homes, emergency shelters, children's homes, and detention centers. She shares their despair and their triumphs - the midnight phone calls from jails, hospitals, and strip joints; the celebrations of straight-A report cards, graduations, and Congressional honors - as the children demonstrate their humor, hope, and resilience in trying to overcome their society's failure.


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In the first book of its kind, Toth presents the stories of five kids caught in a system in crisis, and chronicles the complexities of a culture that both liberates and hobbles its dependents. In addition to speaking to social workers, judges, officers, counselors, and psychologists, as well as to the remnants of shattered families who can't or won't raise their own childr In the first book of its kind, Toth presents the stories of five kids caught in a system in crisis, and chronicles the complexities of a culture that both liberates and hobbles its dependents. In addition to speaking to social workers, judges, officers, counselors, and psychologists, as well as to the remnants of shattered families who can't or won't raise their own children, Toth goes directly to the kids - capturing their voices and lives with striking clarity and poignancy. These children were thrust into an overburdened and antiquated machine designed to care for Dickensian orphans, not today's "throwaways, " who are abused and neglected, often by substitute parents no more prepared to care for a child than were the biological parents. Following the children, Toth travels to foster care homes, emergency shelters, children's homes, and detention centers. She shares their despair and their triumphs - the midnight phone calls from jails, hospitals, and strip joints; the celebrations of straight-A report cards, graduations, and Congressional honors - as the children demonstrate their humor, hope, and resilience in trying to overcome their society's failure.

30 review for Orphans of the Living: Stories of America's Children in Foster Care

  1. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    As someone who spent 10-plus years in the foster care system, I was shocked by this book's list of terrifying stats regarding what happens to foster children upon release... Stats regarding prison time and ability to form relationships and all kinds of dour doomsday shit. I have always been told by those that know my story that I seemed remarkably OK considering what I had been through. This book seemed to confirm that maybe I couldn't do any better than I was doing. Apparently no-one else was. As someone who spent 10-plus years in the foster care system, I was shocked by this book's list of terrifying stats regarding what happens to foster children upon release... Stats regarding prison time and ability to form relationships and all kinds of dour doomsday shit. I have always been told by those that know my story that I seemed remarkably OK considering what I had been through. This book seemed to confirm that maybe I couldn't do any better than I was doing. Apparently no-one else was. For that moment that I read these stats, I felt trapped. I then saw that this author had written another book about "The Mole People" - an investigation of the people who lived underground in New York's subway tunnels. I started to wonder about the author's seriousness regarding her subjects. I read this book inside the bookstore. I didn't finish it. I didn't buy it. I plan to buy it and read it at some point, but I'm not going to let it be the only book I ever read on the subject. That said can anyone recommend me some good books about foster care, foster children, adult foster children, adult foster children narratives?

  2. 4 out of 5

    Denise MacDonald

    Very well written look at the foster care system in several different states. However, if these are the true stories of youth in the child welfare system, the USA needs a complete overhaul of the way they provide care to youth. The situations some of these youth have endured are criminal, there should have been criminal charges, not only on the youth involved but the caregivers, group homes and foster parents who were also involved. I don't understand how anyone can justify the living conditions Very well written look at the foster care system in several different states. However, if these are the true stories of youth in the child welfare system, the USA needs a complete overhaul of the way they provide care to youth. The situations some of these youth have endured are criminal, there should have been criminal charges, not only on the youth involved but the caregivers, group homes and foster parents who were also involved. I don't understand how anyone can justify the living conditions some of these children were left on there own to endure. How is this even possible when they are supposed to be in care for there own protection? Any youth who has experienced such blatant disregard by the agency that is supposed to be keeping them safe have been abused by the system, sometimes suffering more abuse than if they had been left in the homes of the parents. It is shameful, and the workers who stood by and let this happen should be ashamed of themselves for not protecting the children in their care.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mickles

