Coming Full Circle: My Foster Care Journey

By Tomas Rios

P1000466-300x225When I was 5, my mother passed away and I entered New York City foster care. I quickly saw just how bad it can be inside a broken child welfare system.

In the first home, I was treated like I didn’t even exist. It felt bad to be ignored, but I learned to be grateful for homes that were merely indifferent after I was placed in an abusive and neglectful one. A few more followed the first and I’m still reminded of them every day. Having my arm pressed against a pot of boiling water left a scar that I try not to glance at while I’m typing. A kick to the head from a work boot left a mark on my hairline that I glimpse whenever I comb my hair. There were many more injuries and they all have memories attached to them that I’ll never forget.

Being abused wasn’t the worst of it though; the countless nights I went to sleep hungry and hoping to never wake up again are what I recall most vividly. My entire childhood, or at least what I can remember of it, was spent knowing no one could be bothered with me, a feeling that has followed me well into adulthood. However, as I got older and learned more about the world outside of foster care, dreams of never waking up were replaced by dreams of escaping into a different life.

Luck came my way just before my 16th birthday, when I was placed with a foster family that cared about me. They went out of their way to make sure I got the mental health and educational help I needed to attain the different life that, until then, had been nothing more than a dream. Thanks to them, I was able to go to college and start the process of building a life for myself outside of foster care. Despite everything that happened to me while in care, I ended up being “one of the lucky ones.”

However, I still entered adulthood without a family or support system. It’s a day-to-day reality that weighs heavily on me–knowing that I don’t have the safety net so many people my age are accustomed to having. The traumas I went through obviously were difficult, but what I struggle with the most are the seemingly little things. Knowing that every birthday will come and go without a call from relatives. Every holiday season will be spent constantly reminded that I have no family to spend it with. Part of me will always be the scared little kid in a home that isn’t really home. This is what it means to have a “lucky” foster care experience for too many kids.

The idea that one has to hit the proverbial lottery to have a happy and productive life after foster care infuriates me to this day. There is nothing I can do that will change what happened to me, but I can do something to help make sure future generations of children don’t go through the same thing. That’s why I decided to work for Children’s Rights.

Now I get to spend my days as part of an organization fighting for the widespread reforms that failing child welfare systems desperately need. We have won court-ordered improvements in more than a dozen states, making foster care a better place for tens of thousands of children. These include comprehensive screening of foster parents, better training for caseworkers and post-foster care services for youth exiting the system–the kinds of things that could have made all the difference for me while I was in care.

While I still wish that I could have had a more-or-less normal and happy childhood, I am oddly grateful for the perspective going through foster care gave me. I have no idea what I’d be doing if I wasn’t working to fix the system that let me down, but I do know it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fulfilling. The life I dreamt of having is coming together, now all I have to do is keep up the fight.

Published on May 1, 2013 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign.