Elizabeth Muralt is on a mission. Her mission is to share her story with children in the foster care system and to advocate for policy change that helps foster care youth live more normal lives.
"I want kids in foster care to know they can be successful despite their circumstances. That they can turn negative experiences into positive ones," Elizabeth said. "I couldn't imagine a successful future because I had never seen a successful person who grew up in the foster care system. I didn't know success was attainable for me."
Elizabeth has plenty of experience to draw from when connecting with children in the foster care system. Before entering foster care, Elizabeth and her brother were living in a home where drugs were plentiful, and abuse and neglect were commonplace. They never knew when their mom was going to come home or if there would be food on the table. Elizabeth cared for herself and her little brother, and knew more about the darker side of life than most do in our entire lives.
"We lived this on-the-run lifestyle," she said. "I was taking care of my brother and always trying to motivate my mom. I'd say to her, 'Do better. We love you, Mom.' You just never knew what was going to happen from day-to-day."
When Elizabeth was five and her brother, Carl, was three, they were removed from their home after a drug raid. Unfortunately, while removing them from their home was the right thing to do in the circumstances, it did not put an end to the darkness.
"It was a whole different world," Elizabeth said. "I was used to being the mother of the house, and now I had to follow someone else's rules. It was very scary for me. You just never knew what was going to happen, what problems you would face the next day or where you would live."
When the first foster home didn't work out, Elizabeth and Carl moved in with another foster family who wanted to adopt them both. They did adopt Elizabeth, but Carl (technically her half brother), wasn't eligible for adoption because his father was seeking custody. He eventually succeeded and Carl moved out of state to live with his father.
"That was another big life changer for me," Elizabeth said. "I went from spending all my time with my brother, with him attached to my hip, to being all by myself in this home. My brother had always been a source of strength for me. He is the reason I woke up every single day and wanted to try harder. He was looking up to me. How was I supposed to be his big sister when he lived in another state?"
Elizabeth did her best to keep in touch and be a supportive big sister, but it got harder when, at age 14, her adoptive parents split up. They were unable to care for her so she was placed back into foster care. From then until she turned 18, Elizabeth was moved around a lot. From ages 5-18, she lived in seven different homes (six foster homes and one adoptive home). She also spent several months at the Fargo Youth Home, a Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch residential facility.
The moving, abuse, never having a place to call home, and separation from her brother all took their toll on Elizabeth. Before arriving at the Youth Home, she made some bad choices, and didn't allow herself to get too close to anyone.
"I carried with me all the negative things I heard in home after home," she said. "'You're going to be just like your mom. You're never going to make it. You're not smart enough. You can never do something like that.' I carried that with me and it was just so much easier to fall back into that place."
Despite that, she had friends, participated in school activities and sports, and had a job. She looked successful, but said it was all a front. Most of her friends and teachers knew nothing about her past or current circumstances, and that was how she liked it. She didn't believe in herself and was pretty sure no one else would either if hey knew "the real story."
Angels of caring
As you often hear in stories of resilience, Elizabeth crossed paths with some adults who saw her potential and were determined to see her succeed. People at the Youth Home who believed in her, and a high school counselor who challenged her to set some goals, gave Elizabeth the courage to step up her game.
"My counselor sat me down and said, 'Elizabeth, what are your goals? What do you want to do? Most kids right now are looking at going to college. That's not looking like an option for you if you keep it up. You can do better than this.'"
Those words were just what Elizabeth needed. "I remember sinking a million feet deep into the chair. I had always secretly wanted to go to college. I knew that's what I wanted but I was afraid to say it out loud. Part of making your dreams come true is trusting other people, making connections, and allowing them to help you share and build on that dream."
Elizabeth knew she hadn't been doing her part. She didn't trust people, and she didn't give them the opportunity to help her. But, her counselor's words came at just the right time, and she was ready to give it a shot.
"Finally I was like, 'You know what? I am good enough to go to college. I can do this and I'm gonna work until my last breath to make sure I can.' Once I had that mindset, I became very hungry."
She put her nose to the grindstone and asked Youth Home staff to drive her to school early so she could get extra help from the teachers. She opened herself up to Youth Home staff, like Nicole and Lyndsey, who encouraged her and believed in her potential. She worked hard, asked for help when she needed it, and made the Honor Roll the next semester, for the first time ever.
But she still lived in a group home, and what she wanted more than anything was a family.
"My social worker was telling me there were no foster homes available. Yet, I was seeing other kids leave the Youth Home to live with families."
Tom Kopp, Residential Treatment Director of the Fargo programming, and Dr. Wayne Martinsen, psychiatrist and Medical Director at the Ranch, both told Elizabeth there was no reason she couldn't live with a family. They showed her how to advocate for herself and pushed her social worker until she found Elizabeth a home.
The first placement after the Youth Home didn't work out, but the last one was with good people who supported her decisions and push her to reach for her dreams.
"Something in me knew I could trust my new foster mom," Elizabeth said. "I shared with her my dream of going to college and she did everything she could to keep me on that track. I love that she always pushes me to take that extra step, to go that much farther. Still to this day, even though she's no longer my foster mom, to me she is always going to be Mom."
Elizabeth was accepted into every college she applied to, and is attending college full-time. At the same time, she is constantly searching for opportunities to inspire children in the foster care system to dream big; and to help them understand that their past doesn't have to define their future.
Into the future
Elizabeth now understands her capacity for success and is committed to being an example to other foster care youth and to giving them a voice. Last summer, she attended the National Chafee Independent Living Conference in Washington, D.C. While there, she participated in a panel presentation about how children in foster care could be involved in making decisions about their care, both as children in the system and as 18-year-olds transitioning to independent living. She, along with other panel members, also talked about what's working, what's not, and what young men and women can do to advocate for themselves and make changes to improve the foster care system.
She also serves on the North Dakota Youth Board, and was instrumental in creating a panel presentation she and other board members could present to youth currently in foster care, foster parents, and service providers across the state. The presentation focuses on keys to creating a healthy relationship between foster parents and children, and educates youth in placement about the 18+ continuing care program and educational training voucher.
When Elizabeth participates in these organizations and advocates for change, she isn't necessarily looking for big sweeping reform. Sometimes it's the little things that make the most difference. For instance, in North Dakota, it is difficult for children in foster care to get a driver's license. Elizabeth says this put her at a disadvantage. She couldn't drive herself to school...so unless she happened to live in a home or facility that would drive her, she couldn't be involved in before or after school activities. It was also hard to turn 18 without a driver's license or a car and be expected to live on her own.
"You feel stuck, like you're a prisoner of your past and it's not even necessarily your past. It's the past your parents have placed you in," Elizabeth said. "A lot of youth get stuck there. They feel like that needs to become their reality, their future. That's not the truth. You're not everything that's around you, you're who you choose to be."
Read more stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice here.