Insight from an Adult Foster Care Survivor
by Rose Garland © 2003
Although I am 28 now, my experiences in foster care and adoption continue to shape me, for good and for bad. From my relationships with friends, family, and co-workers, to my religious beliefs and educational attainment, I would be hard pressed to think of an area of life that my foster care and adoption journey doesn´t affect.
I still remember how awful it was to be taken away from my birth mother without understanding why, and the horrendous abuse my younger brother and I suffered in the foster home where we stayed the longest. I also remember our adoption and how it felt to be reunited with him and to belong, for the first time, to a real family.
I remember my parents at my college graduation, then their divorce in my early 20s, and how unfair it felt to finally have a family and then not make it. I remember a call I received at 19 from a nurse telling me my birth mother might die of cancer, and more recently the joy of meeting a younger sister I hadn´t seen in 24 years.
While my feelings about foster care are ambivalent, my feelings about foster and adoptive kids still in the system are very strong. I don´t think any youth should have to go through the things my family went through without lots of community support, and I do not believe that support for those who are in or have left foster care is currently adequate.
Foster survivors go through tremendous emotional distress and upheaval as children, and we bear the scars from our youth into adulthood. Consider our vernacular or mismatched manners, or how we must publicly deal with PTSD or depression that has to be masked and then corrected if we are to succeed. Life is not easy, but adult foster survivors must learn chameleon skills on top of dealing with gaps in education and common knowledge, or they will not be hired. If they can´t find a good job, they may not survive easily, much less prosper.
It was a hard job to choose, but I am now lucky enough to work with foster teenagers. Each of my kids is facing the same struggles and fighting against the odds that I did. We know without saying it what loyalty is and how much we all care about one another and our families.
My teens have these deep, old eyes that tell stories of their own betrayals, rejections, hurt, and feelings of never being quite good enough or deserving. We share tales of how we, as former foster youth, can struggle so hard sometimes without anyone seeming to notice, and how we can still get hurt so easily.
I try not to convey this, but as you become older, you get even less help from the community. In fairness, though, learning how to be your own support and help is a big part of becoming an adult. Therefore, I encourage my youth to find pride in their independence.
As when I was a child, I have moved often as an adult. It seems like part of being a foster survivor is never being able to settle down, and not necessarily even knowing how to. What makes stability? Fourteen years out of foster care, I have guesses, but still haven´t been able to incorporate them into my life.
As I understand it, stability is a steady job, a steady relationship, a single place to live, and a strong community life. I hope that the teens I work with will be able to somehow achieve stability more effectively than I have so far. With the new programs out there, they probably will!
The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, for which I am a site coordinator in northern lower Michigan, is one of two exciting ventures I can see making a positive change in foster kids´ lives. Funded by Casey Family Programs and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the initiative aims to help foster youth transition into adulthood without being so alone. Another good initiative, also funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is Family to Familya program helping foster youth remain in home communities and schools whenever possible.
I am excited about both programs because I think people are finally getting it. Keeping youth surrounded by communities, and having community members step in to help them, has a greater potential than anything else to help foster youth transition into a successful adulthood.
I am often asked what made me successful, and I wish I knew! I´d love to be able to tell the youth I work with. Though I was adopted at 14, I was basically left on my own when I turned 18. I haven´t had a place to spend the holidays in a long time, and as an adult, I´ve still had to depend on my friends for help that parents would usually give.
Yet, the years after my adoption were pivotal; somewhere between 14 and 18, I went from hanging out at a crack house to college prep, and I will always be grateful to my adoptive parents for their help with that transformation. Many of my foster teenagers will never have that opportunity. I still think, though, they can survive and survive well without itif they can get enough love and support from their communities.
A lot of what my parents did was show me a different way to live. I never wanted to be a failure, but was totally cognizant that everything in my life was leading me in a bad direction. Before my adoption, I had not even known there was a life of safety away from fears of rape, guns, or drug-addicted people. The new environment my parents introduced me to allowed me to finally grow.
But honestly, though I love them and am grateful, it´s not fair to give my adopted parents all the credit. I´ve heard it takes a village to raise a child, and I believe it. My strongest ability has been to make family members out of friends, and maybe ultimately that is truly why I´ve been so successful; I´ve been able to make my own support networks in the community.
Hopefully I can pass that skill to future generations of foster youth and maybe, as they learn how to advocate for themselves, their communities will embrace them. Only a community of people can cure the loneliness, hurt, and fear in foster kids´ hearts, and only a foster care alum can appreciate how wonderful the world is for us when compassionate people reach out with the steadfast intention of making a difference. I owe a thousand thanks and much love to the many people who have made that difference in my life.