No Child Is Too Old for a Family

Lexie large photo for FB FINALWhen I entered foster care at the age of 14, I wanted nothing more than a family that could provide me the stability and nurturing I needed so desperately. I envisioned a foster family that would replace the cycle of chaos I once lived with, a safe home where I was loved. However, I soon learned my fantastical idea of foster care was far from reality.

I was informed that foster families preferred infants and toddlers to teenagers, and my age rendered me “used goods.” The only solutions for me were short term, because foster homes for teenagers were in short supply and already occupied. I could not understand why someone in my community wouldn’t step up and take me in. At one point of desperation, I begged my social worker to allow me to write a paper about myself so that potential foster parents would realize I was a kid worthy of their love. Despite my prayers, I shifted among placements until I turned 18.

Bouncing from home to home could have interfered with my ability to obtain a stable education, and I refused to forfeit that for the remote possibility of a stable placement. I learned that under the McKinney-Vento Act I could stay in the same high school I had started in, as long as I fell under the act’s definition of “homeless.” I chose consistent schooling and decided to stay on at the youth shelter where I had already been placed.

It wasn’t an easy decision. I remember when I arrived there; the shelter staff watched me struggle to carry three trash bags filled with clothes and books as they lead me to my new bedroom on the second floor. It was filthy. Many of the girls at the shelter were newly released from juvenile detention or jails, and my small stature made me the perfect target for their physical aggression. They used everything from their hands to a hot pan.

Meanwhile, staff treated us like second class human beings. Cabinets and fridges were locked, and we could only eat at “feeding times,” like animals at the zoo. We struggled to sleep when summer nights reached temperatures of 100 degrees or more. Cockroaches infested our living spaces, and the bedrooms were in desperate need of repair. However, the first floor, which held staff offices and a meeting room for visits with social workers and lawyers, was immaculate and temperature-controlled.

I cycled in and out of shelters until there was no place else to stay. I eventually was allowed to stay in a group home for my senior year. It was a model for what good congregate care looks like. The staff at the home always believed that I would become a successful high school graduate. They encouraged me to work hard at school and congratulated me when I succeeded.

Still, as I planned for college, I was concerned about becoming a legal adult without a permanent family to fall back on. While my peers spent their summer before college celebrating and enjoying time with family, I was searching for a basement to place all my items that could not fit into the dorm room that would become my home. I went off to college completely on my own; I spent much of my first semester barricading myself in my room and crying.

When I asked my social worker about housing during academic breaks, she informed me that “given your age, a shelter is usually what is sought by calling 211 for information on available shelters in your area.” I refused to become homeless again and searched desperately for a permanent home, even trying to reunite with my biological parents. I ended up spending many nights on a friend’s couch.

After two years of college I still deal with emotional and physical ramifications from my upbringing, but I finally have foster parents who provide me with the support that has saved my life. I’ve also found a home within the House of Representatives, where I have been given the opportunity to use my experience in foster care to work on child welfare policy and educate legislators.

I now have the resources and support to become the healthy adult I had always dreamed of being, but in 2012 nearly 24,000 children turned 18 and aged out of the foster care system to face a bleak future. Many of these youth end up homeless or incarcerated within a few years, while only 3 percent graduate college. No child is too old for a family. It is absolutely essential that we not only recruit more foster homes, but ensure that there are enough foster homes for older youth. Until we accomplish that, we will ensure the failure of countless children.

A version of this column originally appeared in:

A Story of Resilience

james largeI lived in foster care for the majority of my life. A police report in my file indicates that when I was about a year old, my father was driving under the influence with me in the back seat. No family members wanted to take me, so I went into state care.

I was adopted when I was 5, and at first I had a rather good relationship with my adoptive parents. But a couple years later, everything seemed to spiral downward when they started to hit me. I wish there had been follow-up by social workers to see if things were going okay. When I was 12, my adoptive parents “re-homed” me by sending me to live with my biological grandmother. My biological father also lived there, and since his parental rights had been terminated, he wasn’t supposed to have any contact with me until I was 18. He didn’t say a word to me, he just came in drunk. I ran away, and my adoptive aunt helped me get back into foster care at 13.

This experience made me realize that life was not all green pastures and smiling faces, and that sometimes the people that are supposed to love you will hurt you as well. Over the next few years, I moved through foster homes and group homes and experienced even more abuse and neglect. By the time I aged out at 19, many foster parents had told me I was stupid and that I would never amount to anything.

