Each year, more than 650 Michigan youth “age out” of foster care, leaving the system with no permanent family or place to call home. When I aged out, I was in the middle of my senior year of high school. I had no safe place to live, no job, no family and no security.
Because I entered foster care through the treatment avenue for youth with mental health related issues, I could not access an Independent Living Plan that would have allowed a caseworker to help me secure safe, affordable housing, job counseling, and general transitional services. Instead, I fell through the cracks.
It was the middle of winter, and I had no place to go. Since I couldn’t afford to buy food, I ate free lunch at school and skipped dinner.
When I graduated from high school, I could not afford to buy a cap and gown, so I didn’t walk with my class. I never purchased a yearbook, because I couldn’t afford it. Worse yet, I had nobody to teach me how to grocery shop, cook, or balance a checkbook. At 22, I am still learning how.
The good news is that I am okay now. Thanks to the support of a lot of people, I am in college, I have a house, and I am engaged to a wonderful partner with whom I have been in a healthy relationship for 3 years.
Hundreds of youth who enter care foster care are not so fortunate. They are refused vital transitional services in Michigan, and too many become pregnant, incarcerated, homeless or worse after leaving the system.
Young people – like me - who age out of foster care are quickly confronted with the harsh realities of life on our own. The decisions we face everyday – how to pay the bills, pay for college, determine where we will live and where we can go on Christmas or other holidays – are difficult, and must be answered without the guidance or support of a loving family.
I have defied these odds. But, that does not mean that I do not wish for a family of my own. We need to take steps to ensure that all children in foster care can leave the system to live with permanent families.
In its recommendations, the national, nonpartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care determined that flexible, reliable federal funding could make an enormous difference in helping states provide supports and services that could keep families together, recruit more foster and adoptive parents, or subsidize guardianships for relatives and others. This type of funding could help make certain that states can do more to make sure that fewer young people age out without finding a family.
When I was 18 and had just aged out, I was completely alone. Happily, I can now say that I do have a family. My fiancé’s family treats me as their own kin, and I have expanded my circle of support to include members of my community and other foster youth I have met during my travels as an advocate.
I have traveled to Washington, D.C. and across the nation to make the case for foster care reform. I have shared my experiences and used my voice to illustrate the need for change. Congress listened to me and the other young people, parents and child welfare advocates who made the case for change. They recently and unanimously passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Improved Adoptions Act. This bill will help states provide foster care supports and services to young people up until age 21. It will help increase the number of adoptions from foster care, and help provide financial assistance for adoptive parents and for relatives who provide permanent families for young people in foster care. This means that, hopefully, more young people will leave foster care with permanent families and homes, and fewer will be alone, and on their own.
2005 All-Star Shawn Denise Semelsberger, 22, lives on her own in Northern Michigan. In care at age 14, Shawn was in and out of foster homes until she was 18. Shawn now works for The Jim Casey Youth Initiative as a youth board member, a diarist and a public speaker. Her future plans include attending Evergreen College to study non-profit leadership and Public Will and Policy. She would like to some day start a program like the All Star Program for under-privileged, at-risk youth.