Despite being in 10 different foster homes in five years, how did I manage to not let instability take over my life?
The stereotype of foster children is that they will age out of care and enter a life filled with poverty, unstable relationships, and overall instability. I did not - well poverty maybe - but what student who supports herself doesn’t carry the label “starving student?”
The stereotype exists, because the stats associated with kids who have aged out of care, are not optimistic. But those stats do not represent all youth from care. Especially me. So what did make the difference for me? Why did I continue on to post-secondary schooling? Why am I not a homeless drug addict like people thought I would become? Why did I not have any contact with the justice system? Despite being in 10 different foster homes in five years, how did I manage not to let instability take over my life?
In my culture, post-secondary education was not optional, it was mandatory. It was a value I grew up with and was ingrained into me when I was young. I am the daughter of immigrant parents, and they came to this country to have a better life for their children. Many immigrants come to Canada, and sacrifice their lives, and work menial jobs with long hours, just so that their children get the opportunity to attend a Canadian university and become professionals. I would go to university or college whether I wanted to or not.
It is my firm belief that for any child to succeed in their education, he or she needs an adult support person who continually asks about their educational progress. The person does not need to be emotionally involved with the child, but the person needs to encourage the child to achieve educational success. I had that. Children will live up to expectations set out for them, so if your expectations are low, expect not to get much. I found that the support person for many of the youth whom I lived with over the years, was their drug dealer, or some equally negative person. My support person was a person not biologically related to me, that I called my aunt.
My aunt was not exactly the most emotional person, and we only began to form an emotional relationship as I became an adult. But she was a dictator when it came to my education. My report card did not go to my social worker- first, it went to my aunt. She has a son my age, so she knew the exact day that report cards came out. In her mind, a C+ was not tolerable, and I would even sometimes be yelled at for getting a B. It was her high educational expectations that I tried to live up to. She is the reason why I didn’t falter in my high school years.
A long-standing joke between first-generation Indian children is that if they get 98% in a class, their parents will ask where the other 2% went. There is some truth in it. I attribute a lot of my success to the educational pressure my aunt gave me, and to my cultural values. However, in my mind, that only makes up 75% of the reason why I went on to post secondary schooling. The other 25% can be attributed to my personality.
To understand me better, understand this: at 13 I was in a group home surrounded by drugs, alcohol, and sex. Not the typical situation that a sheltered Indian girl is exposed to. I no longer had the option to go back to my parents, and I was now a ward of the courts. At 13, I knew that at 19 I would age out, and no one would be responsible for me other than myself. In my community, being Indian and on welfare was shameful, so I would not do that. So how would I make it?
I created a long term plan for myself at age 13. I knew that if I graduated on time, I could at least have one year of post-secondary schooling in before I aged out. After my first-year it would not be tough to find a job, and if all failed, I could stay in school and live off student loans. I had to pass my high school classes with reasonable grades so my plan would work, and that is exactly what I did. I also knew that any contact with the justice system would screw up my plan. Every one of the kids that I was living with in that group home was on probation and in and out of jail. I didn’t want the same for myself, so, although I did spend time with them, I was careful not to get caught up in the trouble.
I know that I do not represent most kids from foster care. Many kids I know failed to acknowledge the reality that they would be 100% responsible for supporting themselves when they turned 19. By then it would be too late to create a realistic long-term plan, and social workers would go into overdrive planning for their immediate needs.
Whenever I come across a child that I know will not be going back to their parents at the age of 19, I ask them about their plan. Where appropriate, I try to help them acknowledge that we are different from typical kids that have a family to go back to and, unless they want to be living on the streets, they better have a realistic plan. I started planning for myself when I was 13, and I forced those around me to plan as well. By the time high school had hit, I had a personal plan that I followed. Kids in foster care experience a reality that most children do not: essentially being kicked out and left to fend for yourself because you are now legally an adult. I am 23, and most young adults my age that I know still live at home with their parents. The sooner this unfortunate reality is acknowledged and accepted, and planning for the aging out process begins, the better off the child will be. No age is too young to prepare a child to be independent.
So I did not end up being a homeless drug addict. I did, however, graduate from college with a Diploma in Operations Management and am half way through a Bachelor of Child and Youth Care and about three quarters of the way there in a Bachelor of Commerce. I attribute all of this to my cultural values, support from my aunt, and having a long term realistic plan of how I would support myself after I aged out of care. I am not a negative statistic; I am one of the few but growing success stories.
Parveen Khtaria is a passionate voice for the issues affecting children and youth in care. An ASQ Certified Six Sigma Green Belt and college graduate, she speaks about permanency and cultural rights at BC events, conferences, and whenever she can get in front of someone who needs to understand the challenges facing youth in foster care. Having aged out of care herself, she understands the importance of having a forever family. Parveen looks forward to a career in quality assurance and project management.