When 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.