Aging Out to Advocacy: My Story

Catherine childhood photo-largeI entered Utah state custody in 2001 and aged out in 2010, three months after graduating high school. The nine years I spent in foster care shaped me into the person I am today.

I lived in 14 different placements. Foster care was a mix of horrible experiences and times when I was normal and happy. I learned something new from each home – one foster mom taught me to be independent and do house and vehicle repairs. Another taught me the finer points of dressing and behaving like a lady. But I also learned how selfish some people can be – like the foster mom who kept the $140 meant for my piano lessons.

The lasting effects of state care were mental and physical. I was medicated so much that my endocrine system was damaged. I’ve never sought counseling as an adult because I am so afraid of it happening again. I stopped taking the drugs because I moved to a new placement and my caseworker never brought them. My behavior did not worsen after being taken off five psychotropics, so they decided to keep me off the meds.

Catherine-adult-largeWhen I was 13, I lived with a family I really loved. I had two older sisters there and my foster mom was awesome. It was the first time I was treated like a normal human being and given opportunities to prove that I was responsible and trustworthy. That changed when I was hastily moved due to outside circumstances – one of my foster sisters was working as a bartender in an adult club, and my caseworker had unfounded concerns about the influence it could have on me. When I left them, I decided I would never love a family again. I became a very depressed and angry teenager.

I moved to a home where I was emotionally abused and exploited. My foster mother accused me of stealing her socks and forced me to use my state clothing allowance to buy her new ones. I had to spend my own money on lunch at school, which was almost always the 50-cent cup noodles. At a check-up, the nurse commented that my blood sugar was very low. My caseworker asked me why and I told her that sometimes I did not eat because I had to pay for it. I asked to be moved, but my caseworker was too busy and thought I was overreacting. I ran away for three days and was finally moved. Shortly after, I learned that foster mother lost her license because her nephew slept with another foster girl.

I got a job at 14 and worked through high school so I could have a cell phone and spending money. The last home I lived in was alright. At that point, being in foster care felt like a business transaction. I grew up as fast as I could so I could get out. It was ironic to be in a system that demands quick independence yet denies the freedom to accomplish it – such as getting a driver’s license.

In my senior year, I had work release from school and a full-time job. I spent the final three months in an independent living program that was supposed to provide me with a monthly stipend to help with expenses. On the day I aged out, my judge asked why I didn’t want to stay for more “support.” I told her why – because I only received one of the three checks I was owed. My caseworker did not file the paperwork on time. The last two payments came after I aged out. I decided to take my chances in the real world if it meant having freedom.

I didn’t know what to study. Getting my general classes done at Salt Lake Community College seemed like a good way to see what I was interested in. I went to school off and on and paid for tuition when I wasn’t eligible for grants. I am graduating with my AS this August. Plus, I figured out what I am interested in. I will start working on my BS in neuroscience this fall! College gave me more skills to fight for my dreams and find new ways of reaching them. I have learned to be fearless in my goals and step out of my comfort zone. Finishing college after foster care is incredibly difficult but possible.

I left the bitterness and anger behind. Going through foster care made me want to help others who are still there. I am an advocate for foster youth. I organize holiday projects and speak at caseworker trainings and youth events. I provide a voice for legislators and other professionals to hear. It takes courage to talk about the dark times. If you are having experiences like I did, I want to remind you that foster care does end someday. You can take control of your life and learn from it.

Published on May 6, 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.