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Dominique Mallard poses for a portrait on August 3, 2022, at her residence in Denver. Mallard was in foster care for five years as an older teenager. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

One young woman who aged out of foster care was about to have her phone service cut off for not paying the bill. 

A teenage boy living in a homeless shelter while waiting for a foster placement reached out because he was lonely and hungry. 

And a mother who was fighting to get her children back had no idea that she was entitled to get copies of the court records that child protection caseworkers had in their files. 

A new Colorado nonprofit, created by a former foster kid and a foster mom, helped all three of them. The group found a sponsor on TikTok to foot the girl’s phone bill for three months, sent a to-go food order to the boy at the homeless shelter, and talked the mother through the process of requesting the court records. 

“We are not professionals,” said Dominique Mallard, who spent five years in foster care and is one of the co-founders of the group called CARES. “We are experts.” 

The idea behind the group is that kids and teens in foster care, as well as those who have left the system, can ask for help from people who’ve lived it. That means help with anything — escaping abuse in a foster home, scheduling mental health appointments, finding lost siblings, or simply having someone who will listen and get it.

There are several agencies and nonprofits that support foster children, including county child protection workers, Court Appointed Special Advocates, the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program for young people about to emancipate, and advocacy groups including Project Foster Power that fight for updated laws. CARES, though, is foster child to former foster child, no matter the problem, no matter if the kid is still in care or has left the system. 

“The kids are going to be more willing to trust in us than someone who got a degree,” said Mallard, who is 31 and was separated from her brother by the foster system. “We’re not going anywhere.” 

The real talk and foster care lingo are working on social media, raking in followers on TikTok, Facebook and other platforms. Mallard, who posts TikTok videos as “Ya-favorite-Child-Advocate,” connects with kids online, including the boy who was in a homeless shelter and the girl who was about to lose her phone service. 

Dominique Mallard poses for a portrait on August 3, 2022, at her residence in Denver. Mallard was in foster care for five years as an older teenager. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The clips are funny but also sad, as Mallard acts out real-life scenarios of foster care, including a girl asking if she can go to the family cookout instead of staying home to clean the house. In all, she has tallied 8 million views. 

In one TikTok, with 108,000 likes and 3,500 comments, Mallard, sitting on a bed with her hair in ponytails, is mouthing the lines made famous by Robin Williams in the movie, “Night at the Museum.” “It’s time for your next adventure,” she says. As she starts to pack a trash bag with clothes, words flash on the screen: 

“What it’s like when foster kids become of age.”

“Your of age, time for you to leave.”

“I have nowhere to go and don’t know where my family is.”

“Not our problem anymore.”

“Army or adult entertainment.”

As sponsors increase, the founders hope that they eventually can grow the nonprofit into an operation with paid staff. Right now, they volunteer their time. A big, long-term goal is to buy a house or small hotel to house young people who have left foster care, providing temporary housing and job training. 

CARES, which stands for Children, Advocates, Resources, Education and Services, established itself as an entity with the secretary of state’s office in 2019 and recently filed the IRS paperwork to become a nonprofit. Colorado Court Appointed Special Advocates helped the founders file the paperwork and covered the cost. 

CARES board member Jasmine Brior, who is 31 and still healing from the trauma of her childhood before and during foster care, said she wants to spare others from that kind of pain. “I’m the epitome of the people who we are trying to help.” 

Brior went into foster care at age 12 after a school social worker noticed that she and her sister were rarely coming to school and had lice for a month. Brior’s mother was using her in a trafficking ring, she said. 

Jasmine Brior poses for a portrait on August 3, 2022, at her residence in Lakewood. Brior was in foster care starting at age 12. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

She spent the next five years in foster care, starting with a bag of belongings and a six-month stay in a Denver crisis center, awaiting a placement. She lived in 35 foster families and group homes, running away with a truck driver at age 16. 

Brior said she was raped by a staff member at a group home in Colorado Springs, and molested by a foster mom and dad. Caseworkers wouldn’t believe her, she said, taking the side of the guardians who claimed that she was a liar and troublemaker. 

“It was pretty common, to be honest,” she said. “They see another young girl come in, ‘Hey, nobody cares about you. You don’t have family asking questions about you. You’re a ward of the state, sweetheart. You do whatever we say you do.’”

She wished that she had allies then who had lived through the system. 

“That is why I have absolute passion and heart and believe in what we’re doing here,” Brior said. “I think that an organization like this could be crucial. If there was something that would have been around like this when I was in foster care, I probably would have had a whole lot better probability of having a smooth start into adulthood.

“I aged out and had no help, no support, no family, nowhere to turn.” 

If a child reaches out to CARES to say they are being abused but their caseworker isn’t listening, the group is prepared to make noise.

“We can contact their caseworker, their judge, the ombudsman,” Mallard said. “I will contact anyone and everyone. We will show up in court for that kid. Our goal is not only are we going to be advocates, but we’re also going to teach that child that you have a voice and your voice matters. And you need to speak up and you need to scream.”

While most of the connections made so far have been with children and teens, CARES wants to help parents, too. This is where the expertise of co-founder Corina Gonzales kicks in, as she’s been a foster parent for 22 years. Gonzales and Mallard met because Gonzales was the foster mom of Mallard’s younger brother, who was later adopted by another family. 

The only reason Mallard knew her brother was adopted, she said, is because Gonzales kept in touch with the boy. 

Corina Gonzales poses for a portrait on August 3, 2022, at her residence in Thornton. Gonzales and her husband, Christopher have taken in hundreds of foster children over the years, sometimes for periods as short as two days. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

CARES is unique because it will help young people and parents who are no longer involved in the foster system. They don’t have to fit any criteria to ask for support, she said. “We’re not any part of that,” she said. “Whether you were in the system or currently are, we want to be a resource.”

Also, the group wants to provide consistency, said Gonzales, who has watched as several of her foster children bounced from caseworker to caseworker and had to explain their stories and establish a relationship again. She recently had a foster son who told her, “Nobody cares about me.”

“I can’t imagine a child saying that, thinking that,” she said. 

Caseworkers and other volunteer groups often start the process “and then they leave them,” Gonzales said. 

“Everybody’s there for a limited amount of time. If they don’t have somebody that they can trust consistently, then it’s hard for them to trust in anybody.”

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...