Holding the Powerful Accountable

“This really should not be happening. Statistically, as a foster kid, Gina Pearson was more likely to wind up behind bars than under a mortarboard. And yet here she is, graduating from Rutgers University in New Jersey with a degree in social work – with a Master’s ahead of her and so much baggage behind her.” Steve Hartman, CBS News.

That was the transcript of a CBS On the Road special, which aired just over two years ago. Just a week ago, I graduated with my Master’s degree, while working full-time, per diem, and mentoring foster youth. The following week, coincidentally on my 25th birthday, I attended my first law school class. As I reflected upon my graduation, it was at the forefront of my mind that the individual(s) there to support me were family by neither birth nor adoption; they were my hand-selected family and I was more than okay with this situation. I realized that family extended far past a last name and a bloodline. My family consisted of those individuals who never left my side despite the many difficulties that ensued.

Nonetheless, the tattered wounds remain of the broken home life that I endured. See, at one month old, my siblings and I were placed in foster care when, then DYFS (now Division of Child Protection and Permanency) were unable to gain entry into the home after hearing a baby and a couple of toddlers crying for an extended period of time. Upon gaining entry via police, workers noticed the apparent drug and alcohol use and neglect throughout the home. That short-lived foster care experience included siblings being locked in rooms and myself being kicked down the stairs and having a nail go into my head. We were then reunited with our birth mother after a couple of years.

Our time with our biological mother included: poverty, drugs, alcohol, neglect, overcrowded living conditions, frequent absences from school, living with a convicted sex offender, etc. Consequently, our momentary time with our biological mother came to a halt as we were, again, placed in foster care. I bounced from one home and school to the next; I would come to live in over 30 placements total. At age fourteen, I pulled up to a foster home and the caseworker stated, “This is your last home before a shelter.” Shelters and group homes were commonplace. The trauma endured in those settings forced me to stay in a home with a woman ill-equipped to care for herself let alone children.

At that point, it was solidified that my ephemeral joys of childhood would forever be gone. After two weeks, my foster mother stated that she was adopting me and that the paperwork was en route; I sat in silence. Almost a year later with minimal visits from a case worker, I stood in the court room when the judge asked me to write my desired name on a piece of paper and slide it to him. Once again, I had been rendered silent. I could not understand why I was not being listened to. More importantly, I was never asked. I had no say. No one ever asked if I wanted to be adopted. My law guardian introduced herself to me the first time on the day of my adoption. I was appalled. I was voiceless. What often goes unnoticed is that the voiceless individuals are often screaming on the inside.

After graduating from high school, my adoption failed. She told me I was her babysitter and, therefore, my services were no longer needed. The monthly checks stopped and so did my relationship with this woman. I was angry, alone, and hurt. My adoption failed. That is what they call it. But who failed? Who is to blame? Societal stigmas of foster youth are negative, so of course it was my fault. I internalized this information and slowly began to deteriorate. My nightmares and flashbacks intensified, I began engaging in unhealthy behaviors and continued on a downward spiral, which is what clinicians would diagnose as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. I now wear my PTSD like a badge of honor.

My PTSD symbolizes the various foster homes, schools, towns, and cities I have lived in. It symbolizes resiliency. My PTSD is an emblem of the adversity endured. It symbolizes neglect, physical abuse, mental/emotional abuse, sexual abuse and stalking. My PTSD is challenging, but not unbearable – despite how it feels at times. My PTSD is being afraid to sleep at night, but being even more afraid to lay there awake. My PTSD, just like me, has the capability of being healed with time and tender love. My PTSD is a compilation of my entire foster care experience, which is one that will never expire.

So often people tell us to “get over it”; it happened x many years ago. Why do we take pictures when on a trip? Positive experiences are meant to be carried around forever. But, what happens with the negative ones? Indeed, they too remain. In fact, these negative experiences are so deeply rooted it is almost impossible to get them all out—think of an iceberg. So do not tell a foster alumni to get over their experiences and, with the same breath, state “back in my day.” STOP SILENCING FOSTER YOUTH!

Foster youth and alumni so desperately want and need to be heard. They are the experts in their lives, not outsiders. These young people understand foster care on a deeper level. Why not utilize that information? Besides it is the young person’s life that is directly impacted, not any of the workers, advocates or judges. Some young people are not brought to the table for discussion out of fear or discomfort. Young people deserve to have their voices heard in a manner that is appropriate and comfortable for them, not the receiver. Young people are placed in the most uncomfortable settings. They live uncomfortable lives everyday. Can stakeholders, staff, advocates, judges, and workers not be brave for once? Can they not be uncomfortable for once? If not for anyone, for the young people?

Published on May 29, 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.