I had a lot of adults in my life at sixteen – a social worker, a guardian ad litem, therapists, a psychiatrist, biological parents, foster parents, a judge, and more whom I’m likely forgetting. I’m grateful for those people, but I had to share my story a lot, hoping to be understood. Times were confusing. Things would appear to stabilize, then reverse course. I was overmedicated for desperate behaviors, with increased types of mental health diagnoses, based on the lack of explanation (to me) of what was happening in my life.
Shortly after I had stabilized, following six inpatient mental health hospitalizations, my foster care journey began at a locked group home facility. A social worker I had met only once came to my home to inform me that I had ten minutes to fill a bag with what I would need. I had no information about how long I would be gone or where I was going. “Where I was going” was a place referred to by a childhood friend as a ‘kid jail.’
I was fifteen when I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I had never been in detention, smoked a cigarette, or been in serious trouble. A majority of my time for the next three months was spent in that “kid jail” facility. I no longer went to my public school, but to the school in the facility (whose credits didn’t transfer to my public high school. I did two consecutive summer school terms to make up lost time). I lived in the facility, without evaluation of my situation, with a bipolar roommate who tried to strangle our pregnant counselor.
The little freedoms I took for granted were suddenly gone. Eating awful cafeteria food, opening mail in front of staff, and not being able to have drawstrings in my pants were just the beginning. I was able to interact with the outside world, but only on trips in the big blue van. I felt like a criminal. Whenever I wanted to see my little sister (who I protected from harm at home), we were in a beige conference room with a strange man taking notes. This didn’t feel like healing or healthy helping behavior, intended to help me “rise above” my circumstances. It felt punitive. Everything about my life seemed to be a punishment – for what, I did not know.
After a few months I was reluctantly placed with a foster family. I attended summer school in the facility, hoping to graduate with my class. I had come to terms with this new institutionalized way of living and frankly, I didn’t want to go anywhere unless it was my family home. Social workers tried to convince me I was going to the best foster home in the county. I didn’t care. That home was not MY home.
As the Foster Youth Liaison at a public university, I now interact with young people who have survived really difficult situations. I can and do demonstrate that thriving is possible. I remember when surviving felt like a chore. Here are the little things that made a difference to me then, and that I try to offer now to young people transitioning out of foster care:
- Provide youth the power of choice. The more meaningful the choice, the more voice the youth should have as the #1 stakeholder in their own life. I often felt helpless as a teen because so many people had power over my life. Even small choices meant a lot.
- Stay at the same level as youth. I try not to assume prior knowledge, or intentional wrongdoing. If anything, assume positive intent.
- One of the best things someone did for me as a teen was introduce me to volunteering at the animal shelter. Teaching relationships through volunteering helps create a sense of community and fosters responsible citizenship. Volunteering can include doing things youth are passionate about and may place youth in proximity to other civic-minded people. Volunteering can provide a sense of belonging and contributing to a greater good.
- Provide concrete opportunities for foster youth. For me that meant a scholarship from Foster Care to Success, interning with FosterClub, and getting involved in advocacy with my state Youth Advisory Council.
- Listen and take youth seriously. No one wants to be on the outside looking in, particularly a youth who is unsure of the future. Let us do the adult thing and invite the youth to pull up a chair to their own table of life.
Charlotte Ayanna defines fosterness as “The feeling of not quite being in solid. The sense of non-commitment. The state of temporary.” When youth are not sure where the next life shift is coming from, it is our responsibility as adults to meet them where they are. Instead of writing youth off as disengaged or disrespectful, remember that this state of fosterness is not something anyone can be prepared for, and they are doing the best they can.
Published on May 16, 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.