How do we determine who is in our family? The easy answer is that family is the people we are related to. But for kids living in foster care, the answer is not so easy. As someone who aged-out of the Texas foster care system, I have firsthand experience with the difficult journey that many other foster youth face when familial ties are severed. More importantly, I have experience with the beauty of new relationships forming, and eventually flourishing.
I grew up in rural South Texas, where I spent my entire childhood living in poverty. My relatives all struggled with a variety of unfortunate issues, ranging from chronic health ailments to engaging in criminal activity and substance abuse. As a kid, I could not fully understand the burden my relatives held or comprehend how difficult their lives must have been. But others noticed for me.
I lived in a tight-knit rural community, where everyone knew everyone. My friends’ parents knew that my relatives were struggling and helped me as much as they could. They let me do laundry at their place when we did not have electricity or running water. They always invited me for meals. And they generously offered me a space to stay in their home for as long as I wanted. I was always treated like part of the family. The more time I spent with my friends’ families, the more I realized how their family dynamic was vastly different from mine. I saw love, acceptance, and harmony — all things missing from my life.
Unfortunately, shortly before my fifteenth birthday, circumstances deteriorated to the point that I had to go into foster care. Although my biological relatives were not in a position to help me, my friends and their parents were there to for me.
One morning, residential staff at the emergency shelter I was living at awoke me. My friends and their parents were throwing a surprise birthday party for me. They had packed all my friends in a van and driven for nearly two hours to visit me at the shelter. They took me out to eat, gave me a cake, and sang happy birthday to me in a restaurant (which was somewhat embarrassing). It was the first real birthday party I had.
The timing could not have been better. Going into foster care is rough, to say the least. But being separated from my friends and their parents, whom I viewed as my family, was the most difficult aspect of being placed into care. Truth be told: I did not miss my own relatives as much as I missed them, because at this point I had been virtually living with my friends for three years.
The gesture of throwing a birthday party may seem small. But it was huge for me. It reaffirmed my beliefs that these people truly cared about me, loved me and considered me as part of their family. I understood then that family is more than just the people that you share genetic material with. Family is forged through compassion, authenticity, and love.
Today, I am a child welfare researcher on a quest to distill a formula for success for other teens in the foster care system. The research project I conduct, the Texas Youth Permanency, closely examines the experiences and relationships youth have with others while in foster care. In 2018, we published the findings from our pilot study and found that authentic relationships with others, combined with a sense of normalcy, leads to positive wellbeing for youth and can yield positive transformations and improve successful transitions in young adulthood.
As I was interviewing participants, analyzing interviews, and writing the report for this study, I could not help but reflect upon my own experiences in foster care. I am eternally grateful for all that my friends and their families did for me and I credit all of my success to their presence in my life. The importance of these relationships cannot be understated. They are incredibly powerful factors that can ward off many of the problems we see with teens in foster care and can thoroughly enrich their lives.
Tymothy Belseth is a researcher with the Steve Hicks School’s Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing.