Brittney Sherell was separated from her siblings when she was placed in foster care. She was the only one not adopted. Now she is calling for change.
PORT HURON, Michigan — Brittney Sherell is back on her old turf, visiting friends and foster family. She has a stack of old photographs and her diary with her — Memories of good times and some really bad times. Most importantly, she has her suitcase. It’s something she would have wished for as a child, instead of the garbage bags she carried her stuff in.
Sherell was born Brittney Turner in Flint. Her mother was a drug addict and growing up was tough. Life got even harder when her grandmother died.
“My grandmother was just the staple. She was the glue that held us together. When she died, I think we all fell apart and started hopping from town to town — from Flint to Battle Creek and from Kalamazoo to Detroit,” she said.
When Sherell was 9 years old, she and her family lived in Kalamazoo. They started at an animal shelter but eventually moved in with a man Sherell’s mother had met. This man raped Sherell, a crime for which he has since been convicted.
But Sherell says the worst day of her life was the day she and her siblings were taken away from their mother, who had started stealing groceries and clothes from local stores. In her book, A Suitcase and A Dream, Sherell says she cried “like someone was trying to kill me” as she walked home to police cars.
On August 23, 2003, Sherell and her siblings went into foster care.
“The first night we were kidnapped, the four of us were all together. And they said, ‘Hey, there’s not enough room. So we have to split you all up,'” she said.
All of Sherell’s siblings were eventually adopted, but not her. She says it was because her pain caused her to behave and several foster families didn’t know how to deal with all that she had been through.
“It was easy for a foster parent to just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, I don’t want this kid anymore.’ They didn’t want you, so the jumping started again.” She said.
Brittney became depressed and struggled with suicidal thoughts.
“The first time I was chopping onions at a nursing home and I just decided to say, ‘You know what, let me just slit my wrists.’ I was just over it. Because it’s like, how do you get from feeling like you’re in heaven with your grandmother just go to hell,” she said.
“I remember sitting in a room just thinking about how I could get off Earth — Taking pills and drinking rubbing alcohol or NyQuil, standing in the middle of the street waiting for a car to pull up.”
Sherell’s life eventually took a turn for the better, thanks in large part to mentors like Debra McNair and the foster parents with whom she stayed the longest. Because of her work, we’re keeping her anonymous in this story.
“There were times when we were at our wit’s end and someone said we should just give her another chance. It all paid off. She needed someone to be there for her — someone who wouldn’t give up,” said her foster father.
When Sherell got into this nursing home, she was failing all classes. As a result, her foster family required her to provide a weekly progress report from each of her teachers.
“When you blamed her for what she was doing, you saw her start to grow. She said, ‘I think they take care of it. You’re watching,’” her foster mother said.
It was important to McNair to always love Sherell unconditionally, no matter where she was in life.
“God gave me a different kind of love for Brittney — a love for her that I could see beyond her pain, and I could see the beauty that lives in Brittney,” McNair said.
“It didn’t matter if she was angry, if she was angry or if she was going through difficult times in her life. When she came to my house, when she came into my circle, when she came into my space, we loved her.”
Sherel went to college. She secured what she calls her dream job in Atlanta. Just this year, she founded a nonprofit organization that bears the same name as her book, A Suitcase and A Dream.
“Our mission is to be a voice for the youth who are coming out of the foster care system and have no voice,” she said.
“We provide suitcases, survival kits and life skills because a lot of young people getting old don’t know what it’s like to live outside the system when it comes to cooking, laundry and the like. We teach everyone about it.”
For now, the nonprofit serves Atlanta, but Sherell hopes to one day bring it to her home state of Michigan.
Sherell says she would like to see changes in the care system. She wishes siblings would stay together and that people would think more about adopting older children.
“Give the teenagers a chance. meet up with them The teenagers need love too, just like these little kids in foster care. These teenagers want to feel like someone wants them,” she said.
“You are chosen because of what is on paper. But you have to look into their hearts. You have to look beyond the paperwork. You have to look beyond a file. You can literally change the story of this teenager’s life.”
According to Bethany Christian Services, more than 23,000 American children age out of foster care each year. The results for this group of people are usually unfortunate. Less than 3 percent earn a college degree. About half of them develop a drug or alcohol addiction. Around 47 percent become unemployed. Thousands are instantly made homeless because they don’t know where to go.
COVID-19 led to a 15 percent increase in the number of orphans in the United States. More than 120,000 children lost a parent or significant other during the pandemic. More than half of them were colored children.
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent or adopting a foster child, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services can help you get started. The Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange and Bethany Christian Services are also valuable resources.
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