TIFFANY LEVEILLE: My Time in Foster Care

Article by Tiffany Leveille

My time in foster care is not something I have ever talked about publicly before. Although, many people know I spent time in the foster care system and understand how important this issue is to me, I have never detailed this experience. It usually invites uncomfortable questions, comments, and even ignorant accusations. This is something that a lot of foster and former foster kids must deal with. Entering foster care can be one of the scariest things to ever happen to a child. You are taken away from everything that you have ever known and placed into an entirely new environment. For me, my time in foster care was a lot easier than it is for many children. I was lucky enough to have an aunt and uncle who were willing to take me and my siblings in. But for thousands of kids, they are placed with people they have never met before. Forced to live in a house they’ve never stepped foot in. Attend a school where they don’t know anyone. And at no fault of their own. 

I can’t remember much from the first few days of living with my aunt and uncle. I do remember the first night, sleeping on a cold couch in their basement, unsure of everything. The next thing I really remember is going to my third-grade classroom and emptying my desk. I hugged and waved to all my friends and within a few days I entered an entirely new school. This one way much bigger than my old one. I had attended a small charter school since kindergarten, but here at this new school I didn’t have to wear a uniform, school got out earlier, and there were multiple teachers for each grade. There were also more kids in my class. I quickly learned to adjust to this school, but I never liked it as much as my old one. Anxiety started making me feel sick every morning before school too. I missed my old school more than anything. 

Although I had friends at this new school, this was one of the hardest parts for me during my time in foster care. I had to deal with a lot of new and different things that I was not prepared for. I was bullied on more than one occasion and started to become more and more aware of how I didn’t look like the other kids. I had big curly hair and wasn’t as skinny as the others. It didn’t help that I was so much taller either, which was a common talking point for boys in my class. I also had to keep up with the lies I told my classmates. No one really knew why I lived with my aunt and uncle. Honestly, I can’t even remember what I told them. Likely some lame excuse that I was spending a few months with my cousins just for fun. This would be a recurring theme for me throughout my time in foster care. It seemed easier to lie to people, and in some instances, it was, but by the time sixth grade rolled around and I was in a different school again, these lies became hard to keep up with. 

Adjusting to a new house and new rules was difficult for me while living with my cousins, but I remember a lot of good things coming out of this as well. The summer was the best there, as my aunt had a big pool and me and my cousins would spend most of the summer swimming and playing. My cousins from other aunts and uncles would also come and we would have sleepovers in the basement, quietly pretending to be asleep whenever someone would come downstairs.

Because my family was so big, we celebrated birthdays every month, which meant a big party at my aunt’s house. I loved this tradition because I got to see all my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I also got to see my grandma and grandpa who we called Teta and Jido.  These parties normally included my favorite Lebanese dish: grape leaves, which was a bonus. Kibbeh and pita bread were usually right around the corner too. 

After living with my aunt for a few months, I was sent back to live with my biological parents. But by the time school was ready to start again, I was once again living under my aunt and uncle’s roof. I had been looking forward to going back to my old school where all my friends were, when I was told I would have to attend the one near my aunt’s house again. This was the worst part for me and my brother and we both broke down into tears the moment we understood we had to go back.

Somehow my family and I were deemed worthy of a miracle though. My soon-to-be fourth grade teacher had heard about the situation and offered to drive me and my brother to and from school every day for the entire year. When I heard this, I was more confused than excited. When I was in third-grade, Mrs. C’s class was right across from mine, and I heard her yelling at her students on a daily basis. I was scared of her. Why would she offer to drive me to school when I hadn’t even met her yet? The first day she came to pick me up, I was nervous. I hopped up into her van, said hi to her son, and awkwardly sat in silence. Then the woman started talking and didn’t stop until we reached the school. That year, I learned quickly that this teacher wasn’t mean to her students. She didn’t even yell at them. She was just really LOUD. 

