NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Looking back on her 15 years in foster care, 22-year-old Shavonn Wheeler regrets never getting close to the adults who cared for her.
“I wish I had gained more loving and more meaningful relationships with my foster care parents,” she said in a recent interview. “I also wish I had gained trust in the foster care system because in foster care you learn not to trust anybody.”
Wheeler’s reasons to distrust the adults around her came early.
When she entered the foster care system at 6 years old, she had no idea she would never return to her mother. None of her foster parents or her social workers warned her. “I was abandoned by my mom and it was never acknowledged … nobody ever sat me down and told me ‘you’re not gonna go home.'”
Other things added to her wariness along the way.
Eighty-one percent of girls and female teens in foster care suffered from sexual abuse, according to a 2009 study published by the American Journal of Maternal /Child Nursing. Sixty-eight percent reported abuse by more than one person while in foster care.
Wheeler did not escape those statistics. She said she endured sexual abuse while in foster care. She declined to go into detail about what happened. All she would say is that she had been taken advantage of sexually more than once by male figures while she was in the system.
Wheeler aged out of foster care last year and is living alone in subsidized housing in Brooklyn, N.Y., where this interview was held. She recently graduated from Kingsborough Community College and is attending the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
‘Stay in School’
Wheeler’s advice for female teens who are now in foster care is to save your money and stay in school. “School is the only thing that’s gotten me this far,” she said. “If I wasn’t in school a lot of people wouldn’t take me seriously, my voice would not be heard.”
During her years in foster care, Wheeler had little contact with her mother and didn’t stay in touch with the foster families who hosted her. “Throughout my life in foster care I never really felt that I was loved,” she said.
Girls can have a particularly hard time coping with life in foster care.
Pregnancy is a big factor. While this is a non-issue for boys, it exerts a major pull on girls who ache for a deep emotional connection. Young women in foster care are more than twice as likely as their peers not in foster care to become pregnant by age 19, finds one national study from 2005 by Chapin Hall, a policy research center at the University of Chicago. The same research group also found in a 2010 report that girls in foster care are also more likely to drop out of high school and become victimized.
“A lot of foster girls want to get pregnant,” Wheeler said. “When you don’t have any family, sometimes you feel like that’s the only way you are gonna have someone, you know, who will love you unconditionally. But they don’t think about the responsibilities that come with having a baby.”
Gender-specific intervention proved effective in reducing these struggles for a group of adolescent teens living in Oregon’s state-supported foster homes, finds a 2011 study published by the National Institute of Health. Compared to those not in the study group, teens who received gender-sensitive therapy sessions were less prone to delinquency, early sexual activity and substance abuse.
In New York City, the Administration for Children’s Services implemented several gender specific programs in 2012 to combat teen pregnancy among those in foster care through educational outreach and contraception. It also offers programs to help facilitate the needs of pregnant students and teen mothers within the foster care system.
This came too late for Wheeler, who left the foster care system in 2013, just a year after these programs were started.
As it was, Wheeler doesn’t feel the agency did enough for her specific psychological needs. She never felt her assigned counselor was acting in her best interest. “Even if [children’s services] provided me with a counselor, the counselor would go back and tell my foster parents.”
Chris McKniff, press secretary for the Administration for Children’s Services, said in an email interview that the agency’s staff is trained to handle matters of sexual abuse and provide emotional support. “We also partner with our provider agencies that have clinicians that do direct practice with our teens to provide the emotional support around these issues,” McKniff wrote.
Shortly after she graduated from the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., Wheeler said her foster care agency recommended that she apply for government housing, which would have expedited her emancipation.
Unready at 19
As a 19-year-old earning minimum wage, Wheeler did not feel ready to live on her own.
“I didn’t even know what living on your own was. Living on your own and coming in and taking care of responsibilities at the age of 19. I felt like I was gonna fail. And I was scared.”
Wheeler decided to stay in the foster care system but that meant she became homeless when she was forced out last year at age 21. She moved in with male friends. At first she was grateful to them for taking her in.
“That’s where I felt like people really cared for me, when they took me into their house and didn’t care if they were getting paid for me–but it was me and I didn’t know that these were the things men would do to manipulate females at this age. I was at that age where I was vulnerable,” she said.
Looking back now, Wheeler sees herself as easily manipulated by her male roommates because she didn’t get emotional support while growing up.
“Men manipulate you and tell you things that probably nobody ever told you. They’d tell you ‘I love you’ and they’d buy you something so your whole thing is ‘Oh my god, maybe he really does care about me.’ And then you find yourself in situations where you’re being abused, you’re basically selling your body and you don’t know,” she said.
Wheeler said she thought everything that was going on was her own fault. Now she sees she didn’t have the guidance she needed. “I never had a mother to sit me down and say, ‘Nobody is supposed to touch you in your private area, nobody. Nobody is supposed to force you to do anything that you don’t wanna do.'”
Chandani Smith, 18, is a recent high school graduate and blogger. Her writing has been featured and published in TeenInk Magazine and TeenInk.org.