Editor’s note: In honor of May being National Foster Care Month, The Fremont Tribune is publishing a story in each weekend edition that shares a story of youth in Fremont who grew up a majority of their lives in foster care.
Kyliann Schulzkump, 21, and Chelsea McMurdy, 19, may be sisters, but their accounts of growing up as teenagers paint pictures of two women with different backgrounds — and two very different stories to tell.
The pair entered the foster care system as children, along with their two brothers. In their early teenage years, they were separated. And for the next five or so years, their childhoods diverged into two different paths.
Today, Schulzkump and McMurdy have reconnected, raising their respective children while living in the same building. But their experiences in the foster care system complicated their sibling relationships — and it left them with a lot of catching up to do.
“It sucked — especially now, because sometimes when we hang out, I feel like I can’t talk to her, because I don’t know her, you know?” Schulzkump said. “We basically did grow up together until our teenage years, but it’s awkward because you don’t really know what to talk about.”
Schulzkump and McMurdy shared their story with the Fremont Tribune to help raise awareness of the experience of kids going through the foster care system in honor of National Foster Care Awareness Month, which takes place in May.
Their journey into the foster system began with persistent issues of truancy that occurred while they were children. At a young age, Schulzkump, McMurdy and their brothers frequently skipped school, telling their mother they were sick or otherwise just sneaking away whenever they could. Even as officials started issuing warnings, their behavior didn’t change, and the state ultimately took them away from their home.
After a brief period of separation, the siblings found themselves at the house of a family friend while their mother tried to work with the state to get them back.
But in 2014, their mother died, and the children had nowhere else to go. Their oldest brother aged out of the system, while the other three stayed at their family friend’s house in Fremont.
But their time together wouldn’t last long. While Schulzkump and their younger brother adapted to life in the home of the family friend, who they said took on the role of “grandma,” McMurdy was less comfortable. She started to act out — running away and behaving defiantly. Authorities got involved, and eventually, McMurdy was sent to Uta Halee, an Omaha-based academy for young women.
McMurdy was 14 and Schulzkump was 16, and it was the last time the sisters would live in the same home. The separation wasn’t easy.
“We were like best friends,” Schulzkump said. “Like always together.”
According to Cindy Reed, Youth Advisor with the Connected Youth Initiative, when kids get separated in the foster system, and it can create challenges once they leave the system and start figuring out how to make it on their own.
“When you age out of here you lose all that support,” Reed said. “So when you’re seeking all those relationships that are natural to seek — like your dad or your family — you don’t have those supports that are like a net, a safety net, when maybe it goes south or it’s not quite what you expected.”
McMurdy recalls a winding path after her time at Uta Halee, one colored by attempts to run away and other behavioral challenges. After Uta Halee, she was sent to a foster home in Lincoln, where she once again ran away. She was sent to Boys Town, where she met her then-boyfriend and now-fiance Isaias. After he graduated, she left to follow him.
Finally, she landed at a foster home in Fairbury. It was a good match for McMurdy, but as she believed the family became interested in adopting her, she got nervous and once again tried to run away.
“I think I ran away because I knew they were going to adopt me and I didn’t want to be adopted,” McMurdy said.
For McMurdy, running away was a response to the transient nature of her life in the foster system — she says she felt that she was jumping around from place to place without being able to give any input into where she was going and without ever feeling like she was home. In Fairbury, she found herself in a small town that didn’t feel like home, away from her boyfriend, who she would one day aim to marry.
Foster kids often feel unattached to the places that they’re sent, says Reed. It can lead to a desire to leave and take their lives into their own hands.
“It’s almost like: ‘I know you’re not going to be there forever, so I’m going to be the one to decide when it ends. Because I can control my behaviors, I’m going to make sure that you don’t want me on my terms, rather than you don’t want me on your terms,’” Reed said. “You don’t ever feel like it’s home.”
Schulzkump, too, understands the feeling. While McMurdy would jump around placements — eventually running off to Utah with her fiance until she returned to Fremont and aged out of the system, Schulzkump would remain relatively stationary. After the family friend who cared for them died in 2015, Schulzkump and her younger brother were separated into two different foster homes. Both of them would end up being adopted by those families.
And while Schulzkump has found a home with her adopted family in Tecumseh, she notes that even she struggles with finding a sense of belonging.
“Even with being adopted, it’s hard to feel like you’re a part of them, especially at an older age, when you weren’t with them for very long,” said Schulzkump, who was adopted at age 17. “My adopted mom makes me feel like [family] — but still, sometimes in the back of my mind, it’s like this isn’t my family.”
Schulzkump didn’t run away, however, explaining that she was too scared to follow her sister’s example, remembering how she often worried that her sister was in danger.
After their separation, McMurdy and Schulzkump communicated predominantly through Facebook and texting, with visits extremely rare. For Schulzkump the hardest part about the foster system was growing apart from family. That includes her siblings, as well as their father, who was struggling with alcoholism and wasn’t allowed to contact them.
“He’s still our father,” she said.
McMurdy agrees and believes the system needs to be more receptive to kids’ needs on where they want to live and who they want to stay close with: “I feel like nobody ever listens. If you tell them something that you don’t feel comfortable with, they just basically tell you to get over it,” she said.
But Schulzkump and McMurdy have since found more stable lives, and are finally getting the chance to reconnect.
After a turbulent childhood, McMurdy’s life changed when she got pregnant with her now year-old daughter Athena. There’s no more running away — she and Isaias are trying to build a life for their daughter.
“I didn’t want her to grow up like how we did,” McMurdy said.
McMurdy and her fiance live in the same building as Schulzkump and her husband, Lonnie, who have a child of their own: a six-month-old daughter named Diezel. Their younger brother lives with Schulzkump as well. Together, they’re making up for lost time.
“We’re getting back to being close,” Schulzkump said.