April Dinwoodie: Welcome to Navigating Adoption: Presented by AdoptUSKids and brought to you by the US Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, and the Ad Council. Today’s episode is “The Countdown,” where we’ll discover what it means to be connected to a family through adoption and what those connections can bring to a young person about to age out of foster care. We’ll also learn that teens understand all of their options, as well as have a voice in their future.
Catherine Monet: I remember sitting at the table and listening to a person’s story about how they were adopted at the age of 23. I looked at someone from my table and I was like, “Wait, that’s a thing?”
April: I’m your host, April Dinwoodie. The age at which a teen leaves the foster care system varies state by state, but in many cases it’s 18 or 21. No matter the age, this represents a major turning point in the life of a young person in foster care. Today we’re going to hear from two amazing individuals, La Tika Jeffery and Catherine Monet. Both have been faced with the realities of aging out and living their life without a supportive family surrounding them. We’ll discover what they faced and how they found their voices to advocate for themselves. We’ll hear from La Tika first.
La Tika Jeffery: My name is La Tika Jeffery. I entered foster care at 14 years old. I aged out at 21 and was adopted by my best friend’s family at 22. Roughly when I was 16-17 years old, I was informed that my foster parent was retiring. This led to me, instead of going into another foster home or a group home due to my age, I went into an independent living program.
They gave me the freedom that I always wanted. However it was extremely nerve-wracking due to the lack of experience, knowledge and navigation that I had on society. I had to learn to pay bills, grocery shop, utility bills, expenses, all things that I wasn’t prepared for, mentally or financially. At 16,17 years old, I had to make life decisions. It’s either paying for my transportation for school or work, or eating dinner that night. That’s something no youth should have to think about. Being 18 or 21 is just a number. It’s not like you’re ready to be out on your own.
April: As La Tika did her best to manage life on her own, there came a day when the struggles became too much. She finally opened up to her best friend, who shared La Tika’s situation with her parents. They in turn connected with La Tika and became involved in her life.
La Tika: They were there every step of the way, even when I was in my independent living program and I needed a shower curtain. They would drive to see me. They came and saw my apartment. They spent time with me. They talked. Those were the small details that really mattered to me. It became so much more– I was tired of struggling, and I needed support and guidance and direction. So, I called my parents up, or my best friend’s family, and asked if I can stay with them. Once I moved in, everything was great.
We started building a better relationship. My dad and I would spend time by going to the gym, watching UFC. My mom, man. Just her love for God, love for nature, love for me, her love is just so empowering. I had a bad day, I need to talk to somebody, need a different opinion, perspective, I go to my mom. She’s my emotional tie. My dad’s more of my motivation person. It really works out for me and it balances out.
When my parents mentioned adoption, I was extremely surprised, because I believe I was there for less than a year. At that point, in my mind, I was not adoptable, I guess you can say. I felt like I was 21, I felt like I was grown, I knew it all, and I’ve pretty much been on my own all this time, so why? Why adoption, why me, why now? My dad just simply said, “For love, for guidance, and for support.” Out of everything to be mentioned, I never thought that love would be one of those, or support. It just took me away. They loved me for who I am, and they were willing to accept me at my worst and my best.
I don’t have to worry about where my next meal’s going to be, if I’m going to have transportation, if I paid those bills, because I had my family. I had that support. It was nothing less than a yes.
April: La Tika’s adoption became a pivot point in her life. Setting her up to make some exciting decision.
La Tika: After the adoption, I went off to school where I received my bachelor’s in business management. Later, after that, I married my so-called high-school sweetheart and we had two kids together. I have two daughters. I love being a mother and being an inspiration, I guess you can say, that I later decided to become a youth advocate.
April: That advocacy work began when La Tika was 28 and a stay-at-home mom for her four-year-old and newborn. Then, La Tika became the legal guardian of her 16-year-old sister.
La Tika: When I heard my sister was going to enter foster care, it was a shocking, but scary moment for me. Shocking in the aspect that it would really repeat the cycle and in the aspect that it’s my sister. I wasn’t there when she was born. I had to really sit down and figure out how I can better support my sister because it wasn’t about me. As a parent, I believe failure isn’t an option, and so I was determined to figure out how to make this work. I used the tools that my parents gave me, and I was able to build a sturdy foundation for myself, for my girls and my relationship with my sister.
