As May is National Foster Care Month, we talked with foster care advocate and Labeled: Ward of the State author Kenisha E. Anthony about her experience growing up in and aging out of the system, and the changes that could be made to better enhance the lives of children currently in it.
“One of the memories that I do have that is very blurred is being in a courtroom with my mom handcuffed and not really understanding what was going on,” she tells ESSENCE. She was four years old when she entered into the system, as both of her parents struggled with drugs. She would go on to stay in seven different homes before eventually aging out of the system at 18. It’s something that reportedly more than 20,000 young people went through in 2019 and continue to face every year and something that Anthony detailed in her book, Labeled: Ward of the State, released last year. For Anthony, the experiences in each home she resided in before she became an adult and “aged out” were completely different.
“When I first went into homes, I thought, ‘This is going to be a fresh start. This was going to be my new chance to put everything that I experienced in my last home behind me,’” the now 29-year-old Miami-based author says. “Although they would start off that way, they wouldn’t end that way.”
In one home, a man living in it touched her improperly. In others, she was left to fend for herself or encouraged to “go talk to a man and make him give you the extra stuff that you want.” She was treated differently from the biological child of a woman caring for her in another home, and as for group homes, they felt like “jail” to her.
“One group home that I lived in while I was in high school, I kept telling them I needed my hair done. They kept telling me they were going to get it done,” she says. “In my culture, getting our hair done, that’s everything to us. And just being a woman, your hair is a part of your self-esteem.” But as time passed, what she required was neglected.
“I ran away because they would not meet my needs.”
When Anthony needed to leave the homes she was in, whether because she was being asked to or because she wasn’t content in the space, sometimes she worked with a caseworker who would remove her from a residence and find a new placement for her. But often, she figured things out alone.
“I was on my own, so when I didn’t want to live somewhere anymore, I would say that and then I would find the next place I was going,” she says.
Those transitions would sometimes leave her “falling through the cracks” of the system. Meaning, the state didn’t know where she was because she was finding solace in unauthorized homes (sometimes distant relatives like a great aunt). This was especially the case as she got older. Going it alone, she wound up getting in trouble with the law for shoplifting and was advised that she should just get a GED. Seeing that her actions could leave her with serious jail time, and knowing what she was truly capable of, she became motivated to change her situation and do more than what people expected of her. Anthony would go on to become a first-generation college graduate, getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree with help from a statute in Florida that allows for tuition exemption for children aging out of foster care.
I just think it was God and the universe,” she says of her success since. “I knew that I had the ability to graduate high school and I knew that I wanted to do that. I just needed to find the discipline to do it.”
She found it and maintained it, and now she’s helping other children and young people in the system through her advocacy work. She was inspired to get involved after poor communication from the foster care system in regards to requirements to take care of her tuition (including having to turn in paperwork every semester, which she wasn’t notified of) left her frustrated and standing in never-ending financial aid office lines.
“I was very upset because I’m like wow, I’m trying to do good. I’m trying to focus. I’m trying to stay out of trouble. I’m trying to do better for myself and all my social worker had to simply tell me was ‘Kenisha, turn this paper in every semester.’ All the school had to do was tell me to turn this paper in every semester and I wouldn’t even be experiencing this,” she says. “In that moment I was like, I need to talk to someone and tell my story because why do we have to go through this? This is something so small and that could have been avoided, and all it was was simple communication and a child doesn’t have to experience that. That was the experience that ignited my drive to advocate.”
Now colleges in the state have liaisons for young adults in foster care. Also, those attending college with lived experience in foster care no longer have to turn in that paperwork every semester to be able to study without financial burdens. All of this change was made through her participation with an organization called Florida Youth Shine. Through the youth-led advocacy organization, members worked with legislators at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee so they could be informed of struggles faced by young people who’ve been in the system and vote to make the changes needed to help.
As for the changes she’d like to see in the future, particularly now that Anthony is a social worker helping young people in situations she once was in, she says there need to be more measures in place to help families curb abuse, abandonment, and neglect. But so many things play into that: affordable housing, a living wage, transportation, and other issues.
“More preventative care to keep families together needs to be taken,” she says. “For example, you can bring a child into foster care for neglect because a home is dirty. But if we can put in a cleaning company to help mom clean her home and to help her for 60 days to say, this is how you clean to…whoever’s standards, because what’s clean to me may not be clean to you. We can use services like cleaning companies to help.”
This expertise, as a child formerly in foster care, as an advocate, and as a social worker, inform the stories offered in Anthony’s book.
“It’s very educational. It teaches you a lot about how the system operates, how the system should operate, what falls through the cracks at times,” she says. She hopes it will change the way people look at all facets of the foster care system: the children in it, the challenges faced by those who want to improve it, and the social workers who navigate it for families. She is also hopeful that it will inspire current and former young people in the system who read it to not allow their circumstances to limit their dreams. She has created a scholarship, the Labeled Scholarship, to ensure of that.
“In writing this book it was for me to bridge all of those voices and even give children a different perspective for how they look at their social workers. It’s so much more going on than we think,” she says. “This was just my experience and my walk of life. This is what I learned from it. This is how I move forward with my life and this is how I am who I am today. It’s a mixture of all of those things that I wanted to give to the world, that you can be and have whatever you want in your life. You just have to work at it.”