The City of Brotherly Love could also use some Sister's Keepers

COURTESY OF STONELEIGH FOUNDATION Larbriah Morgan needs to find housing . . . and quick.
COURTESY OF STONELEIGH FOUNDATION Larbriah Morgan needs to find housing . . . and quick.
Posted: May 16, 2014

LARBRIAH MORGAN'S voice trembled slightly as she shared her story.

She was 3 years old when she and her siblings were separated and placed in foster care. By 9, she had lived with two foster mothers. One was as much a stranger to her on the day she moved out as she was six years earlier, when she moved in.

She went to live with her grandparents, a home already bursting at the seams with relatives. By 17, she was back in the system. She now lives in a small apartment paid for by the child-welfare system while she juggles various jobs and a full college schedule.

"I had to learn by doing the opposite of what I saw, and learning as situations were thrown at me," she told those gathered for Stoneleigh Foundation's annual symposium about improving the lives of vulnerable children.

As Morgan spoke, no one in the room seemed to move. With no support, Morgan told the crowd of about 200, "It felt as if I were walking into important situations blindfolded."

At 20, Morgan is now a junior at Temple majoring in biology and a youth advocate at the Juvenile Law Center's Youth Fostering Change program.

But in less than a month, all her hard-fought and earned success could slip through her fingers. On June 4, when she turns 21, Morgan will age out of the child-welfare system and be on her own. She will lose her housing and most of the support that makes it possible for her to beat the mountain of odds against her.

"I am approaching my senior year at Temple University, and I have many high aspirations," she said. "One of them is to go to medical school so I can become an anesthesiologist, but I can't worry about graduation or applying to medical school because I'm more worried about where I'll be living when I turn 21 next month. "

As Morgan shared her fears, my heart broke for her. Stoneleigh's symposium, part rallying cry, part call to action to improve the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, asked a deceivingly simple question: "What about the girls?"

In recent years, attention has finally turned to at-risk boys. In February, President Obama launched "My Brother's Keeper," an initiative for young men of color.

Human-rights lawyer and advocate Malika Saada Saar applauded the president's initiative. But she challenged those of us in the room, "Where are our sister's keepers . . . ? Who claims and loves and renders [them] sacred?"

Seventy-three percent of girls in the juvenile-justice system have histories of sexual and physical abuse.

Teen girls are three times more likely to experience depression than boys.

While many cite the school-to-prison pipeline for young men of color, Saar spoke of the foster-care-to-child-trafficking pipeline for vulnerable young women. In 2013, 60 percent of the child sex-trafficking victims recovered as part of a FBI nationwide raid from more than 70 cities were children from foster care or group homes.

But even if they don't meet such horrific fates, their futures are tenuous.

Statistics for girls in child welfare show higher rates of teen pregnancy and poor health. They have limited financial resources, unstable family environments and poor school attendance.

And yet, here stood Morgan, at the door to success only to fear that it would be slammed shut.

I fought the temptation to pull a Norma Rae and jump on my seat with a sign that read "Sister's Keeper" - although the moment really called for it.

So I instead stand on this soapbox. Gwendolyn Bailey, executive director of Youth Service Inc., a nonprofit child-welfare agency, said she hoped that the day wouldn't just spark a conversation, but a movement.

A movement starts with one person, one cause. So let's begin with Morgan, and getting her whatever support she needs - a stable place to live, for starters - to continue her journey to a better life.

Let's help her beat the odds to become more than just another statistic, because she already is so much more than that.

Let's step up and become our Sister's Keeper.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

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