When did love happen?

My oldest daughter is adopted. She was four days old when we arrived at the hospital to pick her up. And if ten pounds, ten ounces and 23 inches tall wasn’t enough to astonish me, the idea of looking down at a baby I’d never seen before and trying to convince myself that she was my daughter.

“You’re my daughter. You’re my daughter.” I whispered to myself as I looked down at her. It didn’t register. Didn’t seem real. Nor did loving her seem real. How can you love someone you just met? I changes her faded hospital clothes into a vibrant pink romper, and whisked her home.

Did I love her at that moment? No. But somehow, love happened in that first week she lived with us. Suddenly we went from three people living in a flat in San Francisco to a family. A mom. A dad. And a baby girl named Elizabeth.

From ILSP Youth to ILSP Staff

By: Jessica Macready, ILSP Community Outreach Consultant

My introduction to the Independent Living Skills Program (ILSP) began when Don Graves, then the Outreach Specialist, came to my foster home in Clayton to discuss the program in detail.  I was 16 years old and felt that I was already very independent and could handle living on my own if I was just given the opportunity.  I had limited job skills, no savings, and was average in academics.  Still, I felt prepared to survive on my own.

When Don told me that I could get paid $100 for attending the series of workshops on living skills as well as earn high school credits, I was very excited.  Looking back, this was probably the first sign that I was not ready to be on my own considering I thought that $100 was a lot of money – but it sold me on the program. Don went a step beyond discussing the program and wanted to know my individual goals for the future, where I wanted to live after emancipating from foster care at 18, if we wanted to continue my education after high school, what career I was interested in pursuing, as well as my basic interests and hobbies.  I remember thinking at the time that I was too young to be thinking about where I was going to live and how I was going to support myself when I became an adult. I felt I had two years to worry about that and two years was an eternity away for me.

I was not nervous about attending the classes because I went with my two foster sisters.  I also met other foster youth and felt that we could all understand each other more because of that community.  After starting the life skills classes it did not take long for me to realize that I really did not know as much as I thought, and that these classes werre much more valuable than $100.  I learned that there was a lot that I need to do at 16 to prepare for adulthood.  I used what I learned to get a part-time job, open a checking account, and write checks with confidence. There were other valuable things I took away from the class that I needed more time to practice before I could be on my own, such as budgeting my paychecks, balancing my checking account, and practicing interviewing and cooking skills.

ILSP opened many doors for me, such as my membership in California Youth Connection, a youth-led advocacy group working to change laws and policies affecting the foster care system. I found my role as a leader in this organization and also realized my passion for wanting to make the foster care system better for those coming bahind me. ILSP also helped me find much-needed scholarships when I graduated from high school and moved on to junior college.

Every youth can get something different out of ILSP and put it to use when they emancipate out of foster care.  It is important for youth to take advantage of the program by participating in the workshops and getting individual services from the specialists. I got much more than living skills out of the program; I made friendships with outher young people as well as with the staff of the program.  I had to make the choice to participate in the program and to take advantage of the services, and I was lucky to have my foster parent support me in attending the program by providing transportation and motivating me to attend workshops. When I was ready to emancipate out of foster care, I felt confident that I had the necessary skills to pay my bills on time, maintain a job, and be informed about college and career choices.

The Independent Living Skills Program was such a huge support for me after I emancipated that I felt it was important to return to the program to ensure that other youth receive the same support, both in life skills and in relationships.  After graduating from St. Mary’s College, I began working with ILSP as a Community Outreach Consultant.  My role is to connect all emancipating youth with valuable community agencies that will help support them and make them feel part of a larger community. I will also be starting UC-Berkeley in the fall to begin my MSW to fulfill my dream of becoming a social worker.

-From Contra Costa County Foster Families Newsletter, September/October 2005

“You’ve got a family that’s yours – like, ‘That’s my mom.'”

Rage to Do BetterAfter my first foster home, I lived with these people that was planning to adopt me, but they didn’t ’cause they had a baby of their own.  After that I went to another foster home that was gonna adopt me.  There were seven of us – the lady said that she wanted a big family.  I loved her as a mom, but the kids didn’t like me and the dad thought I caused him his heart attack or something, from stress.  I went to a group home after that and stayed for over three eyars.  One day, a couple days after Christmas, I went down to the office and my social worker said, “You got a famiy.” I could have said no but I said yes so I could have a family.

