Finding Your Place in the Foster Care Puzzle

By Crys O’Grady

Crys FtF featured, blogThe first time I entered foster care was on Thanksgiving Day in 2002. It was midnight, and I had just called my middle school teacher from the only pay phone in my rural town, when the police arrived at my mother’s house to investigate a noise complaint. I was the reason for the noise complaint. My mother had spent the majority of the night telling me that I was an awful child. I was thirteen years old and in seventh grade.

When the officer approached my mother to ask about the reason for the call she responded by throwing the rope she had used to tie me up in his face. The officer decided that I would spend the early hours of this Thanksgiving morning at the police station waiting for my CPS worker.

At 5 a.m. that morning, I was placed in my first foster home. I was not allowed to take any of my belongings with me and would spend the first week in this placement in the set of clothes I arrived in. Holidays were never a happy time for me, but this experience just solidified how alone I would feel on every Thanksgiving and Christmas to come.

Each year, approximately 5,000 youth enter foster care in the state of New Jersey, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. Thousands spend a holiday away from home –– either in a foster family home, congregate care facility or kinship placement. Holidays with strangers or extended family can be filled with anxiety and loneliness. The experience can feel like you’re a puzzle piece that does not seem to fit.

In my third foster care placement I was with a family with three biological children. All of the children had their own rooms upstairs and I lived in the basement. I was never involved in family outings––I was the downstairs outsider. In all four of my placements, I never truly felt integrated into family activities.

While struggling emotionally, I was also stressed about my achievement in school. I always had thought that education would be my way out, my chance to break the cycle of poverty and drug abuse in my family. To further complicate matters, the winter holiday schedule between Thanksgiving and Christmas made it difficult to transfer my school records to my new school. Many youth in foster care face similar education gaps and struggle to attain credit or partial credit for completed coursework. In December of 2002, I missed three weeks of seventh grade, including the periodic table of elements in science class. I had to revisit this in tenth grade in order to succeed in chemistry class.

Despite the initial struggles I had in foster care, I was able to succeed academically with the support of the dedicated teachers. They served as my biggest advocates. When I was placed in another foster home closer to my original school district, they lobbied the administration to pay the costs to transport me to my school of origin. My guidance counselors created safe places for me to retreat to during the school day, and teachers and school staff pooled resources to give me presents on my birthday. Although my foster care placements were not always supportive, I could count on my teachers. I graduated high school with a GPA over 4.0. In my senior year, I was accepted to Stanford University in California on a full-tuition scholarship.

This March, I graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, Washington with a J.D. During my time in law school, I clerked at the National Center for Youth Law, worked at the Center for Children and Youth Justice, and volunteered as a CASA at Washington Family Law CASA. Through these opportunities I have been able to work on a variety of issues that impact foster youth––from educational access to sealing of juvenile court records. Youth are in need of allies. As a legal professional, my goal is to expand the legal rights of youth so they can thrive in adulthood, despite involvement in any child welfare or juvenile justice system.

Published on May 14, 2016 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.