April: Today, in addition to parenting her girls, La Tika is an advocate for foster care and adoption. I just love how patient she was as she figured out the right path for her and how she reached out to find the resources that she had right at her fingertips.
La Tika: Yes, 18 sounds good. 21 sounds good, but it’s really just a number. It doesn’t mean that you are ready to go out into the world. As a teen, you’re so impatient, you’re so ready to go on to the next thing, or to be an adult, to have a credit card, to pay bills, to get the flashy cars, but I feel like it’s not needed. It’s something that we can wait for. What we need to focus on is a game plan and getting ahead when it comes to opportunities, and looking at what’s in front of us.
April: Now we’re going to hear from Catherine Monet, whose journey took a different path than La Tika’s when she approached aging out of the system.
Catherine: Hi, my name’s Catherine Monet and I am a former foster youth. I’m from Maryland. I was adopted at the age of 20 after spending 8 years in the foster care system. I came into the system when I was around 12 or 13 years old. I first lived with my great-aunt, but, as she continued to get sick more, it was best that I went to a foster home, which was my first foster home outside of family. After being with my first foster family, I went to my second, which is my home now. I’ve been here since.
It was already a really good blend of me just fitting into the family and feeling like home, something I hadn’t felt for a long time. The idea of adoption was never brought to the table. I think it was like, “Okay, you’re going to do independent living,” because that was one thing that my social worker brought up to me. I was just like, “I’m scared because I’m still learning and growing and everything. How am I supposed to take care of myself in independent living?”
April: When Catherine was 19, she attended a leadership conference for youth and teens in foster care with her foster care social worker. It was at that conference where Catherine had a revelation about her options in the adoption process and realized the importance of speaking up for herself.
Catherine: I remember sitting at the table and listening to a person’s story about how they were adopted at the age of 23. I looked at someone from my table, and I was like, “Wait, that’s a thing?” She was like, “Yes, you didn’t know?” I was like, “No, I thought aging out was the only option for older teens and as they go into young adulthood and everything.” In that moment, the emotions just fled within this – It was like a wave. I just asked to be excused quietly. I just needed a minute.
I just went up to our hotel room, and just cried, and just disbelief in everything that I just heard. It was a reset and it really had me think like, “Okay, maybe it’s time that I start being more vocal about what I want to see in my life.” I’ve been with my family for a long time before the papers and everything. I was still considered family, but I wanted something that was official. That’s when I talked to the woman who brought me to the conference about it. I told her, like, how I was feeling and things that I thought was, but I told her, I was scared to talk to my parents about it.
She offered to come to my house and sit down with us and bring the whole option of adoption to the table. When I bought the option to my family, they were also shocked because they didn’t know it was possible for an older teen, young adult to be adopted. Especially one who’s close to the age of aging out at 21. It was a bit of a shock, but it was also relieving to know that they had the same feelings and sentiment about me, and me being a part of their family as I did with them.
There was no longer this feeling of, “Oh, I’m just passing through. This is a temporary home or something like–” Once I aged out like, “Okay, what’s next? I don’t feel like I have a permanent family, if that was to happen.” Just the whole acceptance, “This is something that we want to pursue,” it was a great feeling, especially for me, because again, I felt like permanency was actually coming alive. That word actually had meaning.
April: The leadership conference and workshops proved to be a pivotal moment in Catherine’s life. Not only for what it meant to her, but also for the other youth and teens experiencing foster care.
Catherine: At the conference, we started doing workshops, and I actually started to realize, “Wait a minute, I know I’m not the only one who’s actually gone through this or had been disappointed after finding something like this, that there’s a possibility for adoption, no matter what the age is.” There’s probably people at the table, where they’re with their social workers, and whoever else is on their case that feels like they can’t speak or they can’t advocate for themselves about what they want to see in their life because at the end of the day, it’s important in what the child wants, and what they really foresee for themselves.
Nothing should really be forced, in the matter of especially permanency. I feel so strongly believe that permanency is important because everyone deserves a chance to have a forever home. Everyone deserves a chance to feel like they belong, and feel that they’re not just a season, but a lifetime. After doing workshops and just realizing the capabilities that I had to go back to my state, and speak for the ones who felt unheard, and advocate for those. I think that’s where I got my jumpstart.
April: After being adopted, Catherine got her bachelor’s degree, and has gone on to become a strong voice for children and teens in care.
Catherine: I graduated. I was able to move to LA and achieve a lot of the things that I wanted to do. For sure I have my family right by my side supporting me throughout the whole thing. Through the good, the bad, but just having that stable connection, even having a place to come home, my room to come home to is great.
