After Spending the Most Precious Years of My Life as a Foster Child, I Am Now Changing the System

Surrounded by the effects of poverty in the heart of East Oakland, Calif., I arrived in 1989 as the fourth of my mother’s eight children. We lived without access to the resources critical for survival due to my father’s incarceration in a Louisiana state prison, where he has been serving a life sentence for the past 25 years.

My mother struggled to take care of us. We were a large family with many different needs; she desperately tried to cope and adapt. By the time I reached the age of six, my mother’s battle with her crack cocaine addiction completely dissolved her abilities to parent as she disappeared for a whole week, which led to a missing person report being filed.

With an intervention from Social Services, my siblings and I were quickly removed from our household of neglect. My mother’s failure to return home gave us the realization that we’d been abandoned.

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Joymara Coleman (Photo: Joymara Coleman)

Displaced from home and separated from all of my family since the age of six, I’ve seen first-hand the flaws within the system and the burdens that are placed on family relationships. I’ve also witnessed the attempts that the system has made to ensure the possibility of reunification between my mother and all of my siblings through efforts such as providing informal family maintenance support, but unfortunately, the hope of reunification never came to fruition.

During my time in foster care, I lived in more than ten placements, with the longest stay in a home lasting just three years. I experienced always being the new kid in school, the new kid in the neighborhood, as well as in the group home. The frequent relocations led me to believe that the system was comprised of unstable adults – hiding behind titles granted to them by the state – who were pretending to be compassionate caregivers.

I grew to believe I’d never have permanency, I wouldn’t be successful and I’d never belong to anything that felt healthy. Unfortunately, all of these feelings caused by dysfunctional circumstances impacted my academic performance.

Eventually, I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. Having decided I would get a GED instead of going through the motions of failing classes each semester due to high amounts of stress, I internalized negative thoughts that I had become a statistic.

Since I’d lived the most precious years of my life as a “foster child” in Alameda County, I felt confused, angry and worried  that my life would continuously be this uphill battle in the dark. Even though I had a social worker and a therapist supporting me at this point in my journey, the trauma that I experienced felt like too much to unpack and work through.  I was the only one who mistakenly believed that I couldn’t live up to the ambiguous standard of “resiliency” that clinicians often spoke fanatically about in meetings.

After years of doubting myself, I eventually realized that I deserved better than what life had given me thus far. I decided to no longer allow strangers who were being paid to “manage” me be the determining factor for where I ended up. The pursuit to improve my own circumstances  led me to advocate for change within the child welfare system.

Determined to turn things around, I set out to utilize every resource I could gain access to.

After I turned 18, I obtained a GED, and soon after, aged out of foster care. Back in 2008, the only support that existed in Alameda County for housing  most suitable for my needs, post-emancipation, were the 24-month transitional housing programs, also referred to as THP-Plus housing. Once the 24 months concluded, I found myself homeless, living in a shelter for both men and women in East Oakland.

After coming to the realization that working retail in stores like Victoria’s Secret and Kohl’s wouldn’t exactly be my ticket out of poverty, I enrolled in community college.

Through word-of-mouth, I learned of a paid opportunity that would allow me to share my story with adults working in social services. I really wanted my voice to be heard, and the Alameda County Youth Adult Partnership (now the Alameda County Youth Advocate Program, or YAP) provided me with a platform to  share my voice.

YAP originally formed as an advisory board to the Alameda County Children and Family Services Agency, then later hired youth, such as myself, as full-time independent contractors to give feedback on services and practices that were most beneficial for foster youth. My induction into YAP became the pivotal moment that catapulted my ability to advocate for my own needs and it allowed me to see myself as a social change agent for current foster youth in my community who were struggling with similar issues.

The most valuable aspect of my experience working with YAP was being involved in the Team Decision Making meetings (TDM’s). Having direct contact with youth who were  in care gave me a chance to  support them in making decisions about their own lives, particularly their placements.

The YAP experience inspired me to want more access to macro-level change and micro-level interventions for children and families impacted by the system. This work also led me to pursue a career in social welfare, and I am currently an MSW student at the University of California, Berkeley.

In my spare time I work as a policy consultant for the National Center for Youth Law on issues in child welfare that involve the use of psychotropic medication. I also support the Alameda County CASA program through speaking engagements in order to recruit more adults to work with our young people needing support through their transition into adulthood.

As a founding member of Youth in Mind, a California-based nonprofit organization founded and steered by youth affected by the mental health system, I get the opportunity to sit on panels and discuss the issues that exist within mental health systems and strategies to support young people coping with depression and anxiety. I advocate for the best interests of foster youth throughout California by sharing my story in the hopes that it will help to shed light on the failures of the child welfare system.

In doing this work, I believe that other foster youth can harness their own power to positively impact their own lives. Seeing how much power is granted to child welfare workers, I believe it is imperative that individuals with lived experiences have a seat at the decision-making table, especially African-American youth who are disproportionately represented in the foster care system.

Ultimately, I’ve used the obstacles faced throughout my life as stepping stones to forge my own path and create a reality that I feel most proud of.

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Joymara Coleman
About Joymara Coleman 1 Article
Joymara Coleman is an Oakland, California native, an experienced foster youth advocate, a founding member of Youth In Mind, a National Center for Youth Law consultant, an Alameda County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Ambassador, an Essie Justice Group member and the recipient of the 2015 Advocate of the Year award from the California Mental Health Advocates for Children and Youth (CMHACY). Joymara is compelled to work against mental health stigma and to healing the African American community by working to inform mental health provider policies and practices.

3 Comments

  1. I’m so proud of you! You are going to be a big part of implementing changes that make the lives of foster children better. I feel it!

  2. This is such a great story of not just surviving but in turning things around and working to improve a system in much need of change. Thank you for what you’re doing with the experiences you’ve had in your life. #SocialChangeChampion

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