Much of group care research has overlooked girls and women, as well as the positive outcomes and resiliency fostered by some group care experiences (Kreider, 1997). Such group care success stories and gender-sensitive analyses are vital to strengthening providers' morale and knowledge. So how do girls” experiences in group care connect to positive outcomes in adulthood? Interviews with eleven former group care residents who are now recognized for their professional, community, and educational accomplishments shed light on this question.
First, it must be said that several of these successful women remember much of their group care experiences in negative terms, despite their many positive outcomes. Many recall feeling uncared for and set apart as girls in group care, an experience which often echoes the early turmoil and separations they had already suffered in their families of origin.
In this general context of nonbelonging, certain positive group care practices and people took on special significance. Specifically, women fondly remember practices that led to caring relationships and a sense of membership in a group or second “family." These group care supports combined with girls' active roles in maximizing opportunities to experience care and belonging.
Women connect these group care experiences to later life and success, including their choices in work, education, community involvement, and relationships. As Laura says, “I recognize its tendrils in my life." Specifically, these women describe becoming adventurers, advocates for relationships, and fighters of justice in ways that have earned them professional recognition, academic achievement, and leadership positions. Each of these themes are addressed more fully below.
I think the worst thing about the orphanage that I went to and the impact it has on me was to believe that I was different and inferior and somehow rejected by my family, by society, you know? – Hope
In [students' and sometimes teachers'] minds you were either a murderer or you were an orphan, and one was about as bad as the other. – Susan
You develop a sense of belonging when you're a part of a family and mainstream society, a part of something as you're growing up. But if you're always an outsider, how do you develop that sense of belonging? – Marion
Many of the women in this study describe a powerful psychological experience of being set apart, rejected, and unloved. They use a variety of words and metaphors to convey this sense of relational and societal alienation: “not belonging," “not fitting in," “beyond the pale of humanity," “on the outskirts of a social order," and “elsewhere." Cat recalls a pivotal moment in group care when she realized her place as an outsider:
I still remember the day that I stood at the skating rink. We had an outdoor skating area outside the walls [of the orphanage] for the neighborhood. Watching these families skating around, and watching these friends skating around together, holding hands. There would be whole family groups those days that would skate together. And I still remember standing there with my skates in a bleak winter in Wisconsin, and suddenly getting, really getting completely, that I was outside the pale of humanity. And I'll never forget that day.
Repeated images and stories of girls set apart from relationships and society pepper women's interviews. While a few women recall a powerful experience of belonging and being cared for in group care, the pervasive themes of isolation, rejection and abuse were psychologically interesting in light of the exceptional strengths these women possess. As Changing Leaf reminds me, former group care residents are not like “pupp[ies] needing to be rescued" – a typical misconception of those who have grown up in group care. Rather, these women have become capable and concerned citizens, mothers, friends, daughters, partners, and professionals.
As girls, however, many of the women felt defined by who they were not: biological or “real" children, promising future citizens, and/or human beings worthy of respect and love. They also felt defined by where they were not: in a home, in a family, in a neighborhood or community. These perceptions were gleaned in part from the behavior of those around them. Abuse or abandonment by family members, unequal treatment by foster parents, nonrelational group care practices and structures, and social stigma in school and the community, each contributed to these women's experiences of alienation. This experience was often compounded by social factors – girls found themselves discriminated or devalued based on their gender, age, economic status, and educational level. Amazingly, it is partly out of this experience of extreme marginalization that these women built a strong sense of themselves and their relationships and came to locate a meaningful place for themselves in society. Of course, women also attribute much of their strength and success to experiences of being truly cared for in their families, group care settings, and later life, as described below.
Experiencing the “care" in group care
I've always considered myself very lucky, because even through all the changes that I've gone through, there's always been somebody there who's been good to me, and who've made me feel good enough about myself enough to keep it together. – Sunny
Several women in this study attribute much of their success to the group care settings in which they were raised. Often the positive group care factors named are described as ones that counteract the absence of care and belonging so prevalent in women's descriptions of early life. In particular, women name group care structures, programs and staff that helped them as girls to recognize and rely on their own strengths, relate deeply to others, and feel prepared to participate in a larger community and society. In this way, these women describe aspects of group care that fostered psychological health (Gilligan, 1991) and led to future success.
The younger women in the study – April, Sally, Cindy and Sunny – tend to describe these positive supports more often, perhaps because they lived in smaller group care settings common in more recent decades. They frequently describe those settings as instrumental to their health and later success by providing a sense of home and family. For a few of the women in larger facilities, mainly Changing Leaf and Marion, they remember group care providing a sense of safety and opportunities to play and socialize with other children.
