By Michelle Nauman-Brown
When I speak to foster youths in Pennsylvania, I always relate this true story about a girl who entered foster care at age 2. Removed from her home, she was separated from her two half-siblings - the only family she really knew.
This girl lived in 28 foster homes, six group homes, even a six-month boot camp before signing herself out of foster care at age 18. She endured her mother's death in a workplace accident, a failed adoption, unending loss.
I know this story intimately, not because I've told it so many times (although I have), but because it is my story.
It's a story that gets a whole lot better, I promise. However, between then and now, a lot of bad happened. Too much of it was the result of poor decisions I made because I was angry and stubborn, and because I left foster care without achieving permanency.
Each year, more than 1,000 Pennsylvania youths exit the foster care system without a form of permanency, meaning they aren't reunited with their birth families or adopted. This was the case for 1,270 children in 2014, 472 of them in Philadelphia, according to the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.
For the past year, I have worked as a youth advocate for Family Design Resources. I travel around the state sharing my story with older foster youths in the hope that they will learn from my mistakes. We've also just developed a video version, Michelle's Story.
Voluntarily signing out of foster care was not my get-out-of-jail-free card, even if that's what I thought it would be at the time. In fact, a lack of permanency is associated with a lot of negative outcomes, such as incarceration, homelessness, pregnancy, and drug addiction.
I tell youths (I also speak to caseworkers, lawyers, and judges) to stay in foster care: Pennsylvania's Act 91 allows youths who meet certain conditions to continue receiving foster care benefits until age 21.
That extra time allows them to develop the financial, emotional, and social support systems they need to make mature life decisions.
I didn't have that.
I had the whole world in front of me, but I really knew nothing about it. I didn't know about scheduling doctor appointments or getting insurance. I left foster care without having a car or a place of my own.
I finished high school, but then I had more freedom. I wanted control over my choices, but there was no one to help me make them wisely. I took all the money I had saved and spent it within a week.
I told you this story gets better, but I had to hit rock bottom first. That happened when my boyfriend at the time went to prison, leaving me homeless with two young children.
I was following in my mother's footsteps. I was close to losing my children to foster care. The cycle was continuing with me. I knew I had to get my life together.
I swallowed my pride and started reaching out to people who were kind enough to help me. A former foster family took care of my kids while I got back on my feet. I worked and saved enough money for an apartment. That all led to joining Family Design Resources and doing this work that I love so much.
I tell older youths that their anger is understandable, but they shouldn't be angry with themselves over something they didn't cause and could not control. I tell them how important it is to get involved in their own permanency planning. I want them to understand that establishing a caring, lasting, family-oriented relationship with an adult will help them succeed.
Of course, they need help. If you have gotten this far, then perhaps you are willing to get involved. If so, I encourage you to visit familydesign.org/michelle, where you can view the Michelle's Story video and discover how you can help provide permanency to a youth in foster care.
Each year, approximately 2,000 Pennsylvania youths in foster care are adopted. But for those who are not, particularly older youths, there is much more to be done.
These kids have had it tough, yet all they want is to be loved.
They deserve that much. And their stories should get better - just like mine has.