Mother's Day used to be a day that I dreaded when I was in foster care. It wasn't just the fact that I didn't have a mother figure in my life to celebrate about... it was also because most of the time, I alone in my group home's visitor halls while the other kids got to see their aunts, grandmas, moms, and even caseworkers who came to visit and told them how much they loved them. I was always left behind. Whenever that happened, I just stayed within my empty room and tried to sleep to help make the hours go by as fast as possible. "Maybe this holiday will end when I wake up", but I have learned that throughout my days in foster care, the essence of Mother's Day always lingered for a child who grew up with no mother. I couldn't ignore it. It was painful to see within my own paperwork that my mother's name slot would always be empty. It was hurtful to know that I was disposable into the abyss of someone else's life.
As I got older and became a mother myself, I got to reflect a lot about my decisions to be the best mother I can be, and who I can turn to when I feel consumed by my own mistakes. It took me 17 years to be able to call the following strong women below my mothers. Without having given birth to me, they met me where I was at in life and loved me like thier own. They accepted all of my overcomings and showed me how to be a strong woman. Each of their roles within has allowed me to make peace with my abandonments, my loneliness, and my purpose. In honor of Mother's Day and Foster Care Awareness Month, I want to share with you all my Mothers Through Foster Care. Special thanks to the foster care community within Facebook support groups for delivering the following interview questions.
Esther Sherrard, I lived with Esther for a year. She was my mentor in my state's Independent Living Program. I was 18 years old.
I would say that Esther's role in my life has no titles, and often times we all hear about the parental roles and titles in every story's life, I actually feel that there are many people out there who resonate with Esther's role, the strong adult who has no title because she fits all titles (mentor, sister, aunt, mother, counselor). Esther Sherrard Consulting is currently working with The Children's Bureau to develop continuous change and reform in our nation's child welfare system.
Question from Katrina, nsoro Scholar in Atlanta
1. Who were their greatest positive influences growing up?
I'd have to say the Bible, rather than people, had (and still has) the greatest influence on my life. I believe the Bible is God's Word and reveals to me who Jesus is. Reading the Bible shapes who I am, what I love, and how I make decisions. I'm grateful that my parents exposed me to God's Word as a child and that I was able to grow up with that primary influence in my life.
2. Do you have a favorite female author or philanthropist?
Elisabeth Elliot - her writing was shaped by her life and has been encouraging and challenging to me http://www.elisabethelliot.org/
More foster care awareness questions...
3. Was it hard to foster a teenager?
No, and Yes, in that order :) I've always loved working with teenagers so I genuinely enjoy being around young people and that made fostering teens not so hard. But there were definitely challenges. I'd say the hardest part is not having the advantage of knowing the young person for a longer period of time prior to placement. Because of that, you haven't been able to build a lot of trusts and that's so important in working with teens. Teens are also at a place developmentally where they want to make decisions independently and may not always be receptive to guidance, which can be challenging since their decisions will impact the rest of their lives and as a caregiver, I want to protect them and help guide them toward the best outcome. So you have to patiently learn how to build trust and have a relationship where they respect you enough that they want to hear your guidance and receive your counsel.
4. What was your biggest goal as a foster parent?
I wanted to provide a home and a relationship where steadfast love and healing were experienced.
5. What was your biggest obstacle as a foster parent?
Without my faith in Jesus Christ, I would not have been able to be a foster parent. That's what helped me overcome any of the obstacles that came up. It is definitely challenging to work within a broader child welfare system that is in many ways broken. Not being able to rely on caseworkers and other providers to always do the right thing or make adequate efforts were definitely hard. We need more trauma-informed, compassionate, and skilled social workers and therapists. Our school systems and medical providers also need to understand the unique needs of youth in foster care so that services can be adequately tailored for them. So you need to be prepared to advocate tirelessly for the needs of the youth you care for.
