A youth leader shares her journey through out-of-home care and encourages advocates to speak up for the voiceless, including those in foster care.

By Tessa, a member of the First Lady’s Youth Leadership Council through the Homeward Bound Shelter in Covington, KY

Youth advocacy is really important to me because I never really had a say in what happened to me when I was removed from my mom’s house. I was removed from the house because of my mother’s alcoholism. Like a lot of kids who have been put into that position, I fought it. I didn’t see any problem with what my mother was doing. I lied to myself. Although, I labeled my life as normal, I knew better than to talk about it, so on some level, I was always lying to myself. No, it wasn’t normal for someone to go through an entire twelve pack by themselves in one night. No, it wasn’t normal to tuck your mother into bed at night. But still, I was normal. I had friends. I went outside. I was happy.

Given the choice back then, I would have stayed. Given the choice now, I would ask for family counseling, because not enough effort was put into preserving my family. I still believe that my life could have been very different if the effort to keep my family together had been made. When I left my Mom’s, I went to go stay with my Dad, who was living with his parents. My parents have been split up since I was two and my dad has always been very in and out of my life. I was not thrilled about being left in the care of my grandparents while my Dad travelled for work. I never gave up hope on going back to my Mom’s while I was living there.

I was in the middle of my last year of middle school when I went to live there, so making friends wasn’t easy for me. I retreated into myself and made a habit of reading books and playing on Facebook after school every day. It was tense between my older sister and I. The reason that we eventually left my grandparent’s house was because of me. It wasn’t just my grandparents and my sister that lived in the house. The doors were open to anyone who needed a place to stay. A lot of my family stayed in the house with us. My uncle was one of many, but what singled him out from the rest is that he tried to molest me. I lived in the house for a week with him before I finally broke down and told our neighbor, who called the police. The most awful thing was that there were people who didn’t believe me; didn’t want to believe me. My fierce devotion to my mother was thrown back in my face. They said that I was making it up, so that I could go home.

Nonetheless, my uncle had to leave the house immediately and my fate was thrown to the winds again as they decided what to do with me, again. Thankfully my Mom’s sister stepped in and agreed to take custody of us. I still got to see my mom while we lived with my aunt and that made me happy. It was amazing the change that took place when I lived with my aunt. I was taught better manners and habits. We were a family that sat down to dinner every night and did things together. I began to understand that this was what “normal” was really like. My sister and I even began to mend our broken relationship.

I lived with my aunt for around two and a half years. I started high school and had a good year, but also discovered my aunt’s temper. While rare, it was quite volatile and sometimes manifested itself physically. The three of us decided to move to my maternal grandma’s house to help her with her farm at the end of my freshman year. I enrolled at a different high school but in the same community as the middle school that I attended while living with my paternal grandparents. I recognized some people and made friends much more easily. I even joined ROTC for the first time.

I was doing well at school and enjoying the high school experience, but things at home were growing rockier. Tensions were high between my aunt and my grandmother and I even had to break up a physical fight. The anger that my sister and I noticed blossomed and grew into angry fists and hateful words that turned against us. Being at home became unbearable and my sister and I escaped to the 60 acres of land that my grandma owned. Eventually the decision was made to move again and I had to say goodbye to my friends, although I still stay in contact with a few of them.

I enrolled at my third high school. We were in a brand-new house and at a brand-new school and I was happy, I thought. But I wasn’t. Not really. I was depressed and drowning without realizing it. My aunt’s anger mostly manifested in a way that wasn’t easily detectable. My emotions and thoughts were manipulated and turned against me until I felt useless, disgusting, worthless. I started taking my feelings of dejection out on myself. And the scary thing was that I couldn’t snap myself out of it. I was failing miserably at my school work and I couldn’t bring myself to care. My aunt noticed that my sister and I were both struggling. We were grounded and given a month to get our grades up. It didn’t happen, so our grounding became more severe.

My depression grew worse and my aunt threatened us with sending us to foster care. We sought help from the school long before she could send us away. We didn’t want to be painted as awful kids without our side being shared, and we wanted OUT. We were in the house for two weeks with inhumane treatment before we were finally allowed to leave because the situation had become violent. It shouldn’t have to come to violence for a child to be removed from an abusive situation. No child should ever have to be afraid to go home, fearing for their safety.

We had nowhere else to go, so we came to the shelter and finished out the school year there. My sister graduated and moved out of the shelter. I’ve been living there for over a year and I’m staying until I finish my senior year at my fourth high school.

Since coming to the shelter I’ve heard stories that make my skin crawl. I’ve held someone as they cried because they had to go BACK to a situation like mine. I’ve comforted kids who found out that their sibling was being abused at their foster home and nothing was done about it. I’ve heard of physically abused kids, kids who were raped, kids who tried to kill themselves, kids who turned to drugs, kids who were ripped away from their families and sent HOURS away in order to find a foster home to accommodate them. You name it, I’ve seen it.

There are some truly awful things that happen to kids in Kentucky every day, and their stories aren’t told, but no more. Things have to change. That is the reason why, despite how terrified I feel, I can tell my story. I never want to have to hear one of these stories again. I never had input in what happened to me and my story is a copy of many. We get tossed around, ignored by overloaded, underpaid caseworkers, scrambling to find a place to put us.

Kids deserve to be heard. WE ARE PEOPLE and we have a voice. I am the future and so are YOU. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your past is, or if you have a story. Anyone can make a stand for Kentucky’s invisible children. We are the voice of the voiceless; the underdogs. They need someone to speak when they can’t.

I will stand and be their voice. Will you?