From the age of nine I hated my name. Until the day not too long ago I went to the Gathering Place Church in Albany, Louisiana. I was immediately surrounded by my husband’s family – they poked and prodded me in their loving way. I had to excuse myself. I broke down. I am named after my father, a man who abused me. In that moment, outside that church, I suddenly got it. My name belongs to me, and only me. I own my life and I own my name. Now, when people say how beautiful it is, I smile.
I am the Vice President of the Louisiana Elite Advocacy Force (LEAF), the State’s youth advisory board. I serve as the chairperson of LEAF’s policy committee, engaging with child welfare agencies and current and former foster youth to brainstorm policy-related opportunities to improve Louisiana’s child welfare system.
I know about the system. I entered it at the age of 13. My parent’s voluntarily terminated their parental rights two years later. Due to the circumstances surrounding my case, I could not return home and had to remain in care. The termination of rights was so I could be adopted, but it didn’t work out that way.
I aged out of foster care and went straight to college. It’s a very small population that is able to achieve that. But I was determined to break the generational chain. I had a good support system thanks to my husband, which is really key. For a long time I actually believed that no one loved me. My husband told me I couldn’t say that because I was loved – he loved me. I have chosen not to say that anymore.
2021 changed everything. I was holding down a job, about to graduate from college with two degrees and in May I had a baby. Being a mother rocked my world. I wouldn’t let my trauma affect my ability to mother my daughter. Having Jazmyne also changed my outlook at work, and my perspective about child welfare as a whole. As a mother I think about the parent’s circumstances, are they traumatized? Has that effected their parenting? I do my job with more grace and understanding now.
2021 was also the year that Louisiana’s Foster Youth Bill of Rights became law. The heavy lifting to make this happen largely fell on my shoulders. Pregnant, working and still in school, I did the groundwork and the research and attended the meetings that led to its passage. Based on my own experience and by working with older youth, I helped identify the rights every 14- to 18-year-old needs to have the chance of a normal life. Primary among them is the importance of including youth in discussions about their own future.
There is a saying that out of misery comes missionary. My husband helped me see the possibility of joy. My baby has shown me unconditional love. When I was 13 I didn’t want to live. For years I had survivor’s guilt for all those who didn’t make it. That’s why I do the work I do. I want young people to be recognized, respected and heard. I want their experiences to inform good policy. I demand that the system treat them like any other teenager on a path to independence. Their stories matter. They matter. Each of them has something to teach us. We better listen.