I feel permanency is important because as I mentioned, it’s not just about what you see on your court papers and what you and your attorney and your social workers talk about. I think there really comes a sense of feeling like you’re a part of something that’s bigger than you. You’re a part of something where you can get a fresh start where you can actually feel as though you can talk to people and say, “Yes, these are my parents,” and feel like a sense of pride in that.
April: It’s wonderful to welcome Sarah Phillips, LINKS coordinator, CPS social worker for Orange County Department of Social Services in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Sarah works with youth 13 to 21, who are in foster care, or aging out. Welcome to the podcast, Sarah. So good to have you here.
Sarah: Thank you so much for having me.
April: How did you get involved in this work?
Sarah: When I was in college, I really knew that I wanted to be in a space where I helped people feel loved and feel like they belonged. I graduated and started working in foster care with young people and teenagers.
April: What does it look like to support a young person, a teen in their placement decisions?
Sarah: If they have a relative or even if they have a parent and placement with that person is not going to be a possibility, I think that as social workers, we need to be mindful of that to say, “Okay, well, that might be the case and that’s okay, but how are other ways that this person can be involved in supporting this young person?”
April: Sarah, how do you balance the, “I’m getting close to aging out,” and, “I feel like I need to be putting some structure in my life and learning these life skills and helping support youth with that,” and also not giving up on the potential of adoption at a later stage of teen and early adulthood?
Sarah: I think a lot of people are not aware that even adult adoption is a possibility. We talk about that too. If this isn’t going to work, or if there’s something within the dynamics of the case that make this not a possibility right now, I want you to know that, number one, adoption is important, but at the end of the day, I’m much more interested in the connection that you have. That you have someone that you can say, “Hey, that is my mom. That is my dad.” You have that connection, and we can work on that legal paperwork as an adult. That’s totally fine. There’s still that safety net that we want to encourage because we are all human and we all need a security net.
April: Speaking of that security net, what happens when there isn’t that security net, and a youth will age out of foster care? What are some of the risk factors?
Sarah: According to the National Foster Youth Initiative, more than 23,000 young people will age out of foster care every year. After reaching 18, 20% of those who were in foster care will become instantly homeless. We’ve got homelessness. We also have lack of education. We have lack of employment. We’ve early pregnancy rates compared to their non-system involved peers. That is really why having that security net is so important, because they want to be ready and I want to support them, and we want them to be ready, but we got to do it day by day.
April: Can you think of one example where you really saw a young person or youth just really make it through this tough time, not only having to navigate school and, and life in relationships as a teen, but also these complicated, very grown-up life decisions that are needed?
Sarah: Gosh. I think growth is a journey. I’m proud to be able to witness the young people that I work with, in terms of the progress that they’re making. Young people who have really just been able to thrive in a good setup when they find their people and they’re able to see themselves in that perspective, they’re able to understand the vulnerability and how to relate to each other as a family. I have one young person who– she’s doing so well, she has graduated. She’s doing community college. She has a retirement account which is awesome.
April: Wow, that’s great. How do you find inspiration in the work that you do day in and day out, helping youth find a path forward to a family structure that can meet their needs?
Sarah: I do not devalue the little things, but being able to say, “Hey, this young person,” because that is probably what takes me through of being able to say, “You’re going to have hard days. I have hard days. I have days that I don’t want to come to work, but I’m so glad that you showed up.” Just appreciating the smaller things is really where we find joy, and where we find inspiration to just push onto the next day.
April: Celebrating the wins. The small wins, the big wins. Celebrating those moments of transformation. Even if they feel small, Sarah as you do this big work of being that support for so many youth that are working towards their own life dreams and life goals, how has this work impacted your life?
Sarah: I love the ability to show up to my job and be my authentic self. It’s allowed me to see the wins and it’s allowed me to see the smaller things that we need to be proud of and that we need to recognize. To be able to say, “Oh okay. I can give grace and I can be so supportive of this young person when they do this small thing, and I can do that for myself. I can do that for the other people in my personal life as well.”
April: Sarah I don’t know if there’s anything else that you would want to offer to anyone listening that may be interested in parenting a youth, a young adult who may be working their way through some of these challenging things.
