Before I go back in time, let me start by saying that I am super grateful for all the people who helped me grow up the way I did. I am proud to be a foster care success story.
When I “aged out” of the system I was extremely lucky that I had a foster family I trusted and that helped me understand the importance of education and financial independence. On top of having great friendships and my little sister Tanisha in my life, I also had tons of positivity coming from the adults and peers I met through nonprofit groups like Treehouse, a Seattle nonprofit dedicated to foster youth and families, and College Success Foundation. I really credit those organizations for bringing foster youth together, whether they meant to or not, so that we could develop a collective consciousness.
I eventually graduated from the University of Washington (Politics and American Ethnic Studies) and have worked full-time since then. I’m now the Program Manager for Seattle Theater Group’s "Nights at the Neptune" series. This summer I helped launch an STG project called Ward Of State, which aims to help the foster care system. In August, we threw a hip hop and soul concert featuring inspirational tunes from and for foster youth. The work was made possible by generous support from STG, Treehouse and veteran producer Bubba Jones and his label, Critical Sun Recordings.
Looking back on my life in foster care, despite all the struggles, I know I was comfortable compared to other foster youths around the state and country, and compared to orphanage situations around the world.
I was abandoned at the age of two at a lake near Ellensburg, Washington, and taken into custody by the state’s Child Protective Services. My name is Martin Sepulveda now. I was born Martin Douglas Penado, the name given me by my 15- and 16-year-old parents. When my birth sister and I went into our first foster home, I was four. At the time, people thought I was suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. I was described as a child with “animal behaviors,” a “hoarder.” I had cigarette burns on my scalp, like my parents had used me as an ash tray.
Until I was four I had sisters and cousins and grandparents who took care of me when my parents couldn't. But I finally went into the foster care system, where I lived with about five different families over the course of growing up.
I say “about five” because my memory is a little blurry, which has to do, at least in part I think, with some kind of weird psychology that I am afraid to understand. This fuzziness seems common among my foster care peers. I am not a licensed social worker or mental health practitioner but many foster kids I speak to seem unable to describe their specific trauma.
Most of my own history is contained in a file, and I recall that history, not from personal memory, but from hearing people repeat, over and over, the story in that file: I was adopted when I was six, the same year I was separated from my birth sister, who was a little older. At age 7 I was hospitalized to remove a cancerous tumor in my spine. (The operation was successful and I’ve had no trouble since.) My adoptive mother was also taking care of two other foster children, who became my brother and sister. When I was about 13, it was clear she was battling mental illnesses and alcoholism which were making her unfit to parent me any longer.
I was about to be kicked out of my adoptive home and separated from my brother and sister when the family moved to the Midwest. After they left, I moved in with a white family I had met at church.
I won't lie. Everything about this was way too hard for me. I remember nightmares and hellish loneliness that made less and less sense as time went on. I remember how hard it was to figure out who was good and who was bad. I really wanted to be able to simplify things that way. Other people (my foster parents, therapists, caseworkers, etc.) wanted to be able to simplify things too. But nobody could tell me anything that I could hear as truth. Not that I didn't listen. But without any experience of an intact family hierarchy, elders just seemed like older kids.
It should have been easy to minimize my pain with practical explanations: Mom was evil, or ill. My birth parents fucked up. Too many drugs or not enough money got in the way again. The state didn't do its job. But none of the logic, or excuses, offered me, helped. I was still dealing with the loss of people I loved.
I didn't understand what I was feeling at the time. Some people called it “the blues.” But it was enormous guilt, sadness and anger over the rejection, and anxiety. I was blue all the time about losing my brothers and sisters and the rest of my adopted family. I felt sad about all the things I wish I could have done for them, or they could have done for me. At the same time, there were great people who were always there for me, helping to clothe and feed me, and enrich my life with meaningful experiences. At times I felt bad about feeling sad too!
Many agencies are now asking how to help foster youth have better “outcomes.” Here’s my answer: I was able to function, to graduate from high school and then college and into the workforce, because at every transition faceless angels came to my rescue. I had major ups and downs as a teen and young adult, but the adults in my life expected a lot from me. Each time I felt victimized, every time I slipped, some extremely wise and patient foster parent would help me see my freedoms and my responsibilities.
Martin is a producer at STG. Credit: Allyce Andrews
I told you already, I don’t remember everything, all the people who must have stepped up to advocate for me. In the end, maybe I was just lucky, especially becoming part of my last foster family who helped me avoid trouble through involvement in school activities, basketball and church. I had so much love around me, even though my community, my family, changed more often than most.
I had something to prove: that I was a good kid. I wanted to set the best example I could be for my younger brother and sister who had moved away. I wanted to fit in with my new family and be a good influence on my new siblings.
Art helped me too. I always wrote poems, drew pictures, made mix CDs for people. In college I started creating instrumental music, listening to old soul records. Now I’m writing songs and producing for local hip hop and soul artists.
I don't know if there is one magic thing I can say to foster youth who are going through the system right now. If my story can help us understand anything it is that foster youth struggle a lot because of all the crap they have gone through, Even when there are a million opportunities for them and people who want to help, they struggle. That’s why it’s so important to encourage all the foster parents and social workers and researchers and people in nonprofits and government agencies, everyone out there who works with foster kids to remember that by being strong and good they are constantly providing new examples of what can be, and actively renewing our faith in the power of relationships and the essential goodness of people.
To read all our at-risk youth stories, visit the Kids at Risk page.