Sometimes your family isn’t the one you start out with. It’s the one you meet along the way. I met mine at a meeting with Jessica Grimm, director of a freshly-formed group called Bravehearts M.O.V.E. New York. They were youth just like me, who had lived what I had lived. The meeting changed my life.
My childhood was harsh. There was dysfunction and abuse. My mother spoke no English. She was powerless when they said “we are taking your daughter”. I woke up and I was not at home. They tell you what to eat, when to shower, when to go to sleep. I had entered the foster care world.
From the age of 13, I lived in congregate settings, residential treatment facilities that are supposed to heal traumatized and troubled kids but often do the opposite. I was abused and mistreated. It was a dark time. I signed myself out on my 18th birthday. There were no resources for me – nobody told me about the benefits I could have received, no effort at all to help me reconnect to the world. I was hurt and depressed and slept all day. I got lucky and was assigned to Andrea, an after care worker who is like my second mom. She led me to that meeting with Bravehearts, and to my life’s work as a counselor and advocate for young people threatened with or in the foster system.
I recently had the pleasure of working with Children’s Rights and the amazing Rashida Abuwala (so close to my heart) as an advisor on the creation of a new report called Are You Listening? The report adds to the mounting evidence that congregate placements do more harm than good. It shines a light on a system that is hurting kids, not helping them, and offers good ideas for ending congregate placements.
One of the many reasons I participated in Are You Listening? Is to lift up all of the voices that were never heard, all of the youth that were mistreated at the hands of the system. All the young people I have worked with over the years. People listened to me and that’s why I am who I am today. I’m living proof that healed people heal people. But I carry the scars. Foster care is an experience that stays with you for a lifetime.
I want the lawmakers in New York State to be open, to be human, to think like fathers or grandparents. What if these were your kids? You never walked in my shoes, were never homeless or hungry. So take my word for it. You have the power to make the future a little bit better for young people. If we work hand in hand to connect the empty spaces between us, we can make a lot of magic happen.
I have another reason for caring so much about this issue. His name is Jacob and he’s five years old. My son is my beautiful blessing. I am raising him to be a light among people. There is so much that is difficult in the world. People are busy and pushing and forgetting to be human. They don’t hold the door, they don’t say thank you. Jacob is being raised to appreciate and respect and listen to others. I’m holding the door for others, working to ease their way. My son will do the same.