She sat at the front of the room, poised and looking sophisticated beyond her obvious years. She was young, beautiful, and dressed for success in Bush Alaska. She faced a semi-circle of people who sat behind tables with the debris of their catered breakfast scattered amid the papers, pens and agendas.
Anyone popping his or her head in the door to look at this scene would think it was nothing extraordinary. A conference of legal, educational, counseling and social services professionals waiting for a presentation from one of their peers on the issues faced by foster children in getting their education. But this poised young lady is not a social services professional. She is a senior at UAA in the field of sociology. Her credentials for being a speaker at this conference peppered with lawyers, a Superior Court judge, teachers and social workers, were the simplest and best credentials possible. She’d been a foster child. She’d been in the system. And she’d not only survived it, she’d managed to thrive. Coming up behind her was her little sister, also a foster child, who is a freshman this year at UAA.
When you work in the field of abused and neglected kids, kids in trouble with the law, kids whose families have given them unspeakably horrible childhoods, you don’t often get to see success stories unless you define success as providing the child a safe, sober home until they turn 18. Once they leave the system, all bets are, unfortunately, off. Many return to the dysfunctional family from which they had to be removed. Many immediately start down the path of replicating the more destructive behaviors they saw modeled in their birth families. Many are simply so screwed up by their families before the state takes them that it would take a services beyond anything we could ever offer to actually get their lives on track again.
And then there was this young lady, exhibiting a calm courage as she spoke about her mother, a raging alcoholic, and the pain of being called to the principal’s office at least once a year throughout her childhood to be interviewed by a social worker or police officer about what was going on in her home. She spoke of the embarrassment of it all and how difficult it was to speak about the unspeakable happening at home to strangers who wanted her to tell all. She related how her mother didn’t even make it to the trial where parental rights were terminated. And then she quietly proceeded to tell us how her mother subsequently had a stroke and she now has power of attorney for her. The child has become the mother and gives to the mother the love and stability she herself never received.
I sat in that room and looked at that young lady and wondered where she found her courage, knowing that if I had lived her life, I would never have been able to land on my feet like she did. I would never have had her strength and determination to not give up, to make the next part of my life so much better than the first part had been.
The purpose of the conference was to talk about the difficulties children in state custody face in completing their education and being successful academically. She succeeded, she said, because she’d been lucky enough to only have one foster home and to have foster parents who encouraged her and her sister to reach for the stars. She now lives only a block away from them and has a key to their house so that when their refrigerator needs raiding, she can still handle the task. She’d also lucked out in that she and her sister were placed together so that they always had each other.
For anyone looking for how success happens in a scenario like this, at least one part of the answer is simple – the foster parents who took these children in gave them a future that they would otherwise never have had. They gave these children a sense of stability and belonging. Aging out of state custody did not mean aging out of the only safe home they’d ever known.
These young ladies, who found a way to beat the odds and create for themselves what their birth parents would have denied them, are a true miracle in our system. It was their foster parents who gave them the means to create that miracle. In my mind, that makes them heroes.