Even the Success Stories Need Help

By Barbara Huggins

barbara_570I entered foster care when I was 8 years old and I aged out at 21. Attending school was my outlet, because once I was on school grounds and through the front doors of that building, home life melted away. I could be myself, I could explore my character and be loved by the many teachers and academic professionals available to support me. It provided a reprieve, and a pathway to success even when I was really too young to know or appreciate it.

I was okay with my status for the most part. “I’m a foster kid,” I would tell my friends and my teacher. “I’m in foster care,” was comfortable for me to say. I gave a few presentations on my personal experiences to my classmates, which precipitated my advocacy work.

But after a while, my personal safety and well-being would impact my academics. I honestly don’t know how I managed school work and keeping up with my peers during my first eight years in foster care. I was in homes that were emotionally and physically abusive, which left me with an undercurrent of low self-worth and perfectionism born out of a fear of messing up and a desire to be loved unconditionally. I wish the schools I attended realized that when I forgot my homework, it was because I was thinking of my home life, and my life was full of anxiety.

Those times I forgot my homework cost me dearly because I would be inappropriately punished in my foster homes. The cycle of forgetting my homework would bring on abuse at home. Learning was impossible because mistakes became dangerous. The anxiety would cause me to zone out at school entirely, which meant that I would fall behind. I had a lot of potential, but the emotional toll of balancing my academics and personal safety was a big burden to carry.

But I was lucky. I had a support network, enough to nurture me all the way from my last two years of high school to college graduation. I remember sitting with Lisa, my foster mom, at Arcadia University’s freshmen convocation. I was very anxious because ahead of me was a semester abroad in Scotland. Not only was I in college for the first time, in just a few short days I would be experiencing my first plane ride, my first out-of-country travel, and my first taste of independence. I was not a statistic.

When the Dean of undergraduate students said these impactful words while pointing in opposite directions, “Students this way, Parents this way,” Lisa and I looked at each other and started crying. This was a symbolic, momentous occasion for me, I had someone sitting in those bleachers with me. I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t carrying sadness to this happy occasion. To someone who has experienced loneliness, being invisible and feeling disheartened by adults in her life, this is a big deal.

When I look back at my education, and I think about the things that could have made it better, I always think of trauma. It is not just a buzzword. The emotional impact of abuse, neglect and the burdens of dealing with the system make learning and development impossible for a brain experiencing trauma. I wish my teachers would have recognized that I was struggling emotionally to be a part of their classrooms. I think that teachers really get to know their students well, and can be huge resources for them when they are struggling. Teachers who understand trauma and are equipped to create safe classroom environments are more likely to intervene in appropriate manners.

That is why I support H.R. 1757, The Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Families Act of 2017, recently introduced by Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-IL). Child welfare systems and schools need to implement trauma-based interventions for the kids in their care. Child welfare agencies and schools should not only work together but partner to create a safety net for children who are like I was.

I suspect a lot of children in care would benefit from the same things I wish I had: evidence-based practices that work to heal emotional trauma; creating spaces that are youth-friendly and reduce the amount of fear and anxiety that youth experience; and having all people who come into contact with foster youth be part of a collective push to create a safe environment night and day.
As for me, I was the first youth in my family and in my county to graduate from a 4 year university, and to study abroad in a foreign country. I experienced being a caseworker first hand, and I spend my time expanding the advocacy efforts of current youth and alumni of the system. . Youth deserve to leave the system healthier and safer than when they entered into it. I have lived my own educational and trauma journey, which is why I am invested in a generation of children and youth who leave the system healthy, healed and ready to create their own “firsts.”

Published on May 31, 2017 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.