Shamelen Henderson, 17, went through 24 foster and group homes in the District before finding one from which she didn’t want to run away. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year’s. Shamelen Henderson ticked off each as she recalled how at 13 she spent those holidays in a group home, with nowhere else to go.

Other girls at the home for juvenile offenders had families they could visit on the weekends and special occasions. She didn’t. She was a foster child. She was a runaway. She was alone.

“It was staff cooking food and me watching TV, crying most of the time,” she recalled of those holidays. “That made me want to run, too.”

Shamelen started running away when she was 12 years old. She ran from one foster home and then from another and then from another after that. She ran, and she ran, living in 24 foster and group homes in five years.

But now, she is done running.

Now, she is speaking out.

She is 17 and has recently become a voice for some of the most vulnerable and at-risk children in the nation’s capital: those who end up in foster care and the juvenile justice system.

Earlier this month, the teenager stood before D.C. Council members and spoke on behalf of the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS). And on Tuesday, she will testify on Capitol Hill about juvenile justice reform.

“I don’t want them to go through what I went through,” Shamelen said of other children.

She said she ran from so many homes for different reasons. Some weren’t the right fit. Some of her guardians were “bad foster parents.” Sometimes, she was the one at fault, acting immaturely or running away just to get back to family members she missed. But that running and missing school landed her in the criminal justice system, where she saw another side of how children are treated.

“They call it rehabilitation, but they don’t really focus on that,” she said. “They should offer therapy. They should offer trauma service. Most people that are locked up have been through a certain amount of trauma.”

Linda Harllee Harper, the senior deputy director of DYRS, sat at a table with Shamelen on a recent morning and spoke about why Shamelen’s voice matters.

“It’s so important for the public to realize that we have to listen to young people as the adults try to change the system,” Harper said.

She praised the teenager’s ability to advocate for herself and for others.

“That’s your gift,” Harper told her. Then she asked her, “Why is that your passion?”

“I like to advocate for people because I know what it’s like to be a person that doesn’t have anyone to advocate for me,” Shamelen said.

I heard about Shamelen before I met her. When people talk about her, they describe her as a force. They describe a young woman who is “smart,” “insightful” and wants more from life than what she was handed.

Asante Laing, the program manager of the achievement centers for DYRS, said Shamelen is one of the 18 young women who are required to attend a weekly “girls program” that offers youths in the juvenile justice system support and guidance. Laing said that she has noticed many of the girls looking toward Shamelen as a leader.

“For us, it’s how do we water that plant?” Laing said. “As awesome as Shamelen is, I still don’t think she knows her power yet.”

Shamelen right now is in a good place.

She is working at Starbucks, maintaining a strong GPA in high school and has been accepted to three colleges, one in Virginia and two in North Carolina. She is also waiting to hear from the university she would most love to attend, Georgetown.

But for a long time, she wasn’t in that good place. She dreams of becoming a lawyer who represents children in the criminal justice system because she understands what it feels like to be a child who needs such support.

Shamelen’s juvenile record is sealed, but as she sat with DYRS officials who have seen it, she said that running away and missing school had landed her several times in juvenile detention. The first time, she said, was after she skipped school for three months. When she finally showed up for class, she was called to the office, where a police officer took her into custody.

“My first week, I cried,” she said. “Every time we had group, I cried. I was 12.”

One of her worst experiences, she said, came when she spent time at a juvenile detention facility in Virginia after running from a residential treatment center.

“They treat you like you’re an adult,” she said. “You only get three-minute showers. You share underwear. If you get into a fight or something like that, they put you in this place called the Bahamas. It sounds nice, but it’s not nice. They give you your food through a slot.”

She said she spent 30 days there in solitary confinement conditions, allowed recreation time for only an hour a day.

She passed the time by composing poetry in her head and singing Marvin Sapp’s “Praise Him in Advance.” The first two lines are, “I’ve had my share of ups and downs. Times when there was no one around.”

Her situation, she said, didn’t start to change until she was committed to DYRS’s care and custody at about age 15.

She said staff members connected her with mentors who seemed to care about her and who offered her advice, such as how to channel her feelings so she wouldn’t blow up in anger at anyone.

She also made another important connection. She was in a group home when she was told that a D.C. police officer was interested in fostering her.

“Nah,” she recalled thinking. “I’m not about to be in a foster home with a police officer.”

Then she met her. They went out to lunch. They talked. She visited the officer’s home. She took note that two teenagers who had lived with the officer had gone on to college.

On Nov. 17, 2017, Shamelen moved in with the officer. She has not run away since.

“She treats me like I’m her child,” Shamelen said. “She has high expectations for me.”

The officer did not want to be interviewed for this column. She told officials she wanted the attention to be on Shamelen, not her.

Brenda Donald, director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, said that the agency has a program for people who want to take in teenagers and that through it, older children are allowed to interview potential foster parents. She said the agency has found it “works well” and gives children who have most of their decisions made for them some control.

Shamelen doesn’t talk publicly about her biological parents or how she came to be in foster care. She prefers to focus on what she learned about the system while she was in it and what she plans to do next.

In June, she will graduate from high school and then head to college.

She may not know yet which one, but she does know this: where she will spend her next Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

She and the officer have already talked about that.