According to the Casey Family Programs National Center for Resource Family Support, there are more than half a million children in foster care today. Shalita O'Neale, herself a product of the system, was determined to help create a haven for foster care children yearning for a nurturing hand to help them along their journey in life. This led her to establish the Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center (MFYRC) in her native Baltimore, MD. The mission of the MFYRC is to endow citizens of foster care with the resources that will connect them with local non-profit organizations. As founder of the MYFRC, O'Neale has also held onto her position as president of the Maryland chapter of the Foster Care Alumni of America, while also serving as an advocate for locating adoptive homes for older foster children. She has been featured as a guest speaker at numerous seminars around the country in an effort to relate the reality of child welfare to those not familiar with the alternative. The MFYRC will be hosting the Speak Out! Recognition Reception on May 28 at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore; an event that perfectly coincides with National Foster Care Month. The honoree list for the reception will include Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darryl "DMC" McDaniels [one half of Run-D.M.C.], a man who found out he was adopted when he was doing research for his autobiography. For Shalita O'Neale -- a young woman who has done so much for the foster care system that prepared her for life -- there was no other choice but to give back.
Talk a little about your background and your experience in foster care.
I spent 19 years collectively in kinship and foster care. I came into kinship care after my mother was murdered when I was two-years-old.; my father was not in the picture. I bounced around to different family members before officially coming into foster care when I was 13-years-old, as a result of the abuse I was experiencing with my uncle. I lived in two different foster homes before I went to a group home where I stayed until I went to college.
How did the foster care system affect you?
Foster care was very scary for me. I didn't know how long I was going to stay with a family. I desperately wanted to belong, but it seemed no matter how hard I tried to fit in -- I was never accepted. Being in foster care was extremely lonely.
Was your foster care experience the catalyst for you to start MFYRC?
Yes... it was important for me to start MFYRC because I remember how frustrating it was navigating the system to find resources that were available to me. There were many foster youth that aged-out (the age at which the state is no longer responsible for foster youth and they are expected to be ready to be on their own. In most states this age is 18, but in Maryland this age is 21) without the resources they needed to thrive as adults. As a result, many of the youth I knew when I was in foster care became homeless or caught up with the wrong crowd when they aged-out. Some of them have since died. I wanted to make sure transitioning and former foster youth knew about the resources available to them and that there was a central place where they could go to find the information.
It is also important to me that the voices of foster youth are heard and that their experience in foster care is considered when child welfare policies and programs are established. Youth should be sitting around the table with the policy and decision-makers, as no one knows the foster care system better than the youth who've lived in it.
Why do you think there is such a public misconception regarding foster youth?
There is such a public misconception regarding foster youth because the only time you hear about foster youth in the media is when there is a tragedy or when a foster youth commits a crime. You don't hear about the good things that we're doing. As citizens we need to encourage all youth -- especially those that have little to no family support. Youth come into the foster care system not because of any wrong-doing on their part. They enter foster care because they're being abused or neglected by their biological parents and they're no longer able to care for them. However, foster youth are treated as if it is their fault that they're in foster care.
What can we do as a society to change this?
For one, the media needs to be better balanced with their foster youth stories because they're not just stories -- these youth are real people that have to live with the negative stereotypes and labels given to them by society. After being told how much of a thief and liar you are -- you begin to believe it. These youth are human; they deserve to be loved and accepted like anyone else.
Talk a little about the Speak Out! Recognition Reception. Why did you decide to put together this event?
The Speaking Out! Recognition Reception will be MFYRC's first fundraiser. At this event, we will honor individuals that have made major strides in raising awareness about the issues facing youth in and from foster care. We will also honor six foster youth with need-based scholarships that will help them in their journey to becoming successful and confident adults. This event will provide a chance for child welfare organizations, non-profits, corporations and the community to support the accomplishments of local foster youth in addition to learning how MFYRC can be a resource to them and the youth and families they serve.
I've noticed that hip-hop legend Darryl 'DMC" McDaniels is one of your honorees. Given his background as a man who didn't know he was adopted until he was well into adulthood, do you find that common among adults who have gone through foster care?
I think the issue nowadays is the small number of older youth in foster care that are being adopted. Youth are aging-out without connections to a permanent, stable and loving family. We need the media's help in bringing awareness to this issue and mobilizing the community to get involved in the lives of these youth. 25% of foster youth become homeless upon aging out, 40% are incarcerated and 60% of females will become mothers within two years of aging-out. Their children end up going into the foster care system because they're ill-equipped to take care of them.
There is a misconception that youth do not want to be adopted after a certain age. I wanted to be adopted, but I wasn't asked when I was in foster care. No one spoke to me about adoption. Many older youth want to be adopted -- but they want it to be with the right family. It's like asking someone if they want to get married. Well yes, but with the right person. There needs to be more effort put into making sure youth know what it really means to be adopted.
What are the ultimate goals for the MFYRC?
To connect transitioning and former foster youth to the resources that will help them to become confident and successful members of society upon aging out. Also, to make sure the foster youth perspective is incorporated into all child welfare policy and practice. Decisions about the welfare of foster youth shouldn't be made without foster youth.
We also work to be a support to child welfare professionals by presenting the foster care experience in foster parent and social worker trainings. We also do a variety of workshops for youth that range from how to budget to public speaking. It is also important to us that we connect youth to other foster youth so they see that there are positive current and former foster youth and they can be one as well.
Through all the hard work and dedication you are giving to millions of children, if there is only one thing that you are able to accomplish through all of your endeavors, what would that be?
It would be to inspire foster youth to speak up for themselves in a way that will make positive change for all youth living in foster care. Also, to ensure that they receive the support and resources that will give them the same opportunities to thrive in this world as youth with the support of a family.
MFYRC's Speak Out! Recognition Reception event launches their first fundraiser on Thursday, May 28, 2009. For more info on Shalita O'Neale and the MFYRC, visit www.mfyrc.org or call 410-864-8949.