When most children in the foster care system turn 18, they’re on their own…Today, we’ll hear from a young man in a Miami supportive housing program called Casa Valentina, where young people get counseling and academic support and learn about building a life and career. Deon Richards is 22 now. WLRN's Rowan Moore Gerety spoke with him about what it was like becoming an adult as a ward of the state.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
WLRN: If you can think back to when you were 17, you had this kind of looming horizon of your 18th birthday and leaving the foster care system. What did you think was waiting on the other side of your 18th birthday?
RICHARDS: Simple things that people don't worry about I was worried about. Like, ‘How am I going to go grocery shopping? How am I going to—how am I even going to make a grocery list? I don't even know what to eat.' In foster care, food is always prepared for you. So, you know, I didn't even know what to eat. Like, I was just going to eat junk food my whole life.
It was just this whole big thing like ‘You're 18, you're out of the foster care system, so you get to do what you want.’ But the whole time I was scared .I was like I kind of want to still stay in. Really I wanted to scream out to anybody like, ‘Man, how do I do this? how do I…?' That's kind of what I like now because the system is totally changed. Now you don't age out at 18; you can stay until you're 21. So it gives you a couple of actually years to just kind of learn all of that stuff.
And that's the law that was passed and went into effect in 2014.
Yes, and I aged out in 2013, so, it’s just a blessing from God that that happened like that. I aged out at 18, I stayed out for a year, and then I went back into foster care til I was 21. And then at 21 I came out again. Then I kind of fell off track and I ended up becoming homeless. I was kind of afraid to call anybody because I was like, no one really has to help me because they stress the fact that you're an adult now. So basically anything you do is on you. So my agency ended up reaching out to Casa Valentina. And basically now I'm here where I am today: full time student studying physical therapy, staying focused.
When you hear about foster care, in addition to the disruption of losing your family in a certain sense—no matter what the circumstances are—you're also bouncing around. You're changing schools if you change homes. You're changing the kind of whole family dynamic that you have to now find your way to fit into. How many times did you go through that cycle and what was that like?
I went through it a few times, but bouncing around to me was kind of like a new way to start over every single time. So like the hardest part was, sometimes you meet people and you get really cool with them and then they leave because their parents got them back. Which is a great thing. But then like, that was the really tough part, because I met some really cool people that I'd never talked to again because they got adopted to some far off place or something like that. I’ve just been in that process so many times that it kind of messed me up in a way that I was just like, ‘I don't want to be adopted: I just want to live at the group home.’
So you moved into Casa Valentina in November. What's it like there and how do you spend your time?
Basically you have your own apartment and you go to basically two groups a week...The first group is on Tuesday where everyone meets and we're basically talking about life skills, like how to live on your own, how to feed yourself, how to clothe yourself, how to make doctors' appointments, how to basically live life as an adult.
What are some of the things you think you've learned since November?
I've learned definitely how to balance a checkbook. I've definitely learned how to keep my account in good standing. I've learned how to pay a light bill. Just, basic things like that—that society kind of expects you to know or that you would learn, maybe from your parents normally, but you just don't.
I've always had pretty good communication skills, but Casa [Valentina] kind of taught me how to be bold and kind of how to stand up for myself in a way, kind of like, even though I went to foster care I'm still as normal as anybody else with just a little bit different kinks, you know? I'm still, I'm still a successful adult.
So you said you're six months away from physical therapy assistants’ degree— Congratulations. Do you have plans past that point?
Yes I do: I plan on working as an assistant for a couple of years while still attending school because a physiotherapy degree is about six years. So, yeah, my end goal is to eventually become a doctor in physical therapy.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post was inadvertently published with an error in the transcript: the word "clothe" was mistakenly transcribed as "kill."