I remember staying at one home where the foster dad made derogatory remarks about other races. After he saw me hanging out with an African American friend, I got the worst demoralizing, dehumanizing punishment that I’ve ever experienced.

I remember it vividly. He hit me, my head tilted forward and I saw my blood splotch my crisp white socks. It congealed for a second then spread like a blot of ink on paper. He pushed me out of the room and towards the front door. I gasped when the late December air hit me in the face. He threw open the screen door and I grasped on the doorframe. My hands burned when he ripped them off; I screamed into the night. I heard my scream fade and all that was left was a ringing silence. I knew no one would come to help, so there was no use in calling for it.

He dragged me over the icy grass. He squatted on top of me while he clasped the collar around my neck and cuffed one of my hands to the metal confederate flag rail in front of the doghouse. I stayed there until the following morning, with no clothes. When he came back, he told me, “If I see you hanging with that ‘N word’ again, you will be out here for a week.”

The family lost its foster care license, because they failed to attend a court hearing concerning another abuse allegation, and I moved to a group home, but this traumatic memory never left me. My innocence was gone. I closed myself off, and distrusted others. It was easier than making the mistake of trusting and getting hurt again.

Eventually I learned to trust my caseworker, Kenya Papillion. She took me seriously when I brought up issues in my placements, and talked to me about what I wanted to do with my life. If it weren’t for Kenya, and a few others, I may have gone down a different road. They helped me understand that I could either fall within the cracks of the system, or flourish. I grew to realize that my circumstances equipped me with the tools, and burning passion, to make certain other foster youth do not experience what I did.

I graduated from the University of South Carolina, Magna Cum Laude, with a Bachelor’s Degree at the age of 19. I am now 21, and today I am graduating from the University of Southern California (USC) with my Masters in Social Work. It took a lot of hard work and support to get here, and I still struggle. Without my support system at USC, I would probably be homeless right now. As I face the gap between graduation and finding a job, staff like Vice Dean Paul Maiden, Dean Wendy Smith and Alexi Waul are helping me transition from living on campus to an apartment. I have to give them credit. They have done so much for me.

I want foster youth to know that they can prevail, despite the odds. I hope to inspire many with my story of resilience. I always felt that I was a target to foster parents and group home providers because I questioned the system, instead of being silently obedient. Now, I realize that there were many other kids in similar situations, and young people are still struggling within foster care. Knowing this heightens my resolve to advocate for foster youth today.

A version of this column originally appeared in:

My Past Did Not Define Me, It Designed Me

shandreka largeHello, my name is Shandreka Jones, and I’m a survivor of the New York foster care system.

My 17-year-old mother was in foster care when she had me. She left me with her mother, whom she ran away from years earlier because of abuse. My grandmother carried the abuse down to me and I still have a half-inch scar above my right eye from when she pushed me into the dining room table. I was about 6, and she got mad because I couldn’t tie my shoes. When I was 7, she used a key to cut my back when I coughed in an elevator, something she didn’t want me to do. My teacher found out, and I was placed in a foster home in Mount Vernon, New York.

My first foster family seemed to be sent from heaven, until my social worker visits became less frequent. The family abused me mentally and physically and neglected even my basic needs – like ensuring I bathed properly. They restricted me to their attic and wouldn’t allow me to interact with their biological children. When my social worker made sporadic visits, I cried and begged her not to leave me with “the mean people.” She promised she would come back as soon as she found me a new family.

To this day I can’t understand why my social worker left me there after what she witnessed. My clothes were always dirty and my hair was never combed. I developed ringworm on my forehead and scalp. After a few more months of abuse, I was moved to another home in New Rochelle, New York.

But it wasn’t any better than the first one. In fact, it was worse, and I was forced to live there for the remainder of my adolescent years. When my social worker visited frequently, my new parents tended to my infected and malnourished body. However, once my social worker lost interest, so did they. Again I was treated differently from their children. I was beaten and called names. I was constantly reminded that my “own mother” didn’t want me, so I should be grateful that they had taken me in. After a few years living with them, they talked me into being adopted. I wasn’t sure why they wanted to adopt me – they hated me. Years later I learned that they continued to receive money for my “mental disability.”

