Speaking Up and Speaking Out About My Time in Foster Care

From ages 13 to 18, I hated everything about the child welfare system: my social workers, my foster placements, court dates–you name it, I hated it.

I was so frustrated with the idea that the choices my parents made forced me to be “different.” I felt very embarrassed and ashamed of my “ward of the state” label, and would try my best to hide from it in all social situations.

Those feelings followed me all the way to my freshman year of college. I was so excited to be in a new setting where no one had to know about my foster youth identity, and I could finally be “normal.” The only thing that still tied me to that identity was my involvement with the Guardian Scholars Program (GSP).

Foster Youth Questival climbers on top of Mt. Shasta in June 2015. Heather Matheson is second from the right, in white.
Foster Youth Questival climbers on top of Mt. Shasta in June 2015. Heather Matheson is second from the right, in white.

I’m sure you can imagine that for someone who was striving to finally “fit in,” living with three other former foster youth girls, and being associated with a program to support former foster youth on campus wasn’t something I told any of my new friends about. With that said, I also was not in any position to avoid the love and support I was receiving from my GSP family.

The more I started to get involved with the program, the more I began to recognize that my GSP family, and all current and former foster youth, were the only people who truly understood the struggle and isolation that one can feel from the child welfare system. I also began to realize my foster youth identity didn’t need to shame me but could empower me.

With that empowerment, I learned my silence would perpetuate other youth feeling ashamed and alone in their struggle. From then on, I made it my goal to speak up and speak out about my time in care and to use my experience to help improve the system.

The truth of the matter is, the boys, girls and young adults who experience the child welfare system are the only ones who truly know what needs to be changed in order to make it better. They are the experts. We are the experts. As an expert, I now realize it is my job to share that knowledge to help make a difference.

I’m now 22 and have spent the past four and a half years of my college career sharing my experience with students, journalists and radio stations. I’ve helped Fostering Media Connections organize and build their Youth Expert Directory in addition to participating in the Foster Youth Questival as a youth climber three years in a row.

I can honestly say telling my story wasn’t always easy, and can sometimes still be difficult, but taking an active role in change is way more satisfying than watching it happen from the sidelines.

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Heather Matheson
About Heather Matheson 1 Article
Heather Matheson has worked for Fostering Media Connections, the parent organization of The Chronicle of Social Change, for nearly two years. She will graduate from San Francisco State University in the spring of 2016.

8 Comments

  1. Heather, I’m working on a project for a group to assist a foster teen in my area. My local CPS is currently vetting for someone who will likely age out. We are old, so any ideas you could offer about the best way to help would be greatly appreciated.

    So far we have come up the following: phone, allowance, computer, tutering, saving account for when they turn 18, locking suitcase. I told you we are old! What do you think would help?

  2. Thank you so much Heather for sharing your story. I believe that government money could be better spent on family preservation rather than separating families through foster care or adoption. Is that anything you’ve given much thought to?

  3. I am very proud of her, not to take anything away from her but the children that need the most help are not the ones in foster homes but the ones in group homes and six bed situations. These are not loving homes these are institutionalize children being raised to know nothing else about being institutionalized. Those are the children that really need help those are the children that don’t have an ear to talk to those are the children that are forgotten those are the children that are abused where the abusers are protected by the state. These are the children that need the most help.

  4. God bless you Heather. As a social worker for 16 years with a non-profit agency, I had the honor and pleasure of working closely with my kids. I have always told them there is no such thing as foster kids, just kids in foster care and they deserve so much more and it was my mission to help them get there. Speaking up was not something a lot of my kids wanted to do but they too realized that they could empower others with their stories and there was nothing to be ashamed of. It is not where you’re from but who you become that matters.

  5. Hi. I appreciated reading this. I am a foster mom currently and I want to hear from you about in what ways you think the system needs to be reformed. I have my own thoughts as a foster mom but I want to hear from your perspective.

    I believe that reform needs to happen but it must happen by listening to all sides who are affected by it, particularly that of children and youth who don’t seem to have much voice while in the system.

  6. Bless your heart, Heather. You are so courageous. Foster care needs reforming badly.I am glad you survived.

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