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Aged Out: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
On December 15, 2006, I became an adult in the eyes of the law. While I technically had some new rights — the ability to vote, buy cigarettes and all that — practically, it was still many years before I was adulting independently. The chasm was only magnified by the chaos that was my 18th birthday. My then high school boyfriend got suspended for doing something really dumb, and I spent the evening crying my eyes out about it over a mediocre plate of sushi. The big stressors for me at that time were privileged ones — deciding where I was going to college, and how to navigate moving away from my tight knit group of friends who had become my emotional backbone. Emerging slowly into adulthood felt hard. And I had a really solid safety net — parents who supported me financially, and the emotional bandwidth to navigate it all. So, what's it like for the young people in this country who have to learn the ropes of adulthood on their own?

This is Embodied, I'm Anita Rao.

Stephani Smith
I was very eager to turn 18 and be on my own. I mean, I was one of those people who really, really wanted to do things on my own. And I thought that I could do things on my own, but that really turned out not to be the case.

Anita Rao
Meet Stephani Smith, a former foster care youth and mental health professional. Stephani first entered foster care when she was 8, and by the time she got her high school diploma, she'd lived with multiple families and attended 14 different schools. Stephani was still in the system when she legally became an adult, making her like tens of thousands of other young people who age out of foster care each year.

Stephani Smith
Turning 18 was definitely a pivotal point. I — it was something that I really looked forward to. I mean, I was very anxious to turn 18, because that, to me, meant freedom. So I think aging out might mean that to a lot of foster children. And yeah, it's basically just a step into adulthood, but it's also a very scary time, because, yes, you — you know, you are on your own now.

Anita Rao
So what kind of relationships did you have at that period of your life that you leaned on or looked for to support you during that process?

Stephani Smith
When I turned 18, you know, I was still really wanting to mend things with my biological family. So I had an older sister that I went and lived with and relied on, but it didn't really pan out very well, because, you know, she was, kind of, struggling with her own issues, and she was also a young mother. So I didn't really have a huge support system. I think I really had to learn how to establish a support system, and what that looked like and what that felt like. And, it really took me a long time to understand how to hold on to relationships and maintain them, because for most of my life, you know, all of my relationships had gotten destroyed, basically. So I really had to work on, I guess, just learning what it felt like to maintain relationships, and making a priority out of relationships with people and, you know, gaining the support through — through having that. You know, it wasn't just about having someone there to fall back on financially, but just someone there that I could talk to if I was having a bad day or, you know, something was going on, you know. It was like, where could I turn to for, like, emotional support? So I just really had to, like, you know, work from very, very small baby steps to establish these kinds of relationships.

Ángela Quijada-Banks
Even before foster care, I had a lot of high mobility, just moving from place to place. I was in over 20 different schools by the time I was a sophomore in high school, and that's also when I was placed into foster care. So it was hard for me to see that this relationship — or any relationships — would be long term. In my experience as well, my — my mom, my dad, they weren't long term relationships, which are your parents.

Anita Rao
That's Ángela Quijada-Banks. She's originally from Anaheim, California. She and her four siblings grew up in poverty and experienced homelessness and neglect. At age 16, Ángela was placed into foster care. Like Stephani, she also was still in the system when she turned 18, but the process of aging out for her looked a bit different.

Ángela Quijada-Banks
I really wanted to take advantage of as much resources as — as possible, because I knew that I didn't have a super strong family support — biological family support. However, I hadn't had the best of luck in the foster care system. So I was teeter-tottering between, do I want to continue to be in a systemized kind of environment, or try to go back with my family? But I ultimately decided that it might be better for me to go the other route and sign myself back in.

Anita Rao
The systemized support she's talking about is called, extended foster care. It's a program offered in most states that provides financial, logistical and life skill support until you're 21, if you meet certain criteria. It's pretty underutilized, but linked to some positive outcomes for former foster youth, like lower rates of homelessness and better education and employment opportunities. Unfortunately for Ángela, the experience wasn't very positive.

Ángela Quijada-Banks
It ended up not being such a great situation. I was kicked out of foster care. I was given a seven day notice. And that's not uncommon, a lot of youth experience that. Sometimes it's not a seven day though, it's like one day, or 30 minutes or immediate. So at that point, I had to figure out another place to live with very little support. I ended up reaching out to my dad — ironically, the person that I was removed from — and he helped me, kind of, navigate things, although he was going through his own mental health challenges and other things. So, I found a place on Craigslist. Luckily, I had saved up some of my allowances, and I had started this online tutoring business. So I moved into this random, sketchy Craigslist thing, and I didn't hear back from the system until, like, a month later. And it was essentially just to get information to close my case, but not to actually see if I was okay or connect me with anything. So yeah, that was, kind of, my experience.

