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Children's Voice Article, May/June, 2004

My Arrival

By Kristy S. DeWall

The numbers 8, 4, and 2 kept screaming out at me. I kept encountering instances of those numbers throughout the day. Like I would spontaneously look at the clock every day at 8:42 am or 8:42 pm. Every time I looked at the clock, I swear it happened to be 8:42.

At first, I thought I was going crazy. Then, a few weeks into my creative writing summer school class at Illinois State University, it dawned on me. The only significance the numbers 8, 4, and 2 had ever had to me was when I was 9 years old and living happily with my biological mom and sister at 842 South State Street in Litchfield, Illinois.

The summer of 1998 was passing quickly when, one night, I met my then-girlfriend after she got off work at midnight. As we got in her car to drive back to my dorm, she announced we were taking a midnight road trip from Bloomington-Normal to Litchfield. I was shocked and excited at the chance to revisit a part of my childhood, and ecstatic that she knew how important is was for me to go back to 842 South State Street.

My memory of how to get to the old, large, green apartment complex had never faded, even though the last time I was there was in 1987. We pulled up at 1:30 am, and I opened the door and slowly walked to the front of the building. I glanced at the large yard, recalling the countless hours my sister and I played yard darts. I noticed the sidewalk, broken into several pieces.

And then, with the weight of seven foster homes and a lifetime of broken promises, everything came crashing down. I looked to the door of the apartment we lived in--the one where my biological mom promised my sister and me we were number one in her life and no more men could replace the love we had. The door, the windows, all of it--boarded up with nails and wood. It was forever forbidden and closed off. The irony stung me. There I stood, face to face with the small memory of my happy childhood days, and it was all locked, boarded up, and bolted.

Then I cried, took pictures, grabbed some of the broken sidewalk pieces, and drove back to Bloomington-Normal.

Seven foster homes, 11 caseworkers, 13 schools, and 26 years into life, I've come to realize a lot. Recently, I've been shifting my priorities and for the first time, and I'm doing what is best for me. I'm letting go of the guilt of rising above expectations allotted me by childhood, state-appointed counselors, and my biological family.

I used to ask myself how you know when you get to that point, when you realize your past could have devastated you by now, but know you have overcome and you will survive regardless of anything that comes your way.

Then I arrived at that point.
"All Over the Map"
My life with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) began around 1980, when I was almost 2. Our case opened because of neglect. My sister and I were placed in our first foster home in the summer of 1983. For five years, I found myself all over the map, being placed in a home, then back with my "real mommy," then back to another foster home.

>From the little information I have from my DCFS files, I have been able to see myself as a child growing up in the system. I was scared. I was very reserved and shy--something that couldn't be farther from the truth now--and as a child, I relied on my big sister to guide me through it.

Four foster homes had come and gone by 1987, when we were taken "home" to be with mom at 842 South State Street. At age 9, I had already perfected the art of adaptation. I was a chameleon in my own world.

The bliss of living back with mom was pulled out from underneath my sister and me in 1988 when we quickly moved from the big green building to go live with my mom's possessive bodybuilding boyfriend. She had picked another winner--a guy whose worst quality was being abusive to her and better quality included turning off the house electricity and water if my mom refused to work out with him in the basement gym.

A few years passed, and my mom, sister, and I ended up in Springfield. My sister and I stayed with our biological dad, who was little more than a stranger, for a short stint, then an old family friend, while my mom was busy meeting her sixth husband in a psychiatric hospital. One thing led to another, and I found myself back in foster care, staring blankly at my fifth set of foster parents. "You'll only have to keep them for two weeks" turned into two years, and in 1992, my sister and I were moved from that home.

One of the biggest mistakes of my life followed. My sister and I were given the right to decide if we wanted to stay together or to separate. Almost a sophomore in high school and itching for independence, my sister chose an independent-living group home. Still yearning for a family to call my own, I chose another foster home. Little did we know that sibling arguments were nothing compared with the distance that came between us because of that move. We haven't been close since.
Praying for the Straight Path
Around age 12, I began to realize I wasn't like the other girls in my class. And it wasn't just because I was the foster kid with Payless tennis shoes and a free lunch card. I liked girls. Like many other adolescents, though, I couldn't put my finger on it. It was 1991, and there were no positive gay or lesbian role models in society.

I was scared, so one day I told my sister I thought I was gay. We got into an argument over it, and she made me "take back" my words. At that point, I knew if I couldn't tell my sister, it wasn't safe to tell anyone about my feelings. I could only trust my diary.

Until then, my experience with foster parents had been very positive. I had been either lucky enough or blessed to land into families who were genuine and caring. Fast forward to my sixth foster placement, when I landed into a radical, born-again Christian family who traveled 30 miles to a bigger city to go to church three times a week. This was all new to me, but craving something to cling to, I jumped on the bandwagon and claimed myself as a born-again Christian. The dedicated Christian foster family quickly enrolled me in the church-affiliated Christian high school, and I was on my way. Or so I thought.

My sexuality was becoming more concrete now, and more than ever my diary was my only audience. The church, school, and family I belonged to all made it clear that being gay was the sin of all sins and that one would surely go to hell if they were gay. Every Sunday, I sunk lower and lower in the pew and prayed harder and harder that God would turn me straight, like all the other "normal people." I felt cursed that I had to be a foster kid and gay. I was twice burdened and pissed off at God for not "curing" me of my gayness and not giving me a real family.

