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At age 2, Hoang Murphy came to the United States with his family from Vietnam. At 8, he entered the foster care system with his siblings. And, at 10, after his father's parental rights were terminated, he became a ward of the state.

Murphy, now 30 and founder of Foster Advocates, knows firsthand how the foster care system shrivels the hopes of too many young people. Although he credits foster care with saving his life, he hopes a 2022 Bush Foundation fellowship will help him enact seismic changes to guide former foster children toward more fulfilling lives.

Eye On St. Paul recently interviewed Murphy and other St. Paul Bush Fellows to learn more about what they hope to gain in the next year or so. In addition to networking and studying the child welfare systems of other countries, Murphy hopes a trip to Vietnam might help him reconnect to his life.

This interview has been edited for length.

Q: Tell me a little bit about Foster Advocates and tell me a little about you.

A: [Foster Advocates] is a nonprofit I founded in June 2018. We're Foster Advocates, but it's more than a name. It's what we do. We really just work with "fosters," as we call them, to ensure our community's at the forefront of changes to the foster care system.

Q: Do you work with foster children [and] are you working with foster parents?

A: We work with people who have experienced the foster care system. We don't say foster kids because kid is a pretty delineating line, but also because those kids grow up.

Some people use the term foster alum, which really bothered me and bothered others ... because when you think of things that you're an alum of, they are things that you chose. I'm an alum of Johns Hopkins or I'm an alum of the drama team. But I'm not an alum of child abuse.

Q: Would you mind sharing your personal story?

A: Well, my name is Hoang Murphy and people wonder about that — I'm probably the only Hoang Murphy you're ever going to meet in your life. I came to the states when I was 2 from Vietnam. We were resettled here at St. Paul at the McDonough Homes. And then I entered foster care at 8. My father's parental rights were terminated when I was 10, and I then became a ward of the state.

So I was a refugee twice — once from my home and once from my family.

Q: Were you in foster care until you turned 18?

A: No. I was adopted up in northern Minnesota when I was 11. [Before that] I was staying in a foster home with my five siblings; it was a foster home with 13 of us. But my little brother was listed as unadoptable and we agreed that we were going to split up. I was going to go with my little brother and try to get him a placement. And my sister was going to stay at this foster home that wanted to adopt her. So my brother and I went to a family that I think was really well intentioned, the Murphys, but were not really well-equipped to be parents.

We were referred back to foster care after a separate finding of abuse when I was 16 and my brother was 15. My brother elected to go into [other] foster care. And I didn't want that.

Q: What are you hoping to accomplish with the fellowship?

A: I didn't want to start a nonprofit — that was not my goal. But it was the only vehicle that allowed me to do the work that I knew had to be done when I moved back to Minnesota in 2017. What I saw was that the system was largely the same as when I left it. The things that I wanted changed hadn't changed at all. The difference was that now I had the background and enough experience to move the system.

Q: How so?

A: We passed four laws, two of them very big. This year was the creation of the Office of the [Foster Youth] Ombudsperson, which gives protections to foster youth and folks who are making allegations of abuse against a caretaker.

And last year, we passed free college for anyone [13 or older] who was in foster care for even a day. You can go to nearly any college in the state of Minnesota.

Q: Why doesn't the system work better?

A: The hard part of foster care is that there are almost no good choices. You don't want to be in this situation. The best thing that we can do is try to preserve families whenever possible [but] I wouldn't go so far and say, "Preserve families at any cost." Children bear that weight more than anybody else, and I know that deeply. I mean, I would have died.

So, for some, it's a life-saving intervention. But what do we do with a system that wants to save children but doesn't know how to care for them?

That's what's lacking from the foster care system — not having a permanent place to be or an anchor to the world around you. And so that's something that has to change.