Tiffani Melia, 22, poses for a portrait last month at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she is a junior. Melia was put into state care at age 15. She is now studying rehabilitation services with hopes of applying to graduate school to study art therapy. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Tiffani Melia has moved so many times it’s hard to remember the exact number, but she packed her bags at least 10 times during her childhood, before and after her entrance into the foster care system at age 15.

“We were very poor, and our family had a lot of mental health issues,” said Melia, 22, now a student at the University of Maine at Farmington. “We moved so many times, and I went to so many different schools, that it was very hard to make friends. I was always missing things that other kids were doing, and I was always behind in school. I felt ‘un-normal.'”

Melia said that she believes state workers should have noticed problems in her family before they became so severe that she ended up in state care at age 15. For instance, she was hospitalized when she was 8 because her family was not administering her insulin properly for her diabetes.

Melia said she didn’t want to go into too much detail about the circumstances surrounding her entrance into foster care, but her single mother was unable to take care of her, and she reported her to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Melia said being accepted by her foster families was always a big hurdle that she never seemed to clear. During one placement in Smithfield, she thought things were going well only to be told after about a year of living there that she had to leave.

The dismissal from the foster home felt cold, and she couldn’t get any answers about why she was leaving.

“They just said they were not equipped to take care of me anymore,” Melia said. “I definitely remember feeling very sad. It was like I was being retraumatized all over again. I felt like I had done something wrong, but I didn’t know what I did.”

Another foster family in Skowhegan seemed indifferent to her, Melia said. Moving around a lot meant she never got into many school activities, but she played field hockey her senior year at Skowhegan. Sometimes it’s the “little things” that stick with you, she said.

“During senior year, there’s a senior day where parents are supposed to run out on the field with their player,” Melia said. “My foster parents forgot, and I had to run on the field with my coach. It was very embarrassing.”

After she graduated from high school, Melia ended up in the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville. While there, she got into transitional housing located in the same building as the shelter and found a friend who lived in the same housing complex.

Having a friend, and workers at the shelter who cared for her, Melia said she felt supported for the first time.

“Having my own place, my own space to be vulnerable, and not having the risk of being kicked out, that was really helpful to me,” said Melia, who got a job working part-time at Dunkin’ Donuts. “The people there (Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter) cheered you on. They wanted to see you do good things.”

Melia said she has about two more years of college, and she wants to work in the nonprofit sector when she’s done.

“Even though I’ve gone through hell to get here, I’m here. I have goals now,” Melia said. “I have a lot of empathy for people from all of my experiences. People are afraid to take in teenagers, but teenagers need a home just as much as anyone else.”

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