When the social worker from Child Protective Services came to speak to me at my high school I was 14 and had just gotten back from Florida, where my stepfather had been physically abusing me. He abused me as if I were some stranger on the street.
That same day, I remember sitting at the Maryland courthouse where my Child in Need of Assistance case was decided.
The next eight years consisted of going in and out of group homes and foster homes. I went to four different high schools, two foster homes, one residential treatment center and had multiple trips to the hospital.
That was because I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16, when I experienced my first full-blown mania. Growing up in the foster care system is tough, but when you add bipolar to the mix it’s a recipe for hell.
Here is my advice for foster youth currently in the system:
Know your rights: Ask your social workers what rights you have as a foster youth.
Find out what entitlements you receive as a foster youth: Is the money the state sends to the foster family supposed to be spent on you?
Learn about termination of parental rights: Most states say that when you reach a certain age you can ask the courts to terminate your parents’ rights as your parent. That means your parents can no longer have claims to you as a parent.
Advocate for yourself: If the doctor wants to put you on medication, express your concerns, learn about the illness or condition, what the medication is for and its side effects.
Get a driver’s license: Get your driver’s license as soon as you’re old enough.
Go to school: Go to college and use the state’s tuition waiver program (most states should have this). There is no reason to not go to college when it is paid for up to the bachelor’s level.
Apply for scholarships: Apply for as many scholarships as you can. It differs from state to state but you can get additional funding from the ETV (Education and Training Voucher) program.
Build credit: Get a phone with a carrier. Even though you have to pay a bit for the phone, you can build credit that way.
Get a co-signer: If you want to get a car, get a co-signer.
Stay out of trouble: A high percentage of foster youth who age out get incarcerated.
Make connections: Try to connect with other foster youth like the state chapter for your local Foster Care Alumni of America chapter and the foster care Youth Advisory Board specific to each county. You can find these resources online.
Use social media: If you need help as a foster youth, use Facebook to connect with organizations like Foster Care Alumni of America.
Don’t believe everything you hear: When things sound too good to be true, it probably is.
If you move back in with your biological family: Remember you haven’t been with them for a long time and might still resent the person who neglected you and caused the abuse. Just know that it’s important to work all that out before you move back.
Read what you are signing: Often we read contracts and DON’T read the fine print. There are ways to get out of the contract and cancellation policies in there that will help you.
If you have a car, keep up the insurance: Don’t let your car insurance lapse. This will cause a hefty fine if and when the department of motor vehicles finds out.
Apply for financial aid: Always fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Make sure you finish it by your school’s deadline to get the maximum amount of aid.
Ask for kinship care: This means you want to live with a family member and he/she can receive the money that the state allocates to a foster family.
I would have been better off if I had known all this information while I was in the foster care system. I hope that this helps. Never EVER give up on yourself!
Dam Le is currently in a bachelor’s degree program for social work and expects to graduate in 2017.