For youth from foster care, the holidays are often a stark reminder of what it means not to have a family. We miss the comfort of knowing we have a place where we are always welcome, year after year. We don't know the family traditions of mom's best tablecloth and china, dad's carving the turkey, grandma's famous stuffing recipe, football in the den with the cousins, or even the inevitable family dramas.
I know these feelings well. I spent six years of my childhood in foster care in California, moving eight different times during this period and separated from my brother, friends and relatives. Foster care had estranged me from my family, so I usually saw them only on Christmas Eve. We would talk and socialize for that one night. But there was no sense of community, no sense of home.
In college, the holiday break was a time to figure out where I would stay. I knew one other foster child who went to my school. However, she dropped out after a couple of years, and then there was only me. Since I didn't have family to be with, I usually stayed with friends - and, because I was independent, I needed to make money to support myself. So I spent the holiday break working to save money for the next semester's financial obligations.
The experience of spending holidays in foster care changes a person's life forever, as I know from my own experience - as well as from my friends and colleagues in Foster Care Alumni of America. Michelle Dalton McGarity, now age 49, recalled, "I hung up the phone, sobbing, the year I was 14. My mother wouldn't take me for Christmas. Not all the begging and pleading could change it. Nobody wanted me. In my foster home, we weren't a family. The foster kids were outsiders looking in. It was one of the two days a year we were allowed to eat at the table with the others, but we saw the glances that told us we didn't belong."
"I am turning 33 years old in two weeks," said Markell Harrison-Jackson. "I have obtained five college degrees, but I have only eaten Thanksgiving dinner in a family setting twice - with my friend's family."
Even when the holidays include a visit with birth families, there are often disappointments. "I was usually able to spend the holidays with one or both of my parents, but when I was 16, I chose to stay in my foster home to see how a "normal" family spent a holiday together," said Jackie Janesh. "My father proclaimed me 'disowned,' and a year passed before we spoke again."
Foster youth may also feel concerned about family members left behind. "I spent the holidays alone and did not get to see my brothers and sisters," Melinda Foy recalled. "I was the only child removed from my home, and I knew that my siblings were still being sexually, verbally and physically abused. Holidays were especially sad for me because I was worried about them."
Even when supportive adults do their best to make the holidays special, feelings of separation can be strong. "I spent nine years with six different families as a foster child. Watching what it was like for them to all get together and reminisce about the years of good times they have all shared together. Knowing that even though these people were kind enough to allow me to join in their celebration, they are not my family, and I am not part of their past. I remember feeling like an outsider at every holiday event," was Sherry L. Gray's reaction.
Along with other young adults who experienced foster care as a child, I see a critical need for federal child welfare financing reform, so that children who are following in our footsteps can be moved swiftly to safe, permanent families, and other youth may avoid the need to enter foster care in the first place.
We want a better life for children now living in foster care. We want the federal government to change the way it funds the child welfare system, so more will be done to prevent abuse or neglect from occurring. We want families to be reunified whenever safely possible. We want to support extended family members who step up to provide valuable stability when the nuclear family cannot meet a child's needs.
People are starting to pay attention. A new brief, "Hoping for a Home for the Holidays," released by FosterClub and Kids Are Waiting, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, reports many of the challenges faced by foster children who spend the holidays with unrelated foster families, or in group homes or institutional settings. FosterClub's "Hope for the Holidays" includes a guide to getting through the holidays for foster youth and ideas of ways that foster parents, caregivers, and other supportive adults can help kids get through the holidays.
Now I am married to my college boyfriend, and we have become family. I haven't seen my other family during the holidays since I left college, but even today I carry my foster care past with me. Though I know my life will not be just another statistic, it was not easy. Every child deserves a place, a home, a family. Every child deserves the care and support to help them reach their dreams.
Along with more than half a million children currently in foster care and over 12 million adults who came from care, I share one heartfelt holiday wish - that Congress takes action to change the foster care system so other young people will find permanent families and not have to spend lonely holidays the way I did.
Melissa Smith, a former foster youth from Pasadena, is now a graduate student in Psychology at American University. She is a member of Foster Care Alumni of America.