Why We Need to Prioritize Permanency

Contributed by:
Lexie Gruber
two teenaged girls

Lexie entered foster care when she was 15 years old and aged out without finding a foster or adoptive family. She has become a vocal advocate for finding families for all children and youth in care. The article below is adapted from remarks Lexie gave at a briefing on Capitol Hill in September 2014 titled Permanent Homes for Foster Youth.

“Lexie, you can’t return home.”

These numbing words rocked me, halted my world, as a social worker picked me up from school and drove me to the Department of Children and Families (DCF). I was now a foster kid, and completely paralyzed in fear.

But the fear turned to excitement as I realized that I was finally free of my family. I thought that DCF was going to give me the loving family that I had always wanted so desperately. At first, I found a safe home with my Uncle Chris. But after a month of living with him, DCF told him that there were not enough bedrooms in his home, which violated department policy. A waiver could have been filed so I could remain in my uncle’s home, but policy carried more weight than permanency. Bureaucratic technicalities and an uncommitted social worker forced me out of my uncle’s home and into my first homeless shelter. When I moved in, the staff watched as I struggled to carry trash bags filled with the few belongings I had left. I collapsed onto my new bed—a graffiti-covered bed frame in a filthy room. I had lost everything, and now I was homeless.

I wanted to leave the shelter, but my social worker informed me that foster families preferred infants and toddlers to teenagers, and my age rendered me “used goods.” Many people thought older foster kids were riddled with irreparable problems and labeled us as delinquent without knowing our background. The only options for me were short-term, because foster homes for teenagers were in short supply. I could not understand why someone wouldn’t want me. At one point, I even begged my social worker to allow me to write a short piece about myself so that potential foster parents would realize that I was a really good kid, and offer me a family. But a foster family never came around, and I began to wonder why no one in the world loved me enough to save me from the shelter.

I could have bounced from one short-term foster home to another, but I would have been forced to switch schools every time I moved. I wasn’t willing to leave my high school—the only stable aspect in my life. But then I learned about the McKinney Vento Act, which would allow me to stay in the school I had started in, as long as I fell under the act’s definition of homeless. I chose a high school diploma over the remote possibility of a family.

I spent the next three years bouncing between short-term shelters and group homes. Staff at the placements were prohibited from forming close relationships with residents, and weren’t even allowed to hug us. Placements were staffed in rotating shifts, and I was never able to form a stable relationship with the adults who supervised me. To make matters worse, most of the staff would verbalize their contempt of the residents, complaining that they only dealt with us because they needed a paycheck. I didn’t understand why I was taken from people who didn’t love me only to be given to adults who could not care less about me.

Forming relationships outside of the group home was impossible, because DCF required extensive background checks on anyone I interacted with outside of the home. How could I explain to my friends that their entire family would have to undergo a criminal background check just so that I could come over for dinner? It wasn’t possible, and I was left with almost no caring friends or adults to support me as I struggled to complete my high school degree.

Often, the group home residents were treated like second-class human beings. Cabinets and fridges were locked and we were fed during “feeding times” as if we were monkeys in a zoo. A strict “level system” allowed us to earn privileges, such as a 30-minute walk outside by ourselves, as long as we maintained excellent behavior. I could not understand why I had to act perfectly just to have the basic social privileges of a child. Why was I being penalized for having been removed from an abusive home? I felt like a wrongly accused offender spending time in prison for someone else’s crime.

I cycled through placements until I graduated from high school. I was still living in a group home, and would have no family to rely on when I left for college. How did you spend your summer before college? I spent my summer searching for a basement where I could place all my belongings that would not fit into the dorm room that would become my home.

The staff at the group homes were the only adults I knew, but policy prohibited them from contacting me when I moved out. As a result, I started my freshman year without any dedicated adult to help me acclimate to a college campus. I spent my first semester in an incredibly dark depression, crying myself to sleep and struggling to focus in class. There was no one to help me understand how to file my special needs paperwork with the school, and no one to help find an appropriate therapy program to deal with my debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When the holidays rolled around, I was left with nowhere to go when the dorms closed. My social worker told me that my only option was to call 211 to find a homeless shelter, and I resorted to staying with my biological parents to avoid homelessness. My social worker knew that it was abusive, yet maintained that it was my only option. I did not understand why DCF would take me from my biological parents, only to resubmit me to their mistreatment. Last year, I found out that my social worker did not know the policy and that DCF was actually required to supply me with a safe place to live. But because of their inability to understand their own policies, I was left to be re-traumatized.

Going through college without a permanent supportive adult has been incredibly difficult. Somehow, despite all of my challenges, I’ve managed to maintain almost an A average and spent one year working for one of the most amazing members of Congress.

I know I am going to be successful. My dream is to one day work as a member of Congress and to represent the state that raised me. Inside, I know that will become a reality. But I will always wonder how much happier, how much more successful, and how much more full my life would be if I had a family that provided me the love that every child needs.

I could offer you a number of arguments on why we should invest in providing families for every child in our country. But instead, I wish I could package all the feelings I have as I tell you my story, and give it to you, so you could understand the lifelong pain that results from a lack of permanency. Family is the most organic unit in human life, and no government agency can replicate it. Instead of focusing on group homes, we must realize that there is no substitute for a family. I urge you to take my story and use it as fuel to work to ensure that no other child experiences what I went through.

Categories: Achieving Permanency, Adoption Practice, Youth Stories

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