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Determination and Support Can Lead Youth in Care to Success

From Spring 2010 Adoptalk

by Jarel Melendez

Jarel spent most of his youth in foster care. Below he shows how—with motivation and help—life after care can be so much better.

Between ages 5 and 18, I was in the child welfare system. Like other children in foster care, I had to face obstacles and overcome assorted challenges that young people should not have to handle. But I am lucky. Thanks to support from my grandmother and mentor, and a personal knack for self-advocacy, life since care has been going very well.

My brother and I initially entered care because our parents couldn’t take care of us. They were both drug addicts.

Fortunately, after entering care, my first move was to my grandma’s house. I stayed in this subsidized kinship placement until I was just over 10. Then, for no reason I know of, workers took me out of Grandma’s and placed me in a regular foster home with a single foster mother.

Things went well for a couple weeks, and then the foster mother’s true nature showed through. She bought me cheap clothes, accused me of ripping them on purpose, and then refused to buy more as punishment. She wouldn’t allow me in the house until 8 p.m. at night, and gave me just $2 a week to take care of myself.

Though I told my social workers what was happening, nothing changed. It seemed as though everyone just listened to and believed my foster mother.

At 15, I became legally free for adoption, so workers started looking for an adoptive home. Hundreds of miles away in North Carolina, my aunt and uncle saw my picture and volunteered to become guardians of my brother and me. Little more than a year later, the placement disrupted and I landed back with the same bitter foster mother in New York until I was 17.

Happily, my brother and I were finally able to return to Grandma then. And, just a month before I turned 18, she formally adopted my brother and me.

When I was moving around in foster care, I felt lonely, helpless, and lost. How could I be lonely with so many adults in my life? Simple: the adults weren’t listening to me. It was like I was invisible.

In addition to being invisible, it seemed I had to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. I had no place to call home, and as I was moved from place to place, connections became fragile. I was always aware that I might be moving, so no relationship was secure.

The only stability in my life was my brother, Grandma, and, since age 12, my Boys and Girls Club of America mentor (whom I think of as a father). These people kept me going in the right direction when I could so easily have gone wrong, and I still rely on them daily for advice and support. It’s a very rewarding feeling to know that you have someone in your corner no matter what happens.

My aunt and uncle in North Carolina are an important part of my support network too. I visit them at least once a year and stay in touch between visits. My brother is one of my best friends.

Another thing that makes me different from many other young people in foster care is that I truly have been my own advocate. Yes, I had caseworkers, social workers, and a law guardian, but I distinctly remember times when adults had a hard time coming up with a game plan to resolve an issue, and I came up with the solution. As I got older, adults were better at listening.

My success inspired me to empower other young people to speak up and share their voice. While in care, I also knew that I wanted to help youth in foster care.

Now I am a youth advocate at Lawyers For Children, Inc. and leader of the Circle of Youth support program. At Lawyers For Children, I help teens who are aging out of foster care to manage tasks like looking for a job, enrolling in or finishing school, finding housing, or getting a New York State ID. I encourage them to come up with action plans and then guide them through each step.

My job is going well because I have the first hand experience of being in the child welfare system, and I’m ready to use that background to advocate for system changes. Other children and youth should be spared the obstacles I faced, and they should also know that adult success after foster care is possible.

Just look at me. I have good family relationships, have held the same job for more than two years, and this spring I will receive my BA in international business management from Baruch College. I hope to start working toward an MBA this fall. Helping other youth is my passion, and I count myself fortunate to be able to lead and teach by example.


North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
970 Raymond Avenue, Suite 106
St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
fax: 651-644-9848
e-mail: info@nacac.org
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