But to me, the only thing that affected me mentally was living in that home. I ran away numerous times and tried killing myself by taking a bottle of over-the-counter pills. I stayed angry all the time, which caused me to fight anyone who dared to get in my way. When my adoptive mother held a knife to my throat, I left for good. I was like a newborn baby again, but this time I was responsible for my well-being – nobody was there to help me or check in on me. I didn’t have a mentor, guardian ad litem or Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer to steer me in right direction. I didn’t have a clue how to be young lady. I didn’t know how to love or receive love.

My low self-esteem caused me to use my body as a tool. I was playing Russian roulette with my life with excessive drinking and reckless relationships. I abused alcohol to escape my insecurities and myself. I began believing I was mentally retarded just like I was told for all those years. My anger turned into depression. I didn’t think I was pretty or worthy enough to be around others who seemed to have it all. I hated myself for not being what I thought I should be.

I lived from couch to couch, including my biological mother’s, until I couldn’t take my life anymore. I knew I was destined for greater things – I just didn’t know how to reach them. I got on my knees and asked God for his strength and guidance. The following month at the age of 20, I enlisted in the Army and never looked back.

I carried hatred in my heart for many years toward those who hurt me. I still wonder about my foster families’ reasons for being so cruel. However, in spite of it all, I have done great things. I have a loving husband and son, who love me for me. By the grace of God, I was able to break the cycle of abuse and neglect that seemed to infiltrate my family for decades.

I’m currently pursuing my Master of Social Work degree at the University of South Carolina and writing my memoir. I’m grateful for my dark past because it made me the person I am today. I believe I am a survivor for a reason, and that my story will help someone else heal. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I can tell anyone that has been through experiences like mine, God has greater things for you.

Published on May 14, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign.

A version of this column originally appeared in:

Foster Care is a Cruel Teacher. Make Its Survivors Part of the Solution

melissa fortner newest large USE THISI once read that the average amount of time a kid spends in foster care is something like three years. It’s a piece of trivia that still floors me. I spent so much of my own childhood in foster care that I can’t remember anything that came before it. I entered the system when I was 2; it would be the only constant in my life for the next twenty years. Placements and families came and went, but the system remained. Some parts of it never leave.

In small ways, the system crept into my world before I even understood that I was a part of it: getting pulled out of class for weird visits with a woman who used too much hairspray and made me call her Mommy. The unsettling knowledge that I didn’t look like either of the grownups I lived with, who were my real parents, as far as I knew. They loved me and my two siblings like they loved their own sons. Then the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) van came to move us, and I finally understood.

The placements after that were a revolving door of abuse and degradation. I spent five years with a lady who blew the monthly stipend from Dcfs on her own kids while we lowly fosters got to eat maybe once a day, if we were lucky. But she was very generous with the beatings, which often bordered on torture (making us kneel for hours on uncooked rice seemed to be her favorite). My ticket out, ironically, was a suicide attempt that sent me to the psych hospital for a whole summer – there were bars on all the windows, and I couldn’t go outside, but I felt like I’d been rescued. Then came other homes, where I learned to expect nothing and accept favoritism and other blows to my self-worth because at least they were not real punches.

The one upside to spending my life in foster care is that I got to file for financial aid as an independent; I attended the University of Illinois almost for free. But I didn’t graduate. College felt impossible to get through without a family to call up anytime for support, or a home to return to during break. I spent the holidays alone in my dorm room. And I was so ashamed of being a foster kid that I hid it from all my college friends. I lied like crazy—what else could I say when they asked me what my parents do for a living? I’m not convinced that drug dealing qualifies as an actual job. Feeling like I didn’t fit in, and bending under the pressure to succeed, to be one of the few foster youth on the right side of the statistics, I left and never went back.

I’m not sure what lessons there are to learn from experiences like mine. If the system is a teacher, then she is incredibly cruel. How do we prove child abuse is happening when the foster parent is so good at hiding it? Is it even possible? Some problems are up to society to tackle: how do we prevent kids from needing to be “rescued” by the system in the first place?

But maybe we can fix some things. Sometimes reunification isn’t the best thing for a child. In my case, the courts gave my parents ridiculous amounts of time to prove themselves before moving to terminate their parental rights. My mother got ten years to get her act together; her rights weren’t terminated until I was thirteen. By then, my shot at adoption was long gone – who wants a damaged teenager?
Keeping siblings together shouldn’t always be more important than finding each kid a good home. Once, there was a decent couple who was interested only in me; naturally, it fell through because my siblings and I were a package deal (my mom, who still had her rights, lobbied hard for that).

