By Thalia Bernal
There is no catch-them-all term for what it means to be in the foster care system. No word or single experience can explain it. We enter the foster care system at different ages, some grow up in the system and never really find a place they can call home, some make it out and back to their families, and some transition to kinship care after years in foster care, or some after just weeks. In my case, my life was about to change. I would no longer be a foster child, but would be in foster care’s cousin, kinship care.
My times at The Children’s Court were coming to an end. There would be no more school notes excusing me from half of my classes because I had to attend court to see if I could finally go back with my mother. I wondered what she would wear this time. Would she wear her natural curly hair or straighten it? I sat impatiently and watched the elevator door. I finally saw her smile and followed her arms down to bags full of what I knew were gifts. I was told to not speak to my mother outside of the courtroom but in that moment I did not care. I ran toward her and jumped on her. I really enjoyed her gifts but her embrace was way better.
But something felt different that day. Her embrace was just as tight but her eyes showed sadness and worry.
Distracted by the Halloween-themed Teddy bear, I didn’t pay much attention to the judge’s words. At 13 years old, I would catch my mom’s attention every few seconds and sneak silly faces her way. I continued until I saw her face full of tears. She fought to keep her smile but the tears wouldn’t stop. I was heartbroken. I remember the words “legal guardian” and “kinship” and I had no idea what it meant but within days my brother and I were moved into my grandma’s tiny apartment.
I was tired of moving around and feeling like an object. I experienced one foster home and lived with almost every relative on my mom’s side. I didn’t feel wanted. I felt like a burden to their lives. I was 13 years old and understood everything going on around me. I just wanted to be wanted. I wanted to live in a place where I wasn’t scared to come to the living room without worrying about bothering someone else. I wanted a home.
I was so happy to be with my grandmother. This would be my new home and I could confidently unpack my belongings, knowing they wouldn’t see the inside of a suitcase anytime soon.
As time went on, I learned what kinship was. My grandma was my legal guardian, but the one thing that really stood out to me was the absence of social workers and supervised visits. I was pretty happy about this but a part of me felt guilty.
I got to see my mom a lot more than when I was in the system but that quickly became toxic. She would show up whenever she felt like it and harassed my family. In her eyes, they took away her kids for no reason. What were meant to be sweet visits without worrying about running out of time or limited time were instead fights. Our visits faded to random calls whenever she needed something.
The excitement of hearing from my mom faded. As I got older I realized the day my grandmother became my legal guardian was the day my mom lost the battle. She had no chance of getting us back. I sometimes wished for social workers for supervised visits. Maybe my mom would have been different and had a little faith.
My grandmother received funds to help with our expenses but we still struggled. There were a lot of things we didn’t qualify for because we weren’t in the foster care system. It became frustrating because we really needed the help. Money wasn’t our biggest concern. We were still coping and processing what we had gone through, but we no longer had a social worker or therapist to talk to. I knew I could tell my grandma anything but it wasn’t the same.
There were times when I felt overwhelmed and had no choice but to hold it, which became very tiring. I wish there had been someone I could talk to. Just because I was lucky enough to be placed with my grandmother didn’t mean everything else just went away. On the contrary, I think it became more difficult to manage without all the support and attention when we were in the system.
I was very grateful to be in my grandmother’s care. Although it was a difficult upbringing, I had many resources and people who cared about me. Once I went to college I was part of Guardian Scholars, which is a program for former foster youth. I was lucky enough this particular program was also open to youth in kinship care. I met people who bounced back and forth from kinship and foster care who longed for stability. I knew my experience was unique, and when I met all of these amazing youth, I became curious about their experiences, specifically in kinship.
I learned a lot from my peers and their experience in the foster care system. I decided to interview two fellow Guardian Scholars to compare our experiences within the foster care system and kinship. One particular story stood out to me. Mia Lopez, who grew up in the foster care system until she was 16 years old, shared “I was grateful for all the help I received in foster care but loved the freedom I had while in kinship.”
Her grandparents took her in, and although it was quite a transition, she was happy that the amount of time she spent at court, with social workers, therapists and worrying about what would become of her life was diminished. Again, she is beyond thankful for such help but she very often felt overwhelmed and couldn’t move on with what she wanted to do because her life consisted of constant reminders that she was a foster child.
“Living with my grandparents helped me feel connected to my family,” Mia said. She didn’t have her parents with her but it felt great to live with family. “I felt love and stability. I no longer felt like another foster child jumping from home from home.”
I also interviewed Kacey Mejia who was in the foster care system until she was 13 years old. Her grandparents were her legal guardians. “I was too young to understand the true benefit of all the services I received when in foster care, especially therapy.” Her parents came and went as they pleased. She was overwhelmed with the lack of routine. “When my parents stopped showing up I became very depressed.”
Kacey wished there were some rules when it came to her parents, especially supervised visits. “I also missed all the events that were put on for foster youth. Such events reminded me that I wasn’t alone.” Kacey was happy to be with her family but she was still healing. It was difficult without such resources. “It reminded me of the time I was taken from my parents, except this time something was being taken away from me.” Another thing that frustrated her were the resources only available to youth who were in foster care up to a certain age. “I really needed the help during my time in college and I feel as if I missed out on a lot of support because I couldn’t check this box,” Kacey said.
The kinship route is home to many youth and each experience is unique. Even though being in foster care is unstable, some of the resources and support are irreplaceable. When moving to kinship care, it is assumed everything will suddenly be OK, but since resources aren’t as available there are still many challenges. Some of these services are the only stability many youth truly know and rely on. When it is taken away it is challenging to readjust. Thankfully, many resources categorize kinship and foster care together, leaving no foster child behind.
Thalia Bernal is a Youth Voice Correspondent for Fostering Media Connections. She is a recent graduate of San Diego State University with a degree in rhetoric and writing, film and communications. She uses her passion, writing, as a power tool to both entertain and inform.