Ashley Foster loved school – until she entered foster care.
While she was living in a group home, she had no choice but to attend an alternative school where her schedule included courses called “healthy relationships” and “independent study” rather than chemistry.
Months of begging to attend a traditional high school finally paid off, and Foster went on to graduate from Danbury High School. In May, she will graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Southern Connecticut State University.
Foster is one of about 300 adolescents who will age out of the state’s foster care system this year without ever having been adopted.
Her grit has helped her defy the statistics, which show 21 percent of foster kids leave care without having a high school diploma or GED. Few have a college degree, and the majority are unemployed.
Many of the youth who age out of care go on to become homeless or incarcerated shortly after they leave care – things Foster is determined to avoid.
Foster grew up in a rural Connecticut town but now lives in an East Haven apartment, where she sat down to talk with The Mirror as she braces for aging out of the Department of Children and Families’ foster care system.
How did you come into contact with the Department of Children and Families?
So, I had issues getting along with my stepfather – well, he was my adoptive father – but we had issues getting along, so the state got involved.
I had a friend going through some problems with her father. Her and I were passing notes in our health class. She wrote like, ‘Oh you don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know what I am going through.’ I respond, ‘I have a little bit of an inclination. And I told her about the most recent things that happened.’ And she brought that note to the school.
I was 15 when I left home. Basically, I knew DCF was coming to the house, and I packed up some bags and never went home, because I knew it wasn’t going to be good. I just needed to not be there.
… It was just a lot and it finally got to a point that it was too much. There was constant arguing, fighting, and there was finally one weekend and everyone kind of snapped, and there were so many events leading up to it, and the school kind of saw some stuff here and there. So when the note went to the school, some of my teachers also spoke up about what they had seen.
What was your experience in DCF like?
It was rough. I didn’t want to be home, but I didn’t want to be in care. So, I was kind of like back and forth. I wanted to go back to my hometown. I wanted to go back to my friends. I wanted that.
I think I wasn’t really accepting of everything. I felt like people telling me I needed therapy, I did not want to go to therapy and I knew that caused a lot of issues in the foster homes that I was going to. I just didn’t want to be in certain foster homes.
What was it like living in foster care?
You definitely could see the difference in how you get treated, and you get compared to their own kids… I wasn’t like her daughter. She was used to having a daughter that wants to stay home, doesn’t want to do anything. For me, I wanted to go out, do this, do that, have a boyfriend, do cheerleading. I was not a perfect kid. I won’t say I was perfect. I know I definitely had a mouth. I lied. I will take responsibility for that.
Like getting clothes for school: So, she would give her daughter like $250 and give me $100 for clothes. And I’m like ‘ok.’ Then she bought me a homecoming dress, and because I was moving out of her home she took the dress away. I don’t think people realize that kind of stuff is going on. It seems little, it does, but it wasn’t to me.
If I really look back at being in foster homes, sometimes I’d wish I was there for the conversations between my foster parent and my therapist or my foster parent and DCF, because I feel like a lot of things were being said about me that weren’t accurate. For example, when I moved from one foster home into a group home, the foster family called up my worker and gave her a list and said I stole stuff from them – and they literally went through my closest. I had to explain where I got each of my belongings. ‘No that’s where I got that. That’s where I got that.’
It was stuff like that; it really kind of hurt me. They believed I was stealing from them, and I wasn’t.
How many places have you lived since entering foster care?
So when I went into care, I was put into a foster home for three days. Went to my aunt’s for three weeks until I tried running away. I knew going there wasn’t going to be a good idea. Then I went to another foster home, and I was there March to October, and then there was a lot of issues in that foster home. And then I moved to another one, and in that foster home I was actually sleeping in the foster mom’s bed because there were so many kids that she had in that house. That is the house I got accused of stealing all the time and I really wasn’t.
So I was in one, two, three, four foster homes, two group homes and a residential. And that was all in two years – 2010 to 2012.
Tell me about the group homes?
At that time, I wasn’t really in a good mindset. I didn’t want to be in the foster homes because I didn’t have the best relationships with the foster families.
Once I left the foster home and went to a group home I was kind of in a way glad because I didn’t want to be in a foster home. The group home that I moved into was brand new. I was the first girl that they ever had, and they said it was a reunification group home – so basically you stay for three months and then you go home. I told them the day of my interview that going home was a bad idea and that is pointless. I was there a month and they said, ‘You are not a good fit here.’ I responded, ‘I already told you that.’
So did you ever find what felt like home?
No. So basically what I did was go to a group home my senior year, and I stayed there until I graduated high school. And once I graduated high school I moved right to college.
It sounds like it really didn’t work out in the foster homes. Was being on your own always your preferred option?
That was the thing. I think I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want people nagging on me. I just wanted to be left alone. I know I sometimes lied about stupid things, I know that. I know that made some of the foster parents mad. Like, I used to go to physical therapy because I hurt my back my freshman year, and one day I decided to skip that so I could go hang out with friends. Things like that. It’s not like I was out partying. I wasn’t out doing anything like that.