At first it didn’t feel different ’cause I always thought I’d move again no matter what.  That’s just how I felt since I moved all around.  To be honest, I was scared.  I stayed in my room.  I just wanted to stay in the house by myself and watch TV.  Then I was testing.  I got on their nerves.  I got the gift to push the right buttons.  I just push sometimes to see what happens.

When you’re older, you got that shield around you.  You got your attitude set, like “You can’t tell me nothing.” Especially in group homes, you gotta act like you’re tough.  So I came here and I was like, “I don’t care.” My parents just kept reflecting that I knew I wasn’t the toughest, baddest person in the world.  Then when someone would tell me something, I’d start thinking, “I really don’t know how to do this, so I should just listen.”

Being adopted is better because you’ve got a family that’s yours – like, “That’s my mom.” In the group home they did love you, but not in that way.  This love is like love for your life.  I feel it.  It took until about this point, though, because this is the longest time I’ve lived in a family.

I have one real brother but I never met him.  My social worker tried to get us in touch with each other, but the parents, I guess they don’t want him to know that he was adopted.  But you gotta tell ’em sooner or later.  No person for their whole life should not know that they’ve got the family out there that wants to find them.  It’s wrong not to tell them.  It’s like stabbing them.

I met my biological parents a couple of times.  I’ll always remember this – my mom took me to a bar and they played this Michael Jackson song I liked, “Thriller.” It was like the first time I really saw her, and I guess the last time I saw her.  I was eight.

I want to be an engineer or a stockbroker.  An electrical engineer ’cause it’s the future.  Everything works on electricity.  A stock broker ’cause I can handle the stress.   I can do all that.  Bring in some cash.

What you have to do is build a base.  It’s like building a house.  When I first came here, I made my base.  I made the lower part of the house, the first floor.  Then I made the second floor. Right now I’m doing the tippy top of the house.  I just need a little bit more.  Just get your education.  Just worry about if your mom is happy – “My son got A’s.  My son did this.”

What do I worry about? Sometimes college.  I want me and my friend to go to the same college.  Mostly girls, job, football – teenager stuff. I would rather have these worries than staying in a group home worrying about if I’m going to be adopted.

-an excerpt from A Rage to Do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System, by Nell Bernstein; Michael, 14, lived in three foster homes and one group home before being adopted at the age of 10.

“Adoption meant I’d have these parents forever.”

Rage to Do BetterMy mom gave me up because she was going through drug therapy and she couldn’t get rid of the drugs, so she had to get rid of something.  She didn’t want me to be mistreated, so she gave me away.  Foster care was going from one house to another house and rules and stuff changing.  You’d get to know a neighborhood – walking to the ice cream store or whatever – and then change to another home.  It was confusing.  You’d get up in the middle of the night and go, “Where’s the bathroom?” One time I broke my arm and got moved.  At least I thought that was why I had to be moved.

Then I came to this family.  From the beginning they acted like my parents, like they really did want me.  My dad would be watching The Simpsons and I’d come and sit beside him and he’d put his arm around me and we’d start talking.  I had the option of calling them Jeff and Sue or Mom and Dad.  I chose Mom and Dad ’cause I felt comfortable with them.  I knew adoption meant that I’d have these parents forever.  That was not peroblem ’cause they were really cool.

I have seven adopted brothers and sisters plus my biological brother and my dad’s biological daughter.  When my younger brother William came, he always wanted me to pick him up.  When we went to court for him to be adopted, he came over and sat on my lap.  That was real neat.

My brothers and sisters are from all different races.  Some people can be really rude and racist, but I just tell them, “You parents had you.  My parents chose me.” Or I’ll say, “My dad’s with me all the time.  How ‘ bout yours? What’s he do?  He hands you 20 bucks and tells you to go to the arcade. I’m with my dad having fun, playing T-ball.”

I seem like my dad for some reason.  Everyone says that.  He’s into taking things apart and making them work.  My little brother will give me something that’s broken and I’ll take it and fix it too.

