Country-western performer Jimmy Wayne, who was once a foster youth in the North Carolina system, came to the N.C. General Assembly to advocate for other foster kids.
By Rose Hoban
After strumming his guitar and singing a rendition of the Hall & Oates tune “Sara Smile” for legislators Wednesday morning, Jimmy Wayne Barber proceeded to make many of those same lawmakers cry with the story of his childhood in the foster care system.
After his unprecedented singing performance before the Joint Appropriations on Health and Human Services Committee in the Legislative Office Building, the 42-year-old country music singer and songwriter, who goes by the name Jimmy Wayne professionally, spent a half hour spinning the tale of how he went from being abandoned by his mother and stepfather to standing on the stage of Madison Square Garden “getting my pose on.”
The North Carolina native said he felt a special affinity for kids in the foster care system in the state. Barber said he made a point of coming home to advocate for extending the age at which kids are discharged from the system.
He told the committee that “the hardest walk I ever had was growing up in the system in North Carolina.”
When Barber was 13, his mother, who had been in prison twice, took up with a man Barber thought “would be a wonderful stepdad.”
“Until one night, we’re headed down the road, he hands me a gun.”
Barber described how his stepfather attempted to shoot him. Eventually, the man shot someone else and his mother and stepfather took the boy on a multi-state crime spree throughout the Southeast.
“Like Bonnie and Clyde, with a kid,” Barber said. “My stepdad would just pull into a gas station, fill up the car and drive off.”
Finally, one night in Pensacola, the adults stopped the car. “And I hear someone say, ‘Get out.’ I woke up and it was my stepdad saying, ‘Get out of the car,’” Barber said.
He looked for his mother.
“I got out of the car and saw her leaning against the trunk of the car, and she’s holding my clothes, and she leans over and kisses me on the face, and they leave me standing in the parking lot in the middle of the night, and they never come back,” Barber said. “Thirteen years old. I don’t have a phone, I don’t have money, I don’t have food. The only thing I can do is try to survive.”
Barber was returned to North Carolina, where he spent the next three years bouncing from group home to foster home. Eventually, when he was 16, he met an older couple who took him in and supported him emotionally and financially as he finished school and launched his music career.
Walking in their shoes
Barber has used his celebrity to bring attention to the needs of foster youth and contributed his efforts to passage of bills to support foster children in Tennessee and California.
He was doing well in his career when he decided it was time for him to step up his advocacy for kids who were where he had been.
“It reminded me of a promise that I made to myself as a kid, lying in bed at the group home … saying to myself, ‘One day when I make it, I am not going to forget where I came from,’” Barber recalled. “I’m gonna come back and help every single brother and sister in the foster care system.”
He said he could do benefit concerts, but that would be “too easy.” Instead, he decided to hike halfway across the country to raise awareness of homeless youth and kids aging out of the foster care system without support. Along the way, Barber “simulated being homeless,” sleeping on roadsides and in the homes of strangers.
He noted that between 27,000 and 30,000 foster kids in the U.S. “age out” of the foster care system annually.
“Some of these kids are sitting in high school, making good grades, but they reach 18 years, they age out, their resources are cut off,” he said. “Some of these kids have to quit school, go get a job.
He went on to cite some grim statistics: 50 percent of the females become pregnant within a year; one in four end up incarcerated within two years.
Barber told lawmakers that with the help of his foster parents and an engaged guidance counselor, he graduated high school and college, earning a degree in criminal justice.
Several bills affecting foster children are under consideration in the Senate. One would raise the age at which foster care ends from 18 to 19, another would make it easier for foster kids to participate in normal teenaged activities such as after-school sports and going to a friend’s home for a sleepover.
Bill sponsor Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Raleigh) said she was thrilled by Barber’s visit and hoped it would help encourage passage of the bill.
“There’s no crying in the Senate,” Barringer said, displaying red-rimmed eyes. “But I broke my own rule.”
After the meeting, Barber met with others who had been foster children in the state, including 29-year-old Shaquana Mack, who lives in Raleigh. She said she managed to hold back the tears.
“Every time I hear stories, it’s a lot of connections that are made,” said Mack, who was in the foster care system for five years until she was adopted by a social worker at 17.
Mack agreed with Barber that allowing kids to age out of the system at 18, or even 19, is too young.
“When you’re a 19-year-old foster kid, you’re already academically behind, you’ve struggled.… It needs to be at least 21,” Barber said. “It gives kids a chance to go to college, help themselves.”
Barber said he learned several weeks ago of the North Carolina bills and called Barringer’s office offering his help.
“From there, it moved fast,” he said.