6. Does age matter when choosing to foster?
If not, what matters the most in your opinion? Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of recruiting foster and adoptive parents who are only willing to take in the age groups of kids they prefer or feel "most comfortable" with. The reality is that many states struggle to find homes for older youth, sibling groups, and children with special needs. So that means we need to foster parents who are willing to be focused on meeting the needs that exist rather than just focusing on their own needs/preferences. We definitely want foster parents to consider their limitations so that they don't take in children they can't adequately care for, but there is a difference between being unable to do something and preferring not to do something. I would love it if we had more foster families saying "we've never raised a teenager, but with some training and support we are willing to meet that need." Aside from being flexible on age, ultimately the most important thing is that prospective foster parents have to be willing to be committed and stick it out, even when it's tough. If you don't have that capacity, then foster parenting probably isn't for you. These kids need stability, so I would advise people not to enter unless you are prepared for 100% commitment.
7. What advice do you have for foster parents to help maintain relationships with youth who have left their homes?
I think it's critical to form a familial relationship with youth that you care for - whether you take the role of an aunt or uncle, or older sibling, (or even mom/dad if that's the youth's preference), it's most natural to relate to youth as part of your family. It can feel awkward to try and define relationships outside of this context. There are wonderful mentoring relationships that can also become permanent connections but in some way, it's important to convey clearly to youth that you expect to be in their life for good. Some youth may actually reject that idea, out of fear or for other reasons, but it's still helpful for youth to know that on your end, your expectation is that you are now a permanent part of their life. That keeps the door open for them to come back to a relationship with you, even if they choose to step away for periods of time. For youth who haven't experienced healthy long-term relationships in a family context, it may take some time to adjust to the concept and that's ok. Keep checking in - texting, calling, emailing, visiting, letting them know you are thinking about them, care for them, and have an open door. Treat them like you would a member of your own family. Foster parenting is an opportunity to grow a child or youth's sense of family, so I would encourage you to be all in, forever.
My brave, bold, and fearless mother-in-law. She is someone that shocked me when I met her. Who would have thought that I would marry right into the compassion of a warrior from foster care? My mother-in-law entered Germany's foster care system at 12 years old and survived with limited resources at 17 years old. In her words perfectly put, "I got a state representative, until 18 he got me my first apartment. I met Dwayne and the rest is history." My mother-in-law currently residents in Kentucky with my father-in-law, Dwayne Gilliard.
Questions from Katrina, nsoro Scholar in Atlanta
1. Who were their greatest positive influences growing up?
Hello Katrina, first I have to say that I had no favorite grown-ups for influence, I was too upset and always mad about grownups.
2. Do you have a favorite female author or philanthropist?
I used to always read mystery books. Not necessarily having a favorite author. I like reading period.
A few other foster care awareness questions...
3. What’s your advice with coping through childhood trauma while raising a child of your own?
At first, I used to be very strict with my son, I was young and did not know how to raise a kid, but he had so much love for me that no matter what I did to him he always said he loved me .that is what changed the relationship I realized that he doesn't have to grow up like I did and when I got depressed I had a good long cry and forced myself to get over it.
4. How did you bond with your daughter in law knowing she was also from foster care?
My daughter in law was a breath of fresh air, when I found out that she was in foster care, we talked about everything all the time every day. And it made a big difference in my life.
5. What motivated you to break the cycle of abuse?
My husband, he stood by my side no matter what.
6. What advice would you give to a new foster family?
Treat them the same way that you want to be treated.
Rosemary Wright, I lived with my parents first before meeting Esther. Through my parent's support, I was able to graduate high school and transition into Virginia's Independent Living Program
This is my mother, Mrs. Rosemary Wright. It took me 17 years to find her and I am so grateful for her. My mother was the woman who remained steadfast in my life no matter my shortcomings and mistakes. She was always loving and forgiving. My mother always has room for others at the table. My mom is currently retired from The Pentagon. Both my parents always have their doors open for any youth from foster care that may need their company during the holidays.