It's just a group of people that were really an example for seeing what's possible, and what you can do and how you can do it. They really gave me everything I needed to go out in the world. – April
[It] means a lot when somebody's really showing you their interest and not just being phony to get through the day and earn a paycheck. – Michelle
It's like you finally have someone who really loves you and cares for you and you just want to keep giving. – Sally
April, Michelle, and Sally are among the women who describe a common support for several girls: valued relationships with certain male caregivers in group care. Given the abuse several women experienced by men prior to and after exiting group care, relationships with men that did not become sexualized or abusive were of great importance. These safe and authentic relationships with male caregivers in group care often provided one stable, valuable connection with an adult over time. In more than one case, these relationships lasted well into women's adult lives, with men becoming like father figures, attending their weddings, the birth of their children, and other significant life events.
I think that everything is based on that [experience in group care]. I mean my whole psyche responded to that. – Hope
The friendships that I developed there made it possible for me to have relationships away from there ... the fact that I stayed in touch with some of them made it easier for me. – Cindy
Part of what bothered me so much as a kid is the fact that there are all these laws and rules and regulations and yet the kid never had any input or any say. In order to have your say, you had to really really fight hard. – Susan
Women also actively shaped their group care experiences and responded to a lack of care and belonging in ways that contributed to their later success. Women responded in a range of psychologically and relationally creative ways to group care settings that often seemed very restrictive. As adults, these women have continued to approach life and relationships in these creative ways or have discovered new and better ways of coping with difficult situations.
Women's responses often created a sense of connection to themselves, others, and the world. For example, Cindy sought therapy as a creative way to identify her own thoughts and feelings, but it also provided her with a lasting connection with an adult figure, her therapist. She also made close friends in group care and went to great lengths to maintain these friendships over time. On the other hand, some of the coping strategies that fostered these women's psychological health and professional accomplishment, were also harmful psychologically. For example, by focusing her energy on academic and athletic performance, Laura excelled in ways that brought her the recognition and attention of those around her. At the same time, she observed that this singular focus distracted her as a girl from many of her feelings and became a way of numbing herself emotionally. As an adult, Laura practices and teaches tai chi; she has transformed her love of physical conditioning to one that also creates a sense of spiritual and relational connection.
Transforming experiences into a gift to others
I think it does have something to do with that little saying “If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you stronger." – Laura
There's some very evolved children being born. I know of a lot of kids who've grown up in a lot of suffering. A tremendous amount of suffering, and who come out just pure. It's like a lotus coming straight through mud. – Changing Leaf
My decision to focus on women who have earned professional recognition, educational accomplishment, and/or community leadership arose in direct response to research literature that focuses on adult deficits linked to group care life. Yet other self-definitions of personal strength and success arose, many of which relate to these women's early experiences of nonbelonging and represent hard-earned psychological transformations in their lives. Laura shares an evolving recognition of her strengths, which are unique yet universally human. “I think I know that I'm a viable member of society. And I feel like I’ve really healed a lot and have something to give to people. But a lot of it involves, I think the best of it involves, feelings that are not the regular run-of-the-mill feelings."
These women's sensibilities are unique and complex, and yet accessible and commonplace. They describe becoming adventurers, advocates for relationships, and fighters of justice in ways that have earned them professional recognition, academic achievement, and leadership positions.
Many of these strengths encompass personal, relational and political dimensions. The relational and political dimensions are particularly notable, and suggest that these women should be looked to for agency in social and political change. First, their combination of strengths makes it likely that they will risk the costs of speaking out against social conventions that omit or disregard relationships and caring. Their sense of adventure, their strong self-reliance, their ability to observe cultural realities and injustices, their courage to protest these injustices even if it means forfeiting a “place" in society because they have already known and survived displacement before, and their compassion for the underdog, can make these women powerful voices for the ways we care for and nurture children. Their collective experiences of nonbelonging, their seemingly endless strategies for coping, and the caring supports they sometimes experienced as girls, suggest that the changes they would fight for would honor relationships in new and important ways. Also, the nature of these women's accomplishments show that they have used their strengths in this very way – to transform practices and policies in professional, educational, and community life so that relationships are valued. For example, their achievements include directing group care programs, leading community groups, and studying and advocating for underprivileged children. Each has transcended her trauma and maximized her positive moments in group care by engaging with the world and transforming her experiences into a gift to others.
Gilligan, C. (1991). Women's psychological development: Implications for psychotherapy. In C. Gilligan, A. Rogers, & D. Tolman (Eds.), Women, girls and psychotherapy: Reframing resistance (pp. 5-31). Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press.
Kreider, H. (1997). Living Elsewhere: A psychological study of successful women who lived in group care as girls. Unpublished dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.