There are nearly 13,000 children in foster care in Michigan, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Across the country, there are around 400,000 kids in foster care on any given day.
But what we don’t know for sure is how many children have been “lost” in foster care.
Shenandoah Chefalo knows how easily that can happen. The Traverse City-based author and advocate put herself into foster care when she was 13. It was the only way she could think of to escape her abusive parents. But it wasn't long before she realized that if she disappeared, nobody would care. Nobody would come looking for her.
Today she’s leading a grassroots project called #4600AndCounting, aimed at finding those lost children.
Chefalo joined Stateside to talk about the “lost” children of foster care.
Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.
On her experiences in foster care
Growing up, as she describes in her memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, Chefalo lived with her mother. “We had moved over 50 times across the country, 35 schools before I finally graduated from high school,” she said. “And it was what I think is a pretty typical foster care experience.” She remembered a lot of mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, and a lot of men entering and exiting their lives.
At 13, she decided to enter the foster care system. She assumed her foster parents would be the best the state had to offer, but she realized that foster care presented many of the same problems she had experienced before, and felt very limited.
When she turned 18, midway through her senior year of high school, she was removed from the system, but paid her foster parents to keep her housed until she graduated from high school. Chefalo faced low expectations. “Every adult surrounding me was essentially waiting for me to turn into my mother,” who had had two children by the age of 21, never graduated high school, and had problems with drugs and alcohol, she said.
Chefalo was accepted to Michigan State University but realized that, if she vanished, she had no one in her life who would look for her.
#4600AndCounting, a petition on Change.org launched by Chefalo, refers to the 1.1% of the child welfare system who go missing each year. Someone shared with Chefalo an article about three girls in Kansas who had gone missing and some state senators who had led a hearing into their disappearance. The story disturbed Chefalo because it seemed to her that politicians didn’t seem to care. She reached out to a Toronto-based homeless youth advocate and the two discussed the lack of response to the problem.
The petition, for Chefalo, is about changing the response process. She wants to put together a safety kit for children entering foster care that would include an up-to-date photograph of the child, a DNA swab, and medical and dental records.
The problem is very serious, said Chefalo. “It’s a proven statistic. We know that a lot of the kids that disappear from foster care wind up in human trafficking and human sex trafficking rings and organizations.”