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Champion for foster children, founder of Pacific Northwest Alumni of Foster Care
Doctoral candidate in Nursing Science, University of Washington
Master's degree in Nursing, University of Washington Tacoma
Bachelor's degree in Nursing, Seattle University
When Delilah was about five years old, the child welfare system removed her from her biological family for reasons she never understood. By the time she graduated from high school, she had lived with seven different families—none for longer than two years—and attended 10 schools in California and Washington.
In college, Delilah knew she wanted a career that helped children and decided on nursing. After graduating, she worked as an emergency room nurse and volunteered on a medical missionary trip to Madras, India, where her drive to aid children only became stronger.
"I saw there was a connection between childhood experiences and adult health and I wanted to make those connections, which is what I'm doing right now," Delilah said.
Graduate school focus
When Delilah began her master's degree at the University of Washington Tacoma, she intended to focus on caring for elderly populations. However, about halfway through her studies, she moved to a research topic closer to her own experience: investigating how child welfare agencies evaluate the impact of foster care on the health outcomes of children entrusted to their care.
Delilah soon found that very little evaluation of this kind existed—and what did exist was grim. A first-of-its-kind national assessment, conducted in 2004, determined that every U.S. state failed to meet all state and federal requirements for providing permanency and well-being to the children in their child welfare systems. A follow-up study is underway, but there's currently no uniform way to measure how well foster children are developing into adults.
"I was compelled to advocate for this vulnerable population as a nurse and as an alumna of foster care to improve health outcomes," Delilah said.
The UW Tacoma named Delilah its Distinguished Alumna for 2011 based on her scholarly research and advocacy for foster children.
On UW Tacoma
"At my orientation for the master of nursing program here at the UW Tacoma, Ginger Hill, a graduate program advisor, said, "It is not an accident that you are here." Another person, a nursing instructor, encouraged us to think about a dream job and to let them help us develop it. Wow! I was so inspired.
"From the start, I felt that the staff here not only valued my interest towards obtaining a master of nursing, but I also felt that they were truly glad to have me in the program."
Founding a nonprofit
Shortly after receiving her master's degree in 2006, Delilah published her first paper about foster care and its impact on the well-being of children and adults. She also attended a local summit that brought together youth and adults with foster care experiences—which stirred lingering emotions about her own childhood.
"That was the first time I was ever around anyone else from foster care," she said. "It was like finding family. There were others like me."
The experience inspired Delilah to start her own nonprofit organization, Pacific Northwest Alumni of Foster Care, which works to provide a voice for people who have been through foster care and to build awareness at community, state and local levels about the unique emotional, physical and social issues that they face. The organization's website helps to connect foster care alumni and allows them to share their stories, and she has given presentations about her advocacy work at international conferences in Singapore and Australia.
Improving the foster care system
Now a doctoral student at the UW School of Nursing, Delilah is working to understand more fully the long-term health impacts of foster care. A major goal of her research is to "prevent the problems we're seeing now with young adults exiting the child welfare system who are challenged educationally, emotionally and socially."
For instance, existing research shows that if children in foster care do not receive appropriate support to address their childhood vulnerabilities, they have trouble forming secure relationships that are crucial to good health. They may be more vulnerable to major illnesses, such as heart disease and depression, later in life.
As a recipient of a federal Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) Nursing Fellowship, Delilah plans to teach in her field and supplements her doctoral work with nursing education courses. After earning her Ph.D., she will continue advocating for the foster care population through her nonprofit, teaching and public speaking.
"I believe that my graduate degree has given me a greater voice and credibility in my area of study," she said. "Nursing is such a great platform for my advocacy work, and I feel that my degree in this discipline has been well received and respected in the community."
Fostering mother-daughter bonds
Delilah always wanted a relationship with her biological mother and, as a teenager, attempted to contact her; but social workers would not permit the pair to reunite.
"I pretty much had to learn to grow up as if that life before foster care never existed, which was an impossible challenge," Delilah said.
Without strong ties to her own mother, Delilah was apprehensive when she learned she was having a daughter, whom she named Desiree. She worried she might have trouble connecting with her daughter since she didn't grow up with a mother to model herself after. But the clear similarities in their temperament and appearance soon put her at ease. Today, she maintains a close relationship with Desiree, who is finishing her bachelor's degree at the UW.
It wasn't until Delilah was 30 years old that she saw her mother again. But her mother couldn't handle the stress of seeing her daughter as a grown-up with a husband and a five-year-old child of her own. They felt like strangers to each other, and rebuilding the relationship proved challenging.
"Keeping us apart had a detrimental outcome for both of us," Delilah said. "Part of what I want to do in my research is to share the importance of protecting relationships with biological family when it's safe to."