A woman in a long dress holding the hem as she walks outside in past trees

Founded by the Children’s Bureau, National Foster Care Month takes place in the month of  May. The mission is to raise awareness in order to help the more than 437,000 U.S. children and youth in foster care find permanent homes. We are sharing the story of a former foster youth turned foster mom, public speaker, writer and advocate.

I stood in courtroom afraid. A lump filled my throat as I held back tears tightly. As a foster youth, I attended an annual hearing. It became easier to predict what the caseworkers, lawyers and judge would determine without me having any say. Afterall, I was just “a ward of the state.”

In foster care, a different plan is determined for each youth. The majority of children reunify with their parents or are eventually adopted into a family to call their own. However, the Ohio foster care system, where I grew up, labels approximately one-fifth of youth in care as “unadoptable” under a case plan called Permanent Placement Living Arrangement (PPLA). Under a PPLA, a child is placed in permanent and legal custody of an agency and must be placed in the care of a foster care provider, person or agency, but the biological parent’s rights are not terminated

I wasn’t only deemed “unadoptable,” but the mother who abused me maintained custody while I belonged to the system that oppressed me. I had little to no say about my life and felt isolated and ostracized. Though oftentimes I felt discouraged, I gripped onto an intrinsic hope that told me my suffering would not be wasted and my hurt would not result in a deeper cycle of hurt, but in a cycle of healing.

I gripped onto an intrinsic hope that told me my suffering would not be wasted.

Many people took me under their wings, sending me in various directions, generously investing in me and believing I would grow my own wings and fly. As a senior in high school, I gladly emancipated out of the foster care system and soared because of the life people spoke into me, but many others also said I would fall into dark statistics of foster care. 

To name some: 50 to 60 percent of foster youth do not graduate from high school. Within six years of aging out of foster care, 50 percent of foster youth will have no earnings, and those who do make an average annual income of $7,500. Only 4 percent of foster youth graduate with a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

Those words were discouraging, but somehow, the statistics became the flame that lit the match I awaited to burn. I graduated high school with honors and attended a reputable college on a full ride scholarship. I went on to work for the House Majority Whip and a prestigious nonprofit during the summer of 2016 and obtained employment at the end of my junior year of college with a nonprofit that helped vulnerable foster youth, suffering families and victims of sex trafficking, all while being a full-time student athlete.

During my senior year of high school and throughout college, I kept being offered opportunities to serve at various nonprofits, churches and county agencies to share my story through speaking and spending time with vulnerable youth and suffering families. I’d receive message after message on social media about how my story impacted someone to change their habits or attitude for the better. As I continued to say yes to raising my voice in order to encourage others, I had a clear sense that my voice was silenced at one time, so I’d know how valuable it was to be a voice for the voiceless. 

I continued to say yes to raising my voice in order to encourage others.

Years after county workers silenced me, I had county agencies and caseworkers asking me to train and inform their parents about trauma, triggers and how to be radically inclusive when taking in foster youth. The group home I resided in and the juvenile detention center I stayed at for 18 days requested I come to encourage the youth there. When I speak to system-impacted youth, there’s a powerful quote that inspires me.

I raise up my voice—not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard. We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” 

I would add that I was silenced so I’d never forget those who are not heard and held back.

What do you know about the foster care system? How can we better support youth in the system?

Image via Lizzie Morgan Photography, Model Tori Petersen

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