RICHMOND, Va. -- Keyatta is a teenager with dreams.
"I would like to be a lawyer," she said, as we strolled through Henrico’s Deep Run Park last week. “I want children to know that when I defend them, after they’ve been hurt in their homes, that they know that I’m here to help them. And I want to change their lives into the better.”
But this voluble, passionate 16-year-old girl isn't just looking to the future; she has her eye - and her heart - focused very much on the here and now.
"Home. It means that you’re wanted, but it mostly means that… gravity,” she said. “Gravity is, you’re attached to it, you’re not going nowhere from it. And, no matter how mad or how happy you are with your family, you’re never going anywhere, like that’s your family. You’re meant to be with them."
You see, Keyatta has been in the foster care system for most of her life, 13 of her 16 years. She is one of nearly 700 children in Virginia still looking for a permanent home.
“What it means to have [family]? It would be like, that you’re wanted. That’s why me being adopted is something that I really want,” Keyatta said. “Because, yeah, having a family at school, is cool. But I want a family that I can call my own, like a mom and a dad, you know?"
Ericca Facetti, with Connecting Hearts, points out most of the Virginia children awaiting adoption are between four and 12 years old, with some, like Keyatta, on the verge of "aging out."
That means they’re on the verge of being sent into adulthood without ever having the foundation a family provides.
That may be because families considering adopting a child, might be thinking about adopting a baby, an infant.
That makes the journey of the many older children, that much longer.
“There’s a lot of trauma for our kids as they move around to different foster homes, group homes, residential treatment centers,” Facetti said. “Statistically, after three moves, you know there’s a lot of damage that could potentially have been done, because there’s just no stability in their lives."
Facetti said all children, even college kids with traditional families, count on that foundation at home.
“Many of our kids that age out of the system, they may have never had that stability. They may not have all those tools that they need,” said Facetti. “And so we see a lot of our kids being homeless or incarcerated and sometimes even worse outcomes like sex trafficking, because someone has preyed upon them in a very vulnerable state.”
Children who may have been placed in several foster homes, but who were ultimately let down by the adults who were supposed to nurture them, can learn, at least in part, to depend on themselves.
Keyatta will tell you that.
“When I look at myself, I see how much hurt I’ve been through and how resilient I am and I came through that,” she said. “I am my own role model because I know I can do better. I expect so much of myself."
But while she may have girded herself with a young adult's earnestness, this 10th grader can still disarm, by casually revealing the inextinguishable hope that has flickered throughout her very difficult childhood.
“The worst thing that a kid can be is alone,” Keyatta said. “They feel like they have nobody. And to have nobody, is very, very lonely, and that’s not OK. Every kid deserves, like I said, every kid deserves a home. And a home is not lonely. It’s, it’s fun, it’s hectic, it’s chaos, it’s awesome.”
In Virginia, about one out every five children will eventually age out of the foster care system. About 20,000 children across the country do so.
There is cause for some hope, though, as a new law that went into effect July 1, 2016 will allow any child who turns 18 after that date, to remain in the system until they turn 21.
That, of course, is something all advocates hope, never happens.