Most minors who end up in the foster care system or placed with legal guardians end up there before they begin attending middle school. In fact, the median age of children entering non-parental care is 6.5 years. The median age of children exiting this kind of care is 8.2 years. On average, children remain in non-parental care before being placed with a permanent family for about 11 months.
My experience has been a little different from the statistics outlined above. When I was 13 years old and in 8th grade, I attempted to leave home for the first time. I had gotten into a heated debate with my birth mother the night before over a pair of gloves I wore on my hands to protect them while playing on a skateboard in the driveway and the dispute had ended with her smacking me with a pistol belt. You may know the type – rough belt, grommets in pairs running the full length, heavy metal buckle – but I’m sure you don’t know what kind of marks it could leave. I know all too well. You see, it wasn’t the first time that I had encountered that belt. We were old friends.
When I arrived at school the next day, thankful to be in my little patch of heaven, my friends were shocked to see what my arms looked like when I pulled my sleeves up as I took my coat off in the morning. Bruised with the pattern of that belt, my arms were shades of purple and black. Being the motherly type, a particularly wonderful friend of mine insisted that I couldn’t go home that night – what if my mother was still angry? Scared and understanding her logic, I went home with her after school, not knowing what to expect moving forward. After arriving home with her, the day was surprisingly tranquil. No screaming when I walked in the door, no harassing remarks about what a chubby little girl I’d turned into, and certainly no belt. However, my respite didn’t last long, as I only had so many friends and my birth mother soon figured out where I was and came over to bring me home. Before she made it though, Child Protective Services was called, and the Dannie Fountain file was opened.
After going home with my mother that night, I certainly “learned my lesson” and didn’t try leaving home again for a while. In fact, my mother and I’s arguments only got worse, fed by my teenage years and her glee at the control she so willingly exercised over me. I finally came out of the closet and told her about my longtime “best friend” (my girlfriend) and things only got worse.
It wasn’t until a snow day my senior year of high school that I found the courage to leave home once more. This time, I didn’t leave without telling my mother, she gleefully scooted me out the door, hollering that “[I’d] be back” before long. Walking into town (I grew up on a farm), a friend found me and offered to give me a lift the rest of the way. There I called a woman I believed I could trust and she came and took me to her home. I firmly believed that either my mother would come to her senses and see that there were other ways for us to work out our problems or I’d have the opportunity for a fresh start.
It didn’t quite go that way. My life as I knew it ceased to exist but a new kind of hell began – a mother’s vengeance. From the missing person’s report to sending the police to my friends’ houses, to being difficult when I needed medical care and making my final months as a high school student incredibly difficult, it seemed as though my mother would never stop. After enduring five months of her rampage and making my life difficult, the woman I moved in with helped me file for her to have guardianship of me. Of course, my mother fought this every step of the way, challenging the temporary guardianship the courts authorized as well as the permanent guardianship case that came shortly thereafter.
The most interesting part of the entire process was that no matter how many times Child Protective Services was called, I struggled to get people to see my side of the story, or at least meet me on middle ground. The issues I had with my mother were dismissed by her friends and those in authority as “everyday teenage problems”. I was accused of only seeking guardianship somewhere else so that I would have a way to get more financial aid to attend college. The blame for the unraveling of my family situation was and still is placed squarely on my shoulders.
Fast forward three years to today and the story is much different. I now have a Bachelor’s Degree from a fantastic liberal arts college where I graduated early and with honors, have started a Master’s program at a graduate school, and have started working at a Fortune 100 company where I love my job. My birth sister, who is 18 months my junior, has also stopped living with my birth mother for many of the same reasons I did and has joined the Air Force where she is actually happy and living her life fully. My other birth sister and my brother live at home still, though both of them are less than 2 years from being old enough to leave of their own will and there are other adults now advocating to have my remaining siblings removed from my birth mother’s home.
Though the foster care/guardianship system has its faults, it has most certainly saved my life, as it recognized that the woman I now call “Mom” was the best person possible to parent me. I was not the typical age of a child with an open court case, but I remained “in the system” for less than the average time and went on to be better for the experiences I’d had within the system.
Child Welfare Information Gateway (2013). Foster care statistics 2012. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau.
Dannie Fountain-Jagodzinski is a 20-year old entrepreneur and marketing professional. She loves tennis and photography and on the weekends you’ll find her catching up on my favorite Netflix show – Orange is the New Black.
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