When Heidi Bronsdon was in foster care, all she wanted to do was get out. She wanted to shut the door on that part of her life and never look back. She was upset that she had been separated from her siblings and frustrated that no one seemed to care what she thought.
“Growing up in care, I always wanted to escape the system. When I was still in care, I had no desire to work with anyone on improving the system even if the opportunity had been presented to me. I was resentful of the system and wanted out,” Heidi said.
Heidi was 10 years old when she and her sister were separated from their two brothers. She said having the social worker pick her and her sister up while leaving her two brothers behind was one of the scariest days in her life. She didn’t know where she was being taken or if she would ever see her brothers again.
Over time, Heidi’s fear turned to anger. Heidi lost contact with her brothers and was never asked her thoughts on where she was being placed. She was angry at how her case was being handled and wanted as little involvement with child welfare as possible.
But Heidi said her adoptive mother, who works for Adoption Resource of Wisconsin, looked for ways to keep Heidi involved with foster youth issues. She told Heidi about the Youth Advisory Council (YAC) of Wisconsin and encouraged her to attend a meeting.
“I attended YAC’s second meeting where they were doing elections and trying to get off the ground.” Heidi said. “I became very interested once I found out the purpose of the group – to help change current legislation in Wisconsin so it reflects actual needs of youth in care.”
Heidi became YAC’s first president and worked to get information out about issues foster youth face. She would deliver brochures and letters to the capitol. Through that work, Heidi said she felt like she was making a difference for foster youth.
Heidi also had the opportunity to work with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI), a non-profit organization that provides legislators with education on foster care issues. Heidi took part in the Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program, which gives former foster youth the opportunity to intern in a Congressional office over the summer.
Through CCAI, foster youth were encouraged to take their frustrations and turn them into suggestions for legislators, Heidi said. It gave her a chance to talk about all the issues she faced during care and what could be done to improve them.
“The experience with CCAI was empowering. The staff gave us the tools and guidance to take our trauma and turn it into recommendations for Congress,” Heidi said. “For me, the ability to take something as personal as how I felt I had been mistreated in the system and turn that into an opportunity to change that system went a long way in helping me come to terms with being angry for not being heard when I was younger.”
One area that Heidi has been focusing on is sibling rights. She said that the experience of being separated from her brothers was traumatic, and she wants to make sure that other foster siblings have the opportunity to stay with each other. Heidi said one thing that people don’t recognize is that the sibling relationship will be one of the longest relationships people have in their lives.
“I was most affected by being split from my brothers when I went to care, so I worked a lot on sibling rights in foster care. I will still continue to work on siblings’ rights and placement issues. The sibling relationship is probably one of the longest of our lives, but if you’re unable to make a secure steady relationship with a sibling due to different placements, the longest relationship then is up for grabs in the child’s life, and that should never happen,” Heidi said.
During her internship, Heidi and the other members of the FYI program were given the opportunity to present in front of legislators. Heidi hoped that the message about the needs of foster youth made a true impact that will help inspire legislators to change.
“I worry if people really listen, or if it has the same effect as those commercials on TV with the starving children in other countries. It’s so easy to change the channels on those commercials and forget the tragedy behind the story. I was scared that the people with the power to take the recommendations and make them into legislation would walk out the door and ‘change the channel,’” Heidi said.
Heidi does say that the message is getting louder, and the creation of groups like YAC and CCAI are important to making sure people take notice.
In her own life, Heidi recently reconnected with her siblings. She said that at first it was awkward, but she hopes that the relationships will improve as they continue to visit each other.
“Our meeting was awkward at first because we weren’t sure of the roles we all had and how to communicate our needs with one another,” Heidi said. “It’s tough trying to come together as a family when for so long we had to try and make different families without one another.”
There is still a lot of work that needs to be done and some days it is overwhelming, Heidi said, but most of the time, she sees how her work is helping improve the lives of children in foster care. She plans on continuing with her work for now, but isn’t sure what the future holds for her.
“I think I see myself doing this work throughout my life. I say ‘think’ because I’m not sure. When I get past the power struggles I see happening, I see my purpose in it all and I will continue on with my small steps. I will stay involved yet for quite sometime, and after that, I’m not sure.”