Forgiveness Lights the Path for Former Foster Youth

Sade Burrell is hoping to teach the foster youth she works with something it took her 25 years to understand. The power of forgiveness.

The ability to forgive her mother is what finally allowed Burrell to liberate herself from her past and become a role model for foster youth. Burrell is an intern with the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency Child Welfare Services, a foster youth mentor, public speaker and intern with Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez.

She’s also the divorced mother of a 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son and will graduate with her master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California on May 15.

“It’s very important for me to teach youth forgiveness,” said Burrell. “I forgave my mother when I was 25. I forgave her for everything that happened to us.” 

Her mother struggled for years with drug and alcohol abuse, and she largely abandoned Burrell and her six brothers and sisters.

“My siblings and I were very, very angry with her for such a long time and that anger was eating us up inside and destroying our lives.”

They were making bad decisions whether it was with people, jobs or any aspects of their life, according to Burrell. Advice from her pastor and a deep conversation with her aunt led her to a meeting with her mother.

“I asked her why she did the things she did,” said Burrell. “And she sat down and explained to me that she didn’t feel she had any control over the impact her mother’s death had on her life.

“The death took a huge toll on her, and my family has said to this day that if her mother was still alive, she never would have even had children,” she said. “It was her way of dealing with death and she had seven of us, and it became too much for her.”

Right after birth, each of the seven children would go to live with their aunt, who had two children of her own and two more she adopted from another sister. Burrell’s mother made an attempt at one point to reunite with all her children. It started on the right track, but after a few years she lapsed into substance abuse.

“That’s when we really go introduced to what foster care really was,” Burell said.

She entered a revolving door between the child welfare system and juvenile justice system at age 12, going back and forth between the Polinsky Children’s Center and Juvenile Hall three times.

“Unfortunately, when they finally placed us back with my aunt, my behavior had become so extreme,” Burrell said. “The social worker pulled me out of my aunt’s and put me in Polinsky telling me it was a time out.

“That time out lasted for a year. I went to Polinsky, then Juvenile Hall and then a group home.”

She stood before a judge and pledged that if they let her go home, she would play basketball and improve her behavior. That was her ticket out of going back to the group home. She had missed her freshman year of school and dedicated herself to overcoming that obstacle and stuck to her word to play sports.

“High school was very difficult,” she said. “I was told I wouldn’t graduate on time but I did it.”

Not just that – she was named one of the top student athletes in San Diego County and graduated with more credits than she needed.

After finishing college, a former County social worker encouraged her to get her graduate degree.

“Karen Martin helped me write my statement to get into USC, and she played a huge role in my life,” said Burrell. “When the effects of being a foster youth started affecting my adult life, she was right there with me.

“I made a lot of mistakes as an adult because I didn’t know how to deal with the abandonment issues from when I was a child.”

Burrell said she felt like no one made sure she was OK after dealing with abandonment and the hatred and anger she had for people in general because of what she had went through until Martin came into her life.

“I don’t know where I would be without her,” she said. “I know I wouldn’t be in graduate school or thinking of working for Child Welfare Services.

“She gave me a new way of looking at child welfare and she gave me hope. That’s what she did, and I will always appreciate her for that.”

And now Burrell is passing that forward through her work with foster youth and speaking at venues like the County’s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren events. 

At the most recent grandparent event, she brought her aunt along to hear her speak and share her own message.

“That was the first time my aunt and one of my younger sisters heard me tell my story publicly,” she said. “My sister was crying the whole time.

“It was really one of those things where you sit back and look at all the things we’ve been through and you’re like, ‘man, I don’t know how we made it out, but we did.”

She brought her aunt to give the caregivers in attendance motivation and reassurance. Relative caregivers often deal with a lot of guilt inside, Burrell said, because they sometimes get overwhelmed and want to give up.

“Imagine being a grandparent and you’ve raised your children and they’ve gone off and then someone sends you a 6-year-old and says, ‘Hey, start over again,’ and you’re like, ‘No, this is not the plan!’”

For now, Burrell will continue to work with children who were victims of commercial sexual exploitation and foster youth who are transitioning into adulthood through her County internship and look forward to her upcoming graduation.

“You get scared,” she said. “Sometimes the feelings from when you were a kid and you didn’t know what was going to happen in your life come back and you have to do so much self-checking and tell yourself it’s going to be OK and you’re not a little 12-year-old girl anymore.”

Tom Christensen is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact