Nathaniel Brown was known as the runaway kid.
In his mind he was just the big black kid who no one loved and, except for monetary gain, no one wanted.
And so, yes, when the verbal, physical and sexual abuse became unbearable at a series of foster homes in South Carolina, poor Nathaniel ran back to the one place – Spartanburg Children’s Shelter — where he felt loved.
In nearly every foster home where he had been placed since age 4, he’d been made to feel like he should be grateful he had a place to live. No one talked to him except to scold or remind him he was nothing.
“I had to hear that over and over,” he said. “It was an awful feeling.”
We’ve known for at least the last three decades that black children in the child welfare system are placed in foster care at twice the rate of white children. And once removed from their homes, black children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services and are less likely to either be returned home or adopted than any other children.
We’ve also heard the horror stories, so Nathaniel’s story might not surprise many.
But you might wonder, as I did, how in the world did this kid come to be coordinator of student affairs operations at Georgia Piedmont Technical College and a University of Georgia PhD. candidate?
It’s a story I might have missed had it not been for Marcia Klenbort of Atlanta, who emailed me after a brief encounter with Brown early this month.
“In my role as a mentor of a high school student, I just met on the phone an educator who really understands what our girls — and all refugees and children who grow up somewhat outside the middle class mainstream — need in order to create their own education and career paths,” she wrote.
Now I sat watching as he pointed with his index finger to a black-and-white sketch of the Spartanburg shelter and the door through which he entered each time he found his way back to his safe haven.
One moment he happily talked about his long journey and the next he doubled over in pain, crying over the memories that could have very easily destroyed him.
Nathaniel Brown was born into the child welfare system. In 1981, four years after being born to a single mother, he was placed in an emergency children’s shelter. Soon after he was placed with a foster family at age 7, Nathaniel ran away and returned to the emergency shelter. Each time his case worker took him back to the foster home, he’d return to the shelter again.
He was 12 when both his mother’s and father’s parental rights were terminated for abuse and Nathan was shipped to a psychiatric treatment facility.
“Being 6 feet tall and the age I was, there weren’t enough placements for black males,” he said.
His case worker eventually found another foster family willing to take Nathan, but after he ran way again, the case worker moved him from Spartanburg to another foster family in Greenville County, too far for him to run.
“That’s when I started to say to myself, you’re going to have to try and figure something out,” he said.
Nathan appealed to his case worker’s supervisor to find him another home. When she threatened to have him committed, Nathan went to his room and cried.
Between his sobs, he heard a TV commercial about the Boys Home of the South in Belton, S.C., a place that cared for boys who had been abandoned, neglected, abused or orphaned. Nathan called the director at the Spartanburg shelter.
If you can get me into the boy’s home, he told her, I promise I will never run away again.
And she did. For the next five years, Nathan was home. The house parents, Leonard and Clara Campbell, treated him like a son.
“They didn’t use our traumatic life to manipulate us or make us feel bad,” Nathan said.
Leonard Campbell, an Air Force veteran, was the loving disciplinarian. Clara, a former beautician, was the nurturer who stayed up late helping with homework and listening to the boys’ dreams and stories from their past. They took a sterile cottage setting and turned it into a home with pictures of the boys on the walls. They assigned chores and awarded them with a $2 allowance for every hour of work done to help maintain the grounds of the 127-acre campus. They showed up for extra-curricular activities at school. They ate dinner together like a real family.
“They were consistent and they showed up,” Nathan said. “Ms. Clara cracked my shell and that was hard to do.”
In 1996, Nathan graduated from Woodmont High and headed to the College of Charleston on a scholarship. But the transition was too difficult. He dropped out after just two semesters.
He would give college one more try before finally enrolling in 2000 at Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., where he earned a bachelor of science degree in interdisciplinary studies, a program he designed himself.
Over the next decade Nathan worked in the South Carolina governor’s office of continuum care, earned a master’s degree in social work at Clark Atlanta University and worked for the Department of Family and Children’s Services and Georgia Perimeter College, where he helped develop a personal counseling program and the Safe Space Program for LGBT students.
Just as he began work on his doctorate in 2011, Nathan left Georgia Perimeter for doctoral assistant-ships at the University of Georgia and the Morehouse School of Medicine doing research for health-care attorney Daniel Dawes, author of “150 Years of Obamacare.”
Early this year the “runaway” defended the first three chapters of his dissertation about college students who grew up in foster care and is on track to graduate in December.
He was en route recently to UGA to pick up his regalia for the graduation ceremony, Brown said, when the reality “hit me hard.”
When the clerk handed him the bag containing his gear, Nathan decided a plain black robe just wouldn’t do. He needed a custom-made gown and headed to the campus book store to place his order.
“I worked too hard for an ordinary robe ,” Nathan said. “I’d come too far.”
And he was done with running away.