Youth Voices Rising Writing Contest 2023 — Fourth Place, Essay
Content warning: This article mentions sexual abuse and substance abuse.
Growing up with instability and parents with uncontrolled mental health conditions caused my childhood to be a rollercoaster. During my childhood, I was introduced to problematic behaviors, which included having access to substances by the age of 12. At the time, I believed everything that I observed was “normal.” Unhealthy childhood development and trauma are not taken into consideration when an adolescent is continuously arrested.
Instability to Arrest
I lived with my mother and younger sister in Cape Coral, Florida after moving from Ohio in 2013. My mother would disappear for days at a time, leaving me and my sister home alone without supervision. This included being home with my younger sister without food and water. I used to walk to Dollar General with a backpack to steal food to ensure my sister and I could eat. When my mother would come home, she would say, “trust me.” Shortly after that, she would come home with pills, cocaine, meth, and other substances, and again, she would say, “trust me.” Due to financial challenges, my mother found a roommate. This roommate was 20 years older than I was at the time and traded “special favors” for my mother. These “special favors” included having me act in sexual relationships with him. Without access to healthy development, I was unmindful of the purpose of these situations.
As time went on, we received an eviction notice. My mother and younger sister went to live with her drug dealer, and I became homeless. I would relocate to friends’ couches and sleep in closets because I was seen as a bad influence. While I was homeless, I was too young for employment, without finances, and alone. I began meeting unhealthy individuals who would provide shelter and then ask for items in return. I would steal food, clothes, money, and other items that helped me to feel self-confident.
Being homeless and without support was like being in a movie for the survival of the fittest. Shortly after, I became addicted to substances and would get arrested for having drugs in my possession. I also was arrested for stealing tampons, hygiene products, and clothes from Walmart. The feeling of embarrassment rose during this time. I never was provided the chance to explain myself or the neglectful situations in court. Red flags were distinguishable, but no one reported the signs of abuse and neglect. After six misdemeanors and four felonies, I was put on probation and introduced into foster care at 16.
Being announced into foster care was frightening and miserable. I remember walking into a house that looked like a home on the outside, but when the doors opened, it reminded me of a hidden prison. I lived in this group home in Lehigh Acres with seven other female adolescents and staff who rotated shifts. The feeling of grief, hopelessness, and loneliness became normal for me during the year I was placed there. While still on probation, the desire to run away was not an option. Having anxiety and being unable to control anything was challenging. No one talks about the baggage that the foster care system brings. Luckily, with support from a school social worker, I was provided with a ladder. Once I started climbing the ladder and finished my probation period, I was introduced to my foster mother.
My foster mother was someone who made me feel supportive and loved. After three months passed by, I started observing positive behaviors and available opportunities. It was going well until I was arrested again at school for a crime I committed two years prior. Due to this counting as an additional arrest after a recent probation period, I was taken into the Detention of Juvenile Justice Center for two days. I was treated as a criminal that was entirely responsible for the reasons that led to the arrests. After being released from the detention center, I had to restart the journey of becoming whole again.
Policies for foster care and juvenile justice systems are sometimes disconnected. As an advocate for change, I would suggest additional education regarding the impact of child development and mental health caused by housing instability. Another impactful option could be the implementation of programs where foster youth can have the opportunity to experience mentorship and mental health services by a licensed provider. There should be a program where foster youth can feel heard and supported with court hearings or work towards a goal to remove legal charges from their record. During my time in foster care, I was never offered mental health services or provided education on how to access coping techniques.
In addition to these changes, foster youth are affected by inconsistent caseworkers and inadequate access to stable services. High turnover is present due to caseworkers receiving low wages, high caseloads, and lack of beneficial supervision. Child welfare agencies need more funding to remove barriers of burnout from caseworkers. Consistent caseworkers for foster youth would provide improved relationship building and access to support.
My Past Doesn’t Define Me
Supportive relationships and access to opportunities have assisted me with removing myself from the juvenile system. My past is a reminder of a former life and all the changes I have made since that time. My top values are stability and family, and I continue to thrive from growth of opportunities. Childhood is an important aspect of an individual’s development. This impacts how someone processes and makes decisions in adulthood. A past filled with unprideful events and trauma has given me motivation to inspire and assist others with creating areas of stability.
With reflection, I see myself as an example of someone who can make the best out of situations. I see myself as the actualization of the metaphor “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I strongly believe that an individual’s past does not define who they are. Presently, I am a recent graduate student at Florida Gulf Coast University with a master’s degree in social work. I am currently awaiting to complete my state internship as a Registered Clinical Social Work Intern (RCSWI) before becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). I have a three-year-old son who motivates me. To every current and former foster care youth that reads this: You are important and the world needs you. Climb every ladder towards what motivates you.