A Keychain, a Box of Chocolates, and a Certificate of Emancipation

Emancipation Day. Also known as the worst day of my young adult life.

Although I wasn’t prepared to actually leave foster care, I had anticipated this day ever since I entered, nine years earlier. In fact, months prior, I had actually started to pack up and attempted to make plans for the day.

But those plans were useless when January 1, 2009 arrived. I still remember that cold, long day. I was scared and worrying the night before. I couldn’t sleep. I was the 21-year-old mom of an almost-2-year-old boy, wondering where we’d go and what would come next for us. No one had answers for us.

After our foster parent made us leave, I didn’t know where to go. I started scrolling through my phone’s call log with hopes of finding someone to call to give us a place to go, even for a few days. I couldn’t allow us to be set out like garbage awaiting the trash truck. Of all the people I knew, I only had one person – my son’s paternal grandmother – even willing to let us into their home. It was a very temporary placement for us, but we were grateful.

We stayed for several weeks, until her husband got drunk and tried to rape me. Then we left.

We left even though we had nowhere else to go. Some days, we spent on the street. Others – when I could borrow money – we slept at random motels. This was not the life I wanted my son to live. But it was the life we were living.

Ikea Lanham and her four children. Photo courtesy of Lanham

Nothing prepared me for this. Nor did I have anyone to turn to for help. I did get one call from my last caseworker, after not hearing from anyone at the agency in weeks, who told me the agency had an “emancipation gift” for me. It was a certificate of emancipation (as if this was an accomplishment I wanted to be reminded of), a check for $500 (which came in handy), some chocolates and a key chain – a key chain for someone with no car or home.

Boy, no one told me how hard it would be after leaving the system. I had no support, no resources, and no one to call. I had been a dependent of the foster care system for so long that I never knew what “real life” would entail.

I turned to the only place I knew, the “system.” I reached out to my former caseworkers and begged for resources, some type of help – anything. Nothing. I went to family resource centers, churches, food pantries – anywhere I could think of. But no one helped me. My son and I had become homeless and it was the most humiliating thing I had ever experienced.

During our time living on the street, one day I stumbled upon the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center. I hadn’t heard of this place. I wanted to know more. I needed help. I was desperate.

So I went inside with my son and the few bags we dragged across the city. I signed in and waited to be seen. After waiting several hours, I was greeted by a caseworker and taken to her cubicle. She asked so many questions about my whole life before she let me down by saying, “We have no place to put you – our shelters are over capacity.” The news devastated me. What was I supposed to do now? Why had she bothered to ask me so many questions if she couldn’t help?

I decided to sit there and do nothing. I didn’t move. I stayed all day and begged her to help us. And then luck struck me. The director of the agency came out and said she could place me and my son at a motel for 30 days. I thought, was it God? Was it my consistency and courage? Was it because I sat there all day and night and they were able to see that I truly needed help?

I’m not sure, but I had been helped. Even if it was for only 30 days, I had been helped.

My story doesn’t get better from there. Sure I had some good days. But most were bad. I was young, alone and had no support going forward. I was kicked out of the system to fend for myself. It didn’t go well.

How does one fend for herself when all she’s ever known was the system? While the system was far from perfect, at least it gave me a place to sleep at night, a lawyer to call when I needed something and a judge to order things to happen. I knew no matter what, I’d have someone to call and talk to. I had gotten used to having that support. I was OK with it. It was comfortable.

But once I emancipated, I was all alone.

Ikea Lanham, now a 31-year-old mother of four, aged out of foster care in Washington, D.C.

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