Question from Katrina, nsoro Scholar in Atlanta
1. Who were their greatest positive influences growing up?
My greatest positive influences growing up were also my negative influences. Most of the stories I was told growing up from my mother contained horrific stories of poverty and abandonment. As one of 10 children, I had a vague idea of want and being always a little on the hungry side. To hear stories of women (my grandmother “Nana”) who were left alone and without money while being responsible for a child instilled in me a fear of hunger and poverty. My mother would state that her husband “my Dad” had money because they always had milk in the icebox “refrigerator.” My mother would also say that when she was an adult she was always going to make sure there were milk and bread in her home.
2. Do you have a favorite female author or philanthropist?
I loved Jane Goodall then and still do. Hers was the kind of life that I dreamt about – wilderness, animals, nature, Africa. One of my most prized possessions is an autograph of Jane in her book. The day I met her following a lecture in Washington, DC, I waited in a very long line to acquire the signature. I had teared up throughout the lecture and as I finally stood in front of her, I sobbed. She looked at me and appeared a little perplexed. All I could say is that I had always known her name and that she was wonderful. I was awestruck. She is an activist still doing incredibly important work – taking care of others, some of our close relatives.
3. What motto did you raise Whitney on, and is this the same motto you were raised on?
Children – all ages deserve respect and love. Too many adults believe and behave like they are the only ones to be respected. Not so. I was not raised with an overabundance of respect. But I always knew I should have been.
Other foster care awareness questions...
4. Why should someone foster teenagers?
They should only foster teenagers if they have an abundance of time, energy, patience, love, financial stability, and a strong empathetic and forgiving nature. I understand why money may at times be a part of this conversation, but it should remain the most minor of reasons to foster. The focus of the money should be to help the child, not as a personal paycheck. Teenagers are smart and they are able to detect someone’s motive.
5. How did you work through your daughter’s communication with her biological mother?
Patience. Everyone involved in a child’s life should respect all of the relationships, blood relatives, and truly anyone important in the child’s life. Biological mothers also deserve respect and patience. There are some people who may want to be a good parent, yet are not ready to assume all of the responsibilities. It takes more than just a desire to be a good parent. However, not all parents are ready to be responsible for a human being, especially one that is solely dependent on them for everything.
6. What would you change about foster care?
I would hold biological parents more responsible for the conduct of a disorderly child. In many ways, foster care is like a local fire department. When there is trouble everyone must know where to turn for help. I am not saying that there aren’t problems with Foster Care. But, everyone, adults, and children, at times may need an organization to step in. I may be able to put out a pan fire, but a house fire calls for professionals to be called in to help.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of the foster moms, step mom, bio moms, mother figures, mommy-to-be, grandmoms, surrogate moms, and all the men who filing in the shoes of mothers as well.
“Body of Missing ‘Cupcake’ McKinney found”, “Body of missing 5-year old Naveah Adams Sumter found”...
Then there came my timeline... floods of posts to “hold your children a little tighter” and “I don’t know what I would do if this was my child”. The very same day when these headlines appeared, I was walking to pick my son up from school, I saw 2 children no older than both Cupcake and Navaeh walking home ALONE from the bus stop to their home.
As I witnessed this, I couldn’t help but to feel my blood boil and my ears went red. Less than 72 hours, the nation fell devastated by the stories of these two little lives gone to soon... and in the most heinous way possible. Fresh off reading their stories and then witnessesing 2 preschoolers wander alone was very similar to the feeling of peeling the skin off your cuticle further and further back. It was painful and gut wrenching.
Yes, crime rates have gone down in the US since 1990s. However “crimes” have many categories, to a parent’s demise- human trafficking rates are rising 7%+ within the past 3 years in America. To capture a child into this vile circumstance, according to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), children are often taken heading to and from school- in many cases non-relative abductors are more likely to grab their victims off the very streets they are walking on. As a mother writing this blog, I have high hopes that many will share this... because this is a plea to please hold onto you children ALWAYS.
