Emancipation: Leaving Foster Care On My Own Terms
Walking into court for my very last time as a foster youth, I felt like I was getting a divorce from a system that I’ve been in a relationship with almost my entire life.
It’s bittersweet because I’m losing guaranteed stipends for food and housing, as well as access to my social workers and my lawyer. But on the other hand, I’m relieved to finally get away from a system that ultimately failed me on its biggest promise. That one day it would find me a family who would love me.
“Good afternoon, let’s go on the record,” said Judge Shawna Schwarz. “This is line six, the matter of Nole Anaya.”
“No-El” I said, correcting the judge’s mispronunciation of my name.
“Noel Anaya, thank you.”
I asked her, “Have you guys been saying it wrong for 21 years?”
“You know what, everyone pronounces it differently,” the judge told me. “Thank you though, I’m glad to know it’s Noel.”
Little things, like when my judge mispronounced my name, served as a constant reminder that, “Hey, I’m just a number.” I often came away feeling powerless and anonymous in the foster care system.
In most states, foster youth age out of the foster care system when they turn 18. But 23 states have opted to allow young people to remain in the system longer and continue to access support. California is one of those places. I recently turned 21 and got exceptional permission to bring a recorder with me for my final court hearing before aging out.
“Well I’m reviewing my notes,” said Judge Schwarz, “and it looks like the first time I got involved in your case was back in 2003. You’ve been in the system a long time.”
I’ve been in the foster care system since I was just one year old. I don’t have any pictures of my five siblings and me together as babies. Not a single one. It’s made Throwback Thursdays a little challenging.
My biological parents weren’t ready to be parents. My father was abusive. Eventually Child Protective Services got involved, and my siblings and I went into the foster care system.
We were separated and shuffled between foster homes, group homes, shelters, and for at least one of my siblings, incarceration. That’s why it was really important to me to make a statement in court, going on the record about how the foster care system failed my siblings and me.
“I have to say, you have been pretty much one of our more successful young adults. Is there any advice you’d give us?” the judge asked me.
In fact, I had a speech prepared:
“To whom it may concern: this is the year that I divorce you. Your gray hands can no longer hurt me. Your gray hands can never overpower me. Your gray hands can never tell me that you love me, because it’s too late.“
I used “gray hands” to describe the foster care system, because it never felt warm or human. It’s institutional — the opposite of the sort of unconditional love I imagined that parents show their kids.
“Your gray hands just taught me how to survive in a world. We never learned how to love ourselves unconditionally. I’ve been with multiple foster families. I’ve been with multiple shelters. How does a person like me not end up with a family?”
In an ideal world, being a foster kid is supposed to be temporary. When it’s stable and appropriate, the preference is to reunite kids with their parents or family members. Adoption is the next best option. I used to dream of it. Having a mom and dad, siblings to play with, a dog. But when I hit twelve, I realized that I was getting old and adoption probably would never happen for me.
In the system, I constantly had new social workers, lawyers, and case managers, which left me vulnerable. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that their turnover was caused by low wages and overflowing caseloads. Even my lawyer says he’s currently juggling 130 other clients.
I read to the courtroom:
“At 21, you happily kick us off to the curb and say, ‘Good luck. I wish you the best. But don’t come back, because we can’t take you in.’ I’ve seen too many of my people give up on the educational system.”
I had hoped to finish college by the time I aged out of foster care, but I’m still in my junior year. I’m committed to getting my bachelor’s, despite the odds being terrible. According to the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, only somewhere between two and nine percent of former foster kids complete their college degree.
I concluded my speech:
“I hope that you hear my words. And I hope that you listen to my signal of distress. I thank you for giving me closure. Thank you.”
For a moment, the courtroom was silent. Then the judge said, “Alright. Well. Thank you very much for being willing to share your feelings and your beliefs with us. So, I know you have some–it sounds like, some mixed feelings about the foster care system. But, Noel, I have no doubt that you are going to be successful in whatever you choose to do. Well, let me say the magic words. ‘I will adopt the findings and the orders…'”
As the judge read her final orders closing out my case, I promised myself that I would leave all the rage I felt about the foster care system inside the courtroom. That I wouldn’t carry all that hate and frustration with me for the rest of my life.
“There will be no further reviews,” said the judge. “Alright, thanks. Let’s go off the record. Congratulations! Good luck!”
“Thank you so much,” I said, but there’s one more thing I needed before leaving the courtroom –for the judge to bring the gavel down on this chapter of my life.
“Is that it?” I asked. “No hammer?”
“You want me to do the gavel?” she asked.
“One time please.”
“Alright, I’ll do the gavel,” said the judge. “You know we never do that in real life.”
I felt goosebumps when the gavel slapped down on my judge’s desk. Happy because I’m no longer cared for by a system that was never that good at actually caring for me. And I’m anxious, too, about what life might be like next.
Reporter: Noel Anaya
Senior Producer & Editor: Brett Myers
Senior Editors: Lissa Soep and Ellin O’Leary
Production: Denise Tejada, Noah Nelson, Teresa Chin, Shawn Wen and Jenny Bolario