Surviving a Childhood in Foster Care: Melanie's Story, Part 2
If you didn't read Part 1 of Melanie's story yet, click here. Melanie is a former foster child (and current badass) who generously shared some of her experiences with me in the hopes of educating foster and adoptive parents (and EVERYONE who cares about child welfare) on what it's like for children to grow up in the system.
Did you stay in one home, or did you have to endure moving homes? If you had to move, do you know the reasons behind the move(s)? How did you feel about having to start over again?
The first time, we moved three times in about four and a half years. I don’t know why we moved from the first home but I suspect that it was an emergency placement and wasn’t intended to be long-term, only to keep us out of the children’s shelter while they found a long-term home.
I loved the second home we were in, as they had lots of kids to play with! They had two older daughters and an older son (teenagers or possibly adults), a foster daughter my age and her brother that was my little brother’s age, and eventually took in their younger sister who was just a baby.
When we moved from their home, it was to be placed in a foster-to-adopt home, but we were reunited with our mom about a year later. I don’t know exactly what led to the change of heart in the judge - from adoption to reunification, I mean - but I’m sure that there were mixed feelings for me and my brother.
I moved around a ton during my second time in care, which also meant that I moved schools with almost every placement change, too. Most of these moves were a result of my own (sometimes understandable) behavior. I was a very angry and traumatized teenager - and I hated being controlled, as many teens do, but even more so because I was being controlled by strangers.
This frustration eventually turned into a habit of “running away from home” on a regular basis, foster parents eventually tiring of this behavior, and being moved again. I wouldn’t be able to tell you just how many times I had run away, but for context: I attended one middle school for three days before moving and I moved high schools sixteen times in the 3.5 years until I graduated (even attending one school two separate times).
For more insight into teens running away and the approach to take with that, check out this post. Melanie notes above that her behavior was “sometimes understandable”. I would argue it was completely understandable. So many transitions, and foster parents who sound like they had a low level of commitment to her and were not willing to work through her trauma symptoms with her for the long haul? It’s no wonder she was acting out. Any teenager put in such awful circumstances would feel the same.
As I got older, I settled down more and I credit much of that to my amazing social worker. She helped me to move into a foster home when I was sixteen, with a woman that had worked in one of my group homes and that I had intense respect for, and that made all the difference for me. I stayed with her for over a year before transitioning to a group home around the corner from her home for my last six months in foster care. To this day, I’m still close with that social worker and foster mom, and I can’t begin to imagine where I would’ve ended up without the two of them.
Weirdly, I mostly liked moving around so much. It gave me a sense of control over my life and it helped me to become an extremely sociable, resilient adult and I’m extremely adaptable to changing environments. Since aging out of foster care, I’ve moved to three different states and have always had a streak of “wanderlust,” it seems.
I feel like sometimes foster parents have a hard time understanding that kids want to be with their parents even when the parent is struggling or unsafe. Is that how you felt when separated from your parents?
As a teenager, this is a resounding yes! I knew that my mom was struggling and wasn’t in a place to parent, but I felt so chafed by the rules imposed on me from strangers that I was more than willing to return to my mom's care, just to get away from them all. I think I also knew that living with my mom would have likely afforded me the freedom that I so desperately craved, because of the same things that would have made her a less-than-stellar parent. My mom was more of a friend, than a parent, by that point in my life.
Do you feel like your foster parents supported your relationship with your family? Why or why not?
I didn’t really have any homes that were on either side of the spectrum, in terms of supporting or not supporting my relationship with my family. I definitely had a few that didn’t seem to understand the sense of responsibility that I felt for my siblings, but I never had anyone try to keep me from seeing my family either.
Even as an adult, I am in close contact with the family that almost adopted me when I was eight and they have always been very neutral, whether my decision was to cut off family members or facilitate a relationship with them. They’ve never pushed me in any direction, have always been supportive of my decision, and have listened to me vent about whatever family drama was currently happening.
I’m not particularly close with most of my family, at the moment, but I am in contact with my mother and my three younger siblings (besides my sister, we are all over 18, which makes it much easier).
