Impact Feature Issue on Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System

Growing Up in Foster Care: Carolyn's Story


Carolyn Johnson lives in Northfield, Minnesota.

Jennifer Hall-Lande is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.

My childhood was spent in the foster care system. The first time I went into foster care I was seven years old. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was in over seven foster care and group home placements. As I look back at those years, it feels like a mixture of good and bad experiences.

One of the most difficult parts of foster care was not knowing what was going to happen to me. There was always a sense of uncertainty and confusion. I often felt scared and alone. It would be hard for any child to go through the foster care system, but having a disability made it more difficult for me to understand what was going on in my life. The only time that I really remember my social worker was when she came to my house to take us away. I do not recall a social worker talking with or visiting me in the foster home. It was important to know what was happening in my life. I needed someone to explain the situation to me in a way that I could understand, someone I could trust and talk to about things. Sometimes it felt like the foster homes were just in it for the money. It felt like they did not care about me or that I had a disability. In one foster home, her son hurt me. When I told my foster mom, she whooped me for telling on him. If a social worker had come to the home, I would have told her about what had happened to me.

Being separated from my siblings was another painful part of being in foster care. I was the oldest in my family followed by my brother and baby sister. My brother and I were always placed in the same home, but my sister was always in a different foster home. At that time, most foster homes only wanted babies or very young children. I always wondered about her. I thought about what she was doing and if she missed me. It really hurt me to be away from her. It did not feel right being with strangers. I was always glad to go back to my mom. Living with my family always felt like the best thing to me.

When I was 14 years old, I had my son. A boy in the neighborhood took advantage of me, and I later found out that I was pregnant. Because I was both a child in the foster care system and an underage parent, I became a part of the child protection system in a new way. As a parent, I felt that a lot of things I ran into with child protection were because I was a young mom with a disability. When child protection looked at me, it seemed to me that they only saw my disability. It felt like they used my disability against me. I was a good mom, and I took care of my son. I even graduated from a parenting skills program. It felt like I was doing all of the right things, but I still felt that they were judging me. Even though I had done everything that I was supposed to do, my son was taken from me. It would have been helpful to have had someone supporting me, someone who knew me and knew how hard I was trying to be a good parent. It seemed that they saw my disability, but did not see all of the ways that I was a good mom.

Some of my experiences in the foster care system were positive. When I was eight years old, I was placed in a wonderful and nurturing foster home. This foster mom showed us love, patience, and kindness – all of the things a child needs. It felt like a real home to me. We each had household chores. I learned about cleaning, cooking, and laundry. She told me when I grew up I would have a family, and that I would be a good mom. It was so important to me that she took the time to listen and explain things in a way that I could understand. She talked to me about my mom, and why she could not take care of us. That was the first time I remember someone explaining the situation to me. She also knew I had a disability, and it felt like she understood. My disability made me feel badly about myself. I could not read, and I was behind all of the other students. My classmates called me retarded and teased me about being in foster care. My foster mom said that I just learned differently, at a different pace. Because of her support, I started to see my disability in a different way. If I saw her today, I would give her a big hug.

As a teenager, I had a turning point in my life. I made some bad choices and got into trouble. I was sent to a residential setting called the Laura Baker School for persons with disabilities. This experience changed my life. The staff at Laura Baker were wonderful. They believed in me and cared about my future. My opinions were important to them. Sometimes the staff even came to me for advice. It was the first time in my life that anyone seemed interested in my opinion. It helped me to feel confident and to see that I had important things to share. Now I love to communicate and give advice. I give them a lot of credit for my success. I also remember a special education teacher named Mrs. Klinefelter. She understood my needs and abilities. We worked together on my school work, and together we built up my self-esteem.

Looking back at my experiences, there were many things that I wish had been different for me. I learned a lot from my experiences in the foster care system. Yet, it seems wrong that throughout all of the years in the child protection system, I never had a real relationship with any of my social workers. As a child with a disability, it was hard to have so much uncertainty and change. A relationship with my social worker could have provided me with some stability and helped me to feel less afraid.

As a parent in the system, I realized that I needed more support from the child protection system. Losing my son was one of the hardest things in my life. Later on, I had the opportunity to have him come back to live with me. He was so happy where he was living, I did not want to take him away from that. It was hard to let him go, but I thought it was best for him. It is still hurts for me to know that things could have been different for us. I used to have a lot of anger towards my mom; now I know why she did what she did. It took me a long time to come to this understanding.

I am now the mother of four children, and having my own kids has taught me a lot about life. I used to say that when I have my own kids I do not want them to go through what I have been through in my life. I do not want them to grow up in the foster care system. The best place for them is with me, as a part of a family. They are the most important part of my life, and I want to be the best parent that I can be. That is why I continue to take parenting classes and receive support. Most of all, I know now that even though I have a disability, I am a good mom.