Mrs. C and I got along great, and I looked forward to our car rides every day. I had slipped into a bit of a depression this time living with my aunt and uncle, which unfortunately isn’t rare for kids in foster care. I was tired nearly all the time and when I wasn’t at school I only wanted to FaceTime or text my oldest sister who was attending university. I remember coming home some days and wanted to just curl up into a ball and go to bed. Even though it was still bright outside. A lot of nights I couldn’t stop my brain from thinking, which left me staring at the ceiling for hours. I missed my family a lot and for some reason, this time in foster care was much harder for me mentally. But those car rides with Mrs. C changed a lot for me. I loved going to school and talking with my teacher. She was so funny and nice, and we were both really loud, which made me feel like I fit in with her. Since we got to school so early, Mrs. C often let me help her with classroom work. She let me write the announcements on the board, pick the books for the display, and even file papers. My little bossy, teacher-wannabe self loved every minute of it. Despite the teasing from other classmates (and my best friend) that I was a teacher’s pet. But it didn’t matter to me. I liked being the teacher’s pet.

After being reunited once more with my biological parents, I ended up living with my oldest sister and her husband who were finishing their last year of college. I can’t explain how amazing these people are. Still university students and working jobs, yet they managed to foster three kids. It took a lot of adjustment to understand and realize our new roles in this new family, but with trial and error we figured it out. In 2014, we were adopted and a few years later we took their last name. 

The funny thing about adopted families is that they all work differently. Not all adopted kids are going to call their adoptive parents “mom” and “dad.” They won’t always share a last name, or get along perfectly in the beginning, but they figure it out. They determine the best way to be a family in their own unique way. It was really hard at first living with my oldest sister and her husband. To me, they were still just my sister and brother in law. I didn’t feel like I had to listen to them, and I didn’t think it was their place to parent me. I argued a lot with my oldest sister especially, and anyone could tell you I had an attitude problem for a while. But we didn’t give up on each other. My sister learned to be a mom, and my brother in law stepped up as a dad. My siblings and I learned to fit into this new family and honestly, it brought us a lot closer together. My family means everything to me. Even though it looks a lot different than most. 

Now, I didn’t write this to sugarcoat my experience in foster care. I simply wrote it this way because this is what I am comfortable sharing right now. I wanted to give a glimpse into what my life was like. I struggled with anxiety and PTSD while I was in foster care and I am just now learning how to cope and heal from it. But this isn’t unique to me. There are nearly half-a-million kids in the U.S. foster care system right now. 1 out of every 4 of those kids will have or already are experiencing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). And more than half of these kids will or have faced another mental health struggle, such as anxiety or depression. There is a lot of stigma surrounding foster kids. They are labeled as “damaged goods” and are seen similarly to juvenile delinquents. Not to say that foster kids don’t have unique behavioral and mental health struggles, but with love, care, and the right family, these kids can flourish. They can make lives for themselves. I am living proof of that.

There are so many children and teens in foster care and even more have aged out of the system. I encourage you to learn more about this issue and ways you can help. There is a huge deficit of licensed foster parents, but the need for homes and families for children will unfortunately only continue to grow. If you know a foster family reach out to them. See if you and your parents could make them a meal one night so they don’t have to cook. Or if you know a foster kid at school, reach out to them and be their friend. Offer them support and encouragement. They are kids just like all others. If you don’t know a foster family or foster child, look up group homes or foster care organizations near you and find ways you can help them. There were so many strangers that made my time in foster care easier. Look at Mrs. C. If she didn’t reach out to help me, who knows where I would have ended up? What if my aunt and uncle wouldn’t have taken me in? We can have this type of impact on children in foster care. But it is up to us to educate ourselves. To reach out. It is up to us to make a difference in the lives of foster youth.  

There are so many children and teens in foster care and even more have aged out of the system. I encourage you to learn more about this issue and ways you can help. There is a huge deficit of licensed foster parents, but the need for homes and families for children will unfortunately only continue to grow. If you know a foster family reach out to them. See if you and your parents could make them a meal one night so they don’t have to cook. Or if you know a foster kid at school, reach out to them and be their friend. Offer them support and encouragement. They are kids just like all others. If you don’t know a foster family or foster child, look up group homes or foster care organizations near you and find ways you can help them. There were so many strangers that made my time in foster care easier. Look at Mrs. C. If she didn’t reach out to help me, who knows where I would have ended up? What if my aunt and uncle wouldn’t have taken me in? We can have this type of impact on children in foster care. But it is up to us to educate ourselves. To reach out. It is up to us to make a difference in the lives of foster youth.  

If you have any questions on foster care or anything I’ve mentioned, please feel free to reach out to me. If you are a foster kid or used to be, my DMs are always opened, and I am happy to give you advice or just be a pair of listening ears. 

*Tiffany is also the founder of In the Write, a youth-led blog devoted to spreading knowledge through storytelling.

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