My name is Crystal Bentley and I’m 23 years old. Most people would say that I am too young to have truly lived. The truth is that I have lived plenty. I grew up in foster care and while some foster youth, if lucky, have fairly normal childhoods, the great majority of us struggle.
I was taken from my mother twice, once at 2 and for good at 5. After I was sexually abused by her boyfriend, she had a choice to make — me and my three brothers or him. She left us in a parking lot where we were coaxed into a van by a child protection services worker with fruit snacks.
Over the next six years, I lived in six abusive homes and temporary shelters. In some, I was beaten or verbally abused by foster parents. In others, I was molested by their children. The more abuse I experienced, the worse the next placement was. I really lost all hope when I was raped and sodomized in a home that was supposed to be safe. I was only 8, and I felt like I had been completely stripped of what was most precious to me.
Three years later, I was adopted by your storybook family. I was a gift from God, until they had their own child. Then I was the pebble in their shoe. I was dumped at a residential treatment center (RTC), where I spent my teenage years trying to fit in with damaged, hardened children and being overlooked by insensitive staff. I just wanted someone, anyone to love me. At 17 I got pregnant. I lost most of my scholarship opportunities from prestigious schools, was kicked out of the RTC and forced to live with my daughter’s father.
From day one he abused me. I ran away, he went to jail, and I was on the streets, going from pillar to post. Not surprisingly, I was not able to take care of myself. After all, I was raised in a system where I barely saw my caseworkers, and where foster parents easily covered up my abuse. If I reported it I was moved to another home, without getting the psychological care — or justice — I needed. When I was in the RTC, instead of getting a sex-ed class, I was put on birth control at 13, along with all the other girls. None of this set me up to succeed.
When I left foster care, a woman who said I was like family lured me into the sex trade. She promised to take care of me and my baby. Instead she introduced me to drugs and sold me to her friends to pay her rent. This happens to so many young women right under our noses. No young lady plans to be a sex slave.
I had three more children. Life was so hard, it felt difficult to succeed. But I refused to abandon my kids like my mother did to me. I went to a shelter where I began to rebuild my life one brick at a time. First there was a job, then an apartment. Then came a better job, full-time college, and extra-curricular activities such as gymnastics for my babies.
Life is better. I have been in the gutter and now I look at my children I know enough is enough. I have begun to appreciate, respect and love myself. My past is the best fuel to drive me forward: I am no longer a victim. I am victorious.
I think about the kids in care whose voices are suppressed and who suffer as I did. Will they have a better chance than me? Will the system change? What should I do to help? I started using my voice, speaking with senators and representatives, demanding changes. I am even in the process of establishing my own nonprofit to help aged out foster youth.
Children don’t choose to be abused, neglected or orphaned, and it is definitely not their fault that they are raised in systems where they are at risk of being exploited, then cast out at 18 to fend for themselves. But I am a very small part of something so big. It will take ALL of us to make foster care a better place. Please share these blogs, spread the word about Children’s Rights’ Fostering the Future campaign, and do whatever else you can to protect the rights and lives of kids in state care.
Published on May 14, 2015 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.