The family of the two sweet angels are mourning and grieving at the hallow sounds coming from their bedrooms, the cold clothes in the dressers that will never be worn again, and the silence of the floors where their little feet will no longer pitter-patter on. Their stories are not just headlines or a hot topic. What happened to these two girls will be a haunting to their perpetrators, a devastating tragedy that’s not simply washed away, and a essence of distress that the families will feel for a very long time.
There is no such thing as ever being “too-safe” for your children. At any given moment, the safety net that we take for granted (ie safe neighborhood, good people) can change with a blink of an eye. I cannot help as I read these stories to think “what happened within their last hours”. I pray no one reading this will ever have to wonder or think about the last hours of their child.
Please don’t let abduction stories that you read on facebook or see on the news be the reminder for you to hold your child(ren) tight. Do it always, and if you see something not right- never underestimate your God given supernatural powers of parental intuition. Call the police and stand up for your (OUR) children.
On this day, 8 years ago, I lost my father to liver cancer. I found out 4 days before he passed, and I had no idea how sick he truly was until I saw him.
I received the news that my dad was ill from my case manager. She called me and my world fell apart. Even though I was in foster care and finally got placed with a beautiful couple who loved me very much... there was still a huge part in my heart that loved my father... very much. No matter the mistakes that he made, there was never a mistake grave enough for me to dismiss that he was the only parent I had. Good or bad.
When I begged my social worker to see my father, it was impossible. My social worker wouldn't approve of a visit unless my foster parents were there. I screamed and cried, I felt cornered and powerless because the only person who held all my childhood memories, the only parent I ever had, was dying- and because I was a "foster kid", I couldn't even get my last visits with him alone. What else could he say that would hurt me more than his death?
The time I found this out was the same time homecoming was happening. Life was happening, and I wanted so badly for everything to stop. On the day of my homecoming, I went to see my father in my homecoming dress at the hospital. It was the first time, in a very long time that I saw him smile back at me. I had been away from home for almost 5 years, every family visit was awful- and at the family court, he could barely stand seeing me. But this moment, he smiled at me and that was all I ever wanted. I felt for a moment, that he saw me as his daughter again. He turned to my foster parents, with barely an ounce of life left in him, he said to Bill and Rosemary, "take care of my Whitney".
The next day at 7 am, I got a call from my brother, "Dad is gone".
Like a toddler scared of the dark, I jumped out of bed and ran to my foster parent's room and cried, "my dad passed away". I distinctively remember that as they looked at me with worry and shock, they did not know how relieved I was that they were there in my life.
As everyone rotated in the hospital and all my siblings took their turns to say goodbye, I couldn't remove myself from my father's bedside. I sat there staring at him, begging him to just wake up and smile back at me again. Despite the commotion happening, the room felt silent to me. There were no monitors beeping, there were no fluids dripping, there were no sheets rusting.
Since I said my final goodbye to my father, I leave remnants of him in my life as a reminder of that smile that I saw. Maybe, he did want me back home after all.
My father gave me a jade necklace when I was born. It's very special to me and on days where I am unsure or need to feel empowered, I wear it. Sometimes I sign my name in emails with "Lam" in it. Those are my simple ways to show that I will never forget my father. I choose to remember him for his strength, wisdom, and courage. I choose to forgive him.
As my life in foster care continued, it felt that outside looking in, many forgot that I lost a parent while I was in care. My social worker kept talking about a case plan. My classmates still said, "at least you still have parents". I carried a lot of guilt with me when these things happen. Should I be happy that the person who contributed to my time in foster care has passed, and at least I still have parents?
No one can ever fulfill the place of my father. There's no love that can every erase that he existed, and time won't take away the very breaths that he breathed into my walk of life when he was alive. All of that is ok.
My foster parents are very much my parents today. They love me and adore me. My mom said to me the other day "your love is the sunrise", my dad always picks up when I call him. Still, they don't ever try to replace my father. His role, just like theirs- is sacred and irreplaceable.
After his funeral, my family went to eat pho. Tonight, that is exactly what we are going to do.