So you are about to graduate college. That’s a huge success. Tell me about what school was like growing up.
When I was in the residential program, a thing that I really struggled with there is that I was basically in a special education school. And I’ve always had really good grades.
School has always been my thing.
So, when I was there, it’s ridiculous: I took algebra in middle school, I took algebra 2 my freshman year of high school, and when I ended up in the residential program they told me I shouldn’t have already taken it, so I would have to take algebra again. I said, ‘No. I don’t need to take it again.’ It got to a point where they literally gave me a book, told me to go sit in the corner and basically teach myself. I had independent study, they called it. But if you look at my high school transcript, I didn’t get credit for those classes.
So how was it determined where you would go to school?
When I moved from home, I was placed with my aunt, and I was placed in Southington High for three weeks. When I basically tried running away from there, they had me move to a foster home and I went to a school in Winsted. When I got removed from that foster home, I went to a foster home in Torrington, but I was bused to Winsted so I was able to stay in the same school. I didn’t want to though, I hated that school, but I did stay in the same school.
When I had to move to the group home I had to go to the school within that company. So they had a school that all the kids in their homes went to, we all went to school together. It was an alternative school in Manchester. I really struggled there. I would get into trouble because I would walk out of class. For me, I know this is going to sound bad, but I felt like I was literally enrolled in a class with a bunch of middle schoolers. So I never took chemistry in high school. So when I got to college I really struggled with that. A lot of the basic classes I never took.
Were you ever given a choice of where you went to school?
No. The thing is, once I hit my senior year, I begged, ‘Can I please go to Manchester High so I can take chemistry, so I can take this. It is right down the road.’ And people from my school said, ‘You don’t sit in your classes now, so how do we know that you are going to stay in your classes there?’
I had to explain to them that Manchester High has actual classes. They had me taking independent studies or classes called “healthy relationships.” I tried to tell them when I transfer to an actual school after this group home my new school is not going to count those as credits, and they didn’t.
When you first entered DCF care, would you have preferred to have stayed in that school?
I was going to Housatonic Valley (Regional High School), that’s where my friends were. Now that I look at it, it probably wasn’t the best place to stay, but I don’t know. I just wish I would have been able to stay in a normal high school, because even though I am really good with school, I did struggle a little my freshman year in college because I had to take chemistry because I couldn’t take it in high school, and I didn’t get a good grade. I didn’t have some of the basic classes I needed for college, and I knew it was because of where I ended up.
My [DCF social] worker tried for me to go to Manchester High, she really did, but the program fought her. So she pushed to get me discharged quicker. And once that happened, I ended up at Danbury High, and I did really good my senior year. I was lucky to have her help me.
So, you have a child, how old is he?
Mason is two. I had him my junior year [of college].
How have you found juggling school with having a kid?
It is very hard. You know, in a way, I am kind of fortunate to have DCF because they help out so much. They help me pay for his daycare, the monthly stipends I get for having my own apartment, it really helps. I have been lucky to have them through this process and even when I found out I was pregnant they helped me get all the furniture that I need. They gave me his whole bedroom set.
Do you keep in touch with your family?
It’s back and forth. When I first came into care there wasn’t really any contact. When I turned 18 and I had less DCF involvement, I started to see them a lot more. They see my son a lot. They have a good relationship with my son. So I am thankful for that. Definitely there is still tension due to the fact that everything that happened.
Now that you are older, and are able to look back. Is there anything that you would have done differently?
A lot. Little stuff here and there. I thought about maybe if I wasn’t so combative with foster families maybe things would have turned out differently. I didn’t really care about anyone else at that point. I just cared about myself. I would have changed how I treated some people.
How would you describe the programs that were offered while you were in the foster care system? You touched on education already, are there other things that were helpful or would have been helpful?
One thing that definitely helped me, and that DCF helped pay for, was cheerleading. I love cheerleading. I did it before I went into group homes, but I was able to do it my senior year. They helped me do it through my high school and through All Star, where I traveled. So they helped pay for me to go to other states to compete.
By doing that it really helped me get through my senior year, because after going through so many group homes and placements I didn’t really develop a relationship with someone who was a support for me. So I was living in the moment my senior year. And having that, it kind of gave me something. That is one thing I was really thankful that DCF was able to give me.
When you wanted to go on these trips, what was that process like?
There are some things you have to plan for. Like when I went to Hershey [Pennsylvania] for a competition. That we planned months in advance so that wasn’t really an issue
… But there was one competition that was one of my last competitions for my high school and it was a night competition and we were going to be getting back at midnight – and the group home wouldn’t come pick me up from the high school. So I would obviously need someone from my team to take me home, but that wasn’t really allowed. They have to run a DMV check on who drives me, so I couldn’t go to that competition.
It was one of my last ones as a senior, so that really sucked. I was mad. I was so angry. I was expecting the group home would be willing to drive me home and the group home said ‘no.’ … That’s what happened with my group home a lot. I would think they would be willing to do something and they wouldn’t. I had a lot of issues with that group home.
Did you make any connections with people in the group homes? There has been a big push by DCF to move away from the group homes. Do you have any opinions?
I personally didn’t make any lasting relationships with any one in the group homes. Unfortunately the thing that is said a lot of the times is, ‘Well I get to go home at 3 o’clock. You don’t. You have to stay here, so…’ It’s something that is said a lot, I noticed it in all my placements. Not all the staff are like that, but it’s hard to hear that while I am stuck there …I got to a point where I told myself to fake it until you make it.
I did have one mentor when I moved from residential to group home, but I lost touch with her. I had a really good relationship with her. I moved, and I don’t know if I had the wrong email address. But I wrote and she didn’t respond or call. It was hard. We talked about her wedding plans, me going to her wedding, like I saw her all the time, I did so much with her. I don’t know if she was just like that to help me get through what I was going through and didn’t feel that same connection, or maybe we honestly just did lose touch. That is something that I struggled with.
After that, it was really difficult for me. DCF offered me another mentor, but because I got so attached to her [takes a deep breath] – sorry I am emotional. After that, I didn’t want another one. So DCF did try to get another mentor, but because I lost that really good relationship I didn’t want another one.
Did you make any connections with other children in foster care?
I never really kept relationships every time I moved. I don’t know if maybe that’s my problem, I don’t know what it is. Even my senior year of high school, I had really good relationships there, but when I moved to college I lost touch. … But when I came to Southern [Connecticut State University], I am a social work major, I met really good friends.
Through work, I met the closest friend I have ever had. We were pregnant together and she’s the godmother of my son. I am the godmother of her daughter. So, I do have to say, I am happy I ended up here. Because if I didn’t I wouldn’t have those four really good friends.
What about your social workers, what was your relationship like with them?
The worker that I had, like I said, I was a pain in the butt teenager. I don’t know how she put up with me. I used to yell at her, everything. But you know what: She was there for me. She really was.
Where do you spend your holidays?
I bounce around a little bit. My freshman year of college, winter break which is like a month long, I stayed in my college dorm by myself for a full month. I visited with my ex-[boyfriend’s] family for a few days for Christmas.
My social worker that I had when I first moved into DCF, I had her through my freshman year of college, because she was the only support that was really consistent for me. I wrote a letter to the administrator in the office, and I told her my story. This worker. This is what she has done for me. I said I don’t have anyone. I am in college and I stay in the dorm. It took a while and I shared my story, and I got it approved for me to be able to spend my vacations with her. She is definitely someone I still go to now. She was at my high school graduation, and now she’s going to be at my college graduation. She has been really great for me.
DCF leaders have said they are really pushing to reconnect youth with their families, when appropriate. Was that something that was attempted for you. Is that something you wanted?
They did really try with my family. My family wants nothing to do with DCF. They won’t even pick up the phone… Unfortunately with my family, we tried three, four family sessions it didn’t really work for us. At this point we just try to avoid the conversation. When it does come up it does cause tension, a little argument, a little silent treatment for a while. And then it’s fine. We just don’t talk about it. … (On the extended family) I will go to their house, I try, but I still feel like that black sheep, like that odd person, so I don’t stick around too long. So it’s not like they are there, they are there, I just don’t have the relationship that you would hope.
So you graduate from college in May. What are your plans?
Who knows. Well, right now I am a stipend intern at DCF, which I am really excited about. So basically, I signed a contract that says if they offer me a job I have to take it, which if they offered me a job I would take it anyways. So that’s obviously the hope.
I hope it doesn’t take a while to find a job. You know I graduate in May and then my time in DCF is really short after that. I want a job to support myself, my son, my home. I got accepted into grad school in the fall (at Fordham University in New York). I just don’t know If I am going to be able to handle work and school right away. The opportunity is there. I just have to figure out how I would do it…. If it’s possible, I will go right to grad school. We will see what happens.
Will DCF help you out with grad school?
No. So the way it works, you age out when you graduate or you turn 23, whichever comes first. I will graduate with my bachelor’s in May, and then I am given a 90-day transition period. So I will be done with DCF in August.
How are you feeling about that?
I am trying to go back in time. It’s really hit me that I am so close to it. I am five, six months away. It’s hard. It’s scary because I have relied on them so much financially.
Even though my workers have changed here and there, or I don’t see them as much because now that I am an adult I see them once a month – I mean I can call them whenever – but it’s not like I am constantly seeing them all the time. Even though they don’t play that role. They play a big role in where I’ve ended up, who I am. Letting go of that is very hard for me.
… The thing that I am scared about the most when I age out, is because I didn’t really develop the relationships throughout my time in DCF, who do I turn to when I struggle? When you think about the normal person is when they move out on their own, they can always go back to their family for help, that support was DCF for me. So once you are gone, you are gone. So who do I go to?
My worker has since told me that she would be that person. I always knew she has been there for me – she would be the person I would call at midnight if I was having anxiety or was crying – she was that person. I didn’t think our relationship was that strong that she would continue to help. So when she said that to me, that is what I needed to hear. That gave me some sort of comfort.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.