Eighteen-year-old Brittany Haley of Mesa didn’t choose to become an expert on the foster care system. Since the age of 5, she has lived in group homes, in residential treatment centers, with foster families or with relatives. And as a life-long student of the system, she’s determined to become a teacher and mentor for other children facing the same ordeal.
Vicki: Why did you first enter the foster care system?
Brittany: My first time in child protective services was in Illinois. I was 5 years old. My mom couldn’t pay the bills and they just ended up taking us. I feel like they could have given my mom some resources to help her out instead of just taking us.
Vicki: That started years of moving from place to place, and separation from your two brothers. But then you moved to Phoenix with your biological dad and his wife….
Brittany: And then I was placed back in a shelter again. Because it just wasn’t a fit household. Then I was placed back with him again, and that time I stayed for, like, six months. One of my dad’s friends raped me; and I was taken back because I had started substance abuse. I was placed in St. Luke’s Behavioral Health [Center], and from there I was placed at the New Foundation, and then to Sacred Journeys, a group home.
Vicki: Why did you start using drugs?
Brittany: That was my way of coping with the sexual abuse that happened, because no one would listen to me. And even if I talked to them, they weren’t really listening. So that was one thing that no one could take away from me, because if they tried, I could just go out and get it again.
Vicki: What—or who—helped you turn things around?
Brittany: At the New Foundation I met a lot of really positive people. It opened my eyes and opened so many more opportunities for me, for my life. They helped me deal with the situations that I was not coping with. A lot of the kids that I was there with, and that are still there, we go to a meeting that I [now] chair. It’s called My Life. It’s a youth meeting. I’m able to share my experiences with them there and just really encourage them that the experience is what you make it, you know?
Vicki: What is it like for kids who enter the foster care system?
Brittany: They come in with nothing, and they’re expecting to be taken care of. They’re looking for someone to understand them. [They’ve been] taken away from their families, or whoever they’re with. They want to be able to connect with someone else that can help them out or make them feel wanted, make them feel respected, or make them feel pretty, or make them feel like they’re good at something.
Vicki: You were chosen to relate your experiences at a fundraiser for Arizonans for Children, a private, non-profit that provides services for kids, because you’ve become a leader among your peers. You encourage other kids in care to call their caseworkers, to ask to see a judge, to speak up for themselves. When did you decide to advocate for yourself and for others?
Brittany: I think that in January of 2008, I was like, you know what? I’ve done what they want me to do and now nothing’s being done [for me]. Now, they’re going to do what I need them to do. And so I made it happen.
Vicki: What’s an example of how you’ve helped change things for other kids?
Brittany: There was just a family of four girls put in my group home. I came home from school one day [and] the three little sisters were gone; the older one was stuck there. “Why did they separate you?” I asked. She said, “I don’t know.” I told her, “Get on the phone, call your case worker and tell her that you need to be with your sisters.” Yesterday, I came home from school and they had placed her in a foster home two blocks away from her sisters. And that just gave her [confidence]. She said, “that just made me see that I can tell them, and…something can be done.”
Vicki: Will you continue to advocate for kids in care after you “age out” of the system?
Brittany: I want to. If I don’t get scholarships for culinary arts, then I’m going to go into law, and I’m going to be the defender for CPS kids.
Vicki: Why take on this role? What makes you different?
Brittany: Having faith and hope. Because I feel with those two things, you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel with anything, not even just my situation. Anyone’s. RAK
EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly after this interview was conducted, Brittany moved back to Illinois to be with her mother.