The Foster Kid Never Fades

Delena largeFoster kids know “Imposter Syndrome” better than anyone. New families, schools, dynamics, politics and rules make finding yourself and trusting who you are a near impossibility. We learn to mistrust authority by having parents who couldn’t parent. We learn to question ourselves by having no stable place to explore identities and personas. I learned early to question systems and policies that make life harder on the people who have the hardest lives. I still ask too many questions.

The biggest one is still this: When are they going to figure out that I am just a clever foster kid, masquerading as an upstanding citizen, trauma expert, decent mom and community leader? When will they see that I am an imposter?

After all these years, I still see the chubby 8th grader who called CPS on my own mom. Her addiction and mental health issues kept us homeless and in constant chaos. After losing track of her and living with various family and friends, I requested to be placed in foster care.

I had no idea how my world would be turned upside down. I got very lucky and didn’t get bounced the way so many others do. I was in the same home for nearly five years. There was love and laughter and consistency.

Even in the best-case scenario, being a ward of the court made me feel like an outsider. And to kids who have been acting as the adult, the rules and boundaries of foster care feel more like a cage than a sanctuary. My friends’ parents had to be background checked for a sleepover. Everyone at school knew I was one of the girls from “that foster home.” Teens can be brutal when they don’t see something they understand. Being watched without being seen is a very subtle form of torture. My need to belong became the overarching theme of my adolescence and adulthood.

I still wait to be rejected, and I still doubt my own validity. The insecurities are quieter now, and easier to soothe. But the foster kid never fades. At 35, I still try to prove my worth and my validity. Even now, there are times I still feel like I am begging for belonging. I don’t quite know how to outgrow that quite yet.

But you know what I DO know how to do? Help people understand how their grown-up decisions are shaped by childhood experiences. I know how to challenge the system and win. I know how to speak loudly and boldly and am considered fearless in my passion for creating more just systems.

Foster care was easy on me, but as I watched my fellow sisters come and go, I was shocked at how often kids were treated like criminals. It must have been easier to move them like furniture if you didn’t acknowledge their vulnerability and deep need for care. I started asking questions and became stubborn and demanding about my rights and what all of us were entitled to. I pushed back and got answers. I survived.

I spent the last 15 years helping nonprofits do better work, serve more at-risk youth and families. I learned everything I could about systems change, trauma and brain development and what families need to survive toxic stress. Now, I own my own coaching and consulting firm. I am building my reputation as an educator, advocate and strategic leader in trauma-informed best practices for all sectors. I am the expert voice from the outside.

To youth in care now, especially those loud girls and quiet guys, the pissed-off silent types and the ones nicknamed “Mouth,” I offer this:

At this time of your life, when you are caught between innocence and responsibility, this is merely a prologue. Nothing is wrong with you. You are not damaged goods. But today, before you are fully released to guide your own fate and make your own mistakes, consider this: People become toxic for a reason. Those who fail us have been failed. And we will fail sometimes, too.

You will write your own story. And though it may be shaped and informed by trauma beyond your control, you can choose how many pages it takes in the masterpiece you are creating. Choose wisely and never EVER apologize for how you survive. The foster kid might never fade. And that is OK. Let your strength, beauty and resilience walk into every room before your trauma does. I believe in you. I see you.

Published on May 27, 2015 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.