Amber’s Story: The Middle Class Safety Net Youth in Foster Care Need

By Janis Avery, Treehouse CEO

We adopted Amber with her brother when they were 6 and 4. As a child and into her teens, Amber was the most irritable, volatile person I had ever met. For context, I spent my early career working in intensive psychiatric treatment settings and group homes.

Brilliant but unengaged in school, Amber dropped out and left home just before turning 16. As parents, we were devastated and unsure what to do next. This move began a period of homelessness, camping and squatting, and eventually a move to the Sacramento area, a job and apartment.

Failure in the support system there led her back to Seattle where she (stubbornly) lived a half mile away from home in a metal shed on a classmate’s property. Amber has grit, and by working and saving, she made it into an apartment again.

One mid-winter day, just as she was getting back on her feet, she found her wages had been garnished. And she was at the precipice of homelessness again. She was 21, she finally had a plan, and it was the week before she was to start community college.

Where did these garnishments come from? While she was homeless, Amber wrote a few bad checks at a pharmacy totaling $150. She also threw away several citations for sitting on the sidewalk and abandoned a bank account with overdraft fees. These were irresponsible things to do, yet the consequences were disproportionate to the errors she made. The City of Seattle is an aggressive debt collector and uses a professional collection agency. The three tickets she ignored totaled $150. The resulting garnishment was $800. The pharmacy wrote off the bad checks and sold the obligation to a debt consolidator who won a judgment for $1,100. She went to court to challenge the fine, but without a lawyer, failed to properly implement the process, and the collector won.

Amber was beginning to get on track, and this garnishment would have brought a halt to all of her progress had she not had the safety net of a middle-class family. We simply didn’t give her any money while she was living on the streets, consistently saying we would invest in her education when she was ready. We paid each of these fines and the eviction fees to keep her in housing. In the end, this $3,000 investment prevented her from being thrust back on the streets and kept her enrolled in school and moving forward. We continued to help with rent throughout her degree programs.

Today, she is a certified Toyota mechanic. A local community college was so impressed with her that they recruited her to teach in the automotive program, hoping to attract more women. After her partner’s cousin passed away unexpectedly, they decided to take custody of his three little cousins, ages 3, 4 and 5. Amber is 27, thriving, succeeding and making choices about her future. Having us as a safety net made that happen. We’re still subsidizing the rent.

If you have young adult children, what are you paying for? Family cell phone plan, family vacations, emergency cash? I’ll bet it totals more than you imagined when they were young. What struggles would they face if you couldn’t provide this support?

Why, as a society, do we expect teens coming out of foster care to be able to navigate the transition to young adulthood without the same support we give and we got?

Collectively, all of us at Treehouse and everyone in the community who supports our organization weave together the middle-class safety net youth in foster care need. Youth in care by circumstance have not had adequate parenting, and that continues for many through their time in the system. Few caregivers have made a long-term commitment to their teenage youth. Even if they have, it’s unlikely they have the funds needed to solve problems like Amber’s.

As we enter the New Year, I am proud to continue giving kids in foster care a childhood and a future. I’m inspired by the determination our youth have to succeed, and I invite you to join me.

If you are looking for a way to get involved in 2018, here are a few ways to help:

Make a Gift
Write a check and mail it to Treehouse at 2100 24th Ave S, Suite 200, Seattle WA 98144. Or give online at treehouseforkids.org/donate.

Host a Drive or Event
For information about hosting a donation drive, hosting your own event or participating in a Treehouse event, contact our Community Engagement Team at 206.267.5109 or [email protected].

Help in our free store, The Wearhouse. You can volunteer on your own or organize a group of friends, family or co-workers. Contact our Volunteer Manager at 206.267.5117 or [email protected] to schedule a shift.

Give Stock
Contact Jessica Ross at [email protected] or 206.267.5116 to donate stock. Include your name, the name of the stock, approximate number of shares, estimated date of the transfer, broker’s name, company and telephone number.

Tell Us Your Plans
Have you included Treehouse in your estate plans or are you interested in doing this? Let us know. Please contact Jazmin Marshall at 206.267.5121 or at [email protected].

Together, we make it possible for kids and youth in foster care to have the opportunities everyone deserves.

Happy New Year!

Subscribe to Our Blog

About the Author

As Treehouse CEO, Janis devotes her time to promoting educational equity for youth in foster care through advocacy for systems change, ensuring integrated strategy and accountability, maximizing community collaboration, and resource development. Janis holds a Master of Social Work and Certificate in Human Services Management from the University of Washington. She is a former social worker and an adoptive parent of two children from foster care.

Comment (1)


December 28, 2017

Such brilliant writing, as always. You inspire me!


Leave a Comment