THE BLOG
07/07/2014 12:18 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

They Would Hide Their Purses

Chris Chmielewski

It's as if you get a card. It comes with the garbage bag full of your clothes. It's the result of being a part of something so abnormal that most people don't know anything about it. It's not a physical card or stamp on your forehead but it's always there.

It's always front and center. You're scary. You're dangerous. There must be something off about you. After all, you're a foster kid.

I got my card when I was fourteen. The card read, This is one scary ass kid. He has clearly done something wrong. Probably a head case, definitely hide your valuables and watch what you say.

I didn't deserve a card. I was one of the happiest kids you'd ever met. I was more likely to tell a joke than steal or give anyone an attitude. But, like the 400, 000 kids who also find themselves in care each year, I didn't do anything wrong. I wasn't a threat to anyone; I was just another goofy teenager. There were no bomb threats. I wasn't an arsonist. I just had a series of mistakes and bad luck that all presented itself at the same time. The result? Five years under the care of the state.

Unlike the 120,000 kids in care that are available for adoption (the lowest cost adoption there is), I wasn't going anywhere. Because I was a foster kid who would be in the system until I aged out, got too old for the state to care for me, (In most states the age out number is 18, though over the last few years a large number of states have moved to age 21.) I was labeled as such. I would be a foster kid, with all of the baggage and stigma that came with that title.

Like the card reads, there must be something wrong with me. I must have an attachment disorder. I must have anger issues. I must be slower than the rest of the kids. I must not be as socially normal as everyone else. I must be scary.

I was never scary. Rarely angry. Smart as a whip. Most likely to start the party rather than the guy who starts the fight that ends the party.

But folks fear what they don't understand. Word would spread like wildfire when I'd get moved to a new school. Inevitably I would be fielding questions about what foster care was, what I "was in" for, how many homes had I lived in so far, you know, the same questions you ask every new kid?!? Turns out it was good practice for what I would do later in life but at the time, what a hassle.

When people find out you're in foster care they can't help but ask those questions. No matter their age they revert back to childhood. Their eyes get wide and sympathetic. Their head tilts ever so slightly to the side to show empathy. They just want to understand. Some of those questioning me went on to be close friends, friends I had hoped to walk on stage with at graduation. That wouldn't happen.

My time was up, my card was pulled, and I was out of foster care. One problem; there was still two weeks until graduation. (I'm not an isolated story, 20,000 kids will age out this year. With no proof I lived in the school district, I was expelled. The next few months were spent searching for answers and a place to sleep. (Three out of 10 kids within the U.S.'s homeless population spends time in care. Go ahead, ask them.)

I found no resources, no help. I got lucky though. A friend's Mom would help me get my GED, enroll me in college (Only 3 percent receive a bachelor's degree, 7 percent achieve an associate's degree) and find me a place to live during school.

I never forgot being lost, never forgot that people didn't understand, never forgot asking questions but finding no answers.

I put the responsibility of dispensing information and helping those who did not understand foster care squarely on my shoulders. I did so while in care, when I aged out and then a decade later when I started America's only monthly foster care magazine, Foster Focus.

I put in the work, I used my own money and found my way to becoming a top source of foster care news and information.

There was a time when my voice wasn't heard. People in all 50 states and countries around the globe read my words these days. I'm asked to join panels on foster care now, I wasn't even asked to dinner when I was in care. I'm a trusted figure in the world of foster care now but when I was young they would hold their purses tighter when they found out I was in care.

All those years spent fighting to be normal; fighting to get rid of my card would prep me to explain this world to people outside of it. I was no different from any other kid at my school, except for the home I went to when the final bell rang.

My card these days reads, Owner, Editor, and Creator of the nation's only monthly foster care magazine. The fact that I was in foster care for a chunk of my life only makes me a more credible source of information with an insider's perspective. Nothing scary about that.

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