We launched a writing contest to see what former foster youth had to say about their time in care or their experiences with the justice system. The contest gave youth the opportunity to write on one of three themes: “What does home mean to you?” “What’s one thing the child welfare or juvenile justice system could have done to help you but didn’t?” and “How has the criminal justice and/or correctional system impacted your family and you personally?” Here is the runner-up essay for the “fixing child welfare” category.
Coming from a foster youth background, I am the oldest of two and we have become statistics. About 10 percent of foster youth go to college and only 1-3 percent graduate. So few graduate not because they are incapable, but because there is a lack of necessary support, knowledge and resources. I do not want to be a lost number that does not graduate.
There are topics not discussed in the child welfare system or with foster youth such as identity, culture, foster care backgrounds and poverty that impacts our population of youth and the school to prison pipeline. This journey of mine, and that of many others before me, could have been filled with hope if someone would have told me I could go to college, get an education and be someone. The child welfare system failed to prepare me for college and crushed my hopes of being someone.
For those of us who have made it to college, it is in spite of the system, not because of it. Regardless of the lack of knowledge and resources we had in foster care, we’ve managed to create a path for ourselves within these schools. We have corrupted these institutions with our presence and rich culture. We have gone through poverty and risen, with not just homes but communities. We have gone through foster care and survived to make sure other youth don’t experience the lack of hope. We were thrown in prison at a young age, but our voices were never silenced, for we decided to rise up and be more than what they expect from us.
The child welfare system could have helped my social worker and the rest of my support system to see college as an option and to see more in me than just another foster youth. The system needs to support youth in their education and provide them with resources if they decide to pursue higher education, but there needs to be a motivational conversation around the importance of a college degree first.
As I am sitting here, a junior in college reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire in my first-ever ethnic studies course, I have a lot to think about. I don’t just think about how foster youth have been oppressed, but I think critically about how we were manipulated to think that oppression was obedience. We were told over and over again that we knew nothing and we had nothing — no culture, no language, no Mexican holidays, no teacher-parent conferences, no prior knowledge of who we are or where we come from. As I was moved from placement to placement, I was also moved school to school, and every school had new ways of telling that I am an empty vessel and I must be filled with knowledge that I supposedly do not already have from my experiences. There was no emphasis on the importance of me staying in school. My social worker didn’t acknowledge that I was slow in math because she always pulled me out of that class to talk about where I would be moving to next. This left me hating school, teachers and students.
Until I was able to take all these negative experiences, combine them with literature and learn that all great writers have experiences that shape what they write about, I couldn’t see that I am one of those writers and I deserve to go to college. I had to start by expressing to my social worker that I deserved to finish my senior year at the same school I had been at for three years. She denied me that, and at that moment, I had to figure out on my own how to get through school in a new environment and how to get to college with nothing but a few dollars, the clothes on my back and a dream.
The child welfare system lacked the information, resources and support I needed to get through school and into college. Everything was difficult without support, and I had to learn to advocate for myself. From wanting out of remedial courses to be in AP courses instead, to figuring out what financial aid was and even trying to learn what my Social Security number was, I had to turn to teachers I trusted and other foster youth who had successfully made it out.
I started to believe I was worth something, that I was more than my circumstances, but I was continually reminded that I was a foster youth who wouldn’t succeed academically or in life. I was told I was too outspoken or too emotional, but every time I faced the child welfare system, my tree grew taller.
This is why I tattooed a tree on my back, because every time the child welfare system could have helped my family and I but didn’t, it made me grow a root or a leaf I didn’t have before. My tree represents what I needed and who I’ve become because of my experiences in foster care. It symbolizes knowledge, resilience, culture and every teacher or educator who has either put me down for being a foster youth or has supported me to accept my identity. Just how a tree changes colors for different seasons and loses leaves, that was my foster care experience in school. Moving to different schools and homes and meeting new teachers and foster parents were constant transitions.
If it wasn’t for my high school teacher who not only told my story, but supported me through life changing moments and decisions, I would not be where I am today. When I say writing saved my life, literally writing alongside my 9th grade English teacher saved my life. She did what the child welfare system failed to do, which was acknowledge my culture and what I lacked in my identity in foster care. This is not a separate issue: It goes hand in hand with education. Why would I want to continue my education when I am not learning about my culture, ethnicity, people or even other foster youth who are successful? How was I supposed to have hope in foster care when no one I knew had left care and become successful? My English teacher realized that many of the students in her class were Latino/foster youth, so she tailored the English curriculum to our needs and wants. I was reading about Paulo Friere and bell hooks in her class; she understood that without seeing people like us in our literature or lives, we wouldn’t be motivated to engage, learn or continue our education. She also understood that multiculturalism was important so that we understand that there isn’t a master narrative that gets to determine whose past and present is more important.
It is important to tell the stories of foster youth within the child welfare system so that the youth still in care know that there is a better tomorrow and they have a voice with a powerful story. There also has to be more talk and information being shared amongst welfare workers about college and academic success and its importance for these youth. I have been able to embrace my identity and succeed in school because of teachers who told similar stories or writers who let me ground myself in their work so that I can stand confidently and proud in being a Latina foster youth. The child welfare system could have been a part of my story in a different light and they could have supported me, but they chose not to. I thank the system for pushing me to be who I am today: resilient, outspoken, emotional and headstrong. Now I can advocate for these youth and one day change policy to incorporate education as a significant aspect of foster care. We were meant to live for so much more!
Monique Guerra is an undergraduate at the University of California-Riverside, pursuing a degree in Spanish and education. As a former foster youth, she dedicates her time to her siblings who remain in foster care and advocates for foster youth by being a part of Youth To Power and the California Youth Connection, organizations rooted in advocating for foster youth everywhere. She is also a research assistant for Dr. Louie Rodriguez at UCR’s Graduate School of Education focusing on student achievement. Her hobbies are muay thai, soccer and hiking, and her future aspirations include teaching K-12 and one day becoming the U.S. Secretary of Education.
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