Anita Rao
That sounds really disorienting trying to figure out all of that on your own, kind of, at the last second, not really knowing how you're going to plan for your future. Did you have — you mentioned reaching out to your dad, did you have friends or, like, a sense of community at that point? Or — what did that look like for you? Any kind of extended support network?

Ángela Quijada-Banks
Yeah so, I was in school, I was at NCCU — shout out to NCCU. And, I was connected with some counselors and stuff, so I reached out to them and, also, tried to talk to them about the situation. They, kind of, gave me a day rate for, you know, emergency things or shelters, which was helpful, but that wasn't, like, what I was trying to do. And I couldn't necessarily afford it at the time, because it was so immediate. But, I did not have, like, my guardian ad litem. I didn't have a social worker at the time, which I think that's also why it was so abrupt. My social worker had — she had retired, actually, a couple of weeks prior. And then, I had — my guardian ad litem was removed from my case, like, a year prior, because she was trying to help me, basically. And, I was in between placements, and my social worker had okayed for me to spend the night at an airport for a weekend. And, my guardian ad litem disagreed, so that became grounds for her to be removed from my case.

Anita Rao
There are so many cracks in the foster care system. And specifically the outcomes for most young folks who age out are not great. Aside from all of the very real logistical needs many 18-year-olds have — like how to apply for financial aid, get a car loan or make pasta sauce — there are also all the intangibles that come from having a reliable supportive adult in your life. Like easy access to advice on dating and relationships.

Ángela Quijada-Banks
My whole approach was definitely do the complete opposite of what you've seen around you. Whatever is going on, do the complete opposite because that is not giving the results, you know. Domestic violence and, you know, just misery, really, is what I saw all around me. Not just with my parents, but just other relationships around me, was like, "No, this is not the type of relationship that I want, I want a loving relationship, I want a healthy relationship." And that's, I think, what was really difficult was — okay, do the opposite, but that only goes so far, you know. How do I have a healthy relationship? What does that look like? Who can I model this from? And also, recognizing that, although I had really great intentions with myself to try to do the best that I could, that I was greatly affected by this. I mean, you know, a lot of the people that I surrounded myself with — involuntarily majority of the time and voluntarily — were not getting the results that I said that I wanted. And so I had to really recognize within myself — the relationship that I had with myself — which I recognize wasn't as healthy.

And so, starting out with romantic relationships, whew, they were very — they were very confusing. And, I would say, for me, I put up very big walls. I definitely didn't really give my true self. I think I showed a self that I thought would be liked, that I thought that — that would be accepted, and that I thought would be loved, because that's what I had learned to do. And so not only in my romantic relationships, but definitely, I think, in majority of my relationships, I almost created a persona to survive, to feel accepted, to feel like, you know, this person cared about me. And, it automatically, of course, will backfire, because if you're not really your true self — which I didn't really understand who that was, or what that meant, because I was stuck in survival mode. You know, I didn't understand what — what I needed to do. How could I connect with myself really, fully, purposefully, and create those relationships to feel genuine love? And so, that's kind of how it started.

It wasn't — it wasn't beautiful at all, you know, I got myself into a lot of not-so-great situations. And, I learned. That's the key point, is that I learned. Like, you know what, this isn't working out, and this isn't giving me the results that I thought it would. So, I'm gonna have to, you know, talk to some people that are having really great relationships, and learn from them and, you know, grow and throw — completely throw away that idea that apparently I was married to, that I have to be this certain type of person to be loved and cared and — cared for and for and to establish intimacy between other human beings.

Anita Rao
Stephani, how about you, dating after leaving and after aging out of the system, what did that look like for you?

Stephani Smith
Yeah, I definitely agree with what she was saying. I think I struggled a lot, because I really didn't have a good relationship with myself. I didn't really have, you know, a lot of self esteem. And I beat myself up a lot about how I grew up. I think I was really just kind of a broken person for a long time. And I think I really had to take a, you know, quite a long time — you know, this was a few years we're talking I had to take — to really establish a good, healthy relationship and a good healthy outlook on myself. Because I feel like I was completely stripped away of that growing up, and I didn't have a good outlook on myself. So I didn't have the best relationships. And I definitely reflected — it was a reflection of how I felt about myself.

Anita Rao
How did you start to do that kind of inner work? Like, was there a turning point for you where you realized, like, it's not sustainable for me to keep being in relationships this way, this isn't going to lead to something positive?