In March 1994, my fašade of a wonderful, happy Christian family life was shattered. My foster mom discovered my writing. She read my diaries. She found notes I hid--notes from my best friend, notes that all sophomore girls have from their best friends. My Christian foster parents sat me down, accused me of being in love with my best friend, and explained that I must leave their home because they had other girls living in their home and I could be a risk to them.

My foster parents went to my best friend's family and apologized, claiming I was in love with their daughter. My best friend and her family were also very religious. The next day and the week that followed, I was forced to go to my Christian school. My best friend ignored me, I heard kids whisper about me, but no one dared speak to me. They only stared at me while, inside, I screamed silently. I was forced to sit through conferences with two school administrators and listened as they told me how disappointed they were in me, how I had shattered the Christian example I once held at their elite school.

I didn't say a word. I didn't speak up, defend myself, or yell about how I had been praying and was convinced that God was helping me to become straight. I have never remained silent since. That was my biggest regret and yet my wisest choice.

If you're wondering where my caseworker was in all of this, he was busy encouraging me to pray harder to get on the straight path. His religious convictions got in the way of being a supportive, effective caseworker. And the worst part was, when I graduated from high school in 1996, that same caseworker told me the truth about the Christian family I had lived with. They didn't really kick me out because they thought I was gay. They wanted to move to Florida to go to missionary school, so they had to come up with reasons to get rid of the extra kids they had.

I could have been spared years of misery if only someone had told me that. I was left to think something was wrong with me and I was being punished for it.

Luckily, resilience was on my side.
My seventh and final foster home became my home. It took me a few years to adjust and learn to accept the love and support they were so willing to offer, but I did it, and now we've celebrated 10 years together as a family. Because of them, I have learned what love is, I have gained role models, and I have found a mom and dad.

Now it's 2004. A year ago, I walked away from another home--Illinois State University--making a triumphant exit the day after my 25th birthday, master's degree in hand.

Along the way, I could have lost faith in people. I could have become self-destructive. I could have been and done many negative things. But instead, I learned how to love myself, as a confident young lesbian, as a former foster child, as an emotional and vulnerable human being. The only thing that kept me hanging on is me.

I wrote this with the intention of giving advice to child welfare practitioners and foster families, how they can make it better for other foster kids. Never underestimate the effect you can have on a foster child's life. Never underestimate the strength of a foster child.

My story is a cakewalk compared with some of the horror stories I've heard, but that doesn't mean my life was any less valuable or challenging. As absurd as it sounds, I think I was born to be a foster child and that I was born to be strong. If I had the chance to go back, I wouldn't change a thing. My journey has made me, and I have arrived.

Kristy DeWall is a former foster child in Illinois and a member of the National Advisory Network for the CWLA/Lambda Joint Initiative to Support LGBTQ Youth and Adults Involved with the Child Welfare System.

Fostering Transitions

National partnership will help LGBTQ foster youth transition to adulthood.
By Rudy Estrada and Maria Garin Jones

>From neglect to sexual assault to brutal beatings and attempts at conversion therapy, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in foster care are often unsupported, unprotected, and unsafe. Many age out of the foster care system badly damaged and unequipped to become healthy, productive members of society.

To change how the foster care system treats LGBTQ youth, CWLA and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, with the support of the Andrus Family Fund, have launched a three-year venture--Fostering Transitions: CWLA/Lambda Joint Initiative to Support LGBTQ Youth and Adults Involved with the Child Welfare System.

The CWLA/Lambda Joint Initiative, for the first time, makes LGBTQ youth a clear priority for child welfare agencies nationwide. Lambda and CWLA are creating a local and national structure to increase the will and capacity of agencies to serve and support LGBTQ youth, improving and developing training, publications, model programs, and other tools to help agencies address LGBTQ youth issues. Lambda's leadership on LGBTQ youth issues, and CWLA's access to and expertise with local child welfare agencies, put the partnering organizations in a unique position to improve thousands of young people's lives.

Child welfare agencies look to CWLA for standards, training, technical assistance, publications and policy assistance. With Lambda's input, CWLA is reviewing its existing materials to ensure they adequately address LGBTQ youth issues, and is creating new resources to help state and local child welfare agencies understand and serve LGBTQ youth. A National Advisory Network, comprising experts on LGBTQ youth in foster care, representatives from state and local child welfare agencies, and youth themselves, will help guide the initiative.

CWLA and Lambda are hosting forums nationwide to hear directly from local LGBTQ youth in foster care, child welfare agencies, and communities about the strengths, potential, and challenges these youth face. Creating a climate of openness and acceptance, participants will work together to identify needs and develop strategies to meet those needs within local communities.

These are not new issues for either organization. CWLA has published several books for agencies and professionals serving LGBTQ youth, providing the field with tools and advice on the best practice for responding to their unique needs. Through its own Foster Care Initiative, Lambda has been pursuing foster care policy reform in several states. It also maintains a toll-free hotline for LGBTQ youth in foster care--866-LGB-TEEN--answering calls for help and guidance from young people, their families, and foster care workers nationwide.

Life in foster care is not easy for any young person. The transition from foster care to independent adulthood is a critical time for many youth; without appropriate support and guidance, their outcomes are often negative. For LGBTQ youth in care, these challenges are compounded by the inadequate support, discrimination, harassment, and violence they experience. The Fostering Transitions Initiative strives to build the child welfare system's capacity to promote positive, healthy development and ensure successful transitions to adulthood for the many LGBTQ youth who have been written off as hopeless.

Rudy Estrada is a staff attorney with Lambda's Foster Care Initiative. Maria Garin Jones is Director of Youth Services at CWLA.

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