Love guides child through Nevada’s foster care system
May 14, 2018
Editor's note: The following commentary was submitted in correlation with the Division of Child and Family Services' foster parent information event that's scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. today at the Carson City Library, 900 N. Roop St.
One day when I was 12 years old, shortly after my father went to prison, a woman I didn't know came to my house. She told me to pack a couple of outfits — not my CD collection, not my books. Just a couple of T-shirts and jeans. The social worker didn't tell my younger brother or me how long we would be gone for when she dropped us off at the group home. Several other kids lived there, and my head spun when I realized how many rules I was expected to follow. I had no idea how much my life was going to change, irrevocably. It was overwhelming. Terrifying.
About six months later, some time after my brother was moved to a foster placement to join our older sister, I was taken to a home in Sparks. I didn't know a soul there. Separated from my siblings, my friends, and everything I knew, I had to start over. It was five years and several foster care placements later — during which I lived in Carson, Sparks, Virginia City, Reno and Genoa — before I moved in with my "forever family," in Silver Springs, with a teacher from my high school and my brother. She adopted us.
For a child who had already experienced abuse and neglect, the chaos of moving from town to town was a lot to go through. I had lost my home, my school, my parents and, at times, my brother and sister.
Unfortunately, because of the current foster parent shortage in the Douglas and Carson City communities, children entering or already in foster care will likely face similar circumstances.
According to data provided by the Division of Child and Family Services, in Douglas County, there's only about one-fifth of the needed foster homes.
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In Carson City, there are only 13 foster homes, and of those homes, only two of them have an available bed for a foster child.
Any groups of siblings entering foster care right now in the Douglas or Carson area will have to be moved into another community if they're to stay together. Douglas and Carson counties are in dire need of foster parents.
It might not seem like the right time for you to become a foster parent. Maybe you would, if you only had more time, more money or more something else. The teacher who took me in and later adopted me didn't wait until she had the perfect life to try to help a child she saw in need, if such a life even exists. She worked full-time, she wasn't rich, and she was single. She didn't have much family support for the task she was about to take on. But she had the ability to give me the one thing in the world I needed the most: love. That's what all children need. A home, where they're safe, fed, clothed, encouraged and cared for — and yet, those are the things many children who enter foster care have been lacking for months or years, if not for all of their lives. Becoming that person to a foster child can change everything for them.
Being part of a family who showed me I was worthy of love, who treated me with kindness and respect and modeled healthy relationships for me, helped change the way I viewed myself. It changed the trajectory of where my life might have gone otherwise. Rather than continue the cycle of abuse and poverty, I earned a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Nevada, Reno and went onto become a journalist.
Next year, when my debut novel is published, I'll live my dream of being an author. I'm happily married to a man who cherishes me. I'm so grateful for my mom, who took a chance on my brother and me and gave us a family.
There are many children in your community who need help, right now. I hope if it's in any of your hearts to do the same for a child in desperate need of a home, you'll consider becoming a foster parent.
Nikki Barthelmess, a journalist and author of young adult books, spent five years bouncing around the Nevada foster care system. Her debut novel, "The Quiet You Carry," will be published by Flux Books in 2019. It follows 17-year-old Victoria, who, after she's kicked out of her toxic family, must contend with a chaotic foster home, dodge prying eyes at school, hang on to her college dreams, and somehow protect the stepsister she left behind. You can find Nikki online at nikkibarthelmess.com.