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June 20, 2022

A First Nations Perspective 11

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

Aging Out Of the Foster Care System

"You have two weeks to find an apartment and you won't have to worry about being with us any more."

(Words said to me by a Children's Aid Society worker)

I was sitting in a cold hard plastic chair off to the side of my social worker's desk at the Children's Aid Society. I had been called in earlier, and I had taken the city bus to the CAS office because my social worker, Lynn had called and said, "You need to come to the office. I have some concerns that I need to speak with you about."

I didn't really want to go. The social worker I had had been growing more and more distant from me. I felt that she was almost disgusted with how I was doing at my new residence -- the Independent Living residence that I had moved into upon leaving my foster home in the county. She didn't tell me that the worker from the residence was going to be there for the meeting also.

I remember walking down a dreary hallway, my eyes kind of squinting as they tried to adjust to a dull yellowish light. As I walked slowly down this hallway, I felt a certain sense of apprehension, which was making my heart pump extra hard, and my palms were feeling sweaty because I didn't know what I was being called in for. My hands were clenched into fists. As I walked, I nervously began to clutch each finger and cracked my knuckles. The pop-pop-pop sound of my knuckles cracking was almost soothing to me, but I wasn't really sure why. There was a cacophony of voices from other offices that hit my ears, as I walked down the hallway to my worker's office.

I walked for maybe a minute or two, and then I stopped in front of her door. I heard two voices behind that closed door, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. I felt my chest contract as I took a deep breath and knocked. The wood of the door resounding as my knuckles hit the door.

There was silence for a couple of minutes, and I heard footsteps. Lynn opened the door, looked at me for a couple of seconds and then said, "Come on in, Christine," as she turned and walked back to her desk.

As I followed Lynn into her office, I noticed the worker Laura, from the residence sitting there before Lynn's desk. I remember gulping and feeling my heart go KA THUMP ... KA THUMP ... KA THUMP ...

I sat down, wincing, as the bones in my butt hit the cold unyielding chair. Lynn and Laura were sitting across from me. Right away, I could tell that this meeting wasn't going to be a good one. The tension in the air was as thick as knives, and the worker Laura wouldn't look my way, and neither would Lynn.

I looked past Lynn's shoulder, and out the huge window behind her. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and every once in a while I could hear the sound of car engines go by. Her office was not far from the parking lot and a busy thoroughfare.

I had been back living in Windsor at this residence for about six months, maybe longer, maybe less, my memory isn't too clear about this time because of all the turmoil I was going through. The house I lived in was a fair-sized brown and cream coloured house. It was located in the city I had spent my first 11 years in.

The house had been bought by the Roman Catholic Children's Aid Society of Essex County and was being used as a home for teenagers who were preparing to leave the CAS in the next year or so. One staff member lived there full time, along with three other girls. While staying at the house, we were supposed to learn how to cook for ourselves, clean, and budget the allowances we got each week or month.

I remember when I first heard that I was going back to my home town to live. I was living in my third and final foster home and I had been excited. My foster parents at the time lived out in the county, about an hour's drive away in Kingsville, Ontario. I was going to be graduating from grade 12, and heading to college to study Journalism-Print. I was excited because I thought that living almost on my own would mean more freedom from the parental guidance of my foster home, and that I could re-establish a relationship with my adoptive father, and my biological sister.

I hadn't seen them in years, and I had the illusion that reconnecting with my adoptive father would mean that I would finally have a father again, and get reacquainted with my sister. The turmoil that ensued proved to be more problematic than I ever dreamed.

It wasn't that I didn't appreciate my foster parents; my foster parents had been great. They took me in when no one else would, and they tried to guide me as best as they could, even though I became ill with anorexia nervosa. I know I gave them quite a workout in learning how to deal with that and the behaviors my illness caused. I don't think they knew exactly why I had gotten ill.

I didn't tell them the turmoil I felt inside about being one of two foster kids in their small town or what I endured in my classes because I rarely spoke of what happened to me when I came home from school. I wish I had told them. They didn't know that I was teased mercilessly at school for being so quiet, or that in the last four months of what should have been my happiest moment -- graduating from grade 8 -- certain kids made comments that intensified my already insecure sense of self. I remember one incident where I was sitting at my desk in my classroom with my books in front of me, and off in my own world when a fellow classmate walked by and snidely remarked, "Look at you! You're so fat, you can't fit into your desk."

The desks were small, and I fit into them fine, but the comment devastated me. The girl who made the comment was the type of girl I wanted to be like. She was pretty, popular, thin and a straight A student. I was the new kid who came into the class halfway through the school year. I stood out from everyone because I was the new kid, but the other issue was that I was brown-skinned, the only First Nations kid, in a sea of white faces, in a primarily white school and town.

In retrospect, I didn't know how to deal with the feelings I was experiencing, so it turned into something that I later came to understand as being something I knew I could control -- my intake of food. It began with cutting back foods that I normally enjoyed -- no more peanut butter and bread, no more chips and ice cream, and definitely not any fried foods. I said good-bye to a lot of foods, without really understanding why.

