By 13, she was taking care of the grocery shopping and watching her mother’s physical and mental health challenges grow progressively worse.
“I’ve had times in my life where I’ve had nothing, where I’ve had to choose between paying a bill or eating, and I’m like, ‘I need water and light,’ ” Deshala says as she sits in her room at the group home where she’s been living since she entered foster care at the age of 16. “I’ve been unstable my entire life. This is the only stability I’ve had for four years.”
In a couple of months, on Dec. 23, Deshala will turn 21. For her, that milestone birthday won’t just mark a coming-of-age moment when she’s suddenly seen as mature enough to drink legally, gamble in Vegas and drive for Uber.
It will also mark the moment she’s supposed to “age out” of foster care.
“Are you ready for that?” I ask her.
“If that was to happen, and I’m not trying to say that it will happen, I don’t want that to happen, and it shouldn’t,” she says. “But I don’t know. I probably would be okay.”
She probably would be okay. Stepping out on her own. Days before Christmas. During a pandemic that has uprooted lives with sturdier foundations than hers.
The coronavirus crisis has not only caused people across the country to lose loved ones and jobs. It also has derailed the plans of many people Deshala’s age, forcing them to move back home or rely on their parents for other support. Foster children don’t get that. They don’t get to fall backward, knowing a grown-up will be there, arms outstretched, ready to catch them.
While much of the country has been waiting to see what stimulus package lawmakers will deliver, if they can agree to deliver anything, people who work with the older foster care population are especially focused on one aspect of that promised relief. They are hoping to see a bill included that would prevent young people from aging out of foster care during the crisis and allow those who have already aged out since it started to reenter.
In some places, people “age out” of foster care as young as 18. Others offer support up until the age of 22. The bill, which was introduced to the House as the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act and incorporated into the revised Heroes Act, would not require those young people to live with strangers. It would simply allow them to temporarily receive continued support.
“A lot of young people are saying, ‘You took us from our families. We are now your kids,’ ” says Robert “Tony” Parsons, a D.C.-based federal policy associate for Youth Villages, a nonprofit that works to help young people transition from foster care to adulthood across the country. “These are your kids. And if you invest in them now, they will become productive young adults.”
And if we don’t? If a relief package doesn’t take them into consideration?
“I try not to think of the worst-case scenarios,” he says. “It could get really dark really fast.”
Parsons, who is 26, doesn’t just work on these issues. He describes himself as “born into” foster care. His birth mother abandoned him at the Michigan hospital where she delivered him, he says. He then spent three years in foster care before being adopted by an ironworker and preschool teacher. Parsons says he has 23 siblings, and 21 of them were at some point foster children.
In April, he and his siblings lost their father to covid-19. Parsons, who shares his father’s name, says he knows his father was proud to see him working with foster children.
Throughout the pandemic, Parsons has been working to connect young people with lawmakers, so they can explain for themselves why that extended support is needed.
He points to a survey the organization FosterClub did of people, ages 18 to 24, who have experienced foster care. A list of quotes shows them sleeping on borrowed couches, skipping medications they cannot afford and worrying about the future:
During this time, I feel extremely alone. I live on my college campus and come summer, I might be facing homelessness since I have no family members to rely on to help me.
Most of us have nothing and no one and need help!
I’m scared because I age out in 9 months, and I might not have any place to live.
That last one comes from a person in Maryland.
Deshala, who has been preparing to transition out of foster care through the LifeSet program in D.C., works at Target and takes classes at the University of the District of Columbia. She is studying to become a medical assistant and eventually hopes to work as an anesthesiologist.
She says she plans to take advantage of the extension D.C. is offering its young people who turn 21 during the pandemic. It will allow her to stay in foster care for 90 days after the end of the public health emergency. But she knows that many young people across the country don’t have that option, and just how much they need it.
That extra time, Deshala says, will allow her to save more money and leave the group home in a more secure position.
It will also help her in another way. It will give her more time to grieve. Last month, she says, her mother passed away. Just before she learned about the death, Deshala says, she had grown worried because school was going well for her and her two older siblings had each told her they were expecting babies.
“I’m like, ‘That’s too much good at one time; something bad is going to happen. Something is going to happen that’s going to make me feel that I shouldn’t have all this good,’ ” she says.
She should, of course, have all that good and more. The people who work with older foster youth know that. The lawmakers who have heard their stories have been convinced of that. (Parsons says the bill has received bipartisan support)
And Deshala is working to create a life that shows she believes that.
In her room at the group home, she has surrounded herself with positive affirmations. She has posted them as words on her vision boards and scribbled down sentences that have come to her. One of those reads, “I’m not who I was yesterday, so make tomorrow better.”
She has also developed the habit of writing on a whiteboard each month a single word that she can pull strength and encouragement from if she needs it. Once, the word was “headstrong.”
During the pandemic, she says, she has kept the word unchanged.
The one she chose: triumph.
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