California’s foster care system is often criticized for separating families and placing fragile young people in uncaring environments. One young writer, however, credits her foster family with helping her develop self-confidence and an appreciation for the value of education. Lanette Scott, 24, is a contributor to New America Media.
student former foster care
SAN FRANCISCO, MI — As a young child, my mother and I would stay in rundown motels where rats, so huge as to be indistinguishable from cats, emerged from holes in the wall in search of food in the trash cans. I remember crying myself to sleep each night because I wanted out of this environment. I was seven years old. The neglect and isolation that I experienced during these years should have slated me for failure. But ultimately, through my later experience as a foster child, I was able to overcome my self-doubt and learned to value myself and my education.
Some may use school as a way to escape the drudgeries of home; however, this was never the case for me. The thought of being in a classroom where students would tease me and ridicule my requests for academic assistance was terrifying. Whenever I was asked to read aloud, shame would rush over my body like an ocean wave. My thoughts would become numb as I withdrew inside myself with the hope of becoming invisible. My teachers were unable to recognize that I was in need of more focused attention. For many years I rarely attended school, both because of my living situation, as well as my growing anxieties about my academic abilities.
My maternal grandmother finally reported my mother to Social Services. I was sent to live with her. However, she was soon after diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I was sent to live with my first foster caregiver who abused me mentally. She would mock my requests for help with class assignments and would often call me “stupid” and “lazy,” which gave rise to insecurity and self-hate. At my request, my social workers eventually placed me back with my maternal grandmother, but I was soon taken away again because of frequent school absences.
I was then placed with my paternal grandmother, but she was verbally abusive towards me and I ran away. I spent the following nights in a cluster of bushes about six miles away, curled up in a fetal position. When the police found me I was returned to the foster care system. I was 11 years old, and I felt alone, confused, scared and dejected. I was overwhelmed with sadness all the time and rarely smiled. It was impossible for me to see hope for my future. I felt like society’s throwaway.
Because of the continual interruption of my formative education, my academic ability was well below average. My reading and comprehension abilities were nonexistent, because I was not attending school on a consistent basis. I did not complete a full grade level until the seventh grade, yet each year I was promoted to the next grade.
It was when I arrived at my second foster home that my life began to change. My foster mother’s daughter asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied, “A lawyer, then senator, then President of the United States.”
She then asked, “What is your G.P.A?” I was clueless so I replied, “What’s that?” After explaining what a G.P.A was, rather than mock me, she said, “Well, we certainly have a lot of work to do to get you there…” At that moment, I felt safe, cared for, respected, and important.
I was also immediately embraced by my foster mother. She enrolled me in Sylvan Learning Center, and I was given tests to determine my reading comprehension abilities. The tests reveled that I had the reading ability of a third-grader. Sylvan was a good opportunity; however, my foster mother could not afford any more than a few sessions. I was almost certain I would not be able to keep up with high school classes because I was so behind. My foster mother told me: “Learn what you can now, and learn what you missed later.” I did just that, and I was able to excel in my classes.
The positive feedback I received from my foster mother helped me to realize my potential, and I was motivated to achieve academically. I became involved in many extra-curricular programs including The Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP) designed to enhance my academic performance and increase my class standing. Through ATDP, I attended a summer program at the University of California, Berkeley.
For three summers, I studied social science, marine biology, and law. I chose to be involved in this program because I wanted to further develop my verbal, social, and analytical skills. Attending college seemed to be an unrealistic goal because of my past. However, I was accepted to the University of San Francisco.
I am now an advocate for youth in the foster care system, and am thriving both academically and socially at USF. I have joined several youth advocacy boards such as the California Youth Connection (CYC), and Emancipated Youth Advocacy Board (EYAB). Being a part of these boards has enabled me to raise public awareness of situations current and former foster youth are subjected to.
My experiences have helped me shape my education. I traveled and studied abroad in South Africa where I counseled street children. I traveled the Eastern Cape working with street children who suffered from HIV and AIDS. I witnessed first hand the amazing grace these youths possessed in spite of their hardships. I was able to build relationships by embracing the street children with love and attention.
My experience as a foster child has taught me the value and importance of being available to others. It has allowed me to form bonds of trust with these youth and get them to open up. And I was able to inspire them by sharing my own story of choosing a different path, and not letting my past predict my future.
Had I not been placed in foster care, the idea of attending college would have remained only a thought. I was once a child who suffered from self-loathing. Now, I am a college student with a strong sense of self and dreams for the future.
Editor’s Note: See “Host homes needed for foster youth aging out of foster care” on Page 5 under the News Briefs section.