Stephani Smith
Yes. I mean, after, you know — even with friendships or romantic relationships, you know, they weren't turning out how I wanted them to, and it was just failure after failure. I was like, something is not right with me, something is not okay. And I really had to take time to figure it out, do the work, do the healing on myself. And from there, I was able to establish good relationships after that had happened.

Anita Rao
Ángela, I'm curious for you, I mean, I think you mentioned, kind of, looking at various models in your life of how people cared for each other and were in in relationships. Did you have models for, kind of, what you wanted a healthy relationship to — to look like? Anyone that you were modeling after?

Ángela Quijada-Banks
No, because I didn't know, really, anyone that — in an intimate way, you know, like living with them, seeing the ins and outs, seeing, like, when you're not — when a couple isn't out and, you know, trying to do all the cute things. Like, how to have effective arguments, you know, like this disagreement is perfectly fine, like, in a relationship. Also understanding that, like, all the cute Disney movies that I saw is really great, and it can be possible, you know, but majority of the time, we're dealing with humans. Like, I'm a human, like, my partner is a human. I'm married now. And so, my really big turning point was having a relationship. And, you know, I thought what I wanted for myself was a man that was a provider, that, you know, would help me take care of things and was more masculine. That's — that has been my more gravitation to. And so what happened though, was because of my own trauma, and because of what I've went through in my experiences, I've always been the one that, you know, had to take care of everything. Make sure that — I'm the oldest of five siblings, so taking care of them, making sure that they're okay — I always was the one that was the provider and not necessarily the nurturer. And so, really, the struggle there ended up being that I took on being the provider and the caretaker and all of the things — the masculine and the feminine, you know. And so, I was — so in those relationships, I almost disempowered my partner and confused my partner, because, you know, I wasn't communicating what those expectations are. This is a partnership; however, these are specific things that, you know, I need support with. And, this is how I would love — I need to be loved, and this is, you know, knowing those things for myself. You know, there's beauty in relaxing and allowing someone else to step up. And you know, communicating that and having those expectations and also troubleshooting, you know. What happens if this doesn't work out? What is our plan?

Anita Rao
Totally. And I guess, also acknowledging the triggers, like what might come up for you that triggers a past experience or a past memory. Stephani, you are also married now. I'm curious about the approach of, I guess, committing to a full time partner. Have there been any moments of your experience in foster care that have been triggering that you all have had to work through in your marriage?

Stephani Smith
Oh, absolutely. And one of the things that I love about being married and making this commitment is that I — I feel like I've finally reached that point in my life where I can be committed to a person and to a family. You know, when I was growing up, I rejected being adopted, I didn't want permanence. And so, I feel like I finally have graduated into a stage in my life where I can accept permanence. And I think before I got married — you know, when we were engaged and everything — I did, kind of, fight it a little bit. You know, there was that voice in my head that — that was saying, like, basically, "Run, you know, run for the hills." Because permanence, I think, is something that's so unfamiliar to people who grew up, kind of, like, how we grew up in foster care. And so I think that was definitely my biggest challenge, was being able to accept, you know, family, and this is going to be my life for the rest of my life — which, it's also a very good thing. You know, it's turned out to be, like, the best part of my life. So I'm really glad that I did it. And I feel like more of a complete person now. I don't feel like this broken, orphan child. I just feel like a normal, healthy, stable adult.

Anita Rao
I know that you have a young stepdaughter. As you mentor and, kind of, parent her, are there things you notice about your foster care experience that are shaping the kind of relationship that you're trying to build with her?

Stephani Smith
I think more than anything, I just want to be — I want to be there for her. I want her to know that I'm here, I'm not in and out of her life. You know, I — since my husband and I started dating, I mean, I was there from day one. And I just want her to know, you know, I want it to be ingrained in her that she is loved. And I want to build up her self esteem, I don't ever want to tear her down. And like I said, I basically, just, I don't want to be in and out of her life. And I think that her and I have such a strong bond, because I have been here, you know. I'm very consistent with her, and I just — I know that for myself, I would never ever be the person who ended up having my child end up in foster care. Like, I would be the extreme opposite end, like, I would do anything to make sure my child feels loved and has the structure and support that they need.

Anita Rao
Stephani and Ángela are just years removed from their time in foster care, but they're already drawing connections between their own experiences and the ways they want to nurture differently. That deep introspection is something Jessica Lloyd-Rogers can relate to. Especially because she's seen the system from both sides: as a kid and as a parent. Jessica aged out of foster care many decades ago and went right into serving in the military. Today, she's in her mid 60s, and has parented her own daughter and many young people she's fostered.

Jessica Lloyd-Rogers
It was such deja vu listening to those two young ladies. When I was in, it was three hots and a cot, and...