My foster parents were perplexed at what I was doing. I remember when my foster mom nonchalantly asked me during a conversation we were having on the deck in their backyard. "What's wrong Christine? And why aren't you eating?" and my response: "I have to watch what I take in."

When I was asked, "Why?"

I could not give a clear explanation. All rationale had begun to slip from my mind. I started making lists of foods that I couldn't touch. I wrote them in my journal every night. The list kept getting bigger and bigger, until it became a list that I absolutely had to live by. Crazy rules popped into my head, like not eating any foods that were mixed together, eating anything with sauces on them, no condiments were allowed, only having diet pop if I was going to drink any pop at all, no milk and definitely no desserts.

Keeping my list straight in my head was taxing and often had me spinning. If I went off my list, I blamed myself for loss of self control and punished myself even harder, by taking in less calories than I had taken in the meal before, or going up to the washroom and purging everything that I had taken in -- whether that was through making myself vomit, or taking a bottle of Milk of Magnesia and swallowing that. I even dipped into water pills and laxatives if I could find them.

I didn't know how to voice the pain I felt from what I was experiencing at school or the behaviors I was engaging in through my eating disorder. Anorexia consumed me for the remainder of my stay in my foster home. I went from a relatively quiet yet healthy kid to someone who became more withdrawn, moody, and a shadow of my former self. I no longer laughed or smiled with ease, essentially my spirit disappeared.

After leaving my foster home upon graduation of high school, I thought that things would get better for me. I foolishly believed that in some form or another, independence was the answer to the troubles that plagued me. I was wrong. Instead of feeling free, I became more trapped and more despondent.

With my mental health faltering, I quickly began a routine of being in and out of the hospital. If it wasn't for slashing at my arms, taking excessive pills, my visits to the hospital also became about my lack of eating and the various treatments I had to undergo.

So, there I was sitting in my social worker's office, and before them, they had bottles of medication that they had taken from my room. I don't recall how many bottles were there, maybe four or five, maybe more. They had opened the bottles, and had spilled the pills out onto the desk that lay between them. They started counting, "1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ...6 ..." and as they counted, they looked up at me to see if I was watching.

"Do you really have to do that?" I yelled.

I remember sitting in that chair, my face flushing with anger, my arms crossed over my chest and slightly rocking myself back and forth, back and forth. I was shivering too. It could have been from the fact that I hadn't eaten anything or it could have been the anxiety I felt, as they sat there doing what I thought was them "colluding against me."

The pills they were counting included my antidepressants, Tylenol, anti-anxiety meds, and laxatives. I had stockpiled them in my drawer at the independent living home. As they continued to count out loud, 1 ... 2 ... 3 ...4 ... I grew more and more infuriated until finally the anger that was brewing inside me burst.

All of a sudden, I just lost it, and started yelling at the top of my lungs. The words tumbled out in a torrent, "I hate you Lynn! I hate the Children's Aid, I hate the house I'm living in, and I wish you both would just leave me alone. "

Looking at me with reproach, Lynn calmly said, "Christine, you need to calm down."

"I'm not going to calm down!" I yelled back. "I'm sick of you guys!"

After about five minutes, I felt spent from my outburst, and I slouched back into my chair, glowering at Lynn and Laura. A couple of minutes later, Lynn said the words

"Christine, you have two weeks to find an apartment and then you won't have to worry about being with us (the Children's Aid) anymore"

I shook my head to see if I heard her correctly. When Lynn repeated it one more time, "Christine, you have two weeks to find an apartment, and then you won't have to worry about being with us (the Children's Aid) anymore."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing and I looked at her with shock. After a couple of seconds I said, "Fine!"

I left my CAS worker's office a few minutes later. The two of them were still counting my pills, as I slammed the office door behind me. I remember walking back down that hallway at a breakneck speed. Tears that I had been holding inside burst forth, and I ran out of the building oblivious to anything around me. I remember I didn't head straight back to the group home right away. I wandered around and around, and didn't care where I was or what people thought as I furiously wiped away at the tears that just didn't want to stop.

I don't recall how long I wandered around, it was probably a couple of hours but eventually the sun started to go down, it was getting chillier outside and it was growing darker by the second. I finally headed back to the group home, where I went directly to my room, closed the door and collapsed on top of my bed. I fell into a fitful sleep, not knowing what the next day would bring.

A day or two later, I began the search for an apartment. At seventeen years old, I didn't know what to look for. I poured over newspaper advertisements and probably called a handful of places. In between that, I began to pack up my meager belongings -- a stuffed animal here and there, my pillow, my clothes, some books and paper, my music cassettes and ghetto blaster, and small television. Apprehension at what lay ahead of me was always on my mind. Not long after that, I found an apartment.

