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Sunday, February 5, 2023

I deserved better during my time in foster care

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As a child, I spent five years in the Indiana foster care system. I believe preventative services, such as those proposed under the Family First Prevention Services Act, could have saved my family.

Domestic violence was an issue in my household growing up, and I was both a witness and on the receiving end of abuse from my mother’s live-in boyfriend of three years. Substance abuse was also a problem and, looking back, I realize my mother’s mental health issues played a role, too. It wasn’t a safe situation; our family needed help.

I was 13 when my school filed a report and a caseworker came to remove me from my mother’s care. Then everything happened so quickly. I was told I was being sent to the congregate care facility, which mainly housed juvenile delinquents, because there were no family foster homes available to take me in.

There were about 40 kids at the facility, most of them older than me. I cried every night of my first week there. Sometimes I would wait for everyone to go to bed, and other times I would hide in the bathroom to cry.

While at the facility, I had no contact with the outside world. I wasn’t allowed to call my mother or my beloved grandmother, because they were not on my call list. In fact, no one had been placed on my call list. I wasn’t allowed to go to my school; instead, teachers were brought in to the facility. I missed my teachers and friends.

The discipline at the facility was very punitive. There was a level system that required residents to earn an hour of outside time each day. Wake-up was at 5 a.m. I was not allowed to use the bathroom or move from the living room to my bedroom without permission. It felt as if I were being punished for my family falling apart.

It wasn’t until three weeks after arriving that I saw my caseworker. I spent 30 days at the facility before being moved to another group home.

I came to realize, after I had been removed from her custody, my mother had lost hope. I believe if services had been provided while I was still with her, we could have worked through our family troubles together. I could have supported her. I believe she could have supported me. Instead, we became separated and lost.

I remained in foster care for my remaining teenage years. Just six months prior to turning 18 and aging out of foster care, I was blessed to be placed in a family foster home. Ms. Harriet Houser became my lifesaver. She reminded me of my beloved grandmother, as she would do things for me and provide wise advice. Even when we disagreed, she would advocate for me. I only wish I had been placed in a family like this sooner, to help me heal from the trauma I experienced as a child.

The Family First Prevention Services Act will shift priorities of the current child welfare system. It will help ensure kids like me receive the support of a family to overcome the trauma we’ve experienced, whether that support comes from our own family members or from a family foster home. It will limit the amount of time we spend in congregate care, unless we have specific needs that can only be provided by staff at a facility. And Family First will ensure congregate care facilities have improved oversight, to ensure children receive proper medical and mental health care. I’m urging the United States Senate to vote on Family First without delay, as the bill has already unanimously passed the House of Representatives.

Demetrice is a junior at Indiana University majoring in criminal justice with a concentration in youth service. He hopes to be a juvenile probation officer. Demetrice recently traveled to Washington, D.C., with FosterClub, the national network of young people in foster care, to advocate for improved foster care services.

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