Sarah: I would just say showing up is important. Even if you don’t have all the answers just showing up. Being authentic, being real to say, “This sucks, and we have to do it,” or, “This sucks. Maybe we can do this tomorrow,” or to say things like, “You must be really proud of yourself, and I’m really proud of you for doing this.” There’s no greater honor than being able to be that support for young people who are learning how to be an adult and learning what that means. There’s so many more experiences that you get to witness and so it’s just so important to be there.
April: That lifelong journey is real, and it’s been a joy to speak with you. Thank you so much.
Sarah: Thank you so much for having me.
April: Next up is Sixto Cancel. A founder and the CEO of Think of Us, a web and mobile life coaching platform that helps foster youth navigate their transition to adulthood. He himself was in foster care when he was young. I welcome you, Sixto, to this conversation, and thank you so much for being here.
Sixto: April, it is such a pleasure to be here.
April: As we think about these big decisions for placement either by adoption or guardianship, why is it so important to focus on the voices of the youth?
Sixto: I believe that is so critically important to center the voices of youth in in these decisions. I think it’s so important to be able to listen to that person’s intuition because human intuition tends to be right.
April: Why is it so important not to have it be about “either or,” but “both,” especially when it’s safe and healthy for a teen or youth to have contact with their family of origin.
Sixto: When I think about, “What’s the opportunity?” The opportunity is to have a young person even feel more loved and have the best of where they have come from and the best of the additions that have been made to their life by the new relationships that they’ve had. To have this chosen family, this larger family set of people who are there with them. We need family.
April: What are some of the ways that individuals like yourself who have experienced foster care can impact change for the path forward?
Sixto: I think there’s many different mediums by which you can make an impact with. That doesn’t always look like just sharing your story.
April: One last thing Sixto, what words of inspiration and encouragement would you offer someone out there who may be considering adopting a teen or youth who is currently in foster care?
Sixto: I believe that fostering and adopting is one of the greatest ways to be of service. Just to do good work in this world, because when you are allowing your heart to truly be open, to be able to add new family members to your home, I say go all in on it. What I would say is that it doesn’t just come with the joy of the one person. It comes with the joy of the network that comes with that young person.
Sometimes we think of adopting or fostering as we’re selecting one and making that one part of our pack, but the reality is that you’re selecting a person that comes with a myriad of people and that comes with a myriad of good and challenging moments that make life, life. How you’re able to welcome that, I just say lean in because it helps someone heal, develop, and be part of your family, is such a beautiful journey to be able to go ahead and be on.
April: Beautiful Sixto. Thank you so much. It was really an honor and a joy to have La Tika Jeffery and Catherine Monet with me on the podcast. I thank you both so much for sharing so openly, your experiences, insights, and life journeys thus far. I really want to close with some advice from both of you. I’m going to start with you La Tika. For listeners considering adopting a teen from foster care, what would you like them to know?
La Tika: Don’t look at the file and make that be your only judgment of the youth. There’s so much more to them. Just your simple connection and bond with them, may allow them to be the very best version of themselves. But it’s important for you to sit down and have those conversations with the youth because I don’t believe that it’s something that a youth would be open to. The adult has to take the control in this conversation and really advocate or really show a different side. Be patient, love, and just meet them where they are.
April: Meet youth where they are. Thank you for that. Catherine, I thought it was so eye-opening that you weren’t aware that adoption was an option for you. That you truly didn’t even think to ask about it. What advice might you give to your younger self?
Catherine: Know that your voice holds value and it’s important. You may not have had control of the cards that were dealt to you, and that’s something that I’ve learned over time, but you do have control about who’s at your table and who will be there for you to help continue pushing you up to advocate for your best self and advocate for the things that you want.
April: Finally, what advice would you give for someone that wants to be adopted by their foster parents?
Catherine: Start now. When I say start now, I’m not saying start the whole process, paperwork and everything, but start thinking about those conversations and having those conversations and having an open dialogue about it. Even with people who are a part of your case like your social workers, your attorneys. Talk to them about it. It’s important who you bring to your table because those people at your table are going to be the ones that will hold you up when you feel like your voice doesn’t have any context, and doesn’t have any value. They’ll be the ones who remind you of why you started.
April: Catherine, La Tika, I could talk to you both all day. I think how you’re moving through this experience and how you’ve created space to be an advocate for others is truly inspirational and amazing. Thank you both for being here. If you are interested in adopting a teen from foster care, AdoptUSKids has adoption specialists ready to guide you through that process right now. Learn more by visiting adoptuskids.org.
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