The apartment I found was down the street from the group home I had lived in with the Children's Aid. It was a bachelor apartment that went for a little over two hundred and fifty dollars, and I paid for it with social assistance. It had a big main room, a fair sized bathroom with an old fashioned tub, and a small kitchen. The apartment was situated off the parking lot of an unsavory bar, and the apartment itself had little guests that I had never encountered before -- cockroaches.

The first time I saw a cockroach in my apartment was when I was in my kitchen, trying to make some soup. I had a ladle in my hand and I was preparing to stir my soup when I happened to glance up at the shelf above my head. I saw two little antennas and beady little eyes looking at me.

"AAHH!" I screeched, and I wondered, "Has this bloody cockroach been there all this time staring at me?"

I lost my appetite quickly, and left the soup sitting on the stove. I walked out of the kitchen and went and sat on my bed. I remember feeling disgusted that my life had come to this -- living in a cockroach-infested apartment, and noisy neighbors who were always yelling and fighting, and throwing things around. I remember the fear I felt every time I would hear the resounding thump of something hitting up against my wall, and I often lay in my bed trembling and thinking that not only something bad was going to happen to my neighbors but something bad was going to happen to me too.

Thinking something was going to happen to my neighbors wasn't far fetched. In fact, after living there for a year, and giving my notice to my landlord, it wasn't long after I moved out that I heard there had been a murder in the apartment building I had just left. It was the very neighbors I had heard yelling and fighting. The man had killed his partner in a domestic assault.

Life on my own was definitely a test that I wasn't prepared for. At 17 years old, you're still a kid, whether you care to believe it or not. You tend to think that you can take on the world and everyone and everything in it. I didn't realize that by essentially getting kicked out of the Children's Aid, I would effectively be on my own and that I would have to learn things such as furnishing my own place, cooking, paying rent and paying bills. I had to be responsible for myself, whereas before I had always had someone watching out for me. I was still a huge child at heart, and I was thrust into a world that no one could have prepared me for.

Amongst the many things that happened to me upon my leaving my foster home, was my adoptive father coming back into my life, and my sister I had not seen since I was 10 years old came back into my life too. Though I loved that my sister was back in my life, it was very difficult for me to have my adoptive father back in my life. The pain that I had been sheltered from came back when I saw him again, and I took it out in the only way I knew how at that time, by hurting myself.

Being away from the friends I had made and away from the only foster parents who had given me a sense of stability was also difficult to say the least. My mental health began to falter even more after I began living on my own. Before I had left my foster home, I had been suffering from an eating disorder, and my eating disorder became even worse as I tried to adjust to my new living situation. I went through extremely intense anger and a lot of self-destruction. Issues that had been festering inside of me for years began to haunt me once more.

I used to blame the foster care system and the Children's Aid Society for being booted out and made to live on my own; after all, I was sent back to the child welfare system at the age of ten when my adoption by a non-native family failed. At ten years old, I went from having parents to no one other than the workers that worked in the group home I was sent to -- Maryvale, and then after leaving Maryvale, my foster parents in three different foster homes.

Can you imagine the struggle when you have no family or a support system to fall back on, and you have to learn how to pay rent, buy your own groceries and manage your own expenses? I look back now and ask myself, "How did I do it?" When I think of that question, it stirs up a gamut of emotions. I go from feeling anger and sadness and I ask myself, "Would I want anyone else to go through what I did just because they old enough to be out of the child welfare system?"

Going from a place of support and having people around you to almost nothing is difficult. It tests your very being. I can't go back to change the things that happened when I left the foster care system, but I wish that at the time there had been more programs in place, that could have helped me to make the transition from being in care, to being on my own, or at the most that I had listened to those who tried to advise me back then about what could happen, and how I could have dealt with the issues that popped up for me.

Under the current system, when young people in foster care turn 21, they have the rug pulled out from under them and they must sink or swim. Yes, a rug was pulled out from me, but I also played a role in having that rug pulled out from under me. If I had known any better -- which I can admit, at the age of 17 I didn't -- I know that I would not have chosen to be kicked out of the Independent Living group home I had been in, I would have tried to accept any help that may have been offered to me and I wouldn't have chosen to be reliant upon social assistance.

Not all foster kids choose what happens to them, when they leave the system. I certainly didn't. Because of some life experiences, some kids need more support than others, and they may need it for longer. In my case, after several years of relying on a toxic family member for periodic help, floundering on my own, going into debt, and struggling to learn how to budget on my own, I was put under the care of a trustee. Though being under a trustee was difficult to deal with at first, I must admit it has helped me the most.

Aging out of the foster care system or getting kicked out of the child welfare system is a difficult transition. Transitioning from foster care to being on your own is hard, but support systems are needed. Support systems like programs that can better prepare you for life on your own can be instrumental in your success later on in life.

I can't take back the years I spent floundering but I do thank the various workers out in the mental health and social work field who took the time to teach me the things they did even when I had my back up in anger and defiance and didn't want to listen. The knowledge that they passed on has helped in ways they could never know, and I was fortunate that I was a foster kid who was able to turn her life around.


CHRISTINE'S BLOG

Article © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-12-29
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