Reflections of a Foster Youth

Over the past several years many have asked me: “What
was it like being a foster child?” “What was the
impact on me having been a foster child for my entire
youth?” “How did I overcome the many obstacles placed
in my path due to having been a foster child?” “What
advise would I give to children within today’s foster
care system?”

I would like to take this opportunity to attempt to
answer those questions as honestly and openly as I
can.

Please bear in mind that though one may leave the
foster care system; the system never fully leaves you!
Today I am still dealing with some of the impact the
system had on me years ago.

“What was it Like Being a Foster Child?”
 
I was relinquished at birth supposedly for adoption.
However, I was placed within the foster care system
where I would remain for eighteen years.

I was bounced from place to place; a total of fourteen
times in eleven years. I sometimes slipped through the
cracks and got shuffled around unnoticed and
forgotten.

I was always living on the outside looking in. I
thought when I was little everyone is the same; only
to find out I was treated different, not because of
who I was but rather what I was.

I lived in a world of never knowing; where I would
live, who will take care of me, where I would go to
school. I never knew if I will ever be secure again,
where home is or where I belonged.

I rarely had friends as I was seldom in one place long
enough to make them. I didn’t know what it felt like
to attend the same school more than a year or so.

One is always movable once you have no home to call
your own. A home is not just a place to lay one’s
head. A home is where you can stay, where you can be
comfortable, where you know and will always be safe
and secure.

Once I got used to all the moving and different
schools I somehow find within myself a space to
furnish as I would my room, finding scraps of things I
could embrace.

Then I could at least become comfortable knowing I was
alone, knowing I would be the only one who is going to
look out for me. I became known as a loner. I depended
on nobody but myself, yet this causes more problems.

I built up brick walls and didn’t let anyone in. Once
the walls were in place it took so much to take them
down. If they start to come down and something happens
I would put them back up higher than they were before.
Each time I got hurt the walls got higher and higher.
I lost so much time keeping those walls up high and
strong.

Yet I had no trust, no bond and it makes it hard to
build a relationship. If I was lucky enough to find
someone who was willing to fight for me, I still could
not totally depend on them, which hurts them. I saw
the hurt in their eyes, which in return hurt me even
more. The hurt only causes more pain and starts the
walls going back up or we run and keep on running,
from one relationship to another.

My childhood is almost impossible to trace. It was
only years later and many years of research that I was
able to begin putting it together.

I was an enigma tangled up in a mystery. I was the
lost puzzle pieces swept under the rug. I was a
missing link in a chain of life. I had no roots. I was
like tumbleweed blown in the wind calling home where
ever the breeze took me. I was a chameleon changing
colors to blend into my surroundings.

My losses were etched upon my face and within my eyes,
pain for which no penance can atone. How could I be
forced to move and move from place to place?

At eighteen I was moved once again, the fifteenth
time; basically thrown out on the streets as the
system “washed their hands of me” whether I had gained
a support system or not. I was now considered an adult
and on my own…it was up to me to make it or not.

The system lets one raise themselves and a few get
lucky, have people that care and help them along the
way. The difference between those who make it and
those who don’t can be as simple as one encouraging
word at the right time.

Yet, somehow despite what I had been through, I
survived with a peculiar grace, even though my heart
should have turned to stone as I was moved about from
place to place.

This is my life of eighteen years within the foster
care system!

“What was the Impact?”

The system was responsible for providing my most basic
needs as a child. By basics I don’t mean simply
shelter and food. To me the basics are a stable home
life, knowledge that someone actually gave a damn
about me, self-worth and most importantly, the ability
to trust those responsible for me! They did not even
come close to achieving them.

As a child, all I ever truly wanted was a place to
call home, a family to love me, someone to call me
SON! I don’t think I desired too much…one family I
could love and call my own…not fourteen temporary
residences! Because of the system, those simple
desires NEVER became a reality!
How did I feel during and after my years in foster
care? I felt pain, like a nobody, unwanted,
depressed,, in constant fear of what each new day
might bring, worthless, a failure, second class I have
felt alone, I have felt depressed, I have felt that no
one understood, I have felt no one really cared about
me and yes; I have even wondered if it was worth
living…to name just a few. 

During the years on the merry-go-round of the foster
care system I could but ask questions. What was wrong
with me? Why didn’t anyone want me? Will I never have
a family?

