According to a Child Welfare Information Gateway Statistic Study done in 2008 (the most recent information available), there were almost 500,000 children in the foster care system throughout the United States. Although some of these children were placed in various settings, including nonrelative foster family homes, relative foster homes, institutions, group homes, preadoptive homes, etc, you may ask yourself what happened to the men and women who aged out of the system and never found a forever family?
The cold truth of the matter is that many of these men and women are not properly prepared for the outside world and what it holds for them at the tender age of 18. Expected to fend for themselves when they “age out” of the foster care system, many of these young men and women have never been taught the basics such as, how to cook for themselves, prepare a budget, pay bills, interview for a job, enroll in college and handle medical issues. Although some are given a minimal monthly income from the government, many times the money is not handled properly and is either swindled away from the young adult or used in ways that are not benefiting. Often times, these men and women turn to drugs, prostitution and living on the street.
Every year, thousands of families take the necessary foster care classes and wait in hopes of adopting a baby or young child under the age of 2. However, there is no such line of families waiting for the older men and women who are close to turning 18. As they watch their younger housemates/siblings get adopted, these men and women often wonder why there isn’t a family waiting to take them home and they worry about what the future will hold for them – alone.
These are their stories.
Mez Pierre, now 23, will take you on a journey through his life – all you have to do is ask him. Spend just a few minutes with him, and you will be intrigued by this handsome, well spoken and motivated young man. As he tells you his story, it is hard to imagine that he survived and turned out as well as he has, considering the circumstances. Mez grew up in an extremely difficult environment, with a mother who was mentally ill and a father who wasn’t around much. When Mez’s father was around, he was cold, had a vile temper and was physically abusive. He shares an experience he remembers when he was younger; his father was angry at a man he was playing cards with and went into the house to get a gun. Instead of the father shooting this man, he told the man that he would have his son shoot him. Mez’s father laid the gun in Mez’s hand and showed him how to pull the trigger. He told Mez that he would now be “a man” if he followed these instructions. Mez was five years old at the time.
Mez was also “bred to fight” at the age of 5; think of dog fighting rings, except replace dogs with young children. He tells stories of how he was trained to fight and put up in rings against other children at a young age. At school, teachers began to question the multiple injuries on his body, DCF was called and Mez was taken out of the home. This began what would become a 13 year journey in the foster care system, during which he would go in and out of 50 foster care homes. “When I was younger, I was very violent, selfish and prideful. I wouldn’t trust anyone and I would often seclude myself. Because of those qualities, I know I was a difficult child to deal with for many of those foster care families,” he shares. “Often times the foster care parents would tell me how I meant nothing to them and how I was ‘just a paycheck’. I knew if I acted out, DCF would move me and that would be my way out of that house.”
After aging out of the system at 18, Mez moved into the Spirit of Success Institute, a program under the 4KIDS umbrella. “We are a faith-based program where young men and women pay rent and have house parents who function like a college residential advisor. They offer guidance to these young adults and help teach them the life skills that they were never shown, such as cleaning, cooking, budgeting, etc,” explains De Kelly, Independent Living Coordinator. “In terms of being a program that is rooted in faith, we don’t force our faith on those entering, but we do let them know that we are believers in God, that His name will be used frequently and that they are always welcome to attend our weekly Bible studies and/or church services.”
After moving into Spirit of Success, Mez recalls the drastic change in direction regarding his life. “A woman here kept urging me to take a missions trip to the Bahamas and I really did not want to go,” Mez shares. “I was very selfish and did not want to do anything for anyone else.” After seeing one of those breathtaking commercials for the Bahamas, Mez decided to try it out – hoping for gorgeous sand, beaches and fun in the sun. What he actually found in the Bahamas is another story.
“The commercial was a lie,” Mez says jokingly. “We traveled to this very poor area, people walking around barefoot and as we went into their houses, they had no floor – it was just dirt. Next, we visited an orphanage, and growing up an orphan myself, I was shocked to see the conditions these children were growing up in. They had nowhere near what I had growing up, yet they were so happy and grateful that we were there to play with them. At that orphanage, I realized how blessed I had been all of those years, and how even some of the foster car families had spoiled me in some ways.”
The next stop for Mez was life altering. “We traveled to an AIDS camp – everyone was dying. These people were so filled with joy and all I could think was, ‘I am so healthy and yet I am nowhere near as happy as these people’. It was in that very instant that I changed.” So overwhelmed by the desire to change his life, Mez went to the missions group meeting that night in the Bahamas and asked the leader if he could preach that night – needless to say, the leader was shocked. And preach he did. When he returned to the states, he remembered an overwhelming desire to begin a new life, to let God take over and it was then that he set his eyes on a goal for the future – to help overhaul the foster care system and make some desperately needed changes.
