Languishing in Residential Care Made Me Worse. Unconditional Love Helped Get Me Better.

Whitney Gilliard spent years in residential treatment after fleeing abuse before finally being matched with foster parents. Photo courtesy of Whitney Gilliard

People talk a lot about how important it is that every foster kid grows up in a loving home. While well intentioned, most of them are approaching that idea from an abstract understanding. They have never known a loving foster home, and they certainly have not experienced the alternative.

I learned the hard way how important this concept really is. I entered foster care in Washington, D.C., at 14, and I spent the first two years in residential treatment facilities — hospital-like settings where I was seen as a sick patient rather than a child in need of protection and love.

If it wasn’t for two extraordinary foster families I spent time with afterward, those years would have broken me. You really can become a product of your environment, after all. Today I can proudly say that I am not a product of foster care, I’m a product of what happens when somebody loves me.

Before I first became involved with the foster care system, I had been sexually abused since the age of 5 by a family friend who rented a room from my grandparents, with whom I lived. My mom wasn’t in the picture, and although my dad worked hard to make ends meet, he simply couldn’t afford to raise me.

This man would lure me down to his room each day after school and keep me there for hours at a time. No one ever came to check on me.

When I was 14, I finally found the strength to break free. But unfortunately, I ran straight into the arms of another predator. I’d met this man on Facebook. He was 10 years older than me, but he wooed me and convinced me to run away with him. He said he loved me, and made me feel wanted. When the police found me, we were both arrested.

This turn of events led to my being incarcerated and institutionalized for the next three years. First, I was sent to juvenile detention for running away from home. At that point, I was so traumatized that I wouldn’t eat, and the guards put me on suicide watch.

After a few months in juvenile detention, I entered the foster care system and was placed into a series of residential treatment facilities. I know the system was trying to help me, but keeping me in these facilities for years, due in part to a lack of suitable foster homes available, ingrained a patient mentality.

Instead of “Making a Murderer,” like that Netflix show, it was like “Making a Mental Patient.” That experience took a very capable person and stripped everything away from me. I was put on numerous medications, and when I told the doctors that they didn’t make me feel good and I didn’t want to take them, I was put on 72-hour room confinement.

For a very long time, I felt like everything was my fault. I felt like I had no voice in what happened to me, which, as a sexual abuse survivor, was a terrible way to be introduced to the foster care system.

When I was 15 or 16, I finally got placed in my first foster home. My first foster mom was amazing. I was sure it wouldn’t last and that I’d wind up back in treatment or in a group home, but she refused to give up.

My foster mom was there for me when I had my episodes; she tried really hard to hold me when I was crying. She tried to help me make sense of the things that had happened to me. She did the best she could to protect me. She fought to get me in-home services so I wouldn’t have to go back to an institution for treatment.

But then my bad luck came back: My foster mom was diagnosed with cancer. I remember thinking, “Things just got good, you’re not leaving me, this can’t happen.” Even though I shouldn’t have been upset with her, I got very angry. I was furious that this was happening to the first person in my life I could rely on.

I didn’t know how to react so I started rebelling. Eventually, my foster mom got too sick and couldn’t handle all of the trouble I was bringing to the home, so I ended up going back into a residential facility.

Whitney speaks about foster care on a panel alongside Georgia’s child welfare director, Tom Rawlings at a 2018 Fostering Media Connections event in Atlanta. Photo: Fostering Media Connections

After a bit, I moved to a group home and things started getting better. It felt a little like a sorority home, living with all these girls, going to the same school. My social worker kept looking for a family, and asked me what I would want in a new foster family and what race or religion I’d be most comfortable with. I told her that I just wanted a family.

Then I met Bill and Rosemary, my second set of foster parents. Even though I’d scoffed at my social worker’s questions about race, I will say I was a little nervous to move in with a white family. Entering the system in the first place had been a culture shock after growing up in a Chinese home. But they tried hard to make me comfortable. My first night with them, my new foster parents took me out for Sichuan food. At first I was like, “Um, that’s not really how cultural sensitivity works,” but then I found out it was Bill’s favorite thing to eat, and we ended up bonding over food.

It was a little hard to get used to living with a man, too. This was the first time I’d done so since leaving the home where I was abused, so it was hard to trust Bill at first. But these people became more permanent than I’d ever expected them to be. Bill and Rosemary taught me unconditional love, something I’d never really felt before.

They were there for me through so much. When I moved out to go to college, they remained fixtures in my life. When I got my associate’s degree, they were there. When I got pregnant before marriage, they were there. When I was in a car accident that broke my back and legs, they were there. Bill and Rosemary never left me. When I walk out the door of work tonight, I’ll call them and ask how their day went. They’re still a big part of my life.

I don’t know how I got blessed with such good foster parents. I know that’s not the case for everyone, especially foster kids who have experienced the juvenile justice system and institutionalization. But I got lucky. My foster parents were my big break, my saving grace.

These days, I’ve decided to pay that good luck forward to make things better for other foster youth. Thousands of youth age out of foster care each year without the kind of support I had, and many of them quickly become homeless — we’re working to be a part of the solution to this problem.

A lot of people along my path never thought I’d make it to this point, but as Alan Turing said, “Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

Whitney Gilliard is a 24-year-old former foster youth living with her husband and son in Savannah, Georgia. She and her husband have recently founded Gilliard & Company, a transitional housing program for youth aging out of foster care.    

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 88 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change