Lost in the welfare system but still clinging to hope

Andrew Bridge offers an insider's look at what it means to grow up as a foster child in America.

Hope's Boy By Andrew Bridge Hyperion 306 pp., $22.95

News reports flash a daily barrage of stories about children who fall between the cracks, abused by parents or neglected by social welfare agencies. Andrew Bridge's memoir, Hope's Boy, puts a face on these lost children.

Bridge, who was taken from his mentally unstable mother when he was 7, spent months in a county home before being placed with a foster mother who turned out to be emotionally and physically abusive.

Through sheer determination, he managed to earn a scholarship to Wesleyan University, a Harvard Law degree, and a Fulbright Scholarship. He now advocates for children in foster care. But even these sterling accomplishments cannot fill the early gap left by a mother's absence.

His mother, Hope, had been raised in and out of foster homes. She married at 17 and drifted with her husband until both were arrested for bank fraud and sent to state prison in California. Their young son, Andy, was sent to his grandmother in Chicago. His grandmother loved him, and although she had very little money, managed to make a stable home for him.

After prison, Hope tried to make a new start in Los Angeles, divorcing her husband and taking a job in a beauty salon. Although she had no money and no idea how to raise a child, she wanted her boy back. Andy was returned to his mother, who was then living in seedy North Hollywood, where her desperate financial situation and worsening mental health kept them locked out of apartments and scrounging in dumpsters for clothes and food. Hope worried constantly that someone would snatch Andy away, so she kept him out of school, holed up in the closet for hours at a time. Still, she loved him and looked after him as best she could.

It wasn't enough. County officials, tipped off by a neighbor, swooped down one day and took the 7-year-old Andy from his screaming mother on the street. On that day, he entered MacLaren Hall – where the county warehoused scores of children taken from their homes – and stepped into a black hole of institutionalized brutality and neglect. Bridge's placement in a foster home with a family that largely did not want him there only intensified the longing for his mother.

The memories of his two years with Hope eventually formed a thin filament of emotional safety netting underneath him. In a world of callous and dishonest adults, Bridge came to see his mother as his only supporter, and in turn, he became loyal to her alone. The downside to that loyalty was his inability to draw close to others, whether sympathetic schoolmates, teachers, or other foster children.

Endurance and stubborn survival wend their way through this memoir, which is both a love story of a boy and his mother and an indictment of the child-welfare system. Bridge's story is so compelling – and almost unbelievable – that his workmanlike prose hardly matters. Readers will be shocked that so little effort was made on the family's behalf. Hope's prison record, mental illness, and poverty made her the ultimate outcast and deprived her of the care that might have helped her keep her son.

The system grossly failed Bridge, too. Where was the able caseworker who should have seen past his foster mother's show of kindliness? Did the social workers find it more expedient to talk to the foster mother and never to the shy boy?

Those early lessons in surviving pain and loneliness left Bridge with a hunger to succeed. He applied to colleges sight unseen and wrote essays without help, seeing education as his only ticket out.

"Hope's Boy" not only outlines the harrowing state of child welfare, but also makes a plea to keep children out of that system in the first place. Bridge's experience understandably leads him to advocate for keeping families – even flawed ones – together.

He writes: "Of course, some families cannot be saved and their children cannot be returned. Yet, even then, their love for each other must be worth something. Of the infinite number of virtues by which we judge a mother's value, if she only possesses one, then even that single bit of love must be worth saving for her child's sake and for hers."

That single shred of love kept Andrew Bridge going, and it adds a flicker of hope to a compelling book that otherwise would be oppressively sad.

April Austin is a freelance writer in Lexington, Mass.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.