These were just a few of the feelings and questions
that haunted me throughout my childhood and beyond. At
that time I did not realize that the problem was not
me but the “system” itself.

That is the impact and damage the foster care system
caused that I had to overcome. The damage only began
to be reversed when “the system” made the decision to
give up on me. Yes, they actually made a decision that
I was the failure and sent me off to an orphanage for
boys for someone else to deal with. Actually, it was
their failure and their sending me away, which began
my redemption…the beginning of the repair that would
be necessary if I were not to become what I felt or
what “the system” had already determined I was.

“How Did I Overcome?”

At age eleven I experienced my fourteenth move. It was
to Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys; better known as
Boys Town, Nebraska. I arrived there as an embittered
young boy.
I was angry at the world. I cared less about school. I
hated any type of authority. I was already well on my
way of being just another failing statistic of the
system.

I would go from fifth grade through the tenth grade
with this type of attitude. It appeared to me that all
Boys Town wanted to do was to keep me there until I
aged out of the system. Teachers passed me on from
grade to grade no matter how little effort I made. By
the end of my sophomore year, I ranked near the bottom
of my class. It was not due to lack of intelligence
rather; “I just didn’t care.” Going to college was
something that never even entered into my mind. No one
was there to attempt to deal with all the anger that
was within me.

Things slowly began changing. Three people entered my
life that was to have an influence upon me, not only
then, but for the rest of my life!

Msgr. Wegner, then Executive Director of Boys Town,
took me under his wing during my freshman year of high
school as I went to work for him as his cook’s
assistant. We spent hours talking. He always had an
open door for me when I felt I needed someone to talk
with. He provided me with a “father” figure, missing
from the early days of my childhood. He went further
out of his way to support me than his position
required. He lived his faith by example.

Even as a small child, I loved to argue. If it were
night, I would argue it was day…anything for an
argument.

My tenth grade English teacher that year saw something
positive in my argumentative nature. She kept me after
school one day early in the school year. She talked to
me about my arguing and how she saw it as ability, if
it were directed in the proper way. I had no idea what
she was talking about.

She took me to another English teacher, also the coach
for the newly begun Speech & Debate Team. She simply
told him, “I think we have a debater for you.” Yeah, I
could now argue, and get away with it! The debate
coach, of course, let me know that with the ability to
argue, I also now had to prove my case. This meant
lots of hard work researching the question being
debated. It also meant that to be part of the debate
team and go to tournaments, my grades had to improve.
I was determined to do whatever it took.

Someone finally saw something positive in me

I made the novice debate team that year. I was a good
debater, even though rough around the edges. My senior
year, I made the varsity debate team. My partner and I
were, if I say so myself, great. We were rarely
defeated. We traveled throughout the Midwest on
weekends during the season, accumulating numerous
trophies as winners of the tournaments. Our record at
the end of the season was 289 wins as opposed to only
29 defeats.

I finally felt I had accomplished something. I was
worth something. I could do more with my life than the
low expectations the foster care system and I had
previously set for me.

When that light bulb went on in my head, I knew I had
a decision to make that would determine where my life
was headed. I could sit on the sidelines of the
highway of life whining about my childhood, blaming
others for my failures and actually make my life a
failure. Or, I could decide to say, “OK, I was dealt a
bad hand at birth. My childhood had been a disaster.
However, now is the time for me to travel the highway
of accepting the responsibility for my actions and
determine my life is in my control and no one else’s.”

It was not a difficult decision. The highway of whine
and blame is a well traveled one…too crowded for my
taste. I was alone in my life, no matter whether I was
willing to accept it or not…I was responsible for my
future. I decided to travel the highway of
responsibility!

Graduation from Boys Town is different from any other
high school graduation in the country. You are not
only graduating high school; you are also losing “your
home.” This graduation meant I was now an adult and it
was time for me to go out into the world and make
whatever mark on it I was capable of. It meant that
for the first time in over seven years, I would once
again be “homeless.”

The graduation ceremony begins mid-afternoon on a
Sunday and the rule is that ALL graduates must be off
campus by 5 p.m. It was time to make room for new
boys.

With a few final good-byes and wishes of good luck it
was time to go; time to “leave my home.” The only good
thing was that this time I was not leaving home with
only “a paper bag.” I was leaving with suitcases of
clothes, boxes of books and mementos collected over
seven years.

