At 7 years old, Tiffany Swale entered the foster system with nothing but the clothes on her back and a Scooby-Doo backpack.
“I remember the day so vividly,” said the 25-year-old North Attleboro resident, recounting the day she was taken from her biological mother and father. “I remember getting off the school bus, seeing a strange car, and being so confused about what was happening.”
Swale and her older sister were greeted by a social worker who asked them to enter the vehicle.
“We went in the car, and I remember my sister was crying in the back seat because she knew what was happening,” she said. “We left and never went back to our old house again.”
Swale said there was domestic violence, substance use and neglect going on in their home at the time.
In the car, the social worker told her that she and her sister would be visiting a “lady” — the same “lady” who would go on to serve as a mother, role model, and caregiver to them.
“I remember feeling so welcomed the night when we got to the house,” Swale said. “For me, it was the first time I felt safe because I knew I was finally in a loving home.”
The rooms were all set up, right down to the teddy bear on Swale’s bed, and she was given her very own bag of goodies.
“I was so happy to have something of my own,” she said.
Today, Swale is looking to pay some of that happiness back with her support for Bags of Hope, a small organization with the goal of providing foster children with personalized, embroidered duffel bags to carry their personal items when they have to relocate.
“I had barely any personal items with me when I moved homes,” Swale said. “Bags of Hope helps kids so they don’t have to carry their whole life around in a bag like I had to.”
According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there was a slight increase from 2012 to 2017 in the estimated number of children in the public foster care system.
In federal fiscal year 2017, which runs from Oct. 1, 2016 to Sept. 30, 2017, there were about 691,000 children served in the system — a combination of children in the system at the end of the previous reporting year and those who entered the system during that time period. At the end of the reporting year, there were about 443,000 children in foster care, and only a little over 59,000 had been adopted.
Defeating those odds and becoming adopted is a feeling like none other, Swale said.
Two years after she and her sister arrived at their new home, their foster mother — who asked to remain anonymous — adopted them.
“It was so crazy to think that at one point, she was a complete stranger to me,” she said. “Before I could even blink she would become my mom.”
Swale said she would not be where she is today without her foster mom.
“I entered foster care and had no idea how to read,” she said. “She taught me how to ride my bike, tie my shoes — all the things I missed that I should have learned but never did.”
Today, nearly 16 years later, Swale is still living with her foster mom while commuting to Bridgewater State University where she is working toward a bachelor’s degree in social work.
Growing up, Swale said there were many times where she wished her biological parents could have been around, especially her dad for father-daughter dances at school.
“But, today I’ve come to accept my upbringing,” she said. “I’m happy with who I am and grateful to have a foster mom who has always been there for me.”
Swale said becoming a social worker is important to her as she hopes to one day help foster children who share upbringings similar to hers.
“I know what these kids have gone through and what it’s like,” she said. “The least I can do is be there to help these kids get a better life.”
In 2014, Swale wrote a book of poems titled, “The Girl who Left 42 Messages.” She said it was a way for her to put to paper her struggles with depression and anxiety.
“Through my book, I wanted people to know they should not give up and that there is always hope,” she said. “I strongly believe the past should make you better, not bitter.”
Swale said therapy seemed to ease each hardship she went through in her life.
Attleboro City Councilor Diana Holmes, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who runs a practice in the city, said therapy is a place that can offer “hope, self-reflection and support” for individuals in the foster system.
Not having a place to call home can be devastating for children, Holmes said, and can affect how they view themselves and fit into the world.
“For these reasons, it becomes increasingly important to have healthy connections and support,” Holmes said. “The impact does not end in childhood and can have long-lasting repercussions throughout an individual’s life.”
Holmes said children in the foster system often think of therapy negatively.
“This can occur due to state agencies mandating treatment and children or teens feeling that they must talk to someone,” she said. “I think we are at a place where we need to change how we connect with those struggling with complex family dynamics and displaced through no fault of their own.”
According to The National Foster Youth Institute, more than 250,000 children are placed into the U.S. foster care system every year, and 23,000 children age out of the system annually.
Twenty percent of those children will be homeless when they go out on their own at age 18, according to the report.
Swale said she was one of the “lucky ones” who didn’t have to go through the hardship of aging out.
When a child turns 18, custody by the Department of Children and Families comes to an end. However, in Massachusetts, young adults who reach the age of 18 in DCF custody can continue receiving services until the age of 22 to help with the transition into adulthood.
North Attleboro native Lisa Guillette is the executive director of Foster Forward in Providence, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting children, young adults, and families whose lives have been impacted by foster care.
In the spring of 2010, she helped mentor an 18-year-old girl who needed assistance in the college application process and was aging out of foster care.
The connection they had was like no other, she said, and although it was never done legally, she now considers her to be a daughter of her own.
“That was one of the greatest gifts of my life,” Guillette said. “My husband and I made a permanent commitment to be family to her although we aren’t her real parents.”
Today, the girl Guillette refers to as her daughter is 27 years old and just completed her first year of law school.
“I don’t think people realize how traumatic it can be for those who have been through foster care,” she said. “It’s very gratifying to see those who beat the odds.”
“That is why being with a family matters,” she added. “You do better when people believe in you.”