    About halfway through, I called it quits on this book. I think I've learned all I need to from it. This book was written with good intentions. Ms. Toth wants to shine a light on the ways that adults from parents to social workers fail children in the U.S. every day, and she does that. These stories are written, at least I believe, with the intention of honesty, but the perspective is a little limited, and the damage this book may do doesn't seem like something she realized when writing. That bein About halfway through, I called it quits on this book. I think I've learned all I need to from it. This book was written with good intentions. Ms. Toth wants to shine a light on the ways that adults from parents to social workers fail children in the U.S. every day, and she does that. These stories are written, at least I believe, with the intention of honesty, but the perspective is a little limited, and the damage this book may do doesn't seem like something she realized when writing. That being said, this book has the potential to be extremely damaging to the very children Toth purports to help. The children in here represent some of the stereotypes that abound in the foster care system: the sexually abused children, the kids who lie about what was done to them, the kids who revisit their abuse on others and are a danger to other kids and themselves, the violent ones who beat up their parents and siblings...These kids are indeed victims, and I'm not suggesting their stories should be ignored. However, these stories are also the reasons most give for not wanting to foster or adopt from foster care. The stigma attached to these kids is profound; they're often seen as being "too damaged" to be saved, and this book does nothing to go against that. I really wish she'd told the stories of some social workers, too. I've never met a social worker who goes into their field because they want to get rich; they're poorly paid, overworked, and they're trying to make a difference in a crappy system. She's not really unkind to them, but she doesn't tell any of their stories, either, and I think that would have made for a more well-rounded portrayal. This book didn't make me want to change my mind about adopting from foster care. However, I'm sure it has had that effect on many, and that saddens me. What it really made me want to do is find a few scholarly responses to this text. What it didn't make me want to do is continue reading it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Alexandria

    Can you imagine the feeling of being neglected by your biological parents? Jennifer Toth’s Orphans of the Living, portrays this feeling in an indescribable way. Orphans of the Living is a non-fiction book based on several children who were placed into large group homes due to instability in their biological homes. Damien Magnum and his four younger siblings were moved into a group home due to neglect by their biological mother. Unfortunately this group home did not provide the stability needed f Can you imagine the feeling of being neglected by your biological parents? Jennifer Toth’s Orphans of the Living, portrays this feeling in an indescribable way. Orphans of the Living is a non-fiction book based on several children who were placed into large group homes due to instability in their biological homes. Damien Magnum and his four younger siblings were moved into a group home due to neglect by their biological mother. Unfortunately this group home did not provide the stability needed for the children--they were physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by other children in the home. As the children were suffering, they begged to return to their mother’s care in their biological home. However, will their mother better herself enough to gain custody back? Along with the jaw dropping story of these children, the book is also embedded with facts that will linger in your mind for years. This book helped me realize that behind the eyes of every child is a unique story--some not as great as others. It opened my eyes to the reality that abuse and neglect are more common than what most people would like to believe. This book gave me more than I hoped for and I enjoyed reading it. It gives an insight to what the group homes and foster care systems are like in America. It also opened my eyes to how traumatizing the instability can be in the lives of foster care children. This book is a good reminder that not every child is fortunate enough to have a stable biological home. Whether parent, teacher, or anyone who interacts with children on a regular basis, this is a helpful read to understand what some foster children experience.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Avynne

    I picked this book up from the free discarded book shelf at the library. I found it very interesting. I was surprised that it had been discarded but I guess it was a little dated. I was especially intrigued by the story of one of the girls that lived at the Middlesex Children's Home because my mother grew up in Middlesex, North Carolina not very far from that very children's home. I've ridden by it several times and even pulled up to it once or twice so that my mother could speak to someone that I picked this book up from the free discarded book shelf at the library. I found it very interesting. I was surprised that it had been discarded but I guess it was a little dated. I was especially intrigued by the story of one of the girls that lived at the Middlesex Children's Home because my mother grew up in Middlesex, North Carolina not very far from that very children's home. I've ridden by it several times and even pulled up to it once or twice so that my mother could speak to someone that worked there, but I never saw any children. It looks to be a very depressing place, but for the most part well maintained. Anyway, I like the book because it was informative and caught my interest, but it was very sad.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    I have been looking for books about child welfare that give a balanced look at the services provided, the families, and the larger systems. This book, while providing a thorough look at a few families/children who experienced foster care, fails to thoroughly look at the worker or system side of things. Most of these children suffer greatly in horrible foster care settings, appear to be mistreated by caseworkers and are failed greatly by the system. It is unfortunate that the author did not show I have been looking for books about child welfare that give a balanced look at the services provided, the families, and the larger systems. This book, while providing a thorough look at a few families/children who experienced foster care, fails to thoroughly look at the worker or system side of things. Most of these children suffer greatly in horrible foster care settings, appear to be mistreated by caseworkers and are failed greatly by the system. It is unfortunate that the author did not show us more about the system itself and the reasons behind certain case work decisions. This is also a pretty dated picture of the Foster Care system and, while some children still suffer the way that these children did, there have also been a lot of improvements.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Juliet

