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 winning essay for the “fixing child welfare” category.
One percent. That’s what I was always told growing up in the system. Only 1 percent of foster kids would make it to college and graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Before given the chance, I was already destined to be a failure in life, along with the other 99 percent. Growing up with a father who is an alcoholic, a mother who is a gambler, and a sister who numbs her cancerous pain with heroine, I was always reminded that I would be exactly like them, addicted to a miserable life.
As kids, my four other siblings and I constantly watched my parents nearly kill each other. It became a normal routine of my childhood and because of it, we were in and out of foster homes. Having to rewire my brain from that “normality” has been challenging. I struggle daily to train myself to not be anything like my parents.
At the age of 16 I was permanently placed in a foster home with abusive foster parents after my mom got deported. Although my foster parents never laid a hand on me, or any of the other five girls living there, we were always psychologically battered. We were always threatened to be forced into a group home or juvenile detention where other girls would beat us if we did not do as we were told. To them, we were never seen as family, we were always seen as girls who weren’t wanted by their parents. Girls who wouldn’t be anything in life.
My foster mom confessed that we were only there because of the monthly paycheck she got. We managed to survive by eating frozen burritos and cup of noodles. Our pantry was locked after 8 p.m. At times I remember going to sleep on an empty stomach after coming home late from volleyball games or tournaments. We walked three to four miles daily to and from school, even on rainy days. We were the slaves of their children and grandchildren.
My foster mom had an additional refrigerator where she would keep good food. This refrigerator was kept locked in her room where only her grandchildren had access. I was in that home for two years and cried every single day to our high school mentor about the horrible things my foster mom did to us. About the times she would leave us at home while she went out to eat with her family. Or the times where she would give our clothing allowance to her grandchildren and ask her daughter for receipts as proof that she bought us clothes. We were scared that if we told anything to anyone, things would be worse for us. We feared her and we never really understood why.
My mentor at one point got fed up with all the tears. He reported her to a social worker, where an investigator then decided to shut down her home after discovering hidden complaints of abuse from former girls. Although my foster mom did some very bad things, I have found room in my heart to forgive her.
At the age of 19, I began to rent a room. The first place I rented was not approved for the Supervised-Independent Living Program, which is a program where the state assists you by paying for your living expenses and other living necessities. Minimum wage was $8 an hour at the time. I had no choice but to drop units at school in order to afford both housing and school expenses.
At that time, I was also disqualified from financial aid because I did not fulfill a federal requirement. It wasn’t until two years later (Fall of 2016) that I was able to get financial aid again. Until then, I relied heavily on credit cards and loans to maintain a basic living. At some point I remember surviving solely off of Ritz crackers and sour cream for a month straight. My brother called it my “college student meal plan.”At my job, I became friends with a few angels who helped me along the way by buying food for me and providing shelter for me. I moved in with a co-worker who was like a mother to me. Rent was a little more expensive, but she was sure to never let me go to bed with an empty stomach. In December of 2015 I was the victim of a car accident where my tailbone moved to the side along with a few other vertebrae that slightly popped out of place. Following my accident were the most painful six months of my life. I couldn’t move, much less work. I had to quit my job and I feared homelessness.
I soon managed to enter a transitional house. This housing was my sacred place for nearly three years. When I first moved into this home at the age of 21, my GPA was a 1.96. I have since managed to raise my GPA to a 2.98. I have also managed to make it on the dean’s list for maintaining a high semester GPA, as well as graduate from Mt. San Antonio College with an associate degree in psychology, sociology and behavioral science. I also transferred to California State University-Dominguez Hills in the Fall of 2017, where I am now projected to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in May of 2019.
There were times where I doubted myself, where I wanted to quit, especially when I couldn’t afford to pay for school, food or shelter, yet throughout those bad times, I met people along the way who wouldn’t let me quit. It is important that I continue my education and graduate because I want to show the world that I can break barriers. I’m beating the odds by becoming that “1 percent” that I was constantly told I would never be. I create my own destiny.
My biological family, such as cousins, aunts and uncles, all projected that I would become a failure. They all looked down on me, and never believed that I would come this far alone. I’m glad that I stand here, stronger than ever because of those who stood by my side when times were rough. I am accomplishing my goals to make those people proud, to thank them for having faith in me since day one. I am the first and only of five children to graduate from high school and earn an associate’s degree. I will be the only one to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Statistics said that I wouldn’t make it to this point, not only as a female, or a Latina, or the daughter of an undocumented immigrant, but also as a former foster youth. Nonetheless, I will break barriers. I will beat the odds. I will be successful. I will demonstrate to the 1-year-old I am currently adopting, that emotional well-being is the most important part of life. If you feel emotionally great, there is nothing stopping you from accomplishing your goals.
There were many things the child welfare system could have done but did not, such as support the psychological well-being of the kids going through these traumatic events. Many times, social workers do not refer children to proper therapy until it’s too late. In my foster home, I met so many teenage girls who were sexually and physically abused but did not receive any therapy, some of whom are now drug addicts, or going through emotional hardships. If peer groups were created at the time, I could have met other people who were going through similar situations, and maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone. I wouldn’t have fallen into depression as bad I did. If a social worker, foster mom, or anybody, had simply asked the kids how they felt throughout the whole process, there might just be a decrease in high school drop outs, teen pregnancies and incarceration among foster youth. People always say that physical well-being is the most important part of a healthy life, but little do they know that your physical well-being means nothing if your spirit is not alive.
I would like to take my experience as a former foster youth to become a clinical therapist for traumatized and abused youth. I believe that I was placed in foster care to be able to empathize with others who may have had similar journeys. I would like to make a difference in this world, little by little. I believe I can impact the life of future children, in fact I hope to do that with my 1-year-old. I would like to be a positive role model and influence them to make a difference in the world.
Gabriela Delgado, 23, is majoring in psychology at California State University-Dominguez Hills. She’s adopting a 1-year-old boy, whose biological parents just had a baby girl, who she is also considering adopting. Delgado works two jobs, one of which is as a behavioral therapist for autistic kids.
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