From Group Home to Dorm Room to Court Room

Chelsea FtF featured blogAt 16 – after the mental illness of a parent, paired with an unwillingness to seek help, slowly tore apart my family – I was placed in a group home an hour away.

For me, the child welfare system was a positive and welcome change. It gave me the opportunity to take hold of my future and pave my own path. Instead of feeling like every day was a fight against an overwhelming current, I was surrounded by supportive adults who genuinely wanted me to succeed and gave me a chance to do so.

However, even the most ideal transition into foster care is not without challenges.

One of the most difficult things about my time in care was losing contact with my younger half-brothers. I only saw them a handful of times while at the group home, and lost touch with them in the years following since they were in my parents’ custody. For years it had felt like my youngest brother was the only person I really cared about and would do anything to protect. The loss of that bond haunted me.

But I found that having other strong relationships made care less lonely. At the group home, I lived in a dorm style wing with girls around my age. No matter where we came from, we were all facing similar life challenges. This common understanding created a type of safe-haven. When one of the girls had a difficult visit with family, we were ready to support her. When I had a disappointing court date, I was able to share my frustrations with peers who genuinely understood. Now, not every day was perfect. We had our fair share of arguments as any teenage girls do. Yet, through thick and thin, we had each other.

I also had the tremendous support of my group home case worker, Sue Swope. Sue was the first person I met when I entered care, and she was the first person I felt actually understood the struggle I had been facing for years. She did everything in her power to give me a chance to succeed. Finally, there was my educational counselor, Kathy Weinzapfel. Without her I never would have found the courage or motivation to finish school and pursue college.

Personally, I found it difficult to leave the group home and the strong bonds I formed over those nine months. At 17, I graduated high school and was accepted to Indiana University. Even though I was still in care, my judge granted me permission to leave the group home, move three hours away, and pursue my degree. However, I still maintained my friendships and remained in close contact with my support system of group home staff and case workers, who proved instrumental in my transition out of care. It still was not easy, but with the right resources in place I beat the odds. I finished college and recently graduated from law school.

The child welfare system worked for me, but that does not mean our advocacy should stop. Even when a young person has a positive experience and improved livelihood from foster care, there are still ways to make the system better. So, should foster care change from how it was while I was there? Absolutely. Not because it was ineffective, but because a system that does not evolve or continuously try to improve itself will fail our future foster youth.

One of the strongest ways we can improve child welfare is through the voices of foster youth themselves.

To the alumni: Your experiences can impact the world. Use them to help the child welfare system continue to progress, whether it be through advocacy, mentoring a youth currently in care, or any of the many other ways you can help create better lives for foster youth.

To the young people currently in care, I say this: You are unique. You are resilient. You are amazing. Seek out mentors and form bonds with other youth in the system. We have to keep building up and supporting our brothers and sisters in care. And I want you to know that life gets better.

Just this past Christmas I had the chance to see my youngest brother and have a conversation with him for the first time in nearly ten years. It takes time, but patience, strength, and motivation can heal many wounds.

Published on May 20, 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.