By Gaye Bunderson

Editor’s note: Cassidy Littleton, 20, formerly of Twin Falls and now attending Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, is working to create real change in the foster care system in the U.S. on both a state and national level. Last year, Cassidy — who was once a foster child herself — met with Congressional leaders and eight state legislators to help raise awareness of the many challenges foster children face. She took time out from her schedule to answer some questions on the topic of foster care for Idaho Family Magazine.

Q. Cassidy, could you give me a sense of what it was like being a foster child?

A Confusing and lost. Those are the two words I’d use to sum up my experience as a foster child. I think every child could probably relate to having absolutely no clue what’s happening in their life or with their future. For me, I was always asking, “Why was I taken? What did Mom and Dad do for this to happen? Are they in trouble? Am I in trouble? What’s going to happen to me? Will I ever go home? Does this mean I’m never going to be with my family again? When can I see them? Am I safe from the family members I’m scared of?” There were so many questions all the time. I felt so uncertain about everything, whether about my past or present or future. As a foster child, I was completely consumed by those thoughts and fear of what would happen next. I didn’t know if I was safe, I didn’t know if I was moving again, I didn’t know how to act around my families. It was really hard, and it made me feel so lost in a world that I felt I had no control over.

Q. Can you also explain how you came to be in the foster care system?

A. I was in the foster care system twice, once at age 11 and once when I was 14. Both times, I was removed because of parent drug abuse and neglect. The first time I was in foster care, it was completely unexpected — cops literally showed up at my house as soon as I got home from school one day, and I was taken into their custody within just a few minutes. I was told to pack an overnight bag, and then I was gone. The second time I was expecting to go back into the system, because I knew that police being alert about my family situation would put me back in foster care.

Q. How many foster homes did you live in, and were they mostly good or were some very difficult?

A. I lived in five altogether. Two foster homes, one respite home, and two kinship-care homes. I was fortunate that my younger sister and I were able to be together the entire time, but I can ultimately say that it was a negative experience overall. My respite family was amazing, but I was only with them for a few days and that felt too short to really impact my experience. In both of the foster homes, the parents were headed towards divorce and that made the family dynamic really difficult. To my knowledge, both of those families lost their license to foster soon after I left their homes. Being in kinship wasn’t any easier. The first kinship home was so bad that my sister and I begged to be removed and transferred. Our final kinship home was comfortable because we were with close family, but it was still really hard on my sister and I because we turned into the babysitters and caretakers of the house and didn’t get to act like children.

Q. Many young people age out of the foster care system when they turn 18. That must be very difficult. What was that like for you? Did you suddenly have to face adulthood all alone?

A. I didn’t actually age out of foster care. I was lucky enough to leave the system in high school. However, I had an older brother who was taken by the state — he became a ward of the state — and he did age out of the system. I also gained a sister in foster care who aged out when she was 18. So, I never experienced “aging out” myself, but I saw what it was like for them. Especially for my brother; he really struggled a lot to find stability in his life. My sister was able to go to college right after she turned 18, but after her first year she dropped out and struggled to find a job or somewhere safe to live. I was too young back then to really understand the gravity of what they faced, but when I got older and saw how much my life had gone down a different path, I was able to reflect on why they had such a difficult time. They had no one to look out for them or guide them in what to do. They were forced to create a life for themselves with absolutely no foundation or resources, and I think that’s what ultimately led to their struggles.

Q. Tell me a little about your brother, if it’s not too hard for you. It reads in the information that was sent to me that “he was unable to find the support he needed.”

A. I have lots of older siblings. Four, to be exact, and then I have one younger sibling (who was in foster care with me); three brothers, two sisters. Well, I had one older half-brother who I grew up with, and I was very close to him. He was like any older brother, kind of mean to me sometimes but he loved me deeply and wanted to protect me from everything.

He was very troubled growing up. He had a horrible childhood. One parent abandoned him from the day he was born, and the other one abused him in extreme ways. He was tortured and neglected his whole life, and when he was a teenager he was in and out of juvenile facilities until he was finally removed from the family and became a ward of the state. When he aged out of the system, he had a really hard time adjusting. He got financial assistance from the state, but there were no resources that helped him adjust to adulthood or helped him cope with his situation. He ended up taking his own life — and it wrecked me. I was 11 years old and in foster care when it happened.

My brother was absolutely hopeless and he felt abandoned and alone. He died a week before his 20th birthday, and I’m absolutely positive that if he would have had resources to guide him into adulthood and help him process through his time in the system, he would still be alive. He’s a huge part of why I do what I do — I want to fight for the children who feel alone and without hope. I was there too, and I don’t think anyone deserves to feel that way, especially children.

Q. Tell me more about your mentors in Boys and Girls Club. I’ve never heard anyone credit the club with helping them in the way you were helped. What did the club do for your exactly?

A. To put it simply, the Club gave me a support system and a family that pushed me beyond my circumstances. It exposed my talents, encouraged me in my strengths, and gave me opportunities to redefine my future. I won’t go into all of the details, but I started going to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Magic Valley when I was 8 years old. My mom enrolled my younger sister and I, and I immediately meshed with a staff member named Robert. He was known for his love of music; he always brought his guitar to work and sang songs to us kids. I adored him, and I ended up learning guitar from him, which exposed my love for music too. Since then, I have learned other instruments (piano and cello), become a singer and worship leader for my youth group, taken a music course from Juliard, and had this intense passion for music in every part of my life. I still love music to this day, but I think Robert is what really opened my eyes to the power of it.