That part about her still being in touch with a family that fostered her way back in early childhood: what a gift. This is our family’s goal as well: to be a lifelong support system to any child that comes into our home.
If you had ended up needing an adoptive home, what type of family would have been a good fit for you?
I actually deliberately chose not to be adopted, although I laugh now because I can’t imagine that anyone who spent more than ten minutes with me back then would’ve jumped at the chance to adopt teenage Melanie.
I always told people that I preferred being placed in group homes over foster homes. I disliked the “family” dynamic and ever-changing rules that came with foster homes. Group homes had everything laid out for you when you arrived - what was expected, what the rules were, and what the punishments were. I liked being able to see what the punishments were and determine whether or not breaking a rule was “worth it” to me.
Personally, I don’t think I was ever a good candidate for adoption in my teenage years and I don’t think there really was a “good fit” but the last foster home that I was in was about as close as I could’ve gotten. My foster mom was amazing and never pushed the family dynamic on me. She had three grown children and exclusively fostered teenage girls, especially hard-to-place ones. She was stern but kind, knew my background and what I had struggled with, and gave me the freedom that I craved without letting me run wild.
Her insight into why some teens prefer group homes was so interesting to me. We have a very similar discipline plan in our home for our teen son (rules and consequences very consistent and agreed upon ahead of time, as much freedom as possible, limits placed for his safety and not out of us wanting to control him) and I do think it helps him.
Hundreds of children who are older, have disabilities, or for whatever reason are considered "hard to place" are waiting in foster care for adoptive homes. As someone who was in foster care, how do you think it feels for them to wait for a family that might never come?
Oh man, I was the absolute definition of a “hard to place” foster kid the second time around! Before the children’s shelter was turned into a “receiving center” - basically, kids cannot be left there for longer than 23 hours and 59 minutes - I actually spent six weeks in that shelter. It got to the point where I would return and all the staff knew by name. They would just sit me down when I came back in and be like, “Okay Melanie, what happened this time?”
It’s hard to really explain what it feels like to be shuffled from one ill-fitting home to another for years on end. It’s like shopping, where you’re trying on one item after another. Sometimes you try on a pair of pants, thinking that maybe this one is okay and then you try to walk and it’s too tight around your hips or chafes at the waist. So you try on another and another, hoping to find a comfortable pair. Once you find that good fit, you won’t buy anything but that brand and size, right? Group homes were my “good fit” pants. Not perfect but comfortable for me.
Sometimes you grow into a “good fit” and it feels perfect, sometimes you grow out of a “good fit” and it just doesn’t work for you anymore, and sometimes an uncomfortable pair feels better once they’re broken in or washed a few times. For me, I often fell into the second category where a good fit eventually didn’t fit right anymore. Like everything else in life, there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy or placement.
It can feel really hopeless in the moment and the outcomes for long-term foster kids are honestly pretty bleak. Even one “good fit“ home or one steady adult presence can be a make-or-break difference for a foster kid - it certainly did for me.
I definitely gave my social worker (and probably my last foster mom) some gray hairs with my antics, but their consistent presence in my late teens and early adulthood was likely what kept me afloat through those times.
Melanie’s concluding message really resonated with me. Sometimes, especially when fostering or adopting older kids or teens, we don’t see the fruit of our efforts for a long while. I’m sure the mentors and dedicated foster parents Melanie had must have felt defeated at times: there was no eventual adoption story or successful reunification triumph, no satisfying conclusion, no cute letter board post about her leaving foster care forever.
But those people met her where she was at, and their efforts did make a profound difference in her life. Melanie is now a strong, successful working professional woman who takes no shit. And even though she was never adopted, I know there are many past caregivers out there who poured their love and support into her that are very, very proud of their daughter.
Thanks you so much Melanie, for letting me peek into your life a little bit.
You can keep up with Melanie on instagram
If her story made you think again about the possibility of opening your home to a teenage girl in foster care, please consider it. There are so many girls going through what Melanie went through who really, REALLY need someone to step up and say: "No more moves, no more uncertainty, no more goodbyes. We're here for you, now and for the rest of your life."
Like sweet Zyair, who loves Dove chocolate (me too girl!), Chinese food, and crafting. You can view a video all about her here.