by Kadia Edwards
At the heart of every story about our nation’s foster care system is a child in need of care and love. That fact easily can be lost, particularly when so many news stories about children in need focus on celebrity adoptions of children from foreign countries. It can make the issue of abused and neglected children seem very far away. But it’s not. Right now, in the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of children who hope every night to be freed from an uncertain future and delivered into a secure and supportive environment.
I should know. For nearly nine years, I was one of those children.
I was originally born in Jamaica. When I was 12, my brother and I came to the United States to live with our mother, who was both verbally and physically abusive. So many times my brother and I were forced to leave our home and either walk the streets or find temporary lodging with friends. He ultimately ended up going back to live with our mother, however, I did not. And, at the age of 14, I entered the state of Connecticut’s foster care system.
It was a transient existence. I was moved from home to home, which meant I changed schools often. I attended three different high schools in as many years. By the time I began to settle in, it seemed as if it was time to move again. I never had an opportunity to make any real friends or establish real relationships.
That was until I met Carmen. Carmen Effron is my Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), or volunteer Guardian ad Litem (GAL), as they’re called in Connecticut. Naturally, I was a bit wary of her. She didn’t look like me, she didn’t speak like me and none of her experiences were similar to mine. I did everything I could to push her away.
But Carmen is strong, and over the course of a few short months, she became to me everything that a mother should be for her child. I am convinced that had it not been for Carmen’s concern and care for me, my life would have taken a completely different and maybe tragic path.
Last year, more than 50,000 CASA and GAL volunteers advocated for 225,000 children – about half of the children in the child welfare system at any given time. They are trained community volunteers who speak for the best interests of abused and neglected children in court.
When I first met Carmen, I was about 15 years old and living in a foster care home. Because of my circumstances, I had grown up fast. Carmen recognized my maturity level and fought in court for me to be granted the right to enter into an independent living program. She was also one of only a few people who talked to me about “next steps” in my life.
Carmen encouraged me to go to college – even assisting me with filling out my applications. She helped me learn how to pay my bills and generally taught me what it meant to prepare for my new adult life.
The effect that Carmen has had on my life – although amazing – isn’t atypical of CASA volunteers. In fact, the benefits that CASA volunteers provide foster children throughout this country have been well documented. A recent audit conducted by the US Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General demonstrates that once a CASA volunteer is assigned, approximately:
- 95 percent of children do not languish in long-term foster care.
- 90 percent of children do not reenter the child welfare system.
In 2001, I entered my freshman year at Howard University, where I threw myself into a number of activities: student government and a variety of Christian organizations and programs on campus. After graduating with a degree in journalism, I applied to Duke University, where I am currently enrolled in the Divinity School. I expect to receive my master’s degree in 2008.
Although I have some wonderfully supportive people in my life, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t struggle. I wasn’t prepared for the difficulties I would face once I “aged out” of the foster care system. That uncertainty led to a string of bad choices, starting with a marriage at age 22 that in hindsight was doomed before it even began. Like most other little girls, I dreamed of getting married, settling down and raising a family. It didn’t quite work out that way for me.
Today, the marriage is over, but the consequences of my decisions continue to linger. Every day, I am reminded of how one bad decision has impacted my life. But I still consider myself one of the lucky ones. Thanks to my Guardian ad Litem program, I got some much-needed support and guidance from someone who cared about my future and made me care about my future.
It’s still my dream to get married and become a mother someday. But, it isn’t my only dream. As I focus on life after graduation next year, I plan on completing a year-long residency to help me prepare for a career in pastoral counseling.
My ultimate desire is to work with children growing up in the foster care system. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and by sharing my experiences, perhaps I can help a young person just like me avoid some of the missteps that I have taken.
Through it all, Carmen was and is still there for me. Without her, I don’t know what I would have done. She didn’t always agree with the choices I made, but like any good confidante, she picked me up when I fell down. There was never any judgment – only love and guidance.
Because of Carmen, I know now that one person can make a difference. Because I have someone in my life who cares, I now have a future filled with possibilities and I look forward to what the future holds for me after graduation.
To help other young people like me identify their possibilities, become a CASA or Guardian ad Litem volunteer. Learn more about becoming a volunteer by visiting www.nationalcasa.org or calling 1-888-805-8457.
67 percent of San Francisco’s foster children are Black
May is National Foster Care Month – a time when the country’s leading child welfare agencies, advocates, experts and 12 million alumni of foster care come together to focus America’s attention on the year-round needs of the 513,000 youth in foster care.
Foster care is an issue that particularly affects African American children. Although research shows that there is no difference in the incidence of abuse and neglect according to racial group, children of color comprise 60 percent of the nation’s children in foster care.
In San Francisco alone, 67 percent of the 1,802 children in foster care are African-American. And, once in the foster care system, children of color tend to receive fewer services, stay in care longer and generally have worse outcomes than white children.
In addition to being overrepresented, African American children in foster care often struggle to maintain their cultural identity while living away from home. This is largely because most jurisdictions are in urgent need of more foster and adoptive families, mentors and other caregivers – especially from the Black community. Julia Charles, an alumna of foster care who is now a college student, notes, “Whether it is understanding what you like to eat or how to wear your hair, it’s the little things that are so important when you are separated from your family.”
Thousands of African American children currently in foster care are in urgent need of help right now. There are so many ways to get involved and make a difference … in as little as a few minutes, a few hours. What these youth need most of all is for more people to show they care by doing something positive that will help change a lifetime.
For more information on the many ways in which you can make a lasting difference for children and youth in foster care, visit www.fostercaremonth.org or call 1-888-799-KIDS (5437).