A Foster Child Tells His Own Story

Approximately 20,000 kids a year simply grow out of the foster care system. Many have no safety net to fall back on. Jelani Freeman is one of them. He tells his story in his own words.

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I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

We began today's show with the story of Tony Jones. Who's mother adopted out of foster care when he was 4. But thousands of kids turned 18 in the system and are never adopted. Jelani Freeman was one. His father went to prison for attempted murder. His mother disappeared for days at a time. Jelani entered foster care at the age of 7 and stayed for more than 10 years. This is his story in his own words.

Mr. JELANI FREEMAN: There were times where there wasn't enough to eat, the lights were cut off or different other things as her not coming home for a couple of days.

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The day that I got removed from my mom, to me was just like any other day. I woke up, she wasn't there and my grandfather came by the house and let me know that she had checked herself into a mental institution. And most likely, Child Protective Services would be coming by to take me to a foster home.

Once the social worker left the foster mother who was a very nice woman showed me to this very small room in the back. Aside from that time and other times when we actually had to I don't ever remember speaking to her - I stayed in that foster home for about three months. A lot of the foster parents make it clear that, you know, they will take in kids but they don't want them any longer than a certain time. So even if you're not ready to be reunited with your family you're shipped to another home because they're just not in it for the long haul.

One of the reasons why I love the Parker family who I stayed with - they cared about me and they showed an interest in me. I had got my report card and I had done fairly well, which was not the norm. After I left my mother my grades began to drop.

I began to not do very well in school but they asked to see it, which was strange. I had never had a foster parent actually see my report card. They said it makes us very happy and Mrs. Parker gave me a reward - a little bit of money to go to the mall and spend for the good grades. I didn't know where that was coming from but I liked it.

Mrs. Parker died in her sleep. She had a heart attack, a very young woman, 47. Immediately after the funeral, I didn't ride back home with the rest of the family. I actually walked to go see my mother - I remember her just talking to me, nothing really of significance, and breaking into tears it was just reaffirmed to me that my biological still just would never be the mother that a lot of people grow up with and have throughout their whole lives.

It also dawned on me that this woman who I began to start looking to as a mother, was gone. It dawned on me around 16 that in a couple of years I won't have anyone. I had to turn some things around. I remember going to a guidance counselor and asking her for advice on the SAT and getting into college and she turned me away. She said you skip every other class every other day I know you're just trying to skip now. I know you're not interested in school, go back to class and I don't have any time to play around.

But the thing about being in care is that you become very resourceful. I had someone I knew at a recreation center by my house and I went to him. And he actually even paid for me to take a SAT prep-course. It was just people like this who I really owe all my success to.

I went to the University of Buffalo. The day I graduated, I figured this was the start to a brand new beginning. And the graduation was held in this large auditorium in the alumni arena, thousands of graduates and then there were even more parents and relatives and people in the stands - holding up signs and different things like that and cheering them on as they crossed the stage. And dread just came over me because I knew when I walked across that stage there would be no one cheering for me. At that point, I knew that I would have to face my past and come to terms with it.

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CHIDEYA: That was Jelani Freeman in his own words. After graduating Jelani interned for Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton. Now at 26, he lives in Washington, D.C. and works with young people for the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

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