I also carried with me a fully paid college
scholarship.  I had gone from near the bottom of my
class to the top five per cent. It was the only way I
could afford college

Boys Town had given me a diploma and opportunity. The
foster care system, that had moved me time and time
again gave me a letter only stating I was now eighteen
and on my own!

Two teachers and the home’s late Executive Director
took it upon themselves to take a young man under
siege in his life and attempt teach him to reach for
his fullest potential.
This was all accomplished because these three people
took an interest in me, saw something positive within
me and did whatever it took to bring it out of me.

I went on to receive a college degree. Only two per
cent of those who age out of the system ever receive a
college degree.

I have had a successful professional career in the
years that have followed.

“What Advise Would I Give to Children Within Today’s
Foster Care System?”

You may feel like your life is in turmoil. You may not
be in a place you really consider your home, or you
may be awaiting a final decision on a new place to
call home.

At times, you may feel like you are all alone in the
world, and that no one else ever has or is now going
through what you’re facing. Your foster parents and
caseworker have probably never been in foster care, so
how could they possibly understand? Most of the time,
your feelings are not true!

However, I can understand many of the things you are
feeling…because I have been exactly where you are
today. As many young say today, “Been there…done
that…bought the T-shirt!”

I was a foster child from the day of my birth until I
aged out of the system at age eighteen. There is very
little you could share with me that I myself have not
experienced.

You are not as unique as you think you might be. In
matter of fact there are many thousands who, besides
me, have been exactly where you are at.

I am here to tell you that you can overcome ALL of
this.

I do not know why you are in foster care. It might be
the same as me…from birth. It might be because of
troubles within your home that require you to be out
of your home for a short or long term basis; it may
even be because of something that you did wrong for
others to feel you needed a temporary outside the home
situation or finally it might be that you are awaiting
a new family to become your Mom and Dad.

It does not matter why you are in foster care. What is
important is how you come out of foster care!

I know many aspects of the foster care system makes
you feel that you might be of no value; that you
cannot be a success and many other negative
attributes.

This is absolutely not true!

I felt many times while in foster care and being moved
from one home to another, the same feelings many of
you are having. But I have been able to overcome them
and so can you!

YOU are of value! You can hold your head up proudly!
You can be whatever you choose to be!

Yes, even those of you who may have done something
wrong to get placed within the foster system…you can
overcome this mistake; it can become something of the
past. All of us have made a mistake in our
lives…maybe even more than one, but we learned from
our mistakes and moved forward. You can do this as
well. You need to begin making those changes today.

Your foster parents do care about you and what happens
to you, whether you are in your current home for a
short term or a longer time. They would not be foster
parents if they did not care about children and want
to help. No, they are not in foster care for the money
they receive to assist in your care. In many
situations your foster parents will spend far more
than what they receive.

I will not say that foster parents will not do a
wrong. Yes, as in every situation in life there may be
a bad one. This is true also with biological/adoptive
parents as well. If one does neglect you or do you
harm in any way then you must report it. Please make
sure any allegation you make however is in fact true.
Do not make allegations just because of how they may
have felt it necessary to discipline you one day and
you get angry at them and try to get back at them.
Never, ever make a false allegation.

Honor, respect and obey your foster parents. They do
in fact have your best interest at heart. Whether you
are with them for a short time or longer time they
will do the best they can for you.

I know most of you wish that you were not in foster
care; that you could be home either with your Mom and
Dad or an adoptive family. That may or may not come
someday. You must make the very best of your
situation. I ended up staying in the system until I
was eighteen. I never had a permanent Mom and Dad all
the time I was growing up. Despite this, I hope I have
become a person any Mom and Dad could have been proud
of. That is my hope for each and every one of you as
well.

I know you can do it! Study hard, work hard and find a
mentor or two who will be there for you through thick
and thin. Most importantly; know that you have
self-worth, not only to yourself but to others. You
can reach for the highest of goals…don’t let anyone
convince you otherwise!

If I can make it…I know you can!

One Response

  1. Thank you for this Blog. I teach pre-service training in Idaho for Foster/Adopt parents and I am an adoptive parent of a teen. Your thoughts are valuable. Thank you for pushing the message of Youth in Care. Our adoptive daughter was 17 when the adoption was final. I talk about older youth in care every chance I get in my class and try to get folks to realize that there are more than just babies who need homes and families.

    Good for you for making it and pulling through a hard start.

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