I pulled my blanket to my chin, warm already in my blue footed pajamas. My eyelids slowly began to find their other halves when again that thought shot through the warmth and sent cold tremors up the back of my neck and onto the top of my blonde head. I rolled onto my stomach and began to hum and bang my head against the tops of my hands.
“What if they don’t want me anymore and tomorrow they send me away?” This agonizingly painful idea was always sitting in wait at the back of my conscience, stalking my happy dreams in which this would be my forever family; the despair-driven belief ready to pounce and destroy those happy dreams whenever I began to push away the memories of hunger, abandonment and abuse.
I banged my head harder and harder, humming more intensely, trying to forget the torture, to kill the monster lurking in my mind. A deep voice rumbled through the dark.
“Aaron, quit the humming, you are waking everyone up!” The voice belonged to my foster Dad, a loving man in every way, but a little cranky when woken up sooner than he wanted.
“Get some sleep, Aaron. Tomorrow you have a long day. You are going to want to have lots of energy for when they pick you up.” His voice was much gentler with these words.
My mind raced as my heart withered and died. I heard the door to my foster parents’ bedroom shut at the end of the hallway. “What long day? No one said anything. Who is coming to take me away? Did I do it again? Did I make these people not love me anymore?”
The ideas and dark visions violently thrashed any beginnings of hope about the following day. I slid from my bed, not making a sound, but silently sobbing uncontrollably. I went to my closet and pulled out my tiny, tattered yellow vinyl suitcase. I slammed the suitcase onto my bed.
This suitcase was the same one that I always had to pack before leaving and switching families. I packed clothes, a few toys, and a picture of the foster family; then I dressed, and I sat on my bed and waited in the dark. I sat afraid, broken, and alone in the dark.
The sun was just beginning to spread the multi-colored warmth when I heard my parents’ door open, and then the footsteps coming down the hallway. My foster Mom paused in front of my door, and then reached one of her long, lovely, feminine hands in to turn on my light.
“Aaron, why are you up so early?” My foster Mom barely whispered the words before lightly tip-toeing to my bed and placing one arm around me as she sat down.
“I am all ready to go, I even already packed.”
“Sweetie, you are not staying the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, just during the day so Dad and I can go shopping. Maybe we can talk to them and see if they will let you spend the night anyway. Is that what you want to do?”
My heart swelled with hopeful rejuvenation. “Ye..no..I want to stay here tonight.” I fought back the tears.
“Okay. Is it whatever you want to do, Sweetie,” she said through kisses on my forehead. “You want to come help me get breakfast ready?”
On our way out the door, my Mom noticed my tiny, tattered vinyl yellow suitcase. “Oh, why don’t we just throw that thing away, and go get you a new bag? This thing is just filthy!”
“Mommy, can I take it to the trashcan outside?”
“Yep, you sure can. Let’s get this unpacked.” She unzipped the suitcase and a little smile illuminated her face as she held up the picture of the family, me sitting in the middle of my foster Mom and Dad and two brothers. My foster Mom came over and gave me a big hug.
With every kick, the heaviness in my heart lightened. That symbol of my fear was in two pieces and smashed, barely recognizable as a suitcase. Panting, I finally picked up the pieces and threw them into the large brown trashcan, a toothy grin dominating my face.
I went inside, up the steps and into the kitchen. My foster Mom turned and smiled. My foster Dad strode into the kitchen and gave me a bear hug. Then that evil thought came once again. I squeezed my foster Dad’s neck tighter, and the thought slowly weakened, until I locked that monster into the deepest part of my mind.
“Aaron thought he was going to spend the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s, and boy was he gonna miss us, he even packed a picture.” My foster Dad squeezed a little harder. “Isn’t that right, Aaron?”
I simply said, “Yes.” I knew my foster Parents would never know just how much.
Growing up in foster care, that tiny, tattered yellow vinyl suitcase always accompanied me while I switched families, rules and routines. I hated that suitcase. Packed and ready to go, it was a constant reminder of how unstable my life was and how the threat of moving made every day uncertain. One of my happiest memories is tearing that suitcase apart.
It is not easy to grow up in the foster care system – ask Nebraska’s nearly 6,300 foster children. They spend an average of more than a year in foster care, often separated from brothers and sisters, friends and family. More than 40 percent of Nebraska’s foster children will move more than three times while in care. I spent six years in foster care and – with my yellow suitcase – moved six times.
I am fortunate, because I was adopted by the same family that allowed me to finally lock my fears away and upgrade my suitcase; fortunate because my nomadic childhood ended, because I knew even before being adopted that this family and I shared an unconditional love.
But I am waiting for all children in the foster care system to be able to join permanent, loving families. Not having a permanent home affects children and youth deeply, with young children never knowing how long they will stay or where they will go next. Almost 20 percent of foster youth now wait five or more years for the permanent family that should be their birthright.
Foster children must wait too long to join families. We want Congress to know that these vulnerable children have also waited too long for foster care reform.
Changes in the way the federal government pays for foster care could mean that - instead of most federal dollars being used to remove children from their homes and enter foster care - programs and services that help keep children out of foster care or prevent them from spending too long in the system could be supported. This might mean funding drug treatment programs, providing affordable housing for families, or putting more money into job training and parenting classes – all designed to help families stay together. It could mean making sure that children can leave foster care quickly to join a permanent family and be reunited with their brothers and sisters. It could mean that states would be better able to address the individual needs of the children and families in their care.
Too many children have spent days, months, and years in the foster care system, waiting for a permanent, loving family. It is up to all of us to make sure that they don’t have to wait any longer.
This story is written by Aaron Weaver, a 2006 FosterClub All-Star and former FosterClub staff member. He grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska.