When a young person’s parents can’t or won’t provide a safe and appropriate living environment, that child is sometimes made a ward of the state. This often means the child goes to a foster home or series of foster homes, and is supposed to be monitored by a social services agency. It’s not at all an ideal solution, but it can be better than living with a parent who’s addicted to drugs, or who abuses the child, or who needs intense and ongoing mental health care. Young people who spend time in ‘the system’ need to develop a tough exterior, and things can be difficult for them. Sometimes, their lives work out well; sometimes they don’t. Either way, such children can make interesting characters.
There are plenty of them in crime fiction, too. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a product of the ‘the system.’ He’s the son of a prominent lawyer and a prostitute. Since his father wasn’t a part of his life until he was an adult, he spent his early childhood with his mother. Then, when she was murdered, he became a ward of the state, and spent much of his time in foster care, orphanages, and other institutions. Those experiences have definitely impacted Bosch’s life, and given him a different outlook on life to the one he might have had if he’d grown up in a stable home.
In C.J. Box’s Open Season, we are introduced to Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Shortly after the novel begins, he has an encounter with a local poacher, Ote Keeley. It doesn’t go well for Pickett. A few months later, Keeley’s body turns up near the Picketts’ own woodpile, and Pickett is drawn into the mystery of who killed the victim and why. When Keeley’s daughter, April, is abandoned by her mother (that story arc appears in a few of the novels), the Pickett family takes her in. Officially, she’s a ward of the state, but the Picketts see her as their adopted daughter. She adjusts to life with her new family, but, as fans of Winterkill and Below Zero know, things do not magically turn out all right for her.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only female-owned private investigation agency. At the beginning of the series, her focus is on her work. Everything changes when her then-fiancé, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, takes in two foster children, Motholeli and her brother Puso. They’ve lived at the local orphanage as wards of the state since their parents died, and are doing well enough. But Mma Silvia Potokwane, who runs the orphanage, wants them placed in a good home. She persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take the children, and at first, Mma Ramotswe isn’t too pleased that all of this happened without her knowledge. But she takes to the children, and they to her. And in the end, these children find a safe and caring new home.
So does former Bangkok street child Miaow, whom we meet in Timothy Hallianan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty has taken Miaow in as a foster child, and his doing his best to care for her, with the help of his partner, Rose. It’s not always easy, because Miaow has her own trauma and ‘baggage.’ But she’s doing well – much better than she would if she’d stayed on the streets. Rafferty wants to adopt her legally; and, as the series goes on, we see what it’s like when children who are wards of the state go through the adoption process.
And then there’s Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy. In one interesting plot thread of this novel, we learn about a woman named Agnes Moore. Born in England, she was sent to an orphanage as a ward of the state when her parents were believed to be among the war dead (of World War II). After the war, she and many other British children were sent to Australia. Agnes stayed at a place called Fairbridge Farm, where she had a good experience. Later, she grew up, returned to England, and married and had a family. What she was never told, though, was that her parents weren’t dead. They were listed as dead in error, but they survived the war. When they found that Agnes had been sent to Australia, they went there, too, and had a second child, Sally ‘Snow.’ Agnes later discovered she had an Australian family, and the novel begins as she goes back to Australia to try to connect with her sister and, if possible, her parents. Instead, she goes missing. Her daughter, Ruby, wants the truth about what happened to her mother. Journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett is covering the story in a professional but not particularly interested way. His curiosity is piqued, though, when he learns why Agnes was in Australia. He starts to write stories about the family, and begins receiving letters from Snow, who’s now in prison for a crime that is revealed as the story goes on. She, too, has had experiences with the fostering system, ‘though from a very different perspective. Now thoroughly interested, Fawcett follows the history of both sisters, and it’s fascinating to see how differently they turned out.
Being in foster care – in ‘the system’ – doesn’t have to sentence a child to a miserable life. But it is a difficult situation, and many authorities try to avoid it if possible. It does make for some interesting plot points and characters, though.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charinin’s Maybe.