Dustin is the advocate for youth in foster care that he never had

May 16 2012

By Callie Langford, Originally published in TODO Austin Magazine

Dustin Haley entered the foster care system at age 8 along with his sisters. His mother had severe problems with alcohol abuse, was rarely home to care for her children and was often abusive to his sisters. Dustin lived in 13 different homes (almost never with his sisters) and went to 10 different schools before he aged out of the system at 18.

Dustin’s case is not unique, but unfortunately his current success may be. Youth who age out of foster care are at higher risk for unplanned parenthood, unemployment, welfare dependency, incarceration and homelessness. Dustin focused on school, knowing that a good education would be his best chance for a bright future. Dustin shares that “having a goal to go to a good college got me through all the transitions. A lot of the other kids in the homes I lived in were trouble makers, so I just went home and did my homework each day. I tried to stay away from that.”

His efforts worked. Dustin’s studying kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin and plans to attend grad school for physical therapy. He still uses “studying as a way to work through what’s happening in my personal life. When you age out of care you don’t have parents to go home and talk to. You have friends, but who do you go to when you have friend problems?”

Now Dustin’s sharing his experience as a CASA volunteer working with teens that are most likely going to age out of the system as well. He called CASA of Travis County in the summer of 2011 when he was still just 20 years old, knowing he could better manage the 30-hour training when he wasn’t in the middle of classes. Then he just had to wait for his 21st birthday last December to get started on a case.

Dustin never had a CASA volunteer, but knew youth who did. “I saw them hang out with their CASA. They seemed a lot happier with this person around,” recalls Dustin. Even though he never had that constant adult, Dustin wants to be an advocate for others. “There are kids in the system in huge need of support right now, especially those who are going to age out, and I can hopefully encourage them to get through. I know it can get better and that there are resources out there for them,” says Dustin. 

When asked how all of the years of moving home to home and school to school affected him, Dustin says, “You carry different things from each placement with you. I think I probably have a better life now than I might have had living with my mom, so I don’t have any hard feelings. Some people have that hole to fill that their parents left behind, and often they continue the cycle of abuse and neglect to their own kids. That’s not going to be me, and I want to help other kids break out of it as well.”

Dustin has now been on his first case advocating for a teen boy for a few months and shared, “I remember how I felt while in care, so I have to make sure he knows he can talk to me about anything and that I’m there for him.”

Each May, National Foster Care Month provides an opportunity to shine a light on the experiences of the more than 400,000 children and youth in the foster care system, raising awareness about the urgent needs of these young people and encourages citizens from every walk of life to get involved – as foster or adoptive parents, CASA volunteers, mentors, or employers. Learn more at www.fostercaremonth.org.