I was recently having a conversation with a friend who also grew up in foster care. Now that we are older, we feel our voices and stories are no longer “useful” to the foster care support community. It’s as if our foster care experience had an expiration date.
We searched and searched for ways to describe this feeling, and it might be indescribable. The following is my attempt to grapple with the pervasive issue that continues to perpetuate a narrative that does not serve the foster youth, rather certain organizations.
The experience of being in foster care is one that persists. It has altered my orientation toward old and new relationships and is beautifully unique to me. Sade Daniels beautifully penned in her blog–“Success Story: A Loaded Term for Former Foster Youth”–that she still deals with her past trauma. In many ways, I deal with the same issues.
There is no expiration date on the emotional trauma associated with the day I was told my sister committed suicide while she was a “ward of the court.” There is no expiration date on the sleepless nights I suffered as a child due to the separation anxiety I felt because of the possibility of being separated from my father and other siblings.
I only manage all of this—the issues I face are in many ways irreconcilable. Some days are better than others. Some days I need to call on my village mothers to get me through.
What has changed is my maturity. Time has blessed me with more experience in dealing with these issues. It doesn’t make them easier, but I do have more experience.
I feel that in many spaces, the foster care support community conveniently employs the label foster “youth” because having a discussion with a youth versus an adult is very different. A youth is thought to be impressionable, and they more often deploy narratives that fit into the agenda of the nonprofit industrial complex.
When I was an undergraduate, I was willing to speak at almost any event offered. I found the work to be meaningful. It gave me a sense of purpose, and while it could be emotionally draining, it still felt like I was making change. I was told once that if you do not tell your story then someone else will. To tell my story is to honor my ancestors, to show gratitude to my mentors who empowered me into the position I am in.
It is my story to tell. Even if my story makes you feel uncomfortable, that discomfort is for a moment. However, my story makes up my past, present, and future.
I am now pursuing a Ph.D., and I have been able to acquire a unique skill set that gives me the agency to challenge the status quo, but it shouldn’t be this way. My graduate degree is only an institutional accolade. My experiences should give me authority and credibility in the way I retell them, not a Ph.D.
Foster youth are the experts of their story, and they should not be mediated by other agendas or some arbitrary temporality that says foster experiences “expire.”
Speaking our truth is empowering, yet emotionally tiring, but to place a expiration date is to undermine my experiences. There is no expiration date on my suffering, on my lack of family, or on the anxiety I sometimes feel around not being loved. My foster care experience is not milk—something to use or discard by a certain date. It is my life, and I am still here. Therefore, my foster care experience is still very much relevant, and so am I.