Navigating the foster care system is one of the most challenging experiences Krishanna Newton said she ever faced.
“Knowing how the system works from start to finish, knowing what it means on the legal aspect of it, knowing what it means for yourself as an individual,” Newton, a UCF graduate student, said.
Newton, 27, received her bachelor’s degree in sociology at UCF in 2015. She’s now working toward a master’s degree in urban and regional planning and expects to graduate this spring.
Newton said she grew up around Miami Beach, Orlando and Montego Bay, Jamaica, with her biological grandmother, Lucille Aldrick, and biological father, Franklin Aldrick.
Lucille Aldrick had legal custody of Newton but died of breast cancer two days before Newton turned 16 years old. Franklin Aldrick, of Montego Bay, Jamaica, was not a U.S. citizen and could not have sole custody of Newton.
Then he passed away from unknown causes about a year and a half later.
“I went to wake him and up, and then I had to call the police because he was cold,” Newton said.
Newton’s relationship with her mother was rocky, and she couldn’t depend on her for care, she said.
With no immediate family left to turn to, she entered the foster care system.
“I was in the hospital where [the hospital staff] made the announcement, and a social worker came in and, for some odd reason, they thought that after losing a parent I was going to be a juvenile delinquent and that I was going to go crazy, so that was the first time that I [was] put in shackles,” Newton said.
Newton, who was 17 at the time, said the social worker explained it was protocol to be put in handcuffs because of her age.
Although Newton said she inherited a condo and around $10,000 from her grandmother, she was unable to use the property as she was a minor.
Even if she was not a minor, she wouldn’t have been able to afford the condo due to its property taxes and rent, she said.
She spent three days in a Covenant House — a national organization that offers housing and support services to young people in need, according to its website —before being sent to a group home in Miami-Dade County, her first foster home.
“[The] group home was so bad, it was like people sizing each other up, everyone was fighting for survival, the staff didn’t care about us,” she said. “It was like we were lost puppies that would never be trained.”
Although some social workers truly did care about the kids, there were others that didn’t seem as genuine, Newton said.
“I think what would make [the social workers] not care is the environment that they have to work in,” Newton said. “Especially the social workers, getting calls in the middle of the night at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning because one of [their] youth acted up or got in trouble with the law.”
Keri Flynn, director of youth services at Community Based Care of Central Florida, understands the difficulties that come with being a social worker.
“It’s really hard to see the disappointment in the kids when their parents don’t follow through on what they thought they would,” Flynn said. “Whatever is making a child upset is making a social worker upset.”
Newton recalled her first memories of foster care and what the domain was like.
“It was not a good environment,” she said. “I started to get into fights, and I became more protective of myself knowing that people would know that I have an inheritance. I knew people who would treat me differently.”
Newton said sometimes she was picked on when she was in the group home due to her inheritance and the foster children would look at her as the “pet.”
“I would never fight, but there were times when I was pinned in a corner and I didn’t have a choice, like I would fight back if someone was hitting me,” she said.
Newton felt as though her group home peers did not bully her on purpose, but because they were in a bad position and would take it out on other people, she said.
“When [foster youth] are removed and placed in foster care, they begin living with strangers, so if you could imagine what that would feel like, as a young child or a teenager, coming from your home and going to somebody else’s home where you don’t know the rules and you didn’t do anything wrong but you are being punished,” Flynn said. “You have to live somewhere else because of something your parents did.”
Newton was the “newbie” in the home and had to prove her worth to the rest of the group, she said.
Proving your worth could be not “snitching” when kids were out past curfew or distracting social workers on night watch when foster youth were out doing things they were not supposed to, Newton said.
“There’s loyalty: you’re supposed to stick together, you’re supposed to roll together, you’re supposed to get in trouble together,” she said. “That’s how it is, we’re supposed to be family, we put these pressures on you.”
In 2008, Newton enrolled at the University of Miami but transferred to Miami-Dade College Community College after a semester.
Months later, Newton was arrested for pawning a stolen camcorder, which she said was given to her by one of her peers from her group home and was unaware that it was allegedly stolen. She was charged with grand theft and fraudulent use of a credit card, according to the Seminole County Court Records’ website.
The arrest was hard for Newton, but she said her future foster family helped her through it.
When Newton was 11, she met then 8-year-old Sigourney Martin at the Crealdé School of Art in Winter Park for summer school in 2000.
“We instantly connected,” Newton said. “I immediately felt like she was a little sister to me … She became my mentee. We’d hang out, do all sorts of arts and crafts in the summer camp program, and that’s when [I] kind of met [her] parents.”
Throughout the years, Newton and Martin managed to stay connected through emails and meet-ups, Newton said.
At 18 years old, Newton began transitioning out of the foster care system and began living in her car.
Newton called Martin’s parents, Blenus and Mary Martin, and they offered her a life-changing opportunity — a home.
Blenus Martin, a professional photographer and certified computer technician, said Newton began to call him “Dad” when she started to live with his family.
“She’s my daughter,” the 56-year-old said. “I treat her like I treat all my children and I let her know when she disappoints. And I am much quicker to [let] her know when she’s a winner and doing great.”
Due to her inheritance, Newton only needed an educational guardianship to complete her high school education, which is when a student from a different county resides with an individual other than their parents, according to the Orange County Public Schools’ website.
The Martin family provided her with a stable home and plenty of much-needed emotional support, Newton said.
“I would never define them as a foster family, because they are family,” she said. “[They are] unconditional love, support — the traditional things that you would normally say about a family but also a level of deep understanding.”
Newton’s history as a foster youth informed her campaign for UCF’s 2017 Homecoming Court. During the campaign she advocated for foster children and offered advice for those in foster case, such as placing a high value on education.
“Education is really important and when education is afforded to you, don’t take it for granted, even if it means challenging yourself outside of your bubble and outside of your safe space,” she said. “Go for it.”
She was nominated by Urban Knights, UCF’s first planning organization meant to unite students interested in creating better urban living environments, where she is the social and community planner as well as the secretary.
“I wanted to run for homecoming court because I wanted a spotlight on foster youth on campus,” Newton said. “That was kind of like my platform. Representing going through struggles in life and becoming successful in your own way.”
Newton didn’t win the crown.
“But I won a whole lot of hearts, so that to me will always be more significant in itself,” Newton said.
Newton, a self-described artist and writer, said she hopes to get a doctoral degree, research foster care systems and ultimately become a sociology professor and a foster parent.
“I want to create a group home in a new … community that gives access to the basic needs of foster youth that would benefit them,” Newton said.
But most importantly, she said she wants children in foster care to live in sustainable households.
Being in foster care doesn’t mean you’re lonely, she said.
“You’re liberated,” Newton said.