Out on the streets at 18 when the moneys not flowing from the fed?
November 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
A foster kid’s dilemma: When life as you know it ends at 18, then what: Phillip Morris
By Phillip Morris, The Plain Dealer
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on November 24, 2013 at 10:00 AM, updated November 24, 2013 at 10:04 AM
Why does God hate kids?
What kind of pain causes a child to ask that question? Candice Woodland knows. Abandoned by her mother at the age of 8, she once wrote the question in a notebook.
She could have easily asked another question. Why does God hate foster kids? That’s the hand she was dealt.
At the age of 11, after an aging aunt could no longer care for her, Candice became a ward of the state. That’s when the smart, rambunctious, angry foster child began acting out in earnest.
She says she didn’t suffer the sexual abuse frequently visited upon children assigned to live with new families. But extreme physical and emotional abuse was common. In one home, she was routinely stripped and beaten with belts and switches. Another family lavished its biological children with Christmas gifts, while depriving her of any semblance of the holiday. Yet another home used isolation and food deprivation as a form of punishment.
These abusive parenting patterns only caused Candice to act out more.
She perfected the art of running away. She honed confrontation techniques that she knew would get her put out of one foster home and placed into yet another home. She challenged the foster care system because she wanted no part of it.
Candice wanted her mother. She never really knew her father. But she loved a mother, who she said she now understands was trapped in a cycle of drugs, incarceration, recurring homelessness and abuse.
The physical and emotional abuse Candice endured during her odyssey of seven foster homes did not kill her. But the desperate desire for a reconnection with her biological mother nearly did.
Today, at the age of 21, Candice bears close watching. Like many of the 200 Cuyahoga County children, who age out of foster care each year at 18, Candice was emancipated into homelessness, isolation and depression in 2010.
Unlike so many other former foster children, though, Candice has recently begun to find her voice and a vision for herself. She’s a natural leader who is benefiting greatly from a tenacious support system she has found with the YWCA of Greater Cleveland’s Nurturing Independence & Aspirations program, which assists 23 young adults who have aged out of foster care.
In August of 2012, after two years of virtual homelessness, Candice was invited to become a resident of the YWCA’s Independence Place. It’s a safe, supportive and permanent housing network for homeless young adults. It was a godsend. The structure was apparently all she needed to thrive.
Last week she boarded a plane for the first time and flew to Clearwater Beach, Florida for a national convention. She was an invited guest speaker at a meeting devoted to a discussion of foster care issues.
Candice was deliberately selected by the YWCA administration to participate in the conference because she represents the profile of a former foster child who can thrive if given the proper nurturing environment. Her message to the conference attendees was simple:
“Love is the key. It might sound strange, but I never realized how important that was until I received real love. I never realized how important genuine love was until I found a family that believed in me.”
“The last family I was with told me that I was beautiful and that I mattered. I finally had parents who believed in me. That’s when I finally began to believe in myself,” she told me Thursday just before racing off to a class at Cuyahoga Community College.
There are a couple of moments in Candice’s young transient life that still confuse and trouble her, though. Inspired by the story of Antwone Fisher, another Cleveland foster child, Candice is already working on her memoirs. She’s asking herself painful, but necessary questions.
Why did she try to kill herself on the afternoon of her 16th birthday?
“I’m not sure why I did it? I snapped. I just wanted to be with my mother. But she wanted to be with her boyfriend. She wanted us all to do something together. But that’s not what I wanted. So I yelled at her and we got into a fight.”
The fight was nearly her last. She left her mother and deliberately ran into traffic. She wanted to be hit. She said she wanted to die.
When that didn’t work, she went to a pharmacy with the intent to buy over-the-counter drugs for another suicide attempt. But a friend stopped her and called the police.
The police took her directly to the psychiatric ward of a near West Side hospital where she said she was held for a week.
She recovered but her chronic depression and the relentless mental quest to be with her biological mother continued. School was her only emotionally safe place. She became involved in countless extracurricular activities simply so that she could avoid going home.
She tried out for the football team at John Marshall High School as a sophomore and made the squad, she says, as a wide receiver.
“I was very aggressive and football helped me deal with that. But I got tired of being tackled so I quit,” she said with a laugh.
But her continued running away from home was no laughing matter. Too many dangerous predators were stalking the streets, preying on young girls just like her. A decision was made by the county that she had to leave town. She was sent to Toledo.
It was the best thing that could have happened. Away from familiar influences, away from the streets she knew, it was harder to run.
“I really resented it at first. But I knew it was a good home. It was the first time that I ever had seen a father figure. He showed me how a man is supposed to treat a woman by the way he treated his wife.”
“It took me a while to accept them, but they accepted me. They called me their daughter. Not their foster daughter. It was the first time I ever felt like I had a family.”
Then Candice turned 18, the age of emancipation, and the streets of Cleveland strongly beckoned. Even though the Toledo family begged her to stay, she wanted to come home.
So she returned to a familiar city that she loved. But with no family and no support, she was instantly rendered homeless, forced to live off of charity and on the couches of friends and strangers.
Two years ago, shortly after returning home, she had an epiphany. She did not want to become her mother. She said she looked at herself and decided that she did not want drug abuse or trafficking to become a part of her life. She decided that she did not want to end up in abusive relationships that led no where. She decided that she did not want to have children that she was unprepared to support.
She decided to take control of her life.
“She wants to be an agent of change, not only in her own life but throughout the community. She is suddenly starting to realize her own strength and it’s an amazing transformation,” said Beverly Johnson, who holds the title of life coach at the YWCA, where she mentors Candice and several other young adults at Independence Place.
Today, Candice juggles school and her job at Quicken Loans Arena where she works as a server. But mostly she dreams of finishing school and embarking on a career where she will assist young girls and women, who face the same abandonment challenges she has faced and continues to overcome.
The painful lessons Candice learned from her deeply fractured family experience are now what drive her to succeed. They are critical lessons that motivate her to become part of the effort to make foster care more caring and the aging-out process more nurturing.
The support she receives from the committed staff at the YWCA is what provides the emotional network – and sense of belonging – that so many aged-out foster children crave but never find. Other supportive networks for young adults aging out exist. But still more are needed.
Emancipation from foster care is the beginning of the end for legions of foster children. Often these young adults are unable to emancipate themselves from the hopeless situations they quickly encounter. The lack of even the pretense of family can do that do a kid.
Candice, fortunately, has found her family, first in Toledo, now at the YWCA. She says she is determined not to become another statistic. She says it with conviction. That sounds and feels a lot like true emancipation.