This article was originally published by WireTap magazine
September 8, 2008
Twenty-year-old San Francisco resident Darrin Harris is a survivor. Like too many African-American men growing up in a city with a reputation for progressive politics, Harris was shuffled between foster care and jail for years before receiving the mental health care he needed. Thankfully, for this resilient young man, much of this trauma is now in the past.
These days, Harris makes a strong first impression with his graceful manners and upright posture, reflecting a composed and self-assured young man. He wears colorful striped dress shirts tucked into crisply ironed dress pants. His future is hopeful, as he searches for work and considers going back to school with help from state scholarships.
This wasn’t always the case.
For many young people growing up in neglected communities, there are systemic social and personal barriers to getting adequate mental health care. In my role as Harris’s social worker, I watched him overcome personal struggles, social stigmas, and a juvenile system that frequently fails to identify psychiatric illnesses.
Darrin Harris’s birth parents were both poor and addicted to drugs. Unable to care for themselves or their son, Darrin was placed in foster care as an adolescent, an all too common fate for youth from his community. While rates of childhood neglect are similar across color lines, African-American youth are more likely to become caught up in the foster care system.
According to a 2005 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report ( AFCARS), African-American children represent 15 percent of the youth population in the U.S., but make up 30 percent of youth in the foster care system. For many foster care youth, this unstable housing can have negative repercussions.
Darrin moved from foster care to group homes following a spate of disruptive, volatile incidents due to his sudden radical shifts in mood. When his outbursts continued, he was sent to psychiatric hospitals, and finally juvenile hall. Juvenile detention is a frightening place for any youth, but hardened by a lifetime of institutionalization, it was nothing new to Harris.
“Group homes are just like being in jail,” he said during one of our counseling appointments. “They tell you what to do, where you can go, where you can’t, just like jail.”
As he transitioned through different housing environments over the course of a decade, Darrin’s chaotic and frightening mood swings had his friends on edge, fearing what he would do next. At his most manic, Harris was effusive, bursting with energy and talking in a frantic, unintelligible diction. He was easily irritated, paranoid and reckless. The behavior would go on for days until a sudden crash would leave Harris crying and suicidal.