Tyler Hunter Boards considers himself to be many things: a son, college student, mentor, friend, and advocate. Born and raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Tyler never imagined he would be placed in foster care. He shares how being in the system impacted his life. And, most importantly, how it defined his meaning of permanency.
Tyler, how would you describe yourself as a child?
I was shy and extremely anxious but have always been funny. I never had to try to be funny. I was always nice. I was told I had a wonderful smile by teachers. They said I had an energy no one could duplicate. Everything everyone said I was going to be, I have been or am. People spoke life into me. You have to speak life into kids. I tell kids the same thing now. They be like, “Mr. Hunter, what are you talking about?!” I find myself being the same adult for kids.
You mention you come from a big family…
Growing up, we were known. My family is one of the largest families in the city. We’re known for being good people. My grandfather was a huge basketball star for High Street High School.
When I was born, I was placed in kinship care. I lived with my great uncle (my grandmother’s brother) at 12, went to live with my uncle for a year, and moved to a cousin’s home before transitioning to foster care at 13.
How did you feel about going into foster care, especially as a teenager?
When I came home, I received the news that I would be placed in foster care. My mother didn’t show up for the scheduled court hearing. My heart was beating extremely fast. I was confused and in total disbelief. I had minimal time to collect my belongings, as the social worker from the local DCBS office was waiting for me to arrive. I had no suitcases, not even a plastic garbage bag. I went to the closet and grabbed as many of my belongings as my little 12-year-old arms could grab. Then, I threw it onto the comforter that was on my bed, wrapped it up, and dragged it through the apartment, the sidewalk, and the parking lot before throwing it into the backseat of my cousin’s car.
My cousin took me to the Department of Community Based Services (DCBS). Only a short drive from our apartment in downtown Bowling Green. This is one of the only instances that I wished for a long ride in the backseat. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I tried to tune it out. It wasn’t until five, six years ago, I was able to feel those emotions for the first time. I just tuned everything out so I could get through the situation. But those emotions and feelings didn’t go away.
When my cousin hugged me goodbye, she said, “I hope everything works out for you.” I remember one tear rolling down my face. I wiped it away so no one could see it.
What was life like for you in care?
I remember going with my foster family, who were white. They had ten acres of land in the rural town of Franklin, Kentucky. I was scared. But I wouldn’t let those emotions show. I did what I had always known to do. I was used to transition.
I remember I bought a camera with my allowance. I took a picture of the house that I lived in with my foster family. In the corner was my foster mother. A classmate asked, “Who that was?” She was the first person I ever told I was in foster care. I asked her not to tell anyone.
Tell me about meeting Mary…
I came home one day. My caseworker was there to meet me. She said she had good news and bad news. Bad news: you’re being moved because your foster parents said they’re not getting enough [money]. Good news: You’re moving back to Bowling Green. You’re going to be living in a new school district.
I told my foster parents, “I get it.” But I didn’t. I couldn’t focus in class, and I had to tell my friends I was leaving.
I still didn’t have a suitcase, but instead trash bags.
I didn’t know anything about the new foster parent except that she was a woman and Black. A little older. She was 60 years old.
I thought I was going back to my mother or uncle after staying with the new foster mom. But I started picking up that the new foster home was going to be a long-term placement when my foster mom would listen to me about going home. She would just say, “Ok.”
How did the conversation about adoption come up?
During one of my weekly meetings with my caseworker. She said, “You’ve been in care for a year now.” She said that my mom was not working on her case. And that my uncle was not able to take me back. They [the department] were looking to adoption. I remember for the rest of the day, I couldn’t focus.
My foster mom asked me if everything was ok. I told my foster mom what happened. Nervously, I asked if she would adopt me. She said, “Of course I’ll adopt you!” That’s when my transition into permanency happened.
She treated me as if I was her own child. I had snacks, I had a cell phone, I didn’t have to order things off the dollar menu. We were a big family with her cousins and siblings. She planned my 14th birthday party. The first time I had a party. I felt comfortable. She was Black. I felt normal. I started going to church with her.
After school, I would go to basketball practice with her brother, who was the boys’ assistant varsity coach. I was the basketball manager. I felt like a normal teenager. Someone cared about me and what was going on at school. When I got in trouble, she talked with me. I just wasn’t punished. In the past, I would be yelled at. It was a different culture. Family stuck together. Everybody came together.
What is your life like now?
I see myself as a 25-year-old kid—a big kid. But the world sees me as a powerful and passionate leader. A person who goes above and beyond to ensure that kids feel safe and heard. A leader. “Mr. Kentucky” haha—I guess that’s who I am today.
My mom Mary passed away in December 2018. After she passed, I really became passionate about my advocacy work. I do not talk about my work or my life with the people around me. I keep that in the advocacy realm. Sometimes I feel that the people around me aren’t paying attention to me, which is why I don’t discuss those things with them; however, someone at church asked me to share my story along with the work that I do. That was the first time that I felt as if I had finally allowed them to see me vulnerable but at the same time, powerful. People came up to me and said they never knew those things about me. It also explained my behavior. I don’t like to brag about myself. I may share some things but not everything. I often get in trouble for not bragging about myself.
What does permanency mean to you?
Stability and consistency. To me when those tangible things are no longer there, I can still feel like my mother’s love. My mom’s legacy lives through me. I can reflect on those memories to make decisions today. I have a permanent reference that I can use for reflection and to make daily decisions about my future endeavors and to share with other people.