EDMOND — For Tara Simmons, it wasn't a trash bag. It was a laundry basket.
Often, when a child is taken out of her home and taken into Oklahoma DHS custody, that child sometimes is called a “trash bag kid.” They're often given a trash bag which they fill with their most treasured items, with little time to gather their possessions and move into a different life. In Simmons' case, she was given a laundry basket and only a few minutes to gather the mementos of her life when she was 15 years old and entering foster care.
In Oklahoma, there are about 10,800 kids in foster care, according to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Tara Simmons, 24, of Edmond, was one of those children. Before moving into foster care, she was emotionally, physically and sexually abused for most of her life. There were times she was put out on the lawn to sleep. Often she and her family lived with no electricity and water. Both her parents were alcoholics. Simmons was bounced back and forth between the divorced pair and moved to different schools so many times, she's lost count. For some time, she was “couch homeless” with her father, staying with one of his friends, family or a girlfriend.
But Simmons is determined to learn every lesson she can from her past and to stop the pattern of violence, alcoholism and negativity. She survived the terrible things that happened to her as a child with an unusually positive attitude and a strong drive to succeed.
She graduated from Drumright High School as valedictorian. On Dec. 13, Simmons will proudly walk at University of Central Oklahoma's graduation ceremony to receive her bachelor's degree in child development.
“I made it my point to prove everybody wrong,” Simmons said.
Once a child enters the foster care system, the odds of becoming a success are stacked against her.
Less than 60 percent of foster kids graduate from high school. Of those, only 3 percent will go on to receive college degrees, according to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention.
“We have a critical need for safe, reliable foster homes all across the state,” said Debra Martin, communications manager for DHS. The need is even greater for foster families for older children, sibling groups and kids with special needs. “They go through so much and when they find the right home the right family their whole life changes.”
Simmons entered the system her sophomore year of high school when she broke down at school and confided to a counselor that she'd been abused by her parents for most of her life. That day, her mother had threatened to kill herself and her daughter, Simmons said.