Show me you’re not going to leave
A former foster youth shares why teens need parents after they turn 18
Interview with Amber Clingman
The day my brother and I were removed from our home, my mom and I got into a fight. My stepfather had been physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive to all of us. But that day, I told her there’d also been sexual abuse, and I guess she wasn’t in a space to accept that. We lived in the same apartment complex as my older sister, so my brother and I went to her apartment and told her what happened. She didn’t know what to do, so she called the police, and CPS got involved.
There was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen, and I remember being scared of retaliation if I’d have to go back home. I felt a lot of emotions that day, but ultimately the biggest one was relief—knowing someone was either going to force my mom to do better, or I was going to be in a safer place.
I had to equip myself
I never thought I’d spend my high school years couch surfing at my friends’ houses. I was a straight-A student. I was involved in clubs and played sports. From the outside, I looked like a regular high school student. But behind the scenes, I was working full time. I was trying to help support my little brother. I was struggling with loss and trying to figure out who I was and why all this had happened to me. My friends’ parents knew that, despite everything, I was trying to be successful, and they were very supportive.
I needed that support, but it was also hard to accept. I moved around and lived in four or five different spaces. Depending on the family, I’d stay maybe six months, usually not more than that. I realize now that my leaving was a matter of trust. I ran from a lot of relationships that could have been positive because I was so worried about them leaving me. That’s what I was used to—chaos, trauma, abuse, mistrust. All of that was normal for me.
So when a foster family came along and was like, I’m going to provide you with all these things, I was like, I don’t really know that I should accept that from you. How can I trust your family when I couldn’t trust the family that gave birth to me?
Once I realized that my foster parents wanted to help me, I was able to build a support structure around me and learn the things I should have been learning from my parents. That network grew to include friends, their families, teachers, professors, supervisors—I had to be sure that I could equip myself with what I needed to be an adult.
I didn’t want to be a statistic
Like most kids who enter foster care, I come from a lot of trauma, and that’s hard for many foster parents to understand. They think a behavioral response is just a behavioral response. The biggest helpful thing my foster parents did for me was try to understand that my behavioral responses were related to something I’d been through.
We’d talk about that because it didn’t always make sense to them, but it made more sense once they understood more about me—my past, learning what I liked and didn’t like, and figuring out ways to build a relationship with me. They were there through all the things that come with being a parent—the ups and downs, the ins and outs, the arguments, and the teenage girl things. They were willing and open to support me, whatever that looked like.
That support included how they talked about my family. My foster families never talked bad about my parents or made it seem like I came from this terrible situation. It was more so, Your parents aren’t horrible people, but they’re not in a good place right now. I want to support you in having a relationship with your family, understanding that they’re not able to provide the safety you need right now.
I was always trying to verbalize to everyone around me that I knew I had a purpose, and I wanted to be able to push through the struggles I was facing. But there were plenty of times I didn’t think I was going to make it. I felt like I was going to be another statistic, because that’s what I’d heard pretty much the whole time I was in foster care: You’re going to end up pregnant by 18. You’re not going to graduate high school. You’ll probably bounce around and not have a lot of support.
Those negative messages were a driving force for me. My foster families knew I wanted to use my experience in foster care for something positive. So they supported me and they also pushed me when I felt like I didn’t have it in me or that I wasn’t going to be successful.
I needed a support system
Everyone knows children need parents, but youth and young adults still need parents after age 18. That’s when you’re learning how to do all the life things: finding a job, signing a lease, and navigating relationships.
As a teen in foster care, I had an internal struggle, asking, Do I really want to be adopted? I didn’t want to betray my mom. But another piece of me was like, Wait, I’m in the system because of a choice she made. When I was 16, I applied for emancipation. I was living with my older brother then, and I was OK, but I wanted to be on my own because it was just becoming too much. The judge was like, You’re doing great. You’re doing well in school, and I don’t see why you wouldn’t be successful.
But navigating the system without the support of an adult is complete chaos. There were times where I had to pull in my independent living workers or my foster families and say, How do I get a copy of my birth certificate? How do I navigate college? I need help. I looked for support from professors and supervisors because I didn’t have a parent I could just call and say, What do I do? How do I respond to this?
Sometimes I’ll see memes on Facebook about calling your mom for every little inconvenience. And I remember the years when I didn’t have that opportunity. I’m grateful I was able to build a strong support system. Most kids in foster care aren’t equipped to do that, or they come from so much trauma that they’re not in a headspace to do that on their own.
How foster parents can help
Today at 30, I’m a fierce advocate for youth in my community. I work with several youth committees and programs—walking alongside our young people, changing the narrative, and giving them a voice. From the outside, it looks like I’ve accomplished a lot, but there’s more I want and need to do. My purpose in life is to use my experience in foster care, and all the things that came with that, to show youth what it looks like to not be a statistic.
This is where foster families can play a big role for youth and teens. They need caring adults to step in and say, Hey, we got you. We’re not going to leave. It might get rough more times than not, but we’re here, and we’re not leaving. I had that when I aged out of foster care. And even now that I’m an adult, the biggest thing you can do for me is show me you’re not going to leave.
Sometimes you have to go through the rain to get to the sunshine. When I went through foster care, it was hard to understand why this was happening to me. I questioned my faith, and I questioned a lot of things like, Am I supposed to be here? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? But along the way, every single thing I’ve gone through has showed its head at some point so I could give that experience back and do the work God has for me.