We know that youth in Kentucky are key to creating positive change for kids, and their leadership galvanizes other youth, parents, educators, community leaders, and legislators. In the Kentucky Youth Speak Up series, students advocate for policies, encourage other youth to serve their communities, promote strategies for student success, and motivate all of us to build the best commonwealth for Kentucky kids.

In a recent presentation to the House Working Group on Adoption, Cynthia, a member of the First Lady’s Youth Leadership Council, told her story. She shared her experiences within the foster care system and offered her ideas to improve the outcomes of youth within the child welfare system and who have aged out of foster care.

My name is Cynthia Schepers and I have a pretty lengthy story. It’s one that is difficult to tell, but it is also necessary for people to hear. That way they know the struggles that I, and others like me, face every day in the foster care system. It is my hope that listening to this shortened version of my story can bring about positive change for the future of the foster care system.

I’ll start off with why I’m in foster care.

At a very young age, age 3 to be exact, my mother overdosed. I’m not sure if it was accidental, but I tend to think it wasn’t, just because it helps me to understand why I am the way I am. At age 5, I lost my father to his battle with the cancer he got from smoking, he never got to receive proper treatment because he was in prison for selling illegal substances. During this entire time, I was living with my grandma, who I refer to as mom at times, because my family was too unstable to take care of me. I’m not sure if it was official kinship care, but either way it didn’t last.

At age 13, I was stripped from the life I knew and thrown into foster care because of neglect. I was very confused because I didn’t feel neglected, I was fine with how everything was. What was the most confusing to me though, is that I was removed for neglect yet I was constantly neglected by my social workers and case managers.

They’d say things like, “Well, you’re doing good in school, things must be great!” Or my personal favorite, “Foster mom says you’re doing fine, so I won’t worry about stopping by.”

How can I build a relationship with someone I never see? How can I have an adult I trust to go to when there are problems in the foster home? Because trust me, there were problems in the foster home.

I lived with this one foster parent around age 17, and everything was perfect until I decided that I was so close to being an adult, that I didn’t want to be adopted. I told my foster mom I still loved her and would visit, but it wasn’t enough. After that, my time in this home was miserable. Constant emotional abuse, including insulting me, belittling me, telling me to shut up. Saddest part is, she wasn’t the only one. My mom may not have done the best of jobs, but she did a better than some of the trained foster parents I had.

Once I turned 18, I became part of the independent living program. In theory, it’s a great program. It’s meant to prepare youth for independence by inching them in to the real world, with weekly visits to discuss your progress and what you need to work on to be successful. My experience, however, did not go this way. Yes, my case worker stopped by for his mandatory weekly visits, but he would just hand me my weekly check and asked the generic, “Need anything from me?”

As someone trying to learn about independence, I didn’t always know what I needed; it wasn’t my job to. Either way, it was a job that never got done. It was the same old, “Well, you’re doing good in school, things must be great!”

There was only a real concern when I went through intense situations, like when I dropped out of school because I was raped my first semester of college. Or when I joined a church and thought I had a family, only to be exiled, which sent me spiraling in a sea of suicidal thoughts, because I felt unworthy of love.

Other than that, I was on my own. So, when I was about to turn 21, I had no idea what to do. I was given a new case manager for the last few weeks in the program, and she was even worse. I asked her for help on transitioning out of the program and she seemed irritated with me for not being prepared. I remember breaking out in to tears when she said, “You are almost 21, there is no reason you should not be ready to leave this program.”

But she was wrong, I had so many reasons that I wasn’t ready, but instead of telling her, I just cried, and realized that I had to do this on my own. The day I turned 21, I was on my own. I spent the next two weeks homeless. That included couch hopping, sleeping in my car, and even sleeping in the school library until I was kicked out in the middle of the night.

I was very fortunate to have been connected with a mentor family through Orphan Care Alliance, which started a mentor matching program for current and former foster youth, who immediately took me in after hearing that I was homeless. To this day, they continue to house me, until Family Scholar House finishes the construction on their new housing for former foster youth.

Today I am a junior at the University of Louisville and a full-time worker. I am a youth advocate at TrueUp Louisville and someone who has completed the Fostering Success program two years in a row. I am a member of the First Lady’s Youth Leadership Council, a member of the Voices of the Commonwealth, who helps educate youth ages 14 and up in foster care about their options including independent living, and a member on Maryhurst’s Associate Board. I am also a survivor. All this thanks to some amazing people I’ve met along the way.

Don’t let me being part of all these groups fool you though, it is not easy by any means. I did not have access to certain life lessons when I needed them, so I constantly struggle to keep up. Some days it is hard to get out of bed because I feel so overwhelmed just doing everyday tasks. And, a part of that means feeling like that would be different if I had constant support throughout my time in foster care, because that’s what most kids get to grow up with. I am fortunate to have a few good supports now, but we need to make sure that other kids in similar situations get that support they need.

I conclude with this: As the saying goes, “If you give a man a fish, you have fed him for the day. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.” It is our job as Kentucky to teach these youth to fish.

We need social workers to have better benefits and supports so they will stay at their job. Each one can have a manageable case load, that way they don’t neglect the youth on their caseload.

We need stricter standards to become a foster parent, and better monitoring of homes so that less youth continue to be emotionally and physically abused in their foster homes.

We need independent living to be based off of milestones you complete, instead of some arbitrary age, so we can ensure they don’t spend those three years getting stuff handed to them. That only creates unrealistic expectations and teaches them nothing!

We need to teach the youth of Kentucky to fish!