WASHINGTON – AnneMarie Rainwater is 21 years old and has lived all over Tennessee, but she wasn’t moving with her family. She was moving from family to family. Four years of foster care meant nine different foster homes, nine different schools and nine different sets of foster parents.
At age 9, Rainwater was taken away from her biological parents in Michigan. After six months in foster care, she was placed back with her biological parents and they immediately moved to Tennessee.
The oldest of six siblings, with parents who were constantly involved in drugs and alcohol, Rainwater became her siblings’ primary care provider.
“I would have to take care of my five brothers and sisters and make sure they were fed and taken care of, and we did miss a lot of school because of it,” she said, “Because (my parents) didn’t want to work, they didn’t want to do what they needed to.”
After three years, Rainwater said she was taken away from her biological parents again. This time, it was for good.
“I got taken away again in Tennessee when I was 13 because of the neglect and the way the house was,” she said.
Rainwater’s life on the move is not unusual for foster children. According to the 2014 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report, 264,746 children entered the foster care system and 238,230 left. Rainwater’s story is unusual because it did not lead to a life of addiction, homelessness, teen pregnancy or sex trafficking.
Constantly on the move
Rainwater said her foster care case ended up lasting longer than it should have. She was supposed to be placed back with her parents. But when she turned 15, the plan changed to finding her an adoptive family. Her parents’ rights were taken away because they could not keep jobs or a home.
To get adopted, Rainwater said she needed her biological parents’ signature. That is when she found out the man who she thought was her biological father was actually her step father. The process was delayed while the foster care system looked for her father.
Her mother signed off, but they never found her biological father.
During her time in foster care, Rainwater said she was constantly saying goodbye to friends.
“My biggest struggle was probably all the moving,” she said, “the constant changing of foster parents, schools, trying to figure out who I am in the process and all the depression that came with the moving and feeling unwanted.”
Rainwater said she had two friends at different points in her life whose families fell in love with her. As a result, they said they would try to adopt her. Rainwater said those hopeful moments never worked out.
Even though she moved around a lot, she said she felt lucky because none of the homes was bad. She said they were all very religious homes.
“You still had that mindset of, well, I’m not your real child. What if you don’t pay attention to me?” she said.
Connie Mills, public relations manager for Youth Villages, said the different levels in foster care represent the amount of training a foster family has to have.
The reasons Rainwater moved from one foster home to another varied. Sometimes the foster families would have a family member moving in and no longer had room for her. Sometimes she needed a different level of foster home.
“If you get a young person who’s a little bit more rebellious or has a few problems, the agency has to make sure the family’s got a little bit more training,” she said.
At age 17, during her junior year in high school, Rainwater was finally adopted. She said her final set of foster parents became her permanent family.
“It’s scary because when they first asked me I was kind of just like, well, I’ve heard other foster parents that I’ve had say that and then I left,” she said. “So it’s just like is this for real? Somebody’s going to love me forever?”
Her new family has an older son who is married and has a child. She said her new family gives her lots of love and support, something she has never had before.
“They don’t call me names like my biological parents did. They don’t hit me like my biological parents did,” she said. “They help me with everything.”
Rainwater is now at Middle Tennessee State University studying social work. She said she credits a lot of her success to Youth Villages’ YVLifeSet program.
So it’s just like is this for real? Somebody’s going to love me forever
The program helps former foster children ages 17 to 22. Mary Lee, national YVLifeSet coordinator, said the program is unique because its specialists are on call 24/7 for their clients.
“The program is not just about intensive case management, it’s also about meeting the therapeutic needs of young people,” she said.
YVLifeSet was designed to help former foster children make the transition into adulthood. Lee said YVLifeSet specialists are there to help the young adults stay on track and caters to their unique needs, such as getting a GED or learning to manage money.
Lee said the group does not provide money, but it tries to prevent traumatic outcomes.
“Let’s just say they’re going to be kicked out of their apartment because they missed their rent or they’re going to end up sleeping on the streets. We have some kind of emergency funding that we can use for those types of things,” she said.
Michelle Lavalee, Rainwater’s YVLifeSet specialist, said they meet weekly for at least an hour to make sure school is going smoothly and to prepare Rainwater for the next part of her life.
“When I first took over to help AnneMarie, we were working on some time-management skills to improve her grades in college,” she said. “Since then, her grades have actually improved greatly so she has been wanting to focus now on employment.”
Success after foster care
Rainwater said being in the program has motivated her to succeed.
“Whenever I was in high school I thought I was going to drop out, wasn’t going to make it, and then, now being in college I’m set, determined and focused. I’ve made it this far. There’s no turning back now,” Rainwater said.
Her goal is to work with Youth Villages. Rainwater said that, through her experiences, she believes she can help foster children youth overcome the struggles they face.
“I graduated with a 3.0,” she said of high school. “That’s the reason I want to go into being a social worker, because (foster children) don’t graduate most of the time or they won’t have a high GPA, you know. But if I can do it, I mean I think anybody can.”
Although Rainwater’s past made her more grateful for the love her family gives her, there are still lasting effects of the foster care system.
“I have commitment issues, and I have trouble believing people because of how much I was lied to by my biological parents,” she said.
Some of Rainwater’s siblings are in foster homes, and some were adopted. She said she still has a close relationship with them. However, she does not associate with her parents, and she likes it that way.
Mills said YVLifeSet has helped Rainwater become confident that she can succeed. She has no doubt that Rainwater will graduate college.
“But I’m not sure if she hadn’t had the help along the line, that she would. It just makes a difference.”
Reach reporter Tia Rinehart at tia.Rinehart@scripps.com or 202-408-1490. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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