Shalita O’Neale is a former foster youth from Baltimore, Maryland and Founder & Executive Director of Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center. She entered kinship care at 2 years old and entered foster care officially at the age of 13. After several placements Shalita later ended up in a group home before going away to college. She is a 2004 graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park with a BA in criminology and currently seeking her Master of Social Work at the University of Maryland Baltimore.
Shalita’s experience in foster care mirrored the experiences of many other youth. She feels that in many ways the foster care system is a reflection of where we are as a society. Low self-esteem, disconnection, and negative influences that have become common place in teens today are magnified for youth in foster care. Many teen girls are growing up without a positive female figure to teach them how to love themselves and “be a young lady”. The numbers are higher for girls in foster care who don’t have someone to teach them etiquette or tell them that they are beautiful. They are ending their teen years without structure, guidance, and positive expectations.
During our interview, Shalita recalled that during her adolescence she didn’t have someone to explain to her the physical and emotional changes she was going through. She feels strongly that all adults involved in the life of a child in foster care should be trained on how to talk to young people about sex and family planning. Shalita’s advice to caregivers and workers is to “get uncomfortable or don’t get involved”. Adults must acknowledge hormonal changes and assure youth that the feelings they experience during puberty are normal. She reminds us that the perception of love and sex for youth in foster care can be very different than the values held by the people charged with caring for them.
Caregivers must understand the role of sexual abuse in the lives of youth in foster care. Youth are often negatively stereotyped when they seek the love and attention that has been denied to them. Many youth don’t have the skills to resist sexual predators and are sexually abused in foster care placements. Once the abuse occurs, there isn’t a central, consistent, neutral person to whom they can report and seek comfort. Even more alarming is that even when victims report abuse they are not always believed. Other girls in care are forced into sex trafficking by pimps who feed into their need for love. Many pimps hang out, stalk, and prey on girls at group homes.
Shalita has experienced the stigma attached to youth in foster care. The message she received is that your parents didn’t want you and no one else does either. The foster care system did not encourage her to excel. The reality for many foster youth is that no one is investing in them or communicating clearly with them. Shalita knows firsthand that youth in care need to be empowered and encouraged and not constantly torn down. These young people are resilient, strong, smart, and loyal individuals who deserve to be treated with respect and not pitied and viewed as a charity case. When asked what girls in foster care need most her answer is “community”. They need connection to a loving, nurturing person who will not leave them.
Shalita also advocates for giving youth in care the same opportunities as other children by exposing them to new activities and new ways of life, giving them things that are new and not always secondhand, and being treated the same as biological children by foster parents.
Shalita’s final words of advice to caregiver and youth workers is to meet you where they are and get to know them as individuals because often the person you encounter has developed certain coping mechanisms in order to survive. Her advice to youth in foster care is not to accept other people’s labels as your truth and to learn to be “respectfully selfish” to maintain a healthy state of self-care and self-preservation.
In addition to being a loving wife and mother, Shalita is also the Founder and Senior Consultant at Fostering Change Network LLC, a consulting firm that provides technical assistance to organizations, agencies and individuals that serve transitioning and former foster youth in the areas of program, non-profit and curricula development.
Shalita’s additional accomplishments include The Daily Record’s 20 In Their Twenties, the BFree Daily’s 2nd Annual 10 People to Watch Under 30, member of the National Association of Professional Women (NAPW), service on the Casey Family Services Baltimore Advisory Board, the Board of Directors for the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, and the Board of Directors of Legal Aid Bureau, Inc.
Shalita is truly committed to giving back to the foster youth community. We are grateful that she has chosen to share your experience and expertise with us.
As we host our 6th Annual Pack A Purse Drive™ in December 2012, we will use the Teen Toolbox blog as a platform to spread inspiration and hope by highlighting the triumphs of successful women foster care alumni.
Nicki Sanders, MSW, Chief Visionary Officer
The Teen Toolbox provides youth portfolio development and civic engagement and academic empowerment strategies to help teens set goals for life after high school and create a road map to reach those goals through its PACKAGED FOR SUCCESS™ Programs. We are committed to supporting and raising awareness about the needs and potential of teenagers in the foster care system.