As college students arrive at school and prepare to start the new academic year, I am reminded of the painful, bittersweet occasions that I – a young person who has aged out of foster care and who recently graduated from college – have experienced.
Parents’ weekend at college was one of the most painful experiences I have ever endured. I wanted so badly for someone to come, but it wasn’t feasible. The fact that my parents were not there to visit was exacerbated by the fact that many of my friends wanted to introduce their parents to me. I will never forget the time I walked into our dining commons and someone asked me if my parents were here yet. I slid my tray away and began to cry—humiliated and, worse, alone.
When I entered foster care, my family was torn apart. I was separated from my six siblings. I moved from placement to placement, and love and friendship were elusive concepts for me. It’s not that I lost friends every time I moved; I simply never made them. I ultimately “aged out” of the system without a family to support me.
According to recent research, most Americans do not consider a person to be an adult until they are about 26 years old - - or until they have finished school, have a full-time job, and have started on the path of beginning their own family.
Young people – like me - who age out of foster care do not have this luxury. The decisions we face everyday – how we will pay our bills, put food in our mouths and keep a roof over our heads – are difficult, and must be answered without the guidance or support of a family.
Unprepared for life on our own, many young people who age out of foster care become homeless, unemployed, incarcerated or suffer from physical or mental illness. Only half will graduate from high school; just three percent will graduate from college.
As a graduate of high school and a rising senior at Taylor University, I have defied these odds. But, that does not mean that I do not fervently wish for a family of my own.
When I first stepped onto campus, I wanted someone to congratulate me. I wanted someone to say that they would miss me! The biggest trials for me have been figuring out where to go for the holidays, who I am supposed to introduce as my mother, and wondering what it will be like when college no longer shields me from the painful reality that I truly am “a foster kid,” out on my own.
This doesn’t need to keep happening. The time to ensure that all children in foster care can leave the system to live with permanent families is now.
If I had a family - someone who truly cared - I would have been proud to introduce them to my friends during parents’ weekend. I would need no qualifiers, no awkward pauses, and no tears in the dining commons. Just eight little words: “Hey, I want you to meet my family…”
As a nation, we must do a better job of making certain that youth in foster care have family relationships and are prepared for adulthood.
Every day we fail to act, 67 children like me leave foster care without a permanent family. How many more of these children will we fail?
2004 All-Star Sharde Armstrong Entered the foster care system at the age of six with five other siblings. She spent 12 years transitioning between the foster care system and her parents until finally aging out of the system at 18 after graduating. She has worked in the United States Senate through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institutes (CCAI) Foster Youth Internship program.