And foster care survivors—from all educational backgrounds—should really be recruited into child welfare jobs and internships, perhaps as advisors. Significant positions in the field usually require a degree – which shuts out 97 percent of us! We’re your greatest resource and we have so much to offer: courage, passion for change, and we know the system in a way that your average caseworker or policy wonk could never understand. If you’re serious about reform, then foster-care survivors need to be omnipresent.

A version of this column originally appeared in:

From Crime to Counselor — and How Foster Care Helped

vannack largeGrowing up in the cold, hard streets of Lowell, Massachusetts, it was easy to get wrapped up in some kind of trouble. I always looked up to my older brother so it was inevitable I started gang banging just like he did. It was all we knew.

Living in a lower-class neighborhood with immigrant parents meant we were always babysat by grandparents or the television while they worked dead-end positions. I know my parents tried their hardest, but at the end of the day the streets raised us. We ran around doing crazy things, stole out of boredom and got into fights with whoever the enemy was at that time. My parents, never given a handbook to help adapt to “American” culture, ended up grappling with alcoholism, post traumatic stress disorder and financial worries while we, the children, tried desperately to belong.

After years of witnessing domestic violence at home I started to lash out against any and all. As kids were going home with straight A’s, I went home with black eyes and teachers asking my parents to discuss my “outrageous behavior.” My mom, who had enough, didn’t know what to do and resorted to physically disciplining me. She needed help and put me on a program called C.H.I.N.S (Child in Need of Services), which led to involvement with the Department of Social Services.

But I continued to get arrested or kicked out of school on a weekly basis. By age 10, I was being bounced from one juvenile detention center to another. After being “rehabilitated,” my caseworker thought foster care would be best. Between the ages of 13 and 18 I lived in 23 houses. It was a nice change of pace from the ghettos of Lowell, but I ran away every chance I got, knowing I’d be caught by police officers or my caseworkers.

I just wanted to be close to my family, even if it meant hiding in the attic for just a few days or hours. I was so affected by the trauma I experienced, I wet the bed until I was 13. One time, when I was around that age, I even stole my foster parents’ expensive bicycle, riding 32 miles on a cold December morning in urine- soaked pajamas just so I could get home.

I had many questions: why would I go to a family if I had one of my own? Would they take care of me? Would I switch schools? My emotions were all over the place — I was angry at my mother for letting me go without trying to get me back, sad because my actions caused all of this, happy to be experiencing new surroundings. I was confused and ultimately broken, because it seemed like everyone had given up on me.

There should have been more home checks to see if the houses were safe. Some homes didn’t have adequate food, and a lot of these parents who were supervising kids weren’t stable themselves. One time I was made to switch homes after being settled for 7 or 8 months because the foster parent was involved in some kind of realtor-embezzling scheme. Seven months of schooling, friends and stability, all down the drain. And I remember a home where I roomed with an infant, made to watch and feed the child while the parents attended church on a daily basis.

You could tell off the bat when the parents would be fostering children as a “job” and when they genuinely wanted to give a child a better future. I experienced all kinds of homes, met many people from different ethnicities and cultures, ate microwavable ramen with one family and enjoyed prime rib on a boat with another.

At the age of 14 my life permanently changed for the better. I was moved a few hundred miles away to a foster home in a small suburb where I spent most of my teenage years doing just that, being a teenager. At first I messed up all the time. I was angry and I still missed my family. But my foster mother, Connie, took the time to teach my foster brothers and me valuable things like cooking, writing and how to find employment. I have to admit, she taught me how to be a man. Without the stability of that home I don’t know where I would be today. We need more foster parents like her. Being sent to her home was a miracle; looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Eventually, between Connie, my school friends, sports and other positive supports, I felt myself changing. Without those people who stepped up I can honestly say I don’t think I would be alive today. Others aren’t. Over the years I have met hundreds of foster children like myself. A few have committed suicide. Others are in prison.

I had to go above and beyond to get where I am at today. I worked countless nights, knocked on numerous doors and drove many miles to become a mental health counselor. I now help other at-risk kids, and continue to deal with people who struggle with the PTSD, alcoholism and depression, as my parents once had. After all I’ve endured I can say I once was a foster child, and I am absolutely okay with that.

One love.

A version of this column originally appeared in: