Thursday, March 7, 2019

You have the power to create a better life for older foster youth. I am the proof.

In 1998, at nine years old, I was featured on Wednesday’s Child, three years after being removed from my biological family.  But after 15 foster placements and separations from my siblings, it was three years before I found a forever home.

As a foster child, I experienced multiple broken promises from families that assured me they were my forever homes. I found myself being traumatized all over again. Being moved from one home to another, one family to the next was exhausting and heartbreaking. As a result, I developed social-emotional issues and began displaying challenging behaviors at school and at home.  I began to self-sabotage my placements because I knew that sooner or later, I would be sent away to another family who would then send me away to another temporary placement or a group home.  I created a coping mechanism to carry me through.

 At the age of 12, I was placed with my single foster mom, Cecelia Criner who was a 3rd-grade teacher at the time with Dallas Independent School District. Between the ages of 12 and 15 (the same year I was adopted), I admittedly gave my mom every bit of trouble you could possibly think of. Truancy, running away, and other behavioral challenges, which all led to three months in a juvenile detention center for runaways, four months after being adopted. Yes, four months after being adopted.  During my period at the detention center, I had time to reflect on my behaviors and realize that my mom Cecelia and current home wasn’t so bad. I had time to finally appreciate having my own room, traveling, and having a family that loved and embraced me no matter my poor choices or past experiences.

I remember calling my mom after about 3 weeks of being in the detention center, to read a letter that I had written stating my exaggerated opinion of how we really did not connect and how I should be placed with another family (self-sabotaging). The support team assigned to my case concluded that I needed additional time for “soul searching” before being released. My mom was committed to finding an emotional balance for me and our family. She believed that after 3 years of therapy, and the same routine, we were stuck in this cycle and she was ready to move forward. Something had to change.

After being released from the juvenile detention center for runaways, my mom and I were immediately assigned to a new therapist. I was unenrolled from my high performing high school and placed within a school that was a better fit for my needs (where my mom had eyes and support). I was given a fresh start, with a new perspective on life and endless opportunities. I was placed in a school environment where my teachers poured into me during and after school hours. I felt the love and genuine care from the administrators, teachers, and coaches. They were truly invested in my social-emotional learning and wanted me to succeed.

While in high school I served as the captain of the JV-Varsity Cheerleading team, I was a member of FCCLA Family, Career and Community Leadership of America, Beta Club and I was nominated by school faculty as “Who’s Who Honor.” Outside of school, I was active in church, gymnastics, pageants, travel, and so much more. I was finally able to equate good behavior with rewarding experiences.

I remember vividly the days when my mom would say to me “Toni, you can act out as much as you want, but I’m not giving you back to the foster care system. All families have their issues but that doesn’t mean we just walk away.

How?! How did I make such a drastic change? Well, I was simply tired. I was tired of fighting and pushing everyone away who was only trying to help me build a better life. I missed out on a lot of great opportunities. And I longed for stability. I remember vividly the days when my mom would say to me “Toni, you can act out as much as you want, but I’m not giving you back to the foster care system. All families have their issues but that doesn’t mean we just walk away.” I thought she was the craziest woman in the world for saying this and sticking with me. But her words gradually restored the faith that I had lost of finding my forever family and love.

With those loving reminders from my mom, it also took years of consistent therapy, growing in self-love, creating confidence, exposure to the arts, and a dedicated village of people to hold me and my mom accountable. Holding her accountable for the commitment that she had made the day she took me in. And I too had to practice the patience and understanding that my therapist so anxiously encouraged over the years.

Although my path to success was rocky, I steadily began to earn the respect of those who knew me. It was all thanks to my mom’s unwavering love and commitment to ensuring that I succeeded and found my balance in this world. I’m blessed to have had been adopted into a family that values education, church, friendship, and most of all FAMILY. I often tease my mom and grandmother about their popularity around the Dallas Fort Worth area but in hindsight, it was actually “our village.” So many of my church friends and family poured into our lives, educators, my mom’s coworkers, godchildren, best friends, and others. I am forever grateful for “the village.”

With the uplift of the village, I’ve graduated with a Bachelor’s in Political Science with an emphasis in Social Work from Tougaloo College, and a Master’s in Public Administration and International Relations from Howard University. I currently live in Washington D.C where I’ve dedicated my life’s work to helping at-risk youth through mentoring, speaking engagements, and consulting with youth agencies and organizations. My ultimate goal is to take my knowledge and expertise to my home state of Texas to establish an organization for foster youth aging out of the foster care system.

I have found peace and balance within and I’m truly living my life with purpose. I keep in mind and heart “the village,” foster youth, and transition-aged youth who are experiencing and have overcome life’s obstacles as I travel my life’s journey.

Take Away: I want families to know that older foster youth are worth loving too. It is never too late to make a difference in a child’s life. Trust me. I am proof. Just please be consistent, open, and understanding of their heartbreak. Please do not take their rebellion personal. They’re just working through years of being disappointed by adults. You’re the perfect adult to help rewrite their story.

Toni Criner and family

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Toni Criner