At the 14th Annual Children’s Advocacy Day rally on January 18th, Cynthia Schepers, a college student from Jefferson County and a member of the First Lady’s Youth Leadership Council, shared her story with hundreds of advocates in the Capitol Rotunda. Read her story below or watch her speech as part of the rally on our Facebook page.

Welcome to the 2018 Rally for Children’s Advocacy Day! My name is Cynthia Schepers, I am 22 years olds, a junior at UofL, a former foster youth and a member of many organizations such as The First Lady’s Youth Leadership Council, The Voices of the Commonwealth, True Up Louisville, I’ve successfully completed two consecutive years in the Fostering Success program. And I, like all of you here, am one of the many people who are proud to be an advocate for Kentucky’s kids!

At a very young age, my mother lost her life to an overdose, and 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 have some of the thoughts I have. Just two short years later, I lost my father to his battle to the cancer he got from smoking. He was unable to receive proper treatment because he was in prison for selling drugs. During this entire time I was living with my grandma 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, which is ironic because my time in foster care was just a series of me being neglected again by my many social workers, therapists and foster parents. All these people who were supposed to protect me, hurt me more than my grandma ever did. I felt so lost, and I couldn’t connect with anyone because they would always tell me how I felt, saying that I wasn’t acting out or doing bad in school, that I must not need any help or guidance. I now understand that I wasn’t a priority because they literally didn’t have time since they are given such large caseloads. They could never realistically connect to each kid when in a month they have to visit 20-30 of them, sometimes much more, and keep track of everything going on with that kid.

Because of my inability to connect with social workers and case managers, I found it very difficult to tell them when I needed something, or when something wasn’t right. When I was 16, the guy I was dating at the time connected me to these foster parents that his family were close to, and we instantly connected. They expressed interest in adopting me, but after my foster mom found out, she must have said something to the social workers that wasn’t true and they threatened to take away his foster care license if he didn’t stop talking to me. I was so confused and hurt, that I was having the one thing in life I wanted stripped away from me, and no social worker ever said a word to me about it, and I had to find out through my boyfriend. Part of me feels like if we had some stable third party in my life to chime in, or if fictive kin was effective at that time, that it could have worked out, but there wasn’t, so I missed out on a loving family.

I was in and out of homes that not only neglected me, but emotionally abused me as well, and one of these homes in particular, I lived at for an entire year and a half before they decided to move me. I was going to my case managers about it but there was nothing that they could do, and each time I talked to someone, it made the abuse that much worse because she would find out that I was trying to get out of the home. All these horrible homes I ended up bouncing around when the issue could have been resolved by helping my grandma figure out how to raise two rambunctious teens, instead of stripping us away from a loving home.

Each time I moved, my life got less and less stable, including academically. It was hard to keep track of what I was learning because each school went at a different pace, so I felt like I was learning nothing during the most crucial time in my life. I had to put forth double the effort other students did just to keep my head above water, and that is still true today now that I’m in college because I essentially missed out on 12 years of education with my grandma not making me go to school and bouncing around to all these different schools in foster care until I finally turned 18 and went into the Independent Living Program. But the neglect didn’t stop there.

It seemed that the same issue of caseloads that were too large, was an issue in this program as well, so again, I was on the back burner for all 3 of those years. 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 my mentor family through Orphan Care Alliance, who immediately took me in after hearing that I was homeless. I honestly don’t know where I would be without them, they have become the missing puzzle piece that I longed for all of these years, my real family.

The importance of family preservation, lowering social worker caseloads and making a stable education an option for every youth cannot be overlooked. Fortunately, we have people and organizations advocating each day for youth, and the issues that matter to them.

I just want to end this by saying how grateful I am for organizations like True Up, that are dedicated to helping foster youth, and for such a compassionate Governor, First Lady and legislators that have open ears, open hearts, and open minds for the youth of Kentucky, and for all the people like you, who advocate everyday to brighten the future for the kids in this state.