Photo (left to right): Chatham County, GA DFCS case manager Ms.Ferguson, Director Brown, and Whitney Gilliard loading Comfort Cases into HavINN™
When the swelling went down and the throbbing pain that made the room spun finally settled down, I looked at my wrists and said to myself, "well... here we go again". For the 3rd time I have been arrested and without hesitation the routine went as it has always went:
1. I fought the cop.
2. They charged me with resisting arrest.
3. My foster mom is crying.
4. My case manager whose been pissed off at me for months now needs to find me another placement.
Gosh, the cuffs feels cold... and have I been crying? I can't remember, my eyes feels tired... I wish all the talking would stop.
3 months later after being released from "Juvie", I found myself in a residential facility at Riverside VA. I stayed there for about 6 months. It wasn't fun, it's wasn't a "get well" retreat. I barely felt sun on my skin and I had to ask permission for the doors to be unlocked each time I had to use the bathroom. One day I was talking to a staff member about nonsense while I was watching TV. She asked me "what do you want to do when you get out of here?", I told her " I don't know maybe be a tattoo artist. She laughed a wholesome laugh and said "oh child, I don't know bout that".
Throughout my years of growing up in the foster care system, I heard that very message but in different ways. Sometimes it's said with slang "nah, it aint boutta happen", sometimes it's more proper, " I think you will need to work on a few things first". I outgrew my desire to be a tattoo artist when I approached my college years and I was motivated by my father in-law to look into the field of social services. Even with a degree in my hand that says I majored in "Human Services" with a focus on Psychology, I still found myself handicapped in this world. The "oh child, I don't know bout that", still lingered in my head.
I cannot tell you how often those words stopped me from doing the many things that I knew would help others. It supressed my speaking and my advocacy. After all, i'm just a delinquent from the sytem- and made life hard for everyone. How can I ever make a differerence? It truly felt that being associated with foster care has crippled me. The self-esteem and courage that comes with being a leader of charity was somthing that I never thought I would fathom to do.
Secret: self-esteem and courage aren't the only traits that will change the world. It's your will... to all my brothers and sisters, honey- you already have that and then some.
Today our foundation, Gilliard and Company carried our partner's donations (Comfort Cases) into the building of Chatham County DFCS. We will be launching a new program called HavINN™ that will help my little brothers and sisters cope in a peaceful place, no matter where they are in their foster care journey. No more sleeping in offices. A desk is not a place to rest your head.
Who knew the kid who walked those same steps with no bags, would come back with over 3 carts worth..."Yes Child..but I did."
As of last week, I felt like I walked the stage and received my diploma from "Hard Knocks University of Foster Care".
We almost can't help it, it's only human... when we help others, it feels good to feel appreciated. But what if doors are slammed at your face, texts are ignored, and awful things are said about you? Last week I felt that about half the lives of children in foster care that I worked with truly hated my help... I was either too annoying, too direct, too kind, or not strict enough. Gosh- I even questioned myself and wondered if I was a bad person.
So this entry is dedicated to all my foster parents, providers, child welfare workers, and anyone who is involved with children in the foster care system. It can be absolutely draining. If you're wondering if you should foster- please read this too, because this is the truth and you need to know.
Last week one (out of a few of my children) absolutely could not stand seeing me. I didn't know what about myself made this kid so mad. I asked, and I was shunned... OUCH. I called and there was no answer. I felt so helpless and I wanted to know so badly what I did wrong. Did I say something that triggered emotions? It was eating me alive that something as simple as my presence made this individual so angry. So I gave it a few days before I reached out again, when I did, the text messages were short, and what I felt like were kind words were answered with "ok".
I called my team immediately and I wanted to know what they observed that I didn't pick up. I went and re-read the treatment plan to see where I went wrong. Then I called my mom and she said: "it's not personal". Those words didn't feel very comforting because it felt truly personal... but she was right.
