Working Toward Change

I don’t remember the exact dates I entered the system – I just remember that every day I spent in it was one day too long; foster care has a way of doing that to you. I was eleven years old the first time I went into a foster home, and if there’s one word to sum up my memories of being in the system it would be chaotic. By definition, chaotic means to be “in a state of complete confusion and disorder,” and I think that’s entirely accurate. At eleven years old, I was living with my father and struggling to survive fifth grade. I took care of myself; I knew how to cook, clean, dress myself, get to school and back alone – you can imagine it was a surprise when I was ripped from this pattern of stability that I believed was perfectly healthy.

When I came home from school one day and the cops were parked outside my house and instructing me to pack an overnight back, I had no idea what was happening to me. I just remember doing as I was told as a school bus full of my classmates happened to come to a halt at the stop sign in front of my house, exposing my family situation and making it seem like I was being arrested when the cops buckled me up in the backseat of their car.

Being in a foster home felt just as scary. I lived with a bunch of strangers who regularly told me I would never get to go home and that my family was a lost cause. I believed my own parents didn’t want me just as much as I knew my foster parents didn’t want me either. I was forced to transfer and start at a new school two weeks before the school year ended, which meant I had no friends throughout my time in care. I remember hating my life, but more than anything, I just wanted to go home to my family. I had been transferred to a third foster home after just three months in foster care, and I finally felt safe. I believed things were going to be okay – until one day when I was given a second emergency visit with my biological dad. Our visits were on Thursdays, and we always met in the early afternoon. When I saw him later that evening, of course I was excited to see him. I felt lucky. And then I felt devastated.

My older half-brother Cody, who I had gotten really close to right before going into foster care, had died the week before he would’ve turned twenty years old. Cody hung himself, and reading his suicide note many years later, I was finally able to understand why he did what he did. Cody was victim of the system. After being abused and neglected his whole childhood, he developed some pretty severe mental and emotional issues and spent a lot of his teenage years in juvenile detention centers. He was a ward of the state, which meant he legally had no family to take care of him. Cody died because he felt lost and hopeless amongst the chaos of his past, and I began to feel that way too.

I was able to leave the foster care system and be returned to my dad’s care with my younger sister, but reentered the system at age fourteen. My sister and I put ourselves back in foster care. I have been told it’s an extremely unique case; the fact that it was two minors turning in one of their own parents in for neglect, child abuse, and drug abuse. I remember thinking at the time that the only way out of the situation I was in was to escape my family, and so I did, landing myself right back in the very setting that had traumatized me so much at eleven years old. Being in the system the second time was no better – in fact, it was worse. My sister and I had to beg our case worker to move us from our first home because it was so horrific. I was in foster care for much longer that time, and was eventually released to my mother.

I didn’t come out of the system unscathed, that’s for sure. All of the years of chaos and constant movement had a definite impact. I believed for so long that I would never be any different than my family; that I had no reason to try to be better or succeed. By the time I entered sophomore year of high school, I had tried ending my life multiple times. I was addicted to self-harming. I was anorexic. I had a drinking problem. I gave up on school. There was incredible intervention in my life from family, and from my support system at my local Boys & Girls Club.

Everything changed my senior year of high school, having been transferred to a private school where I could refocus on academics. I got a 4.0 GPA that year, became a class leader, and was a worship leader for my school and church youth group. I was president of my Keystone Club at the Boys & Girls Club, working there part time, and helping to lead our teen program. On top of all of that, I experienced a lot of success from the Youth of the Year Program through Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and that journey is what helped me get into college as the first in my family to attend a four-year university.

I am so painfully aware of the kids out there who are going through exactly what I experienced, and to them I say: don’t let your future be bound by your present, because you are so much more than a product of your circumstances. Part of my attempt to rewrite my own future has been my active role in advocating for foster care reform in Idaho. I am closely involved with foster care organizations here, and occasionally get to help train future foster parents. I am sharing my story with amazing people in the hopes that I can exhibit the absolute necessity of taking better care of our nation’s foster kids. I am currently working to write legislation that would require more supervision and support for kids who age out of the system, like my brother Cody, and make sure that no young adult ever feels alone as they enter independence. I am redeeming my story and hopefully the stories of so many others.

I am a statistical anomaly, I know this. Many kids leave the system feeling just as lost as I did, and the statistics are devastating for them – especially the ones who age out of foster care. I am only one person out of the millions of people in America, and I cannot change the world, but if I can shift the trajectory of one young person’s life from feeling hopeless by showing them that they are recognized and cared about, that’s all the difference I care to make. Cody never made it to his twentieth birthday, and neither did my other older brother Collin who died when he was 2. I am constantly reminded that I am surpassing the precedent for my life, and I don’t take that for granted. I am fighting for change - for Cody, and Collin, and my family, and for every kid in the foster care system. I won’t give up on them, because even when I had no hope for myself, there was always someone on the sidelines cheering for a brighter future - and lucky for me, I listened.