When I aged out of foster care at 19, I swore I would never look back. After nearly six years in the system, I was tired of feeling different than my peers. I couldn’t wait to start over with a clean slate—college, my own apartment, and a dream of law school. I had no desire to talk about my time in care and believed the only way to live a “normal” life was to hide my broken past from the world.
Slowly but surely, my perspective changed.
I was struggling to make ends meet, so my aftercare worker helped me get a job with an organization that served system-involved youth. Shortly after, I attended a meeting to discuss a potential new program. Present at the meeting were several people from a partner organization, including a well-dressed, 20-something-year-old woman who spoke about the importance of including the youth voice in the new program. To my complete surprise, she stated openly that she, too, was a former foster youth, and shared her story of being empowered as an advocate and finally having a voice.
That moment changed everything. Here was this woman who was effectively in a position of power, who carried herself with the utmost professionalism—yet she spoke of her foster care experience in a completely unashamed and unapologetic way. The people in the room did not think negatively of her; rather, they praised her. Most importantly, she was persuasive—the organization took what she said to heart and immediately began plans to implement a council of current and former system-involved youth.
Although I had no idea what to expect, I became involved with the council. For the first time in my life, I met a network of people with similar experiences and finally felt like there were others who could truly understand what I had been through. With the support of the council, I eventually went public with my story in an effort to change the system.
Today, I am a law school graduate and foster care advocate who has shared my story many times at both the state and national level. Nonetheless, the fear of being stigmatized by my past sometimes resurfaces. Often, I find myself waiting until the last possible moment to “come out” as a former foster kid when getting to know someone new. Although I am passionate about child welfare reform and 100 percent willing to share my story with lawmakers when I think it will lead to positive change, I still find myself worrying what my colleagues will think when I am unexpectedly featured on the news.
Having worked as a mentor for other foster youth advocates, I realize that I am not the only one to experience these feelings. In reflecting on my experiences, I have come to several important realizations.
First, as long as stigma remains, so will the fear of stigma. Moreover, much of the stigma associated with foster care is caused by misperceptions that must be confronted head on. For this reason, it is just as important for foster youth to share their stories for the purpose of raising awareness as it is to persuade a lawmaker to pass a bill. Perhaps coming out as an alumna of foster care will inspire someone with similar experiences to feel less ashamed; or, maybe it will help change perceptions of those who have never been exposed to the system.
Second, it is incredibly difficult to shield an experience as pervasive as foster care for long. After all, a well-intentioned question as simple as “what are you doing for Christmas break?” can be difficult to dodge for someone who has no family to spend the holidays with.
Lastly, I have learned that as long as I refuse to allow foster care to define me, so will others. Most of the time, people really don’t care that I was in foster care. Although they may be surprised and slightly curious about my past, many have expressed that they do not think any less of me. Foster youth are so much more than their foster care experience—they are an entire package made up of their personality, values, beliefs and interests. When foster youth recognize this of themselves, others will recognize it as well.
This National Foster Care Month, I am committed to fully embracing my foster care experience. I hope that other alumni will join me to confront the stigma, raise awareness, and help others realize that they are not alone. Additionally, I hope that people who have not experienced the system will listen to our stories with an open heart and an open mind and understand that sharing this part of our lives with the world is not always easy.
Published on May 24, 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.