There Is No Expiration Date on My Foster Care Experience

I was recently having a conversation with a friend who also grew up in foster care. Now that we are older, we feel our voices and stories are no longer “useful” to the foster care support community. It’s as if our foster care experience had an expiration date.

We searched and searched for ways to describe this feeling, and it might be indescribable. The following is my attempt to grapple with the pervasive issue that continues to perpetuate a narrative that does not serve the foster youth, rather certain organizations.

The experience of being in foster care is one that persists. It has altered my orientation toward old and new relationships and is beautifully unique to me. Sade Daniels beautifully penned in her blog–“Success Story: A Loaded Term for Former Foster Youth”–that she still deals with her past trauma. In many ways, I deal with the same issues.

There is no expiration date on the emotional trauma associated with the day I was told my sister committed suicide while she was a “ward of the court.” There is no expiration date on the sleepless nights I suffered as a child due to the separation anxiety I felt because of the possibility of being separated from my father and other siblings.

I only manage all of this—the issues I face are in many ways irreconcilable. Some days are better than others. Some days I need to call on my village mothers to get me through.

What has changed is my maturity. Time has blessed me with more experience in dealing with these issues. It doesn’t make them easier, but I do have more experience.

I feel that in many spaces, the foster care support community conveniently employs the label foster “youth” because having a discussion with a youth versus an adult is very different. A youth is thought to be impressionable, and they more often deploy narratives that fit into the agenda of the nonprofit industrial complex.

When I was an undergraduate, I was willing to speak at almost any event offered. I found the work to be meaningful. It gave me a sense of purpose, and while it could be emotionally draining, it still felt like I was making change. I was told once that if you do not tell your story then someone else will. To tell my story is to honor my ancestors, to show gratitude to my mentors who empowered me into the position I am in.

It is my story to tell. Even if my story makes you feel uncomfortable, that discomfort is for a moment. However, my story makes up my past, present, and future.

I am now pursuing a Ph.D., and I have been able to acquire a unique skill set that gives me the agency to challenge the status quo, but it shouldn’t be this way. My graduate degree is only an institutional accolade. My experiences should give me authority and credibility in the way I retell them, not a Ph.D.

Foster youth are the experts of their story, and they should not be mediated by other agendas or some arbitrary temporality that says foster experiences “expire.”

Speaking our truth is empowering, yet emotionally tiring, but to place a expiration date is to undermine my experiences. There is no expiration date on my suffering, on my lack of family, or on the anxiety I sometimes feel around not being loved. My foster care experience is not milk—something to use or discard by a certain date. It is my life, and I am still here. Therefore, my foster care experience is still very much relevant, and so am I.

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Kenyon Lee Whitman
About Kenyon Lee Whitman 2 Articles
Kenyon Lee Whitman is currently Program Director of the Office of Foster Youth Support Services at the University of California, Riverside, where he oversees the Guardian Scholars Program. A foster care alumni, Whitman graduated from Fresno State and is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of San Diego where he researches the college-going experiences of foster youth. In his spare time, he enjoys salsa dancing, spoken word poetry, and a good Netflix binge.

12 Comments

  1. Kenyon, I feel many of the same sentiments. I am a former foster youth who has found solace in my intellect and come to the conclusion that school was the only thing to meet my basic needs growing up. I, too, am getting my PhD, and my work is about how women who are now mothers who have aged out of foster care embody state violence and intergenerational trauma. Through performance I seek to re-envision kinship and explore the affective residues of the child welfare system, all the while exploring sites of resistance and pleasure that we create. I would love to hear more about your work and your experience in higher ed and otherwise. Please feel free to email me at Lizbettb@gmail.com

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. I am not foster care alumni, but a foster parent and mentor to many who have aged out of the system from our home. I think, and this is only my opinion, but feeling that you have an expiration date is part of child welfare’s big “issue”. There is such a shortage of people to work the system, that if you are doing well or well enough, then you will be ignored. If you have aged out the system quietly, you are quickly forgotten. Unless your head is on fire, you or your needs will not get the attention you deserve. I have the unique experience working for our state’s organization that supports foster/adoptive and kinship parents. I also work with our state’s organization that supports the biological family. We look at our youth who are or have been in custody, as our bosses. We involve them as much of our problem solving, curriculum building process as they are willing. However, this article has given me a deeper perspective to reach farther into the foster alumni group. Again, it was good to read and hear what foster alumni are feeling and I know it just the tip of the iceberg. Thank you for the enlightenment –

  3. I am a decade ahead of you and hit the same conclusions. You sound less bitter than me. Kudos to you for that!

  4. Bravo! I agree with you and how can we (the collective alumni of Foster Care) have our voices be heard in order to help the generations of foster youth behind us? So often, we are smarter, wiser, and better able to articulate our experiences and impact on our lives as adults but only after years of rebuilding. We are the voices that can help todays foster youth advocate for themselves because we know how to give them words. How powerful would we be as a united group of people mentoring and supporting fosters today and helping them to find their voice, their rights, and the unconditional love they deserve.

  5. There are so many organizations focused on raising the voice of young adults from care. But at Foster Care Alumni of America, you are welcome to join our community for life. Fostercarealumni.org

  6. This was so good for me to read today. Sometimes I feel like I coped better in my 20s when I had more financial crisis and the stress of being a young mother because I never had time to dwell on my past except for the fact that I was considered a ‘success story’. I too was called upon often before I was 30 because I suppose I was relevant. I think I feel the loss of my distant father, mourning the loss of my childhood while watching my children grow up, and a re-imagined relationship with my mother more now after becoming educated, going through a divorce and dealing with children in their teen years. This has given me so much to think on! Thank you for your perspective and for sharing a piece of you.

  7. Our organization serves youth and young adults currently in or emerging from the foster care system, and we sometimes hear from adult donors who spent time in foster care and express similar sentiments about the way their experience is always with them. I think the donors I have in mind will greatly appreciate seeing the adult experience represented here. Thank you for continuing to advocate and educate.

  8. This is true and powerful! I believe us older youth are intimidating because we not only have the foster care experience but we also have wisdom and the understanding of the very long term effects our foster care experience have had on us… Many of us are multi-generational former foster youth, which is one of the many things I believe we don’t fully understand until much later.

  9. Absolutely positively perfect. First, you’re probably one of the best writers I know. Off top. 2nd, you’ve conveyed a message so overlooked yet crucial to the experience of many who’ve endured care. There’s this prevailing belief that time invalidates experience and messages. I’m thankful for this because our life is very real, no matter who believes it isn’t. And it’s about time someone was bold enough to tell it to the masses. About damn time.

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