Over the next few years, Mez became involved in ChildNet, a local community-based lead care agency, he did a segment with forever families on NBC and formed a group with other foster care children with the mission of educating the community on problems that need to be changed within the system and different solutions that can be tried. Mez’s group, Florida Youth Shine, went on to get national attention with the governor of Florida and the senate – even getting laws changed in the education and records bill. Now studying criminal justice at PBC and BC, there is no doubt in Mez’s mind that God has a plan for him, stating, “God’s love for me is infinite. I process my life and think about where I have come from and I feel successful because I have overcome. God has never forsaken me regardless of all the crazy things I have done, and I know that it is Him that has surrounded me with all of these wonderful people who stand by me no matter what.”
Although he never found a forever family to love during his time in foster care, Mez reflects on what the word love means to him: “I am still at the stage where I am defining love and the true meaning of it. So far I feel that true love is patient and it is persistent- loving someone no matter the circumstances.
God has surrounded me with people who are teaching me how to love and I am learning what it takes to be a good husband and father one day – to properly love a woman and appreciate and support her. God has helped break a curse that was on me from my father and my family and He has me in a very good place right now.”
One of the members of Mez’s group who helped spread the word about foster care is Rosanna Disla, a beautiful 21 year old woman, whose smile and energy will brighten up any room she is in. It is heartbreaking to hear all of the trials and tribulations this sweet girl has endured at such a young age, but it is paired with joy when you see the strides she has made with her life despite the circumstances. Rosanna’s parents lost custody of her during her early teens, after her father tried to kill her mother and was arrested. In addition to living in an abusive household, Rosanna had a lot of mature duties placed on her at a young age – as her parents are both deaf. Phone calls, doctor’s appointments, meetings, interviews, getting food stamps, etc – everything required Rosanna to be in charge, with her having to sign to her parents in order for things to get accomplished. After her father was charged with attempted murder, Rosanna was taken out of the home.
After aging out of the foster care system at 18, Rosanna entered into the Spirit of Success Institute, living at one of the women’s homes. Rosanna admits that she thought she “knew it all” at the age of 18, and only stayed at the Institute a short while. She ended up jumping from one living situation to another, dropping out of college, working full time but eventually losing her job, hanging out with a seedy crowd and eventually getting pregnant. Then, life changed.
“I gave my daughter up for adoption to a loving family that works in 4KIDS and I know that it was the best decision of my life. I can honestly say that there are no regrets because every time that I see my daughter she is so happy,” shares Rosanna. “I know it was the best choice and I know my daughter is going to be someone very special when she gets older and it is because of this family that adopted her.”
Realizing now that she probably should have stayed in the Spirit of Success Institute years ago, she has recently decided to move back. “I like it here because it feels like a family. We have fellowship, we get to go to church and everyone genuinely cares about you. I know that God has put me here and I look at this as a chance to have my life finally move forward. The minute I pulled up on the driveway of Spirit of Success I felt like everything was going to be alright,” she tells. “Even though I have made bad decisions in life, I know that God loves me. He gave me life and I know that He is with me all of the time.”
Rosanna is now enrolled back in college and is currently looking for a job. When asked what her advice would be to foster care children who are about to age out of the system, she says, “Don’t let the negativity take you in. If you don’t let God into your life, then things are just not going to work out. Surround yourself with positive, good people and your life will go in a totally different direction. Take help when it is offered and don’t be prideful and think that you know everything.”
Rosanna and Mez hope to continue to make necessary changes in the foster care system that they believe are of the utmost importance, such as, stopping abuse that takes place within foster homes, training staff properly, having a better system in place that will prepare kids who are about to age out, make plans that will help to lower the incarceration rate of those who have aged out, and prepare a better system for weeding out foster parents who are only interested in “a paycheck”.
If God has placed fostering a child on your heart, Mez and Rosanna ask that you pray about fostering a child who is close to aging out of the system. Pastor Doug Sauder of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, who is also the President of 4KIDS of South Florida, puts it this way: “God didn’t adopt us when we were baby’s, He adopted most of us when we were grown and had a lot of issues. So, adopting an older child is a real mirror picture of what God did for us. There is a very short list of those willing to adopt teenagers. God loves older kids as much as He loves younger kids and I can tell you adopting has been the most amazing experience of my life. Yes, it has its struggles and is not like a fairy tale, but it is truly a miracle to watch how God can restore the brokenness of these kids through the families that adopt them.”
For more information about 4KIDS or the Spirit Institute of Success, please visit: www.adoption4kidsofsfl.org or www.4kidsofsfl.org/getting_involved/spirit_of_success_institute.cfm.
Marisa Zeppieri-Caruana is a contributing writer for The Good News and can be reached at [email protected].