Recently, I gave a motivational speech in Canada to foster parents and social workers. When I was finished, the conference planner asked me if I would like to meet with a young transgendered man who had been in the foster care system and now was in prison. I asked what his crime was. “Murder,” she said. He’d cut a man’s throat. I was taken aback. I meet many different people in many different situations, but not often those who’ve taken another’s life. I decided to meet with him.
Jacob, as we’ll call him, had a biography that in many ways mirrored my own with a life in foster care. From early on he was neglected and unloved by his biological parents. They were emotionally and physically abusive, and made it clear they wished he’d never come into their lives. After some years, they pushed him into the foster care system. Jacob never saw them again. The sharp sting of that abandonment caused him to act out aggressively. He was always angry. The issue of his gender identity further isolated him from his peers and the adults around him. He was still very young when he was arrested for murder.
Jacob’s story caused me to reflect on my own journey. The statistics aren’t good for young men and women who grow up in the foster care system. Though different studies arrive at different numbers, none paint a rosy picture. Some studies reveal that up to 80 percent of America’s prison population was once in foster care. 40 to 50 percent of foster children never graduate high school, and roughly 66 percent become homeless, are jailed, or die within one year of aging out of the system. Girls who grow up in foster care are 600 percent more likely than the general population to become pregnant before the age of 21.
The foster care system is filled with many wonderful, caring people. Regardless, the results we see are not encouraging. Perhaps many of these kids never overcome the trauma of their early childhoods. What is the difference between those who go through the system and become successes and those who do not? The answer to this question is so unbelievably important, not just for the individuals growing up in foster care, but for ourselves as a society.
Watch motivational foster care speaker Derek Clark inspire youth in juvenile prison.
I have made it my life’s mission to motivate and inspire people to become the best versions of themselves possible. Particularly close to my heart are the foster and at-risk youth, because I was once among their ranks. I lost my mother, father, stepfather, brother, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins. I was angry, and acted out. I had poor self-esteem and abandonment issues. Yet I overcame my circumstances, to become one of the foster care system’s success stories. A bright spot in a dark world.
This is not to brag, only to say that it is completely possible to succeed. You can defy the dire statistics. You can become a glimmer of hope to others, instead of another man or woman broken by the system and broken by their past. Was I just some lucky soul who through mere chance escaped the fate shared by so many other foster children? Or was I responsible for rising above my past and circumstances? I will tell you right now that it was the positive choices I made that saved me. One positive choice after another, and suddenly there is a chain of positive outcomes.
In the end, I can’t save you. You have to save yourself. All I can do is tell you what thoughts, habits, and attitudes buoyed me up and lifted me out of the muck. All I can tell you is what worked for me. It starts with taking ownership of your life. It starts with not making excuses. Harness all the anger, hurt, bewilderment and confusion, and apply those potent energies to achieving positive and constructive goals. Cultivate a sense of life as an adventure, and realize that while there will be setbacks—as there are in anyone’s life—as long as you continue to march and make progress, you will get to where you want to go. I had to fight for the life I now live, and the happiness I enjoy. You must never stop fighting for the life you want.