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American Magazine

Alumni

Product of the System

Jelani Freeman entered foster care at eight years old. While in one sense he never got out, it never got him.

By Mike Unger

During a trip to Haiti sponsored by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute last summer, Jelani Freeman, CAS/MA '07, had an epiphany. Among the politicians, staffers, practitioners, and advocates in the delegation was a scientist who specialized in early childhood brain development. At one point during the tour, which included stops at several orphanages sanitized for the dignitaries' visit but still heartbreaking in their squalor, he mentioned to Freeman how imperative a child's first three years are to a lifetime of cognitive advancement.

"I realized for the first time that with all the shortcomings that my mom had, she did a lot for me, because if she didn't read to me or talk to me, I wouldn't be where I am now," Freeman, 36, says. "It made me think, wow, maybe there was something good during my childhood."

Twenty-eight years ago Freeman came home from elementary school to find the small, single-family house his mother rented in a rough section of Rochester, New York, empty. No one was there to ask, "What did you learn today?" or, "Do you want meatloaf or mac and cheese for dinner?"

The only sound was silence.

This was not particularly strange—often his mother disappeared for days at a time, leaving young Jelani to fend for himself. He learned to mop the floors and scrub toilets, and even became a halfway decent cook. Chicken and rice was a specialty. His older brother and sister had moved out long ago, and his father, whom he has never met, was in prison, serving a sentence for attempted murder.

Vanessa Freeman battled mental health issues for much of her life, which sometimes left her bedridden or barricaded in her room. She struggled to hold down a job or create a semblance of normalcy at home for Jelani, who somehow never got angry or disillusioned with her. She was his mother; he loved her. 

When he returned home from school the next day, again to a deserted house, Freeman still didn't worry. It was only when, later that night, an adult walked through the front door that he knew his life would never be the same. That grown-up wasn't his mom; it was a social worker.

At eight years old, Freeman entered the foster care system, and while in one sense he never got out, it never got him. Somehow, while he trudged from one foster home to another using "a trash bag as my suitcase," as he told the world in July during his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he managed to forge his own path forward.

Despite the hardships and heartaches he faced, pain that often proves too deeply rooted for thousands of kids in the foster care system to ever shed, something good did indeed emerge from Jelani Freeman's childhood—Jelani Freeman himself.

"I was really ashamed of being in foster care, and I was protective of my mom," says Freeman, who recounts details of his childhood with an outward detachment. "I remember in college I didn't speak to people much about it. I [thought] I was going to become a history teacher, get married, have kids and have a house, and everything that happened with me would be behind me and I'd never talk about it. I quickly learned that's just not how it's going to be. When I came to DC, I started to see that doing that would be selfish, because through my experiences I now had a voice and I could possibly help the next group of foster kids."

Freeman's a big man—six foot one, north of 200 pounds—but there's a gentleness to him. When he speaks his words are measured, not emotional.

"Rehashing painful things, it's like having a wound heal but constantly picking at it," he says. "But I think I've gotten to a place where years later I am able to tell my story. It's not me or my story that is really the focus but rather helping the thousands of kids who are struggling in foster care now."

Like so many pundits, pollsters, and millions of blue voters who thought they had the presidential race handicapped, Freeman woke up November 9 in a state of disbelief. He was unprepared for a reality where Hillary Clinton, the woman who gave him the internship he credits with altering the trajectory of his life, wasn't going to occupy the Oval Office. On inauguration day he was out of town—way out of town. When Donald Trump placed his hand on Lincoln's Bible and took the oath, Freeman was in Ghana.

A globetrotter who counts South Africa and Portugal as two of his favorite destinations, Freeman recently passed the Foreign Service exam. In a matter of months he'll be living and working overseas, a possibility that must have seemed otherworldly to the shy boy who rarely left his corner of Rochester. His first foster placement was so close to his house that he would skip school and sneak back into his old place, a routine he repeated until the pantry was bare.

