Shenandoah Chefalo is a social activist who has recently published a new book called “Garbage Bag Suitcase” in which she documents her childhood as a foster care youth during which she had to move 50 times. She also shares her ideas about how to improve the foster care system.
For almost 20 years, Chefalo worked in a law office focusing on criminal defense and divorce she was inspired to write this book after realizing a link between her clients and time they spent in foster care. Chefalo states that they are around 1.6 million prisoners in the U.S., 1.2 million of which have spent time in foster care. When she began doing research Chefalo realized foster care wasn’t only linked to incarceration, but also to homelessness, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and government assistance.
Chefalo also found sad effects of having childhood trauma when she looked into a study conducted between 1995 and 1997 at the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kaiser Permanante Maintenance Organization. The study found that those who faced childhood trauma such as abuse or neglect have an increased likelihood of developing health problems such as depression, heart disease and cancer, as well as increased susceptibility to substance abuse.
Shenandoah wrote the book to show the link between these social issues in our country and to say that a large root of these problems can be found within the foster care system. Her book is a call to action to address trauma in our community and to better the foster care system.
Chefalo offers both short- and long-term solutions to the problems within the foster care system. One short-term solution is trying to better match children to foster parents who suit their ages and personalities. She also believes in continuing education for foster parents.
One long-term solution that Chefalo poses is a shift toward more boarding schools. The Crossnore School, which is over 100 years old, has operated solely as a boarding school for foster youth for the last 25 years. The school has fantastic results and a very long waiting list. Unfortunately, Congress is considering The Family First Prevent Services Act, which would shut boarding homes in favor of foster families. Chefalo is extremely bothered by this act because it would prevent places like Crossnore from existing.
Chefalo is a member of the Foster Leaders Movement, a grassroots organization that work to change legislation and educate the public on matters surrounding the foster care system. In Chefalo’s home state of Michigan, one of the Health and Human Services Department is a large part of the budget. This department consists of both incarceration and foster care, Chefalo wants to make some changes in that department.
Chefalo has received a largely positive response to the book because it is focused on solutions. Many of these solutions need to happen within the system itself, but Chefalo also believes that there are ways that ordinary people can help.
She encourages people to get involved with mentoring in any way possible, whether you want to coach a Little League team, talk to local kids, or become a big brother or big sister. Young children thrive when they have caring, stable adults in their lives, and this is a core belief that Shenandoah Chefalo wants to spread.