At the age of 35, when I was writing my autobiography, I called my mother. “I need three things to make this more interesting for the reader–how much did I weigh, what time was I born, and at what hospital.” She told me and hung up. About an hour later she called back with my father on the line and gave me the shock of my life. “We have something else to tell you. You were a month old when we brought you home and you were adopted.” That’s when I learned I started out in foster care.
This news, which sent me reeling, also sent me for answers. Finding my birth mother, which was chronicled on a VH1 documentary, was a life-defining experience. But for me it was only one piece of the puzzle. Fueled with curiosity, I started listening to young people–those in foster care and those who aged out of care. Kids in group homes and even in jails and detention centers. I heard their stories. And I discovered a world far darker than I could have imagined.
Don’t get me wrong–foster care is positive for so many kids. There are a million stories of amazing foster parents. There are a million stories of children who were adopted by wonderful families, like mine. But there are also a million stories of horror. A lot of young people come out of the system worse off than when they went in.
More than 650,000 children spend time in foster care in the U.S. every year, and tens of thousands are abused, neglected and shuffled between homes, shelters and institutions. Many don’t get the medical care or emotional support that they need. Because of the instability in their lives, less than half graduate with a high school diploma.
As I learned more, I saw just how lucky I was. I was adopted quickly. My parents supported me every step of the way. They sent me to good schools. I was able to attend college. I had stability, and I knew I was loved. When you look at me and my accomplishments, this is what I represent: what happens when you give kids in foster care the opportunity to fulfill their purpose and destiny.
So I decided to do something. I helped found The Felix Organization/Adoptees For Children to enrich the lives of children growing up without parents, and Camp Felix, which provides foster children with outdoor summer experiences.
But even that wasn’t enough. For years I wished there was an organization that would fight for the rights of these children. Then Children’s Rights heard my story and said, “You represent what we fight for every day…Will you join us?” I said, “Cool, let’s do it.” And I became a member of their board of directors.
What I saw at Children’s Rights was tough legal advocacy that turned failing foster care systems around. And by turning them around, it gave kids an opportunity to be the next great you and me. The next great doctors and lawyers and CEOs and entertainers and athletes. These children, regardless of their situations, have the right to be the next great people in this wonderful universe that we call ours. As far as I’m concerned, we all have a responsibility to them.
That’s why I am proud to stand with Children’s Rights. For almost 20 years they have used the power of the courts to defend the civil rights of children in foster care. As a result, these kids get the medical attention and mental health services they need. They are institutionalized less, and placed in stable foster homes. They have fewer caseworkers. And they are safely reunited with their families or adopted more quickly.
I asked my birth mother why she gave me up. She said, “So you could have a chance.” If we band together, we can give every child in this country a chance. If there’s something wrong with your water system, you fix it. If there’s something wrong with your cable, you fix it. Now think about America’s abused and neglected kids. Is there anything more important than giving them every advantage in the world? Let’s fix what’s wrong with foster care and give these kids every opportunity they deserve.
Published on May 14, 2013 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign.