In honor of May being National Foster Care Month, Strengthening Families, Changing Lives is running a special series designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of foster care and adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
Age Out Day
by Chris Chmielewski, editor, Foster Focus Magazine, former foster youth
It was cold and raining the day I left care.
I was walking with my whole world in a garbage bag on my shoulder. I walked down the long country road, away from my foster home, away from stability, away from three meals a day and a warm bed, away from foster parents who really did care about me and, more importantly, I was walking away from my youth. I followed that road to its end, an intersection before me now; I had choices to make, choices that would dictate how I would spend the rest of my life.
That intersection was enormous, and time stood still there; or at least it felt like it did.
I had known that I could leave care whenever I was ready. I turned 18 a year earlier and hearings were held, decisions made, and, as I understood it, I had been given waivers or exemptions and was cleared to remain in care until I saw fit to go; a combination of good behavior and good foster parents afforded me that choice. I had no intention of leaving care. I was comfortable, about to graduate high school and go off to college. My foster brother had just done the very same thing and was commuting to college while still staying at the foster home. How hard could it be?
The exact circumstances have been contorted and twisted through the years, but the gist is: I met a girl. To make matters worse, she was an older girl with her own place. I was young and foolish and should have known better, but I decided to leave care to follow a girl, correction, a girl with her own place. Easy street, right? Wrong.
The walk I was taking to the intersection of life followed my explanation to my foster parents about my plans for the immediate future. As was par for the course, they spoke, I ignored, they made valid points, I made irrational argumentative counterpoints, they begged for me to see the error of my thinking and I left. In retrospect, I’d like to smack my younger self in the back of the head. How could you turn away more time to make plans, save money and grow up a little more? Why was I in such a hurry to get away? What the hell was I thinking? I was obviously blinded by youth and swagger and, for whatever the reasons, I left.
Standing at the intersection I heard a familiar phrase, “Chris, you knucklehead, what are you thinkin’?” It was my foster dad, a burly older fellow, arm and head half out the window of his pickup truck. “This is NOT smart, there’s no reason to do this right now.”
He was right, and I probably should have told him so, got in the truck and went home. No harm, no foul. But I did the opposite. I gave a lengthy speech about how they’d taken care of me long enough and it was time to go it on my own, make my own way. No sense in arguing with a fool, so down the road he went and down the road I went.
What I experienced in the weeks that followed was truly eye opening. The first sign of trouble was the girl moving to Michigan. Fortunately the rent on her house was paid for one more month. Next sign that I had made a poor decision came in the form of a vice principal.
“We were informed by the state that you are no longer in care, is this true?” He said it in a concerned voice that put me at ease.
“Yes sir, I moved into a house within the district.” I responded in my most adult voice.
“Paying any bills there?”
“No sir.” He looked at me as if he’d caught me, as if the back and forth of concern was a disguise for his true agenda (I was a kid; everyone was out to get me).
“Well, if you aren’t paying any bills there, then there is no way to verify you live in the district, which means you can’t go to school here.”
I realized then that I wasn’t a foster kid anymore; I wasn’t somebody’s responsibility, I was all alone I had to take care of myself. “There’s only two weeks left of school, can’t we just delay whatever it is you have to do until after graduation. No sense in throwing all the years put into school away, right?”
The very next day I received my GED and the day after that I was enrolled in college. The end result was the same, but I’m sure walking the stage and going to senior prom would have been memories I would have cherished. I moved in with my best friend’s family for the summer and that was followed by college and another cold splash of water; life, but that’s a story for another time.
When I drive passed that intersection now, I think of the decisions I made and how much I complicated my road to where I am now. Other kids didn’t have the resources I had, and so their struggle supersedes my own. A wife, three kids and the First Monthly National Foster Care Magazine later, it turned out okay for me. Knowing it could have gone the other way is what drives this magazine. Burn no bridges; you may have to cross them again on the long road home.