The real game-changer came from my family at the Boys & Girls Club. When I was a foster kid going to the Club, I really bonded with staff member Jonny during teen nights at the Club. Jonny became a brother figure to me. When I was older and in high school, I grew extremely close to two of the administrators at the Club (although all of the administrators treated me like their own child). One’s name is Rashell, and she was my formal mentor, and the other is Lindsey. They were both like moms to me in the fullest sense of the word. I stayed at their houses and spent time with their families. They took me out for lunch and took me shopping. They helped me get into a private school my senior year of high school, and Lindsey came to my graduation. They helped me choose a college, do my applications, and buy my school supplies — they did everything. They loved me like their daughter.

Q. You want to reform the American foster care system. In what ways specifically, and what are you doing to help bring about that change?

A. I can’t say that I know how to reform the entire system, but I do know that there are specific issues that I want to fix that could have overarching impacts. Obviously, I care primarily about the children in the system who are aging out, because I believe they deserve more recognition as they become adult citizens in our country with real power in our communities. I absolutely think that rehabilitative programs and resources should be a mandatory part of every child’s case plan when they age out of the system, so that there’s no gap for these young adults to fall through the cracks and feel lost. I also would love to see reform for how we recruit and incentivize foster families, the regulations placed on giving foster children equal opportunities as a traditional child, and I also hope to see increased funding for programs that help foster kids, such as the Guardian ad Litem program.

Q. What is the worst thing about the foster care system at present?

A. If I had to pick one thing to highlight about the system, I would say that our approach for recruiting and treating foster families is the worst. This is two-fold. First, I think that we do not provide proper incentives for fostering, and this can lead to attracting the wrong type of families. I am not disregarding the thousands of incredible families that take care of kids, but it’s undeniable that there are families out there who abuse the foster care system. There are definitely families who foster just for money (although why they do that, I’ll never understand) or to receive more benefits from the government. All this does is stamp a number on a foster kid and make them feel worthless, and it often creates abusive and neglectful households for foster kids. Basically, we need to change the type of families we appeal to. I think we should target higher-income families or families who don’t rely on government assistance, and incentivize mid-upper-class families to foster, so that there’s less concern of misuse of the system.

The other side of that is giving foster parents the room to treat a foster child like family. There are so many obstacles and protections placed on foster kids that it often hinders them from truly integrating into a family or feeling like a normal child. Here’s an example: an upper-class household is made up of two parents and one biological child. They want to foster, and receive a foster child into their home. Because of obstacles with the system, they will likely not be able to enroll that foster child into a private school, because public schools are Idaho’s primary education choice for foster kids. Now you have a foster kid who wishes they could have the same opportunities that their foster sibling has, or maybe wishes they could go to school together so that the foster child could at least have someone to bond with. Or, there are other rules around foster kids going to sleepovers, vacations, leaving town, etc. I realize that these are necessary safety precautions, but it makes it hard for the foster family to give a foster child the same opportunities their own kids might have. This is hard for the foster parents, who have to deal with the law and the consequences, and it’s hard for the children, who feel discouraged, left out, and disadvantaged.

Q. What is your life like now? What support do you have in the way of family and friends? How do you support yourself financially?

A. I’m 20 now, and I live in Nampa. Life is always a little bit crazy for me, but it’s awesome. Right now, I’m a student at Northwest Nazarene University; I’ll be a junior this fall. I am interning at the Idaho State Capitol right now, gaining some political experience. I just finished an internship working for a foster care organization. My professional life right now revolves around: internships, speaking, managing a national blog, and school. My personal life revolves around church, reading books, becoming a culinary master, and spending time with friends and family.

I have a huge network of families that rally around me. I have biological family in Idaho and in other states, Boys & Girls Club families, families of friends, church families — they’ve all taken me in and support me, so I feel very blessed to have them.

Q. If you could say just one thing to foster care kids, what would it be?

A. You are better than your circumstances, stronger than you realize, and entirely capable of taking a tragic chapter of life and rewriting it into the most beautiful story. Don’t back down to darkness; shine your light and let the world around you see it.

Q. If you could say just one thing to foster care parents, what would it be?

A. You are in a position of incredible responsibility; you have the power to help children rise above their circumstances and become incredible people, but you also have the power to diminish their value and their voices. Do not diminish the life of a child. Nurture them, love them back to life, and know that your actions impact a lifetime. Thank you for what you’re doing and for taking on this role; we need you.

Q. If there’s anything I left out that you feel is important, please feel free to share it.

A. I do feel like it’s worth sharing that I don’t have any desire to glorify myself or my story or the Boys & Girls Club, because the truth is that there’s so much more at play that led to where I’m at today. I do what I do because I believe that there is a power in using your story not to promote yourself, but to connect with others and inspire them to write a better future for themselves. I fight for the little girls out there who have big dreams and are scared to step outside of their circumstances and reach for them. I fight for the kids who cannot fight for themselves and for children like my brother who feel forgotten about and alone. But I also stand up for the parents who want to do their best and don’t know how. That’s what this is about. My story is not just mine; it is theirs, and I want others to feel that recognition.

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