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Tiara Sherman, 16, used to dread when her teachers would find out she lived in a group home for foster children. Afterward, they would smile at her differently, with pity in their eyes.
"I hate the word 'foster child,'" Tiara told TODAY Parents. "Don't treat me differently. I want to be treated like everyone else. I don't want the easy way. I want to work as hard and be challenged just like everyone else."
In many ways, Tiara is, in fact, like many other girls her age: she loves rollercoasters, basketball, all kinds of music, and dancing, and she has perfected the art of posing for a pic on social media. But like more than 400,000 other children in America, Tiara needs a stable and permanent home — an issue that has been brought to the forefront in the past year by the character of teenage foster child Deja on NBC's hit show "This Is Us."
Like the character Deja, Tiara has been in and out of the foster care system, bouncing from her family home to foster care, then living with an older sister and back again into a group home for foster children. Community Based Care of Central Florida, near Orlando, Florida, is the foster care and adoption organization that has supervised her care since she was removed from her family at the age of 11.
Community Based Care's Danielle Abbey explained that their first priority is to keep families together. But removing a child from their family becomes necessary if there is too great a threat to a child's safety.
The organization works with three Central Florida counties and in just those three counties, 3,000 children are under their care as foster children. "This is not a small problem," said Abbey. And it's growing bigger, she noted, due to an increasing heroin and opioid epidemic.
Tiara does keep in touch with two older, grown sisters, who are married. Her little brother was adopted by his teacher. But she says the hardest part of living in group homes has been "not having anyone to look up to."
"All you have is staff in a group home. You want someone to love you, but staff is just there to work and leave, and it's hard because you don't know if you can trust them. If you tell them something personal, will they report it or keep it confidential?" she said.
"Making friends is difficult too, because you don't know when you are going to have to move again, or if you will get close to someone and just have to leave them," she added. "I want to live in a forever home and just be happy and have parents."
Though they are considered legal adults at the age of 18, foster care children in the state of Florida qualify for assistance until they are 21. Even if they are under the care of foster parents or adopted, the state of Florida will pay for health insurance, driver's lessons and insurance, and college tuition for older children in the system. Adopting through foster care is completely free as well.
Over the years, Tiara has grown close to her guardian ad litem, Amanda Dittmer, who works through the organization CASA to support Tiara's legal interests.
"With any teenager, including those in foster care, there's going to be times when they are not going to make good choices. It's easy to watch 'This Is Us' and think it's intriguing to step into that world, but there's a lot that comes with that," she said. "You have to be trauma-informed."
Though some potential foster parents are wary of taking in teenagers, Dittmer said to remember that these children are not necessarily more troubled just because they are older. "There's no child in the world that is not going to have their ups and downs," she said.
"At first I thought it was all my fault," said Tiara. "I should have done something differently. I should have stopped my mom from drinking. But it wasn't my fault, because everyone makes choices and they make them by themselves."
Abbey said that her organization fights against the stigma that attaches to older foster children.
"The truth is, our kids have been through some really traumatizing things. The people who were supposed to love them have done some really bad things to them. So we try to change that perspective, because that makes people so afraid to step in and become a foster parent or adoptive parent," Abbey said. "These kids are just like your own teenagers or your neighbors' kids or the kids you meet at church. It's time for us as a community to take them under our wing and really wrap them in that love and that guidance and support that they really deserve."
And even if fostering or adopting is not possible, individuals can still make a difference to children in the system, Dittmer said. "These children are one caring adult away from life change. It can look different for different people. You can make an impact whether it is through mentoring, becoming a guardian ad litem, or supporting other programs for them."
Tiara, who wants to go to college and be a lawyer or an actress when she grows up, was recently placed into what everyone hopes will be her forever home with a potential adoptive family. She said she would tell other children in the foster care system to have hope and not to give up.
"I have had those moments when I thought, 'No one's gonna want me. I'm almost grown, nobody wants me," she said. "But there is a bright side. You just gotta wait for your moment. God is always working, but you don't always see that."