Anita Rao
Three hot meals and a bed, basically.

Jessica Lloyd-Rogers
Three hot meals and a bed, which is what they give prisoners. And there was no support, and I aged out, and I took the only — well, I mean, there were other choices, I suppose — but I, I chose the military because it seemed the most secure, and I would get the GI Bill, so I was planning ahead even then. But there were no supports when you aged out, that was it. And if it hadn't been the military or an early marriage, I would have been out there with no supports. And too many young people, even today, are finding themselves in that position; although, it is getting a little bit better. And at least people are very aware of that, so I am happy about that change.

Anita Rao
So, you do have a daughter, tell me a bit about how your experiences in foster care shaped the way that you wanted to be a parent.

Jessica Lloyd-Rogers
Lots of ways. One, I never wanted her to feel unsafe. I wanted her to be able to come to me, to talk to me about the scariest thing she could think of and know that we would figure it out together. And, that while I might be disappointed, it was not going to break the relationship, and she wasn't going to be beaten or punished or harmed as a result of whatever she told me. That was really important to me. I did not — because punishment was such a big part of my early life, I didn't believe in punishment. And so, I basically raised her with consequences. And I would explain, "Okay, if you do this, these are the consequences." But, it wasn't punishment.

The other thing that was very important to me — I had so many reasons to be angry, both in and out of foster care, so many reasons. And I was never allowed to be angry. As a foster child, I was supposed to be grateful, never show anger, these good, fine, people are doing this for you. And I wanted her to be able to express her anger. But I did not want to be yelled at. And so we — I sort of by guess and by gosh figured it out. So one of our rules when she was young, because she was as feisty as I was, was that if she was angry, she could be angry, but she couldn't yell at me. And so, we decided that the bathroom was a safe place. So she could go into the bathroom, and she could yell, and scream, and holler, and stomp her feet and whatever else she needed to do. And then, when she was ready, she could come out and there weren't going to be consequences for doing that. And so, at a very young age, occasionally she would say to me, "Mom, I'm going to the bathroom now." And so, she would go handle it. And, she has turned into — I mean, I know you're supposed to love your kids. Obviously, when you come from our background, you know, that's not necessarily the case, but I really like my daughter. She is just a fine human being.

Anita Rao
Well, I mean, you went on to also then become a foster parent. You did respite foster care. So, I'm curious about, I mean — did you have to have your own version of finding a place to work through any — any moments that were triggering, or any things that came up for you as a foster parented and parented?

Jessica Lloyd-Rogers
Well, it's really funny you talk — I laugh and tell this story about triggers, because now, you know, people talk about triggers a lot. But I am like those young ladies. I could take care of it myself, triggers were for weak people. I'm strong. I'm a survivor. I don't have triggers, I don't know what those people are talking about. And so, I first started — when I fostered, the second child that we had — we had 149 individuals and 203 intakes in 16 months, ages 4 to 18, so when I say I have a PhD in foster care, I'm serious — but the — I think it was the second child that we had, and I don't even remember what it was, honestly — but he said something, and I swear the top of my head blew off. Because I've done so much work on myself, I was aware enough to go, "Oh, that's what they mean by triggers." And all of a sudden, I got it, and now I don't laugh at triggers anymore. And I warn other foster parents: You may never know what your triggers are until it happens, so be aware. Because I think the universe has a way of setting us up with people in all situations that teach us something. And so, when you get people who, who — even if they're little people — who mirror something that you need to look at, sometimes the way that comes to your attention is by a trigger. So — so it's very, very real.

Anita Rao
I mean, and especially for — for folks who aged out in that experience that, that you also had, I mean, what were some tools for working through those triggers while also caring for the child? Not wanting them to feel abandoned by you, but also acknowledging that you're having your own real emotional experience?

Jessica Lloyd-Rogers
Right so, walking, for me, has always been, get those endorphins going and walk it out. That's been one thing. I've been a writer my whole life, so I journal a lot. When — when something was happening with someone right there in that moment, as long as they were safe, I was not above saying to them, "I'm having a moment, I'm gonna go get a drink of water." Which was usually because — usually things happened either in the bedrooms or in the living room. So the getting a drink of water, that was going to the kitchen, give me just enough time, water is very calming. But, it also let them know that it's okay to be angry, it is not okay to take your anger out on other people.

