‘They’re here because they want to hear us tell the truth and try to change things.’ — Constance
To fully understand the emotional significance and magnitude of what Wrongs of Passage successfully attempts to accomplish as art and catharsis, it’s necessary to flash back 15 years to 2001. Alicia Kaplan, now the co-field director of the joint Master’s of Social Work program at UNCG and NC A&T University, first applied to that program fresh out of her undergrad at Brandeis University and a tenure running the Phantom Manor ride at Disneyland Paris.
In her application essays for various grad schools, she cast a vision for using theater to creatively marry the arts with social work.
“I really enjoyed the idea of combining those two loves,” she said.
After earning her degree, she started work at the Forsyth County Department of Social Services, later moving to the Guilford County DSS, where she was able to partially realize that dream. In 2009, one her supervisors wrote a play called Chronicles of a Foster Child centered on recurring themes seen by social workers. Neffy Baldwin, one of the contributors to the Wrongs of Passage script, stepped in as the understudy for the main character. Ever since then, Baldwin urged Kaplan to put together another play.
“When we did that production, I remember thinking I wanted to do it again, but use their real-life stories, woven together,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan had the clinical know-how and the love for theater; she just needed the right partner in crime and the grant money to execute it successfully.
Enter Debra LeWinter, who Kaplan met through the Piedmont Swing Dance Society six years ago. LeWinter, a drama teacher at Greensboro’s American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, had been directing trauma-based theater projects at the school; she was the first person Kaplan thought of when the joint MSW program won a grant with funds allotted for a theater production.
“We’d been dreaming about this for years, ever since we met, all the time we’d known each other,” LeWinter said.
After six years of friendship and their artistic partnership through this play, they share an almost psychic connection, trailing off at the end of their sentences during rehearsals, finishing them telepathically.
“Alicia and I have many things in common,” LeWinter said. “Neither of us have had profound experiences of trauma in our own lives, and yet both of us seek to give people access to healing who have suffered.”
‘Do you promise to listen and try to imagine what it’s like to be us, in foster care?’ — Maya
Though writing and staging Wrongs of Passage has ultimately been a healing process, the trauma caused by the ugly underbelly of the foster-care system is just as much a character in the play as the actors themselves.
Statistics compiled by the Jordan Institute for Families at UNC-Chapel Hill shows that of 5,212 children in child-welfare custody in North Carolina between 2014 and 2015, 162 lived in Guilford County and 68 lived in Forsyth County. The percentage of kids in Guilford County experiencing four or more placements within their first year of custody was 23 percent, exceeding the state average by five points, signifying instability.
Kaplan said that Guilford County in particular has investigated systemic racism in the foster-care system. According to her stats, black children comprise 80 percent of youth in foster care in Guilford county, though they only comprise 40 percent of the county’s total youth population.
Another issue Kaplan pointed to was the shrinking budget for the Child Welfare Education Collaborative, a state program offering free tuition to students agreeing to placement at social service offices, making social work more competitive by stocking state offices with dedicated, debt-free staff.
“There was money then,” Kaplan said of the program in the early 2000s, when she was first starting out as a social worker. “The program was growing. But the state legislature continued to chop the budget. The program’s now at bare bones.”
“It is one of the most challenging jobs quite possibly in the world,” she later added. “I’m hoping the play can be used for social workers to remember why they got into this field to begin with, especially on those stressful days.”
Oftentimes group-home staff members are not formally trained to interact with youth, sometimes posturing in situations a trained social worker would know to de-escalate, Kaplan said. During a game-show bit in the play, one actor asks of a group home staff character, “What qualifies you to be in this role?” The response: “Because I have a pulse and a high school diploma, smartass!”
Another troubling factor called out in Wrongs of Passage is that once a child is placed in foster care, supposedly to be protected from a neglectful or abusive environment, they are not necessarily guaranteed safety: one 2005 NYU study found that over 28 percent of children in state care are abused while in the foster care system, and that’s a modest estimate. Some of the more horrifying moments in the play are not pre-care stories, but those from foster families, such as a pastor’s wife who makes her foster daughter pretend to be “a good husband” and then threatens to kill her if she tells anyone what happened.
Despite a common perception that most children in foster care are young children, the average age of the children in foster care is older than 9 years old. Teens are often moved to group homes not because of behavioral problems, but simply because of their age.
“Not a lot of foster homes are willing to take teens,” Kaplan said.
The trend of adults aging out of foster care only to “enter the system” is a huge social concern, said Greensboro City Councilwoman Sharon Hightower of District 1, who made a point to attend the opening night of the play. Statistics overwhelmingly point to high percentages of homelessness, PTSD, and low employment rates in adults exiting care.