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Foster mother becomes advocate for homeless children
by Jamie Anne Royce

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Listening to Lauri Burns' story, it's hard to believe the technology manager at a defense firm in California and foster mother to 31 children was once herself a troubled teen.

Raised in an abusive environment and saying she felt like her "dad's punching bag," Burns was a ward of the state, growing up in group homes, detention centers and mental institutions.

"The girls in the group homes when I was growing up were 90 percent gay girls. I'm just more comfortable with them," said Burns.

She began using intravenous drugs and engaging in sex work by the age of 19. Soon thereafter, she gave birth to a daughter, who was taken in by family members.

"Most people say, 'God, her kids have been taken away. Why doesn't she get sober?,' but addiction is a vicious cycle," said Burns.

While working as a prostitute one night, Burns was picked up by two men. They drove her to the woods with the intention to kill her, raping and beating her for hours.

"I had been suicidal for years. I thought, 'This is an opportunity, Lauri, to get it over with,'" said Burns.

The men were scared someone had heard her screaming, beating her unconscious and abandoning her in the woods. A man found her lying there, and took her to get help. Burns saw it as a sign to get sober.

"This guy, who I call an angel, just showed up in the woods and saved my life," said Burns. "I really believe my life was saved that night for a reason."

Burns entered recovery at 23, and began hosting a meeting for women in recovery out of her home. One of the women showed up to the meeting and told the group she had left her daughter in a crack house. Burns intervened, offering to take care of her daughter while the mother got help for substance abuse, beginning her foray into foster care.

"I seemed like a magnet for teenagers and at-risk, abused kids," said Burns. "After a few more kids came into my house, I decided I would be a foster parent."

Foster children age out of the system at the age of 18, at the rate of 25,000 per year. Sixty-five percent of youth leaving foster care are in need of housing, according to the Children's Advocacy Institute of the University of San Diego Law School.

"I was a foster mom to 18 kids before I realized kids were leaving the foster system to homelessness. I had no clue, because my kids just stay my kids forever," said Burns. "I had no idea that there were other foster parents who were just saying, 'OK, 18 is here. You gotta go.' And the reason is, obviously, because the check stops."

Burns takes on foster children who have been turned out of other foster homes and/or have experienced intense trauma and abuse.

"You call a normal person and tell them, 'OK, we have a kid. She's been shooting up, involved in sex trafficking and she steals. Would you like to take custody?' They'll say no," said Burns. "Call me and tell me the same story, and I'll say 'Yes, definitely. Where can I get her?' because I know exactly what these kids need because I was one of these kids."

Burns opened the Teen Project in 2007, after marathon fundraising and community support, as transitional housing for six homeless youths, committed to supporting them through college. While not an LGBT specific service, Burns estimates approximately 80 percent of the youth she works with are members of the LGBT community.

Five girls live in Burns's home now, and only one is still in foster care. Those who age out, stay with Burns and go to college.

"I feel like these kids are my family. I grew up with these kids," said Burns. "They feel like family to me. I don't feel like I'm doing anything special."

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