by April White, FYS Pinellas/Pasco

In the past three years I have spoken at many events.  Every time I give a speech or take part in a panel it gives me great pleasure to know I am advocating on behalf of foster youth everywhere, but no other panel has affected me on such an emotional level than the one I sat on last week at the Pathways to Independence Summit.  This panel was titled "Call for Help -- Just Not 911."  This panel was based on developing improved methods of handling troubled youth to reduce the amount of law enforcement contacts made by group homes and foster homes related to issues of fighting, arguing, or when youth take a walk to cool off without being provided permission to do so.  The goal was finding other means to deal with issues of this nature that would offer more support to the youth.

I sat on this panel with three other foster youth and three experts on the issues. We each spoke about our time in care and how calling 911 has affected us as young adults.  This panel touched me because I know how it feels to have law enforcement called on me; I know how it feels for someone to tell you who you are, when that's not you at all. You see I have two juvenile battery charges from my time in foster care that occurred during 2005 and 2006, almost 6 years ago and I am still dealing with them today. I know as you read this you are thinking "There juvenile charges, how can they still affect you?"  I could not join the military, I could not live in the University of South Florida dorms, and I may not be able to obtain employment that requires the supervision of children, which is the type of job I want all because of my charges.  Emotionally it's worse, I have to go in an interview every time and explain how the person they read about in the arrest report is not me.  I have to look people in the face while they ask me "Why am I so violent." I have to pray and hope that whoever is reading about me and my charges will overlook them and give me a chance. 

Sitting on this panel and explaining to the audience how important it is to not always contact law enforcement was important to me. The panel was all of 60 minutes, and in those 60 minutes I grew.  I grew to realize an arrest report Does Not define me, a charge Does Not define me, What Does define me, is what I do every day, which is work to help to change the lives of all foster youth.
by Andrea Cowart, FYS Pinellas/Pasco

I got caught crying...and that's why I'm writing this piece. I had the awesome opportunity to attend the Pathways to Independence Summit in Orlando this past week. While there I got to attend a panel hosted by my peers who are former foster youth that were speaking on the importance of trying to resolve issues with youth who are acting out before resorting to calling the police.  Hearing my peers (who are all amazing young adults that I know both personally and professionally) struggle to explain the anger, confusion, and pain inside of them that caused them to act out that led to them being involved with the police struck a very emotional chord with me. To hear them explain the feelings of being re-traumatized, disrespected, and misunderstood by the people that were supposed to help heal them from the hurts that they had already experienced with their own families, and what it feels like to be handed from one disinterested agency to another feeling that nobody cares about you as a person, only as a case number and a statistic touched me deeply and personally.

I was a problem child while I was in care, no matter how much harm I did to myself, no matter how many problems I caused in my life, I seemed unable to stop myself from acting out.  Looking back it seemed that I did my best to destroy every positive person and thing that came into my life.  I was so afraid of being let down that I went out of my way to avoid being raised in any kind of positive way.  The only way I can think to describe myself during those years is, a really bad kid.  I did everything a "bad kid" could possibly do, I skipped school, eventually I dropped out, I did drugs, I was disrespectful, I cursed, I didn't listen to anyone, I ran away, I lied and cheated and stole and was only concerned with myself.  At one point in time I'm sure that everyone who had cared about me or even tried to, gave up on me.  I was so far gone into this pattern of self destruction; I don't think anyone thought that I would come out on the right side.

These were the things that were running through my mind when the director of Florida Children's First, Christina Spudeas, someone who knows my story as well as countless other youth, and she stated that she had heard so many of us tell her what "bad kids" we were, how we repeatedly denounced ourselves and our actions and how she never once heard our stories and considered us bad, just hurt and confused and often troubled, but never bad, or wrong, or dangerous, or so many of the ways we so often described ourselves.  And that is what made me cry, not just for myself and the troubled youth that I was, but for all of us there, all of my peers who came out on the other side of all of their pain and anger to make something better of themselves.  I am grateful for the people who offered us the absolution and understanding when we couldn't give it to ourselves, to help us grow to understand ourselves and to enable us to extend this same absolution and understanding to the next generation who will face the same struggles.