I remember the day I got adopted.  My dad said, “This is the day that you’re gonna be officially mine.  How do you feel about that?”  I said, “It feels good, Dad.” Then we came home and it was like a big birthday party, but it was an adoption party.  When I went to school the next day the whole room was decorateed with “Happy Adoption Day” and they gave me this big poster and everyone signed it.

There’s nothing better than having a set of parents that really love you and want to take care of you the rest of your life, someone you can call Mom and Dad.  Like if something is wrong with your car and you need help, you can call your dad.  But if you’re out there by yourself, who are you gonna call?

Being in foster care is like four people in a room, each in a corner.  Being adopted feels like all the people in the middle of the room, all talking to each other.  It’s not just you and the wall.

-an excerpt from A Rage to Do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System, by Nell Bernstein; Charles, 15, is a high school student.  He was adopted along with his older brother when he was nine years old, after five years in several foster homes.

“You don’t make it through any stage of life alone.”

Rage to Do Better cover.jpgWhen I was in foster care, people would say things to me like, “Oh, you look like you could go to college,” encouraging kinds of things, but there wasn’t a lot of hands-on help. It was more like, “Go get yourself a job,” and “We’ll consider you successful if you can hold down a job and pay rent.”  But a lot of my friends outside the [foster care] system went off to college. I looked pretty closely at what they were doing and I decided that I was going to try for it. I really didn’t know if I was going to make it, but I was going to try for it.

Some of what they teach you when you’re in the system is how to go furniture shopping or car shopping. Those are not really practical. We don’t know how to drive! It would be beneficial if they could do an assessment of people who have left the group homes and find out what the needs are really going to be.

But one thing they do teach you is, “If you don’t have something, go out and get it. Look for it until you find it.” And so I did that, and it worked. I graduated last year and now I’m pursuing a master’s degree in social work.

The image people have of former foster youth is that we’re going to become welfare dependents and rip off the state for all this money. I’d hear people who didn’t know I was in the system talking about, “Oh, those kids in group homes – they’re just gonna grow up and go to prison.” Or, “They’re gonna grow up and get welfare, and they’re going to be taking my taxpayer money, sitting on their butts eating potato chips and soda.” I had been told all my life, “You’re just going ot take, take, take.” That really hurt me, so I decided that no matter what I do, I’m going to be working. And that’s exactly what I did my whole way through college.

But it is not as clear cut as just “Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and move on” when you don’t have the supports to do that. People don’t understand that because they think that everybody has a family. In reality, for a lot of people who have been in foster care, it’s sink or swim. If you want to do it, you have to somehow get the confidence to do it. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know how I got that confidence. I think I just reached out.  Seeing that other people were doing it, I took a chance that I might be able to do it. But a lot of people sink rather than swim, and that’s what scares me.

I don’t like the idea of having to pick yourself up by yourself. That’s not the way it works. Anyone who’s made it has had friends or some kind of support to make it through. You don’t make it through any stage of life alone.

-an interview with Jessica, 24, who spent her teenage years in foster homes and group homes and who recently started a support group for former foster youth on her college campus; excerpt from A Rage to Do Better: Listening to the Young People from the Foster Care System, by Nell Bernstein

View other excerpts from A Rage to Do Better.

CA Counties Unable to Match State Funds for Emancipated Youth

Call to Action!!!

Each year, approximately 5,000 foster youth, once they turn 18, are no longer eligible for foster-care services. During this pivotal time, many of these youth find themselves with no place to live.

In 2001, the California Legislature passed the Transitional Housing program for Emancipated Youth (known as THP-Plus) to address this problem. Under the program, which is limited to two years, emancipated youth are eligible for rental subsidies. What was originally going to be a fully state-funded program, evolved into legislation that required county governments to provide 60 percent match.
As a result, only three counties – San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa – have elected to participate, while emancipating youth in the remaining 55 counties are still left to fend for themselves.
“Clearly, the current sharing ratio is a barrier for counties to participate,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association.
A bill authored by Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, would make the THP-Plus a fully-funded state program, this creating more consistently throughout the counties. Urge your elected representatives in Sacramento to support the Murray bill on foster care. You can fin the names and contact information for your Senate and Assembly representatives by typing in your ZIP code at www.leginfo.ca.gov. -from First Place Fund for Youth, Spring Newsletter