Updated: Nov 3
“You’re an orphan, right? Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?”
The above quote from the movie Good Will Hunting took place between a therapist, played by Robin Williams, and a brilliant but bitter foster care alumnus, played by Matt Damon. It vividly portrays the gap in understanding that separates a confused former foster child from the sensitive but inexperienced therapist trying to help him.
The therapist’s take on his ability to understand this angry young man is both brilliant and
humble. “How in the hell,” he likely asked himself, “am I qualified with no more than my
academic training to know how to help such a complex person from such a traumatic
Clearly, he realizes that he can’t just regurgitate what he’s learned from college courses,
conferences, seminars, books or other “second-hand” sources, that he must learn all he can about this particular young man’s painful childhood before he can even begin to know how to help him.
But since he has not personally experienced foster care or worked with foster youths, he has no perspective to draw upon.
This poignant movie scene “encapsulates” the foster care dilemma: Few non-alumni
professionals truly understand us, and even fewer really know how to help us. It also sums up
why alumni must be at the forefront of training non-alumni professionals about what programs,
policies and practices serve the needs and protect the best interests of at-risk youth.
Who else could include more “first-hand” experience in their training than former wards of the
court that also bring with them the added dimensions of both studying and then working in child welfare? This level of expertise provides the unmatched insight required to teach non-alumni professionals what they need to do to truly serve and protect the vulnerable young people in their care.
There is no substitute for personal experience!
Client-led training is considered a “best practice” in other social services, so, clearly, it is
appropriate, even desirable, for consumers of their services to play a professional development role in the agencies and organizations that are designed to serve them.
But not in child welfare.
Instead, non-alumni teach other non-alumni what they think is in our best interests. Some of
them may, indeed, get it right. But how many of them are flat-out wrong? More importantly, how many kids suffer for want of precise and insightful information?
Social work based on guesswork is not only illogical and ill-conceived; it also condemns itself – and its dependent clients – to failure.
The failure of the current child welfare paradigm is its obvious omission of client involvement
throughout its system of services, including alumni training non-alumni professionals how to
help kids currently in foster care resolve the very same issues they experienced and then
Valuing “first-hand” information, after all, is no more than common-sense.
Why, then, do non-alumni train other non-alumni about issues they had the good luck not to
experience? This is not common-sense; in fact, it is non-sense, and foster kids suffer because of
Perhaps the child welfare professionals involved with young Will Hunting might have helped
him resolve his anger issue, had they received training from an alumnus who both experienced
and then mastered the same problem?
Put simply: “It takes one to know one.”
Adapted from our book: A Foster Care Manifesto: Defining the Alumni Movement