    This was not a book for when you want to feel good about being an American. Toth's ethnographies of foster children are painful and truly authentic. My take away from the book is that how we as a society treat "othered" children is literally a crying shame. "Orphans" was far more moving than "The Mole People" for me. I'm not sure if that's because she's gotten better at her work or because this one is about an even more vulnerable population. Either way, she's an author worth keeping track of. This was not a book for when you want to feel good about being an American. Toth's ethnographies of foster children are painful and truly authentic. My take away from the book is that how we as a society treat "othered" children is literally a crying shame. "Orphans" was far more moving than "The Mole People" for me. I'm not sure if that's because she's gotten better at her work or because this one is about an even more vulnerable population. Either way, she's an author worth keeping track of.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    This book chronicles the lives of four children in the foster care system, two in NC, one in LA and one in Chicago. The stories are incredible and Toth does an amazing job presenting their lives and stories in a non-judgemental manner. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the child welfare system in the US.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Maureen Flatley

    A classic and still timely.....

  10. 5 out of 5

    Heather Wilson

    Remarkable book about the travesty that is the American foster care system!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Nathan Albright

    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 man 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.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    This isn't necessarily a book that you enjoy reading. It's a stark look at our country's foster care system, along with the ongoing problems of poverty, racism, abuse, and drugs. It's a sad and frustrating read as the children she follows have almost no chance of improving their outcomes, especially when the adults in their lives continuously abandon them, abuse them, or get them addicted to drugs. But, for the most part, the author does her best to capture the humanity of these children who have This isn't necessarily a book that you enjoy reading. It's a stark look at our country's foster care system, along with the ongoing problems of poverty, racism, abuse, and drugs. It's a sad and frustrating read as the children she follows have almost no chance of improving their outcomes, especially when the adults in their lives continuously abandon them, abuse them, or get them addicted to drugs. But, for the most part, the author does her best to capture the humanity of these children who have been born into some awful situations. The author seems to be able to separate herself from her subjects in the earlier sections, although that does not hold true in the last two sections. I do wish I could find a real follow-up on these children she wrote about. While it seems unlikely that they have improved their situations, I was still rooting for them (and at the very least their children.)

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Johnson

    I got about halfway through and I felt like I wasn't going to learn anything new. I am a foster/adoptive mom, so I'm not the one who needs convincing that the system needs massive systemic change. Recommended for anyone who wants to learn about foster experiences. I got about halfway through and I felt like I wasn't going to learn anything new. I am a foster/adoptive mom, so I'm not the one who needs convincing that the system needs massive systemic change. Recommended for anyone who wants to learn about foster experiences.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dawn Meyers

    Really good but frustrating read which concentrates on the experiences of several children and youth and the experiences they have as they travel through the foster care system.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Betsy

    I am not sure how to rate this book. It was well written and kept my attention, but at times I had questions about the situations presented that were not answered. The situations are complicated and I am sure that each child could have filled a book with their own details, so I tried to look past the questions I had. The part I found the most interesting was the statistics in the first chapter. How bleak! Overall, this book spurred many conversations in our house and is still causing some restle I am not sure how to rate this book. It was well written and kept my attention, but at times I had questions about the situations presented that were not answered. The situations are complicated and I am sure that each child could have filled a book with their own details, so I tried to look past the questions I had. The part I found the most interesting was the statistics in the first chapter. How bleak! Overall, this book spurred many conversations in our house and is still causing some restless nights.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Donia

    Yes, this is an accurate, although sad, recounting of what children face in Foster Care. We need reform and we need it now. A Great book if you want a better understanding about what kids face when their parents are absent.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ami

    I'm not sure if I liked this book, but I don't know how else to rate it. While it's very well written, the content is horrifying, simply horrifying. I often think God must constantly weep at how His little children are treated. I'm not sure if I liked this book, but I don't know how else to rate it. While it's very well written, the content is horrifying, simply horrifying. I often think God must constantly weep at how His little children are treated.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    It makes one think about the forgotten children

  19. 4 out of 5

    Eileen Lachapelle perry

    decent read but was hoping for my cases than 4

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    This topic is among my faves. I like journalistic writing sometimes when I need a break from denser tomes and this book does a great job illuminating a pretty difficult topic.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Diana

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jeannine Spurgin

  23. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

  24. 4 out of 5

    Robert Benson

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Learned

  26. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Artese

  27. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Becker

  28. 5 out of 5

    Scott Kent

  29. 5 out of 5

    Emily

  30. 5 out of 5

    Marissa Yankello

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