"It was weird being in someone else's home," he recalls. "The foster mother there was very removed. She didn't really talk to me. I never remember her saying my name, and I don't remember hers. I do remember feeling sad and worrying about my mom because for a while, I'd been the only one taking care of her."

Freeman and his mother were allowed to see each other, first in the social service building's prison-like visiting room, littered with used toys and worn books, and later during unsupervised home visits when she was out of the hospital. But they'd never live under the same roof again.

Over the next decade, Freeman bounced between four other foster homes and two group homes. Some were warmer and more welcoming than others, but none were home. He didn't decorate his various bedrooms; no posters or pennants adorned the walls. At one group facility, if he needed to use the bathroom, he was required to ask for permission. When he was nine, the family he was staying with took their biological kids to the circus. Freeman was left behind.

"It was very clear that I was an outsider," he says. "But it became [normal] for me."

That's the sad reality for too many of the nearly 428,000 children who languish in America's foster care system on any given day. Their outlook is bleak. According to Children's Rights, a nonprofit advocacy organization, in 2015 more than 62,000 kids were waiting to be adopted after their mothers' and fathers' parental rights had been legally terminated.

For those who, like Freeman, are never chosen, their 18th (or in some states, 21st) birthday marks their legal separation from the government. At an age when many kids are worrying about who they're going to take to the prom, Freeman was given a bus pass, wished good luck, and sent out into the world.

Although he was essentially an orphan, he was not alone. In high school he met Jacquie Booker as part of a mentoring program organized by her employer, Xerox. Their partnership, rocky at first, turned out to be a godsend for Freeman, who originally hoped to be paired with a man. A subpar, disinterested student and slightly rebellious, he tested his new role model to gauge her commitment.

"I said to him, 'Well, you get me or you get nobody,'" Booker recalls. "You could see he was a good kid, he just needed to know someone was there for him. He said things like, 'nobody loves me,' and, 'nobody cares about me, I should just go sell drugs.' I was like well, you can do that if you want to but you're either going to be dead or you're going to be in jail. Take your pick."

Booker's tough love was just what Freeman needed. His grades improved, and for the first time he began thinking about his future. For kids in the system, that rarely includes continuing education. By age 26, just 4 percent of youth who have aged out of foster care have earned a four-year college degree, as opposed to 36 percent of the general population.

The numbers get worse.

"There's a 25 percent rate of homelessness [among] kids who age out of care, and the statistics on single parenting and early pregnancy and drug abuse are disproportionately high with this population as well," says Beverly Clarke, director of Project Wait No Longer, a program Freeman works with that aims to increase the number of older children who are adopted.

Stop, for a moment, and consider all of life's little lessons—aside from basic morals and behaviors norms—those of us lucky enough to have grown up with loving parents learned from them. How to tie a Windsor knot or to parallel park. Manners; critical thinking; humility. Our parents were there with words of encouragement when we were cut from the soccer team, and they were sitting at the kitchen table—seething—when we tried, as teens, to stealthily slip in after midnight. Perhaps most importantly, our parents provided us with a subconscious safety net. Somewhere in the back of our hormone-ravaged minds, we knew that if we stumbled, they'd be there to help us up.

Freeman had none of that. While he played football and basketball in high school, no one signed him up for piano or karate or dance or swimming lessons. Few pictures of him as a child exist. But he did have Booker. She helped him open a savings account, took him on college visits, and when he left for the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1998, she gave him a suitcase for his clothes. He tossed his trash bag in the garbage.

"Young people need at least one champion in their lives saying, 'You're not going to fail,'" Freeman says. "For a lot of us that's our parents. If we don't have parents, we need someone to go to for advice, if we're struggling with this or that. She was just what I needed, especially in terms of going into adulthood. I think she made me get a lot more serious about my future."

By the time Freeman had settled into his new life as an undergraduate, his mother was living primarily in mental health facilities. So when most of his classmates were finalizing party plans for spring and fall breaks, Freeman was problem solving; he had no home to go home to. Occasionally he'd tag along with a friend, and in the summer he headed to the Catskill Mountains where he was a counselor at sleepaway camps, which provided extra money and shelter.