Our only rule — we were told that we had to have house rules. And our only rule was be nice to yourself and to other people. Because what we found is a lot of the young people who came into our house, were really unkind to themselves. So, we know where they learned that. They either saw it modeled toward them, or they felt like they weren't worth anything, and they weren't worth self respect, and they weren't worth loving. And so, the biggest key — which, as it turned out, my husband and I pretty much did instinctively — was just listening. Just being open — setting structure. Like, one of our practices was you had to sit at the table three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner, if you weren't in school. And they would sometimes — "Well, I don't like to eat." Well, some of them had never sat at a kitchen table to eat before. And so, they wouldn't know what to do. And we also played a lot of Skippo. Now, it didn't have to be — which is a card game — didn't have to be that, but we found that was — it's easy enough that even the youngest could do it. It's a little bit, kind of, an Uno sort of game. And older kids liked it. And what that allowed was, allowed us to listen without being face to face. And so, we would be side by side playing a game, and then they would start talking sometimes about really heartbreaking things. But, it would come out. And of course, once it comes out — which is something that takes some of us a little while to learn — once you bring it out, it can be dealt with. It's when it's kept inside that it festers.

Anita Rao
So, you — you've had experience with so many different kids, with different personalities, with different backgrounds. I'm wondering if you feel like there are any misconceptions that foster parents have about what foster kids need that you've learned from — from all of these experiences. You know, a warm meal and a loving home is is not — that doesn't quite go far enough, right?

Jessica Lloyd-Rogers
No, it doesn't. And, and you — I'm going to be really careful not to hop on my soapbox here. But there is a misconception that all a child needs is love and structure. What many foster parents are not aware of is how wounded these young people are. Whether they know they're wounded, they are wounded. Just the act of removal is a wounding. But for many of these young people — I mean, I'm just thinking of a couple of specific individuals — by the age of 6, they have seen and experienced more violence and sexual abuse than people of 60 can even imagine. And so when a child comes in, you cannot make assumptions about their past, because they may never have told anyone the full truth about their past.

I'll give you a nonsexual, simple example from my time in care. I was 17, I was washing the dishes, and I broke a very expensive wine glass. It slipped out of my hands, it was honestly an accident. And it had been a wedding gift to my foster parents. This was my third foster home. Not the worst by any means, actually, probably the best, but still had moments. And I just stood there — I was frozen, absolutely frozen. And, of course, she — the, the wife — was so upset. And I understand that, I mean, I would be upset if my wedding wine glass was broken too. It was such a big deal, they actually called the caseworker. And when the caseworker came, and we had this little sit down meeting, the caseworker said, "Well, what is really the problem besides we have a broken glass?" And my foster mother said, "She didn't even say she was sorry." Well, in my family — my biological family — if you did something wrong, and you said you were sorry, your punishment was doubled, because the assumption was you were trying to get out of being punished. Now, nobody knew that. They had no way of knowing. But, she made all these assumptions about what a terrible person I was, because I didn't even say sorry. And it's a simple instance of how you cannot make assumptions about what their experience has been.

Anita Rao
Jessica is an advocate both inside the home and out. She's currently serving as the chair of the National Foster Parent Association's Council of State Affiliates, and she has some policy suggestions.

Jessica Lloyd-Rogers
One of my fellow advocates says, let's age out the term aging out. And — and at first, I kind of bristled at that, but what she means is that no young person should age out without a satellite, a constellation, of adult supporters: former foster parents, coaches, neighbors, family members, bio family, relative family, kith and kin family. They should have those people that they've collected — even while in care — those continued relationships that they can reach out to and say, "Hey, I'm trying to buy a car, I don't know what to do." So maybe somebody can help them with that. Or, you know, "I'm dating this guy, and I'm not sure how I feel." And you know, or, "I'm coming out, and I'm not sure what to do." You know, all of those questions — how to write a check — the first check I ever wrote, I didn't sign. Nobody told me, I had to learn it by doing it wrong. So, really simple things that, as an adult, we may think, everybody — "Well, everybody knows how to rent an apartment." No, they don't. When we have a child in our care, we're not just taking care of that 9-year-old or 10-year-old or whatever, we're taking care of the 29-year-old, and the 39-year-old, and the 69-year-old. You know, I'm 64, and I'm really proud to say that, because I didn't think I'd make it past 15. And so, every day is a gift, and I want to use the rest of my time to changing the world. I think it's the least I can do for the people who come behind me.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

And just a quick note — there won't be a new episode of this podcast next week because we're on summer vacation, but we know you probably have a few episodes to catch up on. So, go listen to those, or check out a recent episode of NPR's Code Switch called "Playlist For A Summer Road Trip." We were featured in it alongside some other amazing listens, and you should definitely check it out. While we're talking about spreading the love, if you enjoyed this episode, please share it.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and Amanda Magnus, who is our editor. Audrey Smith also produces for our show, Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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