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
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
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
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!