My life as a foster child began on Dec. 4, 2001. On that day, my little sister and I stood alone in court, having been abandoned by our parents, and abused and neglected by relatives. We were 11 and 13.
The judge placed my sister and me in foster care in Prince George's County and made us the first foster children assigned to a new local affiliate of a nationwide network of more than 950 nonprofits that recruit, train and supervise volunteer court-appointed special advocates — CASAs — for kids like us.
Ann Marie Binsner, director of the local, CASA/Prince George's County, said we would each get a CASA who would make sure that we were properly housed, fed, educated and, most importantly, given a chance to become responsible young adults.
"Will my CASA buy me a C.D. player?" I asked.
"No," Ann Marie replied.
"Then I don't want one," I said, turning and walking away.
Fortunately, Ann Marie caught up and got me to listen. It began a relationship that helped move me out of unfit foster homes and into safe ones, survive countless emotional and physical challenges and eventually become a college-educated graphic designer at a nationally respected firm who recently began my own company.
It's been a long journey, one reflective of the estimated 415,000 foster children in the United States. Statistics show that about half of foster children drop out of high school, increasing the chances that they will end up in poverty. I'm evidence that foster children with CASAs do better in school, and are thus more apt to avoid joblessness, homelessness and even jail.
From 13 until I aged out of foster care at 21, I had two CASAs. When the first one stepped aside, I got the second. Both were women retirees. They were my advocates as well as my mentors and friends. They investigated how I was doing and reported to court. They met with my foster parents, teachers and doctors.
Yet even with CASAs, life was tough. Like many foster siblings, my sister and I were separated. I bounced in and out of nine foster homes. She was in and out of four.
Ann Marie has been in my life since the day I met her. She's always been there, particularly when I had a major operation that forced me to miss a year at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale, Md.
When I got better, I returned to class and graduated in 2006. I next went to community college and then Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia where I won a scholarship, was elected vice president of the student government and graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design.
Along the way, I shed the anger that I had for so many, including: my mom, who discarded my sister and me when I was 10; my dad who was never there; an uncle who sexually abused me; social workers who never seemed to understand, and foster parents who never seemed to care.
Ann Marie said, "Courtney, you'll not be able to love yourself, you'll not be able to love anybody else, you'll not be able to heal, until you forgive."
Slowly, I began to forgive. And the more I forgave, the better I felt. At 22, I met my father for the first time. We hugged.
I thank Ann Marie and my CASAs for all they did. Ann Marie says I helped her as much as she helped me. She says I showed her what she needed to do better to help the nearly 700 foster children who followed me at her nonprofit.
Looking back to the day I met Ann Marie, I'm no longer upset about not getting that C.D. player. I got something much better.
I also learned that for the sake of countless children, we could use a lot more CASAs.