Finding Normal: Harder for Foster Youth, But Worth the Struggle

When I was a foster child growing up in Tennessee, my foster parents met my basic needs, but I didn't feel like part of a family.

Many things other kids did normally, routinely -- a sleepover with a friend, getting a learner's permit to drive, even going on the family vacation -- were difficult, sometimes impossible, for me.

I remember one summer, my foster family planned a simple vacation to visit family just a couple of hours away. For me to go -- from West Tennessee, across the Mississippi River to West Memphis, Arkansas -- I had to get permission from my caseworkers and permission from a judge allowing me to leave the state.

Because of me, the trip was harder for my foster family. And until the very last minute, I wasn't sure if I would be able to go. Because the logistics are difficult, many foster children get left behind in respite care while their families go to the beach, the mountains or on other summer getaways. The child's safety, understandably, is the state's most important concern, and extended travel may bring liability for injuries or accidents. Now, many states are working on legislation to "normalize" the experience for foster children while keeping them safe. These laws would allow foster parents to be able to make some decisions about social activities and trips for their foster kids.

In Tennessee, the Department of Children's Services has become a leader in providing support to children in foster care and to those who turn 18 and age out of services. The state has worked to provide opportunities for foster youth to meet other young people like them in peer-to-peer groups and to have their voices heard at the highest levels of state government as child welfare policy is made. What's more normal than having the ability to make friends with people like you, who have experiences like you, being able to do activities with them, being able to make friends who know what your life is like.

In Youth Villages' YVLifeSet program, a proven method for helping foster youth make a successful transition to adulthood, we work hard to give young people a chance to experience new things. Some have been to the White House, to Fenway Park, to a Broadway show. Those are the types of learning adventures that foster children miss when they're left behind on foster family or school trips.

Spending part of your childhood being raised by strangers will never be normal, but the foster care experience can be better. When reviewing laws and regulations, legislators, child welfare professionals and concerned citizens should ask a simple question: "Would I want this for my child?"

We must commit to providing effective, intensive help for struggling biological families to expedite safe reunifications and strengthen adoption efforts if that's not possible.

Normal for me began just one week before my 18th birthday when I was adopted. One of the first things I learned about being in a real family came that Christmas. My sister and I unwrapped a bunch of boxes, each containing one puzzle piece. When we put the puzzle together, the message read: "Pack your bags; we're going to Disney World!"

I'll never forget the feeling of that moment, of that vacation, when I knew I was loved and truly a part of my family.

Mary Lee earned a bachelor's degree in social work with a minor in leadership from Austin Peay State University and went on to graduate from the University of Memphis School of Law. She is the national coordinator for YVLifeSet, a program of Youth Villages that was recently the focus of an MDRC/University of Chicago study that found it increases earnings and economic wellbeing, improves mental health and decreases homelessness and partner violence for the young people who participate in it. For more information, visit www.YVLifeSet.org.