She didn’t have the easiest start in life. And while Kate Rosenstein Houston’s story is uniquely her own, it’s far too similar to the experiences of many children in this country. She was a foster kid.
Kate’s mother was struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues all while trying to raise two very young children. Her father hadn’t been in the picture for a long time because her mom kept them on the run and prevented his involvement in her life.
Just before Kate’s first birthday, her mother was arrested on drug charges and Kate and her older brother entered foster care for the first time. A family member offered to take them in, so Kate and her half-brother moved to a new home. They would stay here while their mother was in jail. Like Kate, nearly one-third of youth are placed in kinship foster care with a family member.
Kate did not have contact with her mother during the nine months she spent in jail and drug treatment. She was told her mom was sick.
“And then one day we were moving back in with her,” Kate said. “Even the return back to family is very traumatic. You settle in. You get a new routine. And then out of nowhere you’re told, sometimes just last minute, that you’re moving tonight. It’s very abrupt. It’s very difficult to handle that.”
Kate spent her toddler years living with her mother. Even after rehabilitation, her mother continued to struggle.
When she was four years old, Kate remembers that her mother came home one day and told her that they were moving out of their Portland apartment that night. She quickly packed up their things into a waiting U-Haul and they moved in with friends near The Dalles.
Kate had barely settled into her new surroundings when one day she stepped off of the school bus to find their house surrounded by police officers with their guns drawn. As an adult now, she realizes that her mother was trying to evade arrest by fleeing. But she was just a kid then and she was terrified.
With her mother back in jail, Kate entered foster care for a second time. Her family member opened their home to her once again. Over the next two years, her mother refused to comply with court mandates to regain custody of Kate.
When her family member agreed to make her stay a more permanent arrangement, adoption proceedings began and the state moved to terminate her mother’s parental rights. In response, Kate’s mom began to comply with the courts and the adoption proceedings came to a halt.
This disruption caused irreparable damage to the relationship with her extended family, and Kate lost connection to a person who had been a stable force in her life.
Kate was 6 years old when she began living with her mother again. Three years later, her brother transitioned back home from the residential facility he had lived in for a few years.
It was an unhealthy and chaotic environment for her to live in. Though she was just a child, at home Kate had to take on adult responsibilities like trying to get her brother to take his medication and ensuring that they both had clean clothes to wear to school.
Her mother continued to struggle with mental health issues and drug and alcohol problems. She was often in between jobs and rarely home. Kate and her brother often went hungry because they didn’t have food in the house, and there were piles of garbage everywhere.
School was Kate’s sanctuary. It was a place where she could thrive and make good grades. When she was 11 years old, a guidance counselor noticed bruises on her shoulder and reported her concerns.
When the police saw the condition of the apartment they were living in, Kate and her brother were immediately taken into care. The apartment was condemned and Kate wasn’t able to take anything with her, not even a favorite stuffed animal. Her mother was charged with mistreatment of a minor and she went to jail for the third time.
With no family members willing to take her in this time, Kate went back into the foster care system. While it felt odd to live with strangers, she realized for the first time in her life what it was like to be a child. She was able to read and play without taking on adult responsibilities.
“I decided that I didn’t want contact with her [mother] anymore,” Kate said. “I liked not having her around.”
Kate shared these feelings with her Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a trained volunteer assigned to her to advocate for her best interests. Even though she was very young, her CASA and lawyer supported her decision. They worked to ensure she would be able to stay in foster care and terminate contact with her mother.
While this was a positive development, her mother’s parental rights were never terminated and Kate could not be adopted. Because of this, Kate did not have a single person connected to her life. She had only temporary relationships with foster parents. Kate bounced around from foster home to foster home.
From the time that she was 12 until she was 15, she was in seven different homes and attended four different schools. Her motivation and grades suffered during this time.
She had never been one to try to purposefully be removed from homes, but she hadn’t really tried to bond with families either. She had lost trust in adults staying in her life.
That changed when she was placed into Angelique’s home. Kate bonded with the other girls from foster care who were living there. Kate ended up living there for three years.
“She became my family,” Kate said. “That was the most stability that I had in my childhood. Even though it was only three years, it was three years of consistent care. Consistent safety. Consistent love and respect.”
When youth in foster care turn 18, they “age out” of the system and are expected to move out on their own. They are wholly unprepared for adulthood, yet have no one to turn to for advice or help when they need it.
As a result, only 58 percent of youth who age out of foster care will graduate from high school and less than 3 percent will attend college. More than one third will wind up homeless within the first year, and 30 percent will be incarcerated.
Former foster youth are nearly twice as likely to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than war veterans, with one in four affected. In 2014, more than 22,000 youth aged out of care.
Unlike most youth, when it came time for Kate to age out she was welcome to stay with her foster mom as another older sister had chosen. She decided to move out on her own after graduating from high school and assert her independence. She had been in the system for so long that she was ready to leave it. It did not matter to her whether she was prepared or not to handle adulthood.
Living on her own, she made some youthful mistakes and fell into hard times financially. She struggled with depression and ended up dropping out of college. Even with the support of her sisters and foster mom, she struggled with letting them in and they weren’t exactly sure how to help her.
“I think that the times I’ve had such high success in my adult life are because I had so many people in my circle that were on the outside rooting for me, saying you can do this. You are a success. You are not what you came from. I believe in you,” Kate said. “And the times that I fell were either the times that I either stopped believing them or I no longer had a relationship with them, and I believed what my head was telling me. Which was ‘You are a failure.’”
Today, Kate is 26 and a lot has changed in her life. She is now a devoted mother to three young children and she’s happily engaged to a man who loves and supports her. They are building a life together with a bright future ahead.
Her foster mom is a grandmother to her kids and she keeps in touch with her sisters. She has a support system to help her get through when times get tough.
Even still, she struggles sometimes with overcoming her past. She worries about being a good mom to her three children and she is often filled with self-doubt. These are the lasting effects of a turbulent childhood.
“I can’t just find a switch that says ‘former foster kid’ and switch that off,” Kate says. “It’s a lasting scar. It’s always going to be there.”
Because of her experiences, she is a fierce advocate for youth in foster care and wants to show kids that they can be a success and rise above their circumstances. It’s been a long road to get to where she is today. While many would be beaten down by the experiences Kate’s had, she chooses to let them make her a better person. A stronger person.
“Because I’ve had to endure some challenges and I’ve had to overcome them, I know that I can overcome any other challenge that comes in my life.”
Kate works with special needs students at an alternative school, and she loves her job so much that she recently cut her maternity leave short when her youngest child was born. Many of her students come from backgrounds similar to hers, and she knows the importance of them having stability and control in their lives so that they can become a success. Like her.
While the progress she’s made has been on her own, she recognizes the important roles that loving adults played in her live. She thinks that she was lucky, but every child deserves caring adults in their lives.
“I was blessed with a foster mother who was compassionate and invested in her girls,” Kate shared. “She wanted us to feel like we were a normal family. I don’t think I’d be half of who I am today if I hadn’t been fatefully placed with her.”
There are 8,000 youth in foster care in Oregon on any given night. Like Kate, each of them deserves a stable, loving, permanent person in their lives. It will change their life.
In the Portland area alone, there is a deficit of 500–800 needed foster homes every night. Foster parents come from all backgrounds and can be gay, straight, married, or single. Most work full-time jobs and do not own their homes.
Foster parents aren’t perfect people or superheroes. They’re just someone who recognized that kids deserve to be in a loving and stable home, and they wanted to do something about it.
Are you willing to do something about it?