Research overwhelmingly points to struggle in adulthood for youth who have come of age in the child protective system. Homelessness, incarceration, PTSD, substance abuse and a continued cycle of poverty can be the result of a childhood without the support of a familial unit. These young people could be the next generation of leaders, innovators and change makers, but the fight to reach adulthood often proves too great to leave room for further achievement. I know, because I was one of these young people.
I have come to think of us as the “children who were left behind”. These children are the victims of circumstance that removed them from their biological families, who were launched into a chaotic series of caretakers. Children whose early memories are that of grief, sorrow and irreconcilable feelings of abandonment. “Family time” becomes a litany of social workers who show up with little warning, pack your meager collection of things into bin bags, and take you to wherever they can find you a bed.
When you arrive at your new location, you look around, sizing up the other residents. Their stories are all unique, containing similar elements, merely rearranged. Whether it’s due to drug addiction, arrest, abuse, homelessness or disease, someone had to leave us behind. You can immediately tell the kids who have been “in the system” for a while. They are hardened, they don’t cry anymore, and you certainly don’t mess with them.
The hardest intakes to watch are the kids who have just been removed from their home for the first time. The ones who are hysterical, who haven’t yet run out of tears. Sometimes they don’t stop screaming until the wee hours, when the adrenaline has finally worn off and their bodies’ defense mechanisms manage to lull them to sleep. Sometimes, they stay only a day or two, and sometimes you develop a friendship for however long you’re together.
Walking into a new school for registration is the next step, while the administration gives you sad, knowing looks. When the teacher introduces you as the new student, you become hyper aware of your Goodwill getup, and the fact that your eyes are still puffy from crying. You just hope none of your new classmates are cruel, as you’re labelled the “weird kid”.
This pattern continues for the rest of your childhood, into your adolescence. The years aren’t kind. There have been good people, genuinely hoping to help, but the system is over run. Maybe you have the strength and support to finish high school, maybe you drop out because you stopped seeing the point of education. Maybe you get a minimum wage job, or turn to selling drugs. Perhaps you avoid using them or instead you develop a shattering addiction to trying to numb the pain. Maybe you’ve managed to keep your spark, or maybe it’s been snuffed out from years of grief, abandonment or abuse endured.
But, now you are 18 years old, you’re an adult and it’s time to get out there and make it on your own.
Best of luck.