Former DCFS wards use music to heal themselvesLeft to right:Fred Long, Jason Daniels, Victor Spencer, Erick Johnson
Even though you gave us up/ we love you to death/ And it will be that way until we run out of breath/ We still seek guidance when taking steps/ 'cause we ain't ask to be part of this DCFS."
Fred Long wrote those words as the chorus to his song, "The Parents," to reflect how he felt while growing up a ward of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Now 24, Long remembers his years in DCFS. "I became a ward of the state when I was 10 years old, and that was due to my mother's neglect and drug abuse problems," Long says. "I went into my grandmother's custody, me and my six brothers and two sisters. She was our foster parent."
He pauses. "We always have to explain our story. A lot of people don't like to do it, but for me it's nothing."
For Long, addressing the hurt in his past has been cathartic. That's why he and his friends-Victor Spencer, Erick Johnson and Jason Daniels (the only member of the group never in foster care)-decided to express their struggles in music. Their CD, "Uhlich Voices Emancipation: Inside the Hearts of DCFS," features searing autobiographical lyrics about the pain of abandonment, surviving the streets, hope and finding success.
Long is a development assistant at the Uhlich Children's Advantage Network, the Chicago-based social services organization where he received help as a foster child.
The idea for the CD grew out of a male support group at Uhlich. The group wrote "Road to Success" and "Speaking From the Heart" to offer guidance to younger males in foster care. The two songs were produced with the help of the Chicago Producers Circle, a network of recording professionals who lend their expertise to nonprofits.
Tom Vanden Berk, president and executive director of Uhlich, liked the two songs so much he wanted a CD. "I liked the idea for two reasons," Vanden Berk says. "I saw the passion the kids had for the music, and I saw it as a way for them to express what they were feeling. "
According to Long, the young men have known each other since the late '90s, and always wanted to make music together. Daniels started his own production company in April, called Interstate Productions. Spencer, a student at Harold Washington University, says music is a way for him to keep out of trouble.
Long says the group wants to speak out about the "wicked environment" that leads to foster care. People in the system, he says, feel "closed inside" and don't want others to know about their past. Spencer says he feels 10 pounds lighter after performing each song.
Both Spencer and Long say the song that affected them the most was "The Parents." The song is about the ambivalence foster children feel toward their natural parents, how they are torn between still loving them and yet questioning them for all the grief in their childhood.
Long's verse begins: "What I wouldn't do for guidance from my mom and my pops/ My father, he was too busy ducking the cops/ My mom was focused on ways of purchasing rocks."
Long says he wrote the song for his mother so she could know his frustrations.
Despite the sobering stories, the CD's message is positive. As Spencer writes in "Road to Success:" "My life has changed/ I've corrected my lane/ my age is 20 and I'm still in the game." In "Emancipation," a song about turning 18 and no longer being a ward of the state, Long says: "When I was younger it was hard to see the picture/ but now I'm focused in life like Antwone Fisher." Fisher's 17-year-old mother gave him up following his father's fatal shooting. He became a hero of Long's after seeing the Denzel Washington-directed 2002 movie "Antwone Fisher."
The CD is $20-a donation to Uhlich's programs-at the Uhlich Children's Advantage Network Web site, www.ucanchicago.org.
-- Rosemary Sullivan