Youths going through the foster care system often have the odds stacked against them. Leyda Garcia-Greenawalt didn’t let that stop her.
Leyda Garcia-Greenawalt’s journey has been shaped by her experiences within the foster care system. Now in her third year at Loyola University Chicago’s law school, she stands as living proof of her intelligence, determination to overcome challenges, and the resolve to leverage her life lessons to support fellow foster children who are following in her footsteps. As a Civitas Child Law Fellow, she channels her commitment into aiding the younger generation navigating the same system she once did.
Garcia-Greenawalt, who earned both her BSW and MSW from the School of Social Work, has certainly defied the odds. Only half of children in foster care graduate from high school, and only 3-4% obtain a four-year college degree. (The current overall high school graduation rate is 85%, and about 23% of Americans have a bachelor’s degree.)
Of the 391,000 or so children living in the US foster care system, about 113,000 are eligible for adoption. Of those eligible, only about 47% are adopted in any given year. The average age of adoption is six years old.
Garcia-Greenawalt was 19 when she was adopted.
By that time, she had had more than a dozen caseworkers. She had gone to 12 schools by the time she finished ninth grade. She had gone through eight placements and been in the foster care system since she was 12 years old. The average time spent in foster care is about 20 months.
Asked why so many foster kids don’t make it to or through college, Garcia-Greenawalt says “Part of it is you’re in this survival mode; you’re just living day to day. On a larger scale, you’re just trying to get to eighteen. You’re not thinking about what comes after.”
Foster children find themselves in a survival of the fittest trial. Leyda Garcia-Greenawalt found a way to not merely survive, but thrive, despite all those odds stacked against her.
BSW, MSW, and Onto JD
Garcia-Greenawalt’s adoptive mother, Janice Greenawalt, is an alumna of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her three older children with her husband, Andy Greenawalt, didn’t attend the U of I. When Garcia-Greenawalt decided on Illinois and on the School of Social Work, her mother was thrilled. “It was a real bonding moment for us,” Garcia-Greenawalt says.
Social work was a natural fit for Garcia-Greenawalt—she certainly had a lot of firsthand experience with the field.
“Having been in foster care makes me a better social worker, and being a social worker makes me a better person,” she says. “Social work has really helped me grow both personally and professionally.”
After earning her MSW in 2021, Garcia-Greenawalt decided on law school. As an undergrad, she had attended a pre-law program through Chicago-Kent College of Law; she had also gone multiple times to DC, starting in high school, lobbying for various foster care issues. “That was another reason I wanted to go to law school,” she says.
That reasoning was bolstered by a professor who heard her speak at an event and afterwards told her she’d have more people willing to listen to her if she had a law degree.
“She wasn’t wrong,” Garcia-Greenawalt says. “So, here I am, and I still do a lot of social-work things, foster care advocacy, legislative advocacy, but with a bit of a different lens.”
Upon graduating from law school, Garcia-Greenawalt has her sights set on higher education.
“My end goal is I’d like to be a professor either in social work or law, or potentially both,” she says. “There’s becoming a greater recognition of the need for interdisciplinary work, particularly with social work and law.”
Garcia-Greenawalt has steadily published throughout the years. She recently had two articles published in Loyola’s Children’s Legal Rights Journal; one article addressed moral injury in the context of children, parents, and service providers. (Moral injury refers to the psychological, social and spiritual impact of events when a person is forced to go against her moral beliefs and values, particularly in high-stakes situations.)
“An example is when a caseworker has to remove a child from a home, by policy or because they were told they had to by a supervisor, but it conflicts with their personal morals,” Garcia-Greenawalt says.
The second article presented a call for the right to counsel for youth in care. Garcia-Greenawalt is also editor-in-chief for the upcoming volume of the journal, and she works part-time as the national law school student organizer for the National Association of Counsel for Children, which trains and certifies attorneys who represent children, families, and agencies and advocates for policy reform alongside young people and families.
She also published a few articles as an undergraduate for the SSW Journal, a refereed journal of the Illinois Association of School Social Workers. “One was on the intersection of intimate partner violence, child welfare, and incarcerated mothers, and the other was a juvenile justice expungement federal policy proposal,” she says.
Presented at Symposium
Perhaps her greatest thrill in writing occurred when she was published in the Columbia Journal of Race and Law in March of 2021. Her article, “How Immigrating to the United States Became a Life Sentence to Child Welfare,” was part of the journal’s symposium, “Strengthened Bonds: Abolishing the Child Welfare System and Re-Envisioning Child Well-Being.”
Originally encouraged by a mentor to submit an abstract to the journal, Garcia-Greenawalt was disappointed when the journal turned her down. But a few months later, they asked her to write a blog post about her topic.
“So, I did, thinking nothing of it, and a couple of weeks after that they invited me to be part of the keynote panel for their conference,” she says. “I got to speak alongside Dorothy Roberts, who is highly regarded as an abolitionist in the child welfare field, so that was a very cool moment for me.”
Still in Touch With Faculty
Garcia-Greenawalt still keeps in touch with many of her professors from the School of Social Work.
“The faculty are amazing. It’s such a great program,” she says. “I still call on many of them if I’m working on something for my law school class, or if I read something that’s applicable to social work, I send it over. They continue to be a really great support and are still being my teachers years later.”
Garcia-Greenawalt credits the School with preparing her for law school. “I don’t think anything has prepared me to be a lawyer better than being a social worker has,” she says. “Learning how to do client interviews and client contacts, learning the people skills while in the School of Social Work, has really helped me.”
Learn to Advocate for Yourself
As Garcia-Greenawalt has been helped, she wants to help others—particularly foster children. Her first word of advice to them: “Learn to advocate for yourself. Speak up and be loud. Make sure your needs are being known, because they can’t be met if they aren’t known.”
And believe in yourself, as she did while in the system.
“So many foster kids don’t even think of college as an option because they can’t get that far mentally or because people tell them they can’t make it to college,” she says.
But when you learn to advocate for yourself and believe in yourself, you can surprise a lot of the naysayers.
You can even be like Garcia-Greenawalt: an anomaly, someone who rose above her challenging circumstances to beat all the odds.