When Noel Anaya was just 1 year old, he and his five brothers and sisters were placed in the California foster care system. He has spent nearly all of his life in that system and has just turned 21. In California, that's the age when people in foster care "age out" of the system and lose the benefits the system provides. That process becomes official at a final court hearing. Anaya, along with Youth Radio, got rare permission to record the proceeding, where he read a letter he wrote about his experience in the foster care system.
Walking into court for my very last time as a foster youth, I feel like I'm getting a divorce from a system that I've been in a relationship with almost my entire life. It's bittersweet because I'm losing guaranteed stipends for food and housing, as well as access to my social workers and my lawyer. But on the other hand, I'm relieved to finally get away from a system that ultimately failed me on its biggest promise: that one day it would find me a family who would love me.
Little things, like when my judge Shawna Schwarz mispronounces my name, serve as a constant reminder that, "Hey, I'm just a number." I often come away feeling powerless and anonymous in the foster care system.
"Well, I'm reviewing my notes and it looks like the first time I got involved in your case was back in 2003," Schwarz says. "You've been in the system a long time."
I don't have any pictures of my five siblings and me together as babies. Not a single one. Which makes Throwback Thursdays (#TBT) a little challenging.
My biological parents weren't ready to be parents. My father was abusive. Eventually Child Protective Services got involved, and my siblings and I went into the foster care system.
We were separated and shuffled between foster homes, group homes, shelters, and for at least one of my siblings, incarceration. That's why it was really important to me to make a statement in court, going on the record about how the foster care system failed my siblings and me.
"You have been pretty much one of our more successful young adults. Is there any advice you'd give us?" Schwarz says.
I clear my throat.
To whom it may concern. This is the year that I divorce you, your gray hands can no longer hurt me, your gray hands can never overpower me, your gray hands can never tell me that you love me because it's too late. ...
I use "gray hands" to describe the foster care system, because it never felt warm or human. It's institutional. Opposite the sort of unconditional love I imagine that parents try to show their kids.
Your gray hands just taught me how to survive in a world. We never learned how to love ourselves unconditionally. I've been with multiple foster families, I've been with multiple shelters. How does a person like me not end up with a family. ...
In an ideal world, being a foster kid is supposed to be temporary. When it's stable and appropriate, the preference is to reunite kids with their parents or family members. Adoption is the next best option. I used to dream of it. Having a mom and dad, siblings to play with ... a dog. But when I hit 12, I realized that I was getting old. That adoption probably would never happen for me.
In the system, I constantly had new social workers, lawyers and case managers, which left me vulnerable. It wasn't until I got older that I realized one of the main causes for the turnover was because of low wages and overflowing caseloads. Even my lawyer is currently juggling 130 other clients.
At 21 you happily kick us off to the curb and say good luck I wish you well, I wish you the best but don't come back because we can't take you in. I've seen too many of my people give up on the educational system. ...
I had hoped to finish college by the time I aged out of foster care, but I'm still in my junior year. I'm committed to getting my bachelor's, despite the odds being terrible. According to the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, only somewhere between 2 and 9 percent of former foster kids complete their college degree.
I hope that you hear my words. And I hope that you listen to my signal of distress. I thank you for giving me closure. Thank you.
As the judge reads her final orders closing out my case, I promise myself that I'll leave all the rage I feel about the foster care system inside the courtroom. That I won't carry that hate and frustration with me for the rest of my life.
There's one more thing I need before I leave the courtroom — for the judge to bring the gavel down on this chapter of my life.
"Is that it?" I ask. "No hammer?"
"You want me to do the gavel?" the judge says.
"One time, please."
"All right, I'll do the gavel," Schwarz says. "You know we never do that in real life."
I felt goosebumps when the gavel slapped down on my judge's desk. Happy because I'm no longer cared for by a system that was never that good at actually caring for me. And I'm anxious, too, about what life might be like next.