As a teen, I gave my foster mother the hardest time. I couldn't stand her help and nearly every advice she gave me was ignored. When I think back on how last week felt, I couldn't help but realize why I was the way I was towards my foster mom. She was kind, she was selfless, she was loving, and she was always there. But she a was all the things that remind me of what my biological parents WOULDN'T give me... and for that, I was angry, hurt, confused, and ashamed. I couldn't respond to the "I love yous " because I felt guilty for saying that to someone other than my bio parents. The times when they showed me I was their entire world, made me scared because I was never that to someone before. I pushed my foster mom away the most because my mother left me as a baby... and if my own mother didn't see value in me, why does she?
Guys, it's not personal. It's trauma.
Please don't feel discouraged when your child shows you anything outside of pure happiness to see you. There is a divine miracle that is being shined through you, that neither yourself or your kids can see right now. It takes time... years later my foster mom is the only person in the world that I want when I feel sick, afraid, or unsure. She took the time and just like planting roses to the ground... understanding all the thorns and care it will need... she did that to my life. That is what you're doing right now. I see your tired eyes and your aching heart, trust me... the roses will bloom.
Growing up in foster care... things don't mean the same to me, as it does for others who weren't affected by the system.
Yes, I love pumpkin spice- the cool breeze (or as cool as it can get in GA), feels so nice. But the nostalgia isn't about the beauty of Autumn. My heart feels the most anxiety around this time of year. Around this time of year, when I was in foster care- I had the least visits, the saddest people around me, and there's this beating fear that Dr@NadineBurkeHarris talks about...
Fall is not the same for a "foster kid". The wisp of the fall air is nearly a siren for us to start begging for homes and shelter to go to- because oh yeah, the campus isn't open all year for the ones with no family. It's an SOS for the kids who are lingering in care, wondering what type of cruelty we are going to be subjected to this year (being ignored by family members, devasting reminders, abusive words, becoming ostracized, etc).
So toast up with the pumpkin spice... here's to the ones like me, who felt the reaping of fall that reminded us of the times when love was just as bare as the branches on the trees.
Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Whitney Lam Gilliard and I am the Co-Founder and Chair of Gilliard and Company. You may recognize me from congressional advocacy forums, foster care reform articles, foster care awareness podcasts, and many other platforms that surrounds foster care.
I have a huge heart naturally for children as I am a mother myself. But I also have a deep rooted history with foster care becuase I was raised by the foster care system during my teen years. As a child in the system, I have always cried wondering why I was trapped in what felt like the 'time warp continuum" of bouncing around places to live. Now that I am an adult and on the other side providing services with different outreach, I find peace knowing that what I went through was for G&Co's existence and so that other will never go through what I went through.
Many says what I do is brave... speaking up about my abuse and advocating for others. I must admit, I don't always feel very brave doing this... but I also don't think that anyone while doing something brave- ever feels brave? So if you are an advocate too and hesistate on speaking up... honey, do it. You are braver than you think.
This blog was created because many have approached me to write a book. One woman in particular during an evening where I was the guest speaker and I emphasised on what family looks like when you're in foster care, came up to me right before I left and handed me a note. She told me "this is what God is moving my heart to tell you". I held onto that note and cried on our drive home, telling my husband how I couldn't believe that coming from the kid who wasn't worthy of a "nice family" is now asked to write books. This blog is for you, the woman who held the note in my hand.
I must admit that I am still pondering on when will be a good time to write a book. But this blog will be a good place to start. I hope you all enjoy this blog. Please provide feedback! Every time you join my blog you will be asked to please consider donating to our cause, I hope that we can all read and make a difference together. I can't believe we are starting this! So scary but so exciting! Here we go!
Living over 18 places has taught me that every child deserves a home. Being a survivor of child abuse has taught me that every child needs to be heard. Growing up in foster care has taught me to bloom where I am planted. Being a mother and a wife has taught me to be resilient. Operating a charity has taught me that people really do want to help. Providing homes for youth in care has taught me that bad days does not mean a bad life. Advocating for children has taught me to be brave.