“Those poor kids don’t stand a chance.”
The words – spoken between two police officers – weren’t intended for my 10-year-old ears. But I heard them anyway.
As I sat in the front seat of a police car, I glanced into the backseat at my sobbing younger sisters, thinking about his words. My memories of childhood are hazy, perhaps my brain’s way of protecting me from things I’m better off forgetting, but a few memories stand out clearly.
Sitting in the backseat of my parent’s car while they heated heroin in a spoon and injected in the front seat.
Lying to my teacher’s about why my parents missed conferences, explaining that my dad traveled a lot for work.
Lying to my grandmother when she called for my passed out dad, and hearing her disappointment when she knew I was lying.
Being chased around the kitchen table when my mom was high and mad about some small infraction I’d dared commit.
Negotiating trades with my 12-year-old brother about who would have to stay home to cook for and babysit our younger sisters. We normally switched back and forth every day, but when something came up one of us wanted to attend, we negotiated like boardroom execs.
“I’ll take tomorrow for you, but you have to take 3 of my days. Deal?”
The first night I spent in a new foster home, squeezing my eyes shut over and over, so hard that my eyelids started to hurt. Desperately praying each time I was about to open them that I’d see my old room, and this would’ve been a nightmare.
I knew of course it wasn’t a nightmare; it wasn’t the first time I’d been carted away from my parents. And of course I’d known they were back on drugs. But I’d hoped against all hope that somehow things would get better.
Or at least wouldn’t get worse. That this time, we wouldn’t have to ride in the back of a police car and live with strangers again. That I wouldn’t have to face another police officer, looking at me with sympathy, perhaps wondering what good could possibly become of the child of drug dealers.
And then, most clearly of all, I remember the words because I still repeat them in my head sometimes. “Those poor kids don’t stand a chance.”
He’d meant the words in sympathy, and perhaps, statistically, he was right. Perhaps he’d been a cop long enough to see cycles repeat, to know that I was unlikely to lead what he might consider a successful life.
Perhaps he knew that as a foster youth, I had only a 50% chance of graduating high school by 18, a 20% chance of attending college, and only a 2-9% chance of graduating college. Perhaps he knew that as a young girl in foster care, there was a 1 in 3 chance I’d be pregnant before 18, and a 50% chance I’d be pregnant by 19.
At 10, I didn’t know any of those things, but I knew his words. And I would repeat them when times were difficult. When I was filled with rage about the hand dealt to me and fears about what the future would hold.
They became my mantra, and they fueled me on my journey to prove him wrong. And it turns out he was wrong. I did graduate high school, get my bachelor’s degree, and later even a master’s degree. I didn’t have a child as a teenager and I did grow up to be what most people might think of as successful. And I wasn’t the only one to defy the odds. My brother and my two sisters also did. We all graduated college, have careers, avoided teen pregnancy.
We defied the statistics, but the statistics are real. And when I think of his words, and know that he could have been right, I also know that my own determination was only a small part of the equation for my success.
We also had compassionate adults take an interest in our lives along the way.
A kind lawyer, who took us to his farm and out fishing.
Caring foster parents who took the time to make us feel special and cared for.
And most importantly, adults like my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, who saw potential in me and invested their time when they didn’t have to.
Statistics say I should be stuck, repeating a cycle I desperately wanted to escape from.
For me, the statistics were wrong. But it’s not because I’m different from other youth in foster care. 70% of them hope to go to college. They have hopes and dreams. They’re smart and determined and kind. And yes, like me, sometimes they struggle with anger and fear about where they’ve come from and where they’re going.
They too can prove the statistics wrong. They too have the potential to overcome the terrible wrongs that have been done to them and become vibrant, successful, kind-hearted adults. Because statistics show something else too.
They show that having even one caring, stable adult investing just a few hours a week with a child in foster care can make all the difference in those outcomes. One adult is enough to improve a foster youth’s chance of completing high school, avoiding pregnancy, and going on to earn a college degree.
Through DCFYI, I’ve seen teens go from sitting in a corner with headphones on for full events to chatting up every new person coming through the door. I’ve seen amazing young men and women graduate high school, already defying the statistics, and then go on to college. I’ve seen them graduate from college and themselves begin giving back to other youth. I’ve seen what a difference having an adult mentor and friend can make.
Caring adults made all the difference for me. Adults, inside and outside of my family, who made it a point to help me succeed. And you can be that difference for another teen. All it takes is a little of your time.