Born from necessity, Freeman was resourceful. He worked in the university library, helped set up for campus events, and was a tutor. Three jobs coupled with loans covered his tuition and living expenses, but there wasn't much left for pizza. Miraculously, he managed to stay above water, and in May 2002, he graduated with a degree in history and political science.

But what should have been a joyous day felt bittersweet to Freeman. As he entered Buffalo's Alumni Arena for the ceremony, he was struck by a chilling thought: What if his name was announced, and no one cheered? Booker was 150 miles away at Syracuse University, where her daughter was graduating that same day.

As was the case so often in his young life, the Jelani Freeman contingent consisted of only Jelani Freeman.

"I really had to steel myself and my emotions because I was like, oh shoot, I'm going to walk across the stage and it's going to be silent," he says. "It wasn't quite like that. A couple of my friends clapped, but it definitely left an imprint on me, and it was unfortunate because I was doing something that most of the people in my family had never done. Not having anyone there turned that great moment into a sad one. After that I started to realize that I can't just put this foster care experience away and hide it. It's with me forever."

Freeman's lot in life created many obstacles, but in 2003, it finally provided him with a break. Hillary Clinton, then the junior senator from New York, reserved an internship in her office for a former foster care youth. Freeman landed it.

The job was transformative for Freeman, who fell in love with Washington, public service, and the idea of working on behalf of foster children. Yet it's hard to tell who benefitted more from the unlikely bond that formed between the famous politician and her protégé. In the 10th anniversary edition of her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, Clinton lists Freeman as one of her heroes, and last year her presidential campaign asked him to speak at the Democratic convention.

When the internship ended, Clinton invited Freeman to stay on, so he got a second job at Marvelous Market in Georgetown, rented a crummy apartment on H Street, and continued working for her.

"She does have a huge heart, specifically for children and children's issues," says Freeman, who also later interned at the State Department when Clinton was secretary of state.

Energized and now sure that his future lay in Washington, Freeman began investigating graduate programs. One day he caught a Red Line train to Tenleytown and wandered into the office of the late AU professor Valerie French, then chair of the history department. He didn't have an appointment, let alone enough money to attend graduate school.

"I told her my story and she said, 'Don't you worry, we're going to make it happen,'" he says. "She was the reason I went to American and made it through. Any time I needed help, I could always go to her. I just loved her. I think that's what my story's all about. There's always been one person in my life that has seen something in me and reached out and helped me. I hope I've taken advantage of that and made them proud."

Proof that he has was obvious when Freeman graduated from Howard University School of Law in 2010. On a warm Saturday in May, his friends filled all 16 seats he was allotted, plus six more, and they beamed when he received his diploma.

Among them was Marilyn Regier, executive director and CEO of the Barker Adoption Foundation, on whose board Freeman serves.

"Terrible things happen to kids when they age out of the system, and somehow Jelani landed on his feet, and he never forgot that," she says. "That is why he is so on fire to help other kids. He's humble, and yet there's a certain confidence about him. I don't think people help him so much because they feel sorry for him. Frankly, I think they admire him greatly."

Absent from the Freeman delegation that jubilant day was his mother, Vanessa, who passed away from breast cancer in 2007. In the years prior to her death, Freeman was able to establish a solid, if untraditional, relationship with her. As he came to understand more fully in Haiti, "she tried her best."

Now Freeman is as well. One day he hopes to have kids of his own—and serve as a foster parent—but he's not waiting until then to make an impact. In addition to his position with Barker, he serves on the board of the Center for Adoption Support and Education, advises the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, works as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), and sits on DC's Child Fatality Review Committee.

"That's hard, because you read stories of young lives taken way too quickly, and you always wonder if there was just one more thing that one more person could have done that could have saved their life."

Perhaps for some seemingly unlucky kid floundering in the system today, Jelani Freeman will be that man.