JMU alumna gives back following her own experience in foster care

Story and photos by Mckenna Walsh

Heather Barrix found herself in a courtroom at the age of 14 after failing ninth grade for truancy — not attending school. She had been there twice already and assumed she would be leaving with her mother.

Instead, the court held her parents accountable and assigned a truancy officer to look further into the reasons of her behavior. After discovering her mother’s failed drug test and her father’s struggle with alcoholism, the court removed Barrix and placed her into the foster care system. That impact still resonates today, 11 years later.

Barrix is a 2017 graduate of Blue Ridge Community College and JMU and is currently employed at the Family Educational Services as well as a foster parent in Bridgewater, Va. She now fosters children as a single parent, although her time in foster care was not an easy experience.

“It was scary because they didn’t let me contact my family or my social worker and I felt very secluded and isolated,” Barrix said. “I said I was going to run away and I wasn’t going to stay there, I pushed my foster dad out of the way of the door and I ran away.”

It was then that the police arrested and placed her in a juvenile detention center.

A common theme was evident to Barrix while in the foster care system: the disconnection of shared experiences with the social workers and foster families that surrounded her.

“It would be hard to tell your story to one and have them advocate for you and the next week they’re gone and you’re telling someone else and they don’t really know you and your background,” Barrix said. There are rules for many foster families and their homes and often times they were told to Barrix even before arrival and acclimation to the new home.

“One of my foster families didn’t let me close the door, I had to go to the bathroom to change. I had a very difficult time in that house, who wants to cry in front of someone you don’t know?” Barrix said.

Going through six different foster families in seven years challenged Barrix in personal ways, but she was given opportunities previously unrealistic for her.

“Coming into foster care, I was exposed to different families where my foster mom was a teacher, my foster dad was a cop. I wanted more for my life, I wanted a nice house like they have,” Barrix said.

Although Barrix faced personal obstacles during her acclimation to new homes and new rules, most of the families and social workers continue to reach out to her. The most influential to her; the Teter family.

“I call them mom and dad, I was with them for the longest, three years” Barrix said. “Going on vacations with them, my biological mom and dad have never been to the beach.”

Life with Barrix’s biological family in Linville, Va. was very different. She used drugs and rarely attended school. Her older brother who was too old to be put into foster care and never graduated from high school. Eleven years after being removed from her family, Barrix has a degree in social work and is helping children with similar backgrounds.

“I started fostering because I remember when I was in care, I was like, these people don’t even know what I’m going through, I would’ve never done that, I would’ve done this differently,” Barrix said. “One day if I’m able to I’m going to become a foster parent so that I can be who I needed when I was younger.”

Someone who has been with Barrix through her time living with her biological family until today is Alana Moats, her best friend since elementary school.

“We were raised very differently, so I feel like from a young age I was probably a positive influence on Heather and I think my parents felt the same way. When we got Heather out of the house and she would come stay with us my mom would always take us to do fun things,” Moats said.

Moats has been there every step of the way for Barrix and continues to support Barrix as a foster mom. When Barrix called to tell her she could foster, Moats left work to pick them up with her. Their friendship has been a light for Barrix, something she can lean on when learning the ropes of parenthood seems impossible. And for Moats, her friendship with Barrix is inspiring.

“I want to foster,” Moats said. “For me, seeing what Heather has gone through, that has impacted me personally. I think it’s harder than what people expect it to be.”

Celest WIlliams, Director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Social Services, has worked in social services for 22 years. There have been changes in the social work system that benefit the fosters and Williams was able to see them first-hand.

“The youth can come in and out of foster care and they used to not be able to do that, Williams said. “Now, they can come back at any time and there’s no amount of time that they have to come back within.”

The social services system previously had a rule that if a foster decides to run away or no longer want to be in the foster care system, they only had 60 days to decide if they were coming back. If they weren’t able to decide within that time, or decided not to return, they were not accepted back.

“You see a lot of bad things, but you have to put that somewhere and come in the next day,” Williams said. Barrix has run away from a foster family before and fostering others brings similar challenges, but her mentality of helping others stays the same. She decides to return everyday.

“Sometimes I do get overwhelmed and I’m like why did I sign up to do this, I’m only 25 I can barely handle my own issues,” Barrix said. “But the hard times are minimal, when it’s bad it’s bad and when it’s good it’s really good, the good outweighs the bad.”

There’s resistance to change from most foster kids, including her own. The difference for Barrix as a foster mom is how she can relate to the resistance.

“I have to pick and choose my battles. I understand that everyone in foster care has trauma and comes from trauma, we all react to things differently,” Barrix said.

New confrontations arise that Barrix has to work through with her foster children, but in the end, Barrix relates her experiences with what they might be going through to keep pushing forward.

“It’s rewarding to me because I’m still not giving up, I don’t call social services like some people would,” Barrix said. “I still let them live with me, I’m not giving up and I know a lot of people do.”

As a prevention case worker, the challenges are very similar, Barrix works with biological families to prevent kids from going into foster care.

“If one of my clients is having a really bad day and I’m having a really bad day, it’s hard to turn off that switch and be like, oh I’m not going to worry about them tonight even though I’m like where are they going to end up? Are they homeless? Are they suicidal? Should I be on standby in case I need to pick them up?” Barrix said.

Barrix’s decisions and mentality brought her to where she is today and allowed her to be a common ground for foster kids. With help from the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Foster Care and FAFSA, she was granted with a debt-free college education.

She was given a choice that many kids in foster care are able to make but struggle to do: continue their education. Barrix’s decision to work with foster children is something she decides to do every day. With a little help along the way, Barrix was able to become what could have made foster care an easier experience, a common ground.

“I knew if I was able enough to take care of myself, I was able enough to take care of someone else and help give back to what others did for me and be that support that the child needs,” Barrix said.

Contact McKenna at walshmg@dukes.jmu.edu.