This article is the third in a quarterly series giving voice to the perspectives of individuals with lived experiences as they share their opinions on a particular topic. The young authors of this column came together as a focus group of peers to discuss their experiences and collaborate on this piece. Kick-off questions were posed to the peers in order to generate thoughts, insights and a sense of the challenges being faced by youth who are either currently or formerly in foster care. Thanks to JCCA for gathering our group of young people together and providing perspectives on the challenges of the foster care system. JCCA (formerly Jewish Child Care Association) is a NYC nonprofit, nonsectarian, multi-cultural child welfare and family service agency with preventive, foster care, mental health and educational services.
Nobody Wants to Be in Foster Care
Our experiences in foster care have been really mixed. It is pretty common for a kid in foster care to have multiple placements in different foster homes. They can be great or horrible. A lot of times it comes down to chemistry or lack of chemistry. And, when all is said and done, there’s still a feeling that we’ll always be missing something that resembles a real childhood – almost like it got stolen from us.
Sometimes, it seemed like the person who is asking to be a foster parent already had a lot of issues themselves, making it very hard to provide a stable, loving home. Other times, the foster parents really know how to do things right. But in general, we would like there to be a more serious and rigorous screening process in place that would weed out those people who might be doing this for the money or for other reasons that are not appropriate – because the effect on kids is not good.
Mrs. Rodriguez. is an example of a great foster parent, and she helped me come out of my shell, become a strong person, feel secure in my home situation, and know that I was loved. I’ve been with Mrs. Rodriguez for six years. She helped me forgive my birth mom for the stuff that happened between us when I was younger.
Some of the reasons our foster care histories are so tough is because of mistakes we made when we were kids. It seems like you never finish paying the price for those things, even if they were just innocent, stupid mistakes that we look back on and wish we could fix – but we can’t. The reality is that kids in foster care are asked to make decisions and do things that no kid should have to know how to do—like manage all the different people who they are accountable to from their bio parents, to their foster family to their social worker, their lawyer, the case worker, their vocational specialist and education coordinator. It is confusing and overwhelming and in general not what a kid would have to deal with if they weren’t in foster care.
One of the biggest mistakes I made was allowing myself to be adopted. My social worker and attorney thought it was a good idea, but I had serious doubts. I hoped, at the time, that this would fix a lot of things and give me security – but it didn’t. Instead, it made things worse and me and my new parents wound up being very bad at communicating with each other. I guess the lesson here is that adoption isn’t always the right answer, and when a kid is uncomfortable in a situation, we’ve got to be able to talk to someone who will really listen and help us make a change.
What makes a home a home is love and listening, not money. I feel like I have a good relationship with my foster mom. She’s a good person. She cares about me. She gives me $5 every day so that I am never walking around with no money. She took me to Puerto Rico on a vacation to meet her family and it was the most amazing trip of my life. She believes in me and tells me that I can be whatever I want to be. She listens to me, and that takes time sometimes, but she does it no matter what else is going on.
Finding a Home is Hard And a Little Scary
Staying positive is probably the biggest challenge any of us is going to have as we move away from what we’ve known and into the independent world where we have to take care of ourselves. Being in foster care is a little bit like being institutionalized. You start to depend on others all the time and expect that everyone else will be taking care of you, when in reality, that isn’t the truth. When you’re about to leave foster home or kinship home or even an adopted home, no one is really there for you except yourself – so you’ve got to make a plan to stay on top of things and make things work, even if it’s hard. Working to get your housing application in to New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), and doing so early so that you have the best chance of getting good housing when you need it, is the first wake up call.
I’ve got a baby girl on the way, and as the dad, it’s important for me to try to make sure this child grows up feeling safe and cared for. But I’m still living in foster care myself, and the baby’s mom lives with her grandmother in kinship care, so it’s going to be really tough making all this work out. I’m working on my application for housing, and I’ve been training for a job looking after people with developmental disabilities, so hopefully – I’ll get things on track and be able to deal with all this responsibility, but it’s a lot when you are only 19 and nobody has your back.
Working as a youth advocate means I try to be a positive role model for other kids. My life has been pretty happy, I’m a junior in high school now and I think I can do whatever I set my mind to doing. But yeah, I worry about what is going to happen to me when I need to be on my own. It is like a big cloud hanging over my head and I know that is how a lot of us in foster care feel.
I’m living in a shelter-type situation, in an SRO, and it is pretty rocky, but I’m looking for housing and a job and that’s what will get me to a stable place.
Maybe if I hadn’t been so defiant and if I had let my walls down, I would be in a better place. But the hardest thing for me is to trust. I don’t trust anyone, and I know I can’t go through life that way – but right now, that’s how I feel.
Dreams, Hopes and The Future
It’s hard to imagine the future when the day to day is so rocky, but dreams persist and there are things to shoot for. In general, we agree that:
- We have to keep a positive outlook, for ourselves but also for the younger kids coming up, who we could be role models for. We can’t let our past hold us back.
- Housing is key. Without it, all of these other services are useless. There’s no address to get mail, you can’t get a credit card or driver’s license or passport or anything. There’s no pride in living on other people’s couches, feeling like a burden and wondering when you are going to be asked to move on. The city needs to get focused on this in a big way not just with buildings but with supportive services to help kids learn how to make it on their own. Any system without true, integrated, community-based permanent housing for kids aging out of foster care is just a Band Aid.
Even though we’ve been through a lot, we have also learned a lot and most of us could be, or are, therapists for our friends. We really appreciate the people who have taken the time to help us and are ready to try helping other people who are going through what we have gone through. We can relate to the struggles that people have and that can help us be better listeners. It’s just another one of those ways that we’re strong.