Tori Hope Petersen lived in 12 foster homes before she aged out of the system at 18. As a child, Petersen says she desperately wanted people to stop stereotyping her just because she was in foster care.
“I just wanted to show people that I wasn’t a bad kid, that I was good,” Petersen says. “I had a friend who wanted to hang out with me, and she was probably my closest friend at school at the time. And her dad said, ‘I don’t want you to hang out with her because she’s in foster care, and usually, those kids are trouble.’”
The stereotypes around foster children were actually a motivating force, Petersen says, to get good grades and work hard on her track team.
Her success on the track earned her a track scholarship to Hillsdale College. After graduation, Petersen took the “road less traveled” by most young adults. She and her husband have two biological children, an adopted teenage son, serve as foster parents in their community, and run a ministry called the Beloved Initiative that helps foster children reframe the narrative of their story.
Petersen is also a nationally known speaker, and now an author of a new book called “Fostered: One Woman’s Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family through Foster Care.”
At the center of Petersen’s work and heart to love others is her relationship with God.
“I was saved when I was 17,” she says. “I just knew that I loved Jesus. I love this man that I learned about in church, and that I read about in my Bible… I wanted to love people like he did.”
Petersen joins the “Problematic Women” podcast to not only share her story, but also to offer encouragement for how we can all be a part of loving people in the way that Christ loves.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: It is my joy to welcome to the show Tori Hope Petersen. She is a speaker, a mom, a wife, Mrs. Universe 2021, and the author of the new book “Fostered: One Woman’s Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family through Foster Care.” Tori, thank you so much for being here.
Tori Petersen: Thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure.
Allen: So I actually first discovered a little bit about you on Instagram, just reading your posts, and you have gained a huge following across social media, just from being vulnerable from telling your story, being real. When you first started doing that, and just opening up and sharing your story on social media, did you ever imagine that it would go so viral?
Petersen: No, absolutely not. I thought, I remember someone asked me, “How many followers do you want to have?” And I said, “Enough followers to write a book.” I don’t know. I thought that was maybe 1,000. I always thought, yeah, if 1,000 people follow me, 1,000 people would probably buy my book. That’s totally not how that works.
And I was like, I just need 10 foster kids to read this book and know that Jesus loves them. That there’s hope for their future. And then it ended up, honestly, it’s gotten a lot more complicated than I ever anticipated it to be. Because social media is complicated. It’s complex. There’s a lot of nuances to it, and it’s kind of humorous in a way sometimes. But it’s just complex, and I’m really thankful for the community that’s there. I love it and it has allowed me to write the book. So I guess it did its job.
Allen: It sounds like it did. It sounds like it did its job pretty well. So your new book “Fostered,” it’s out Oct. 15, correct?
Petersen: Yes. It’s out Oct. 15. Listen to this. This is a crazy thing. The book released already Aug. 30, and that was its original release date. It was ordered. We had so many pre-orders we couldn’t fulfill them. We didn’t print enough. The publisher didn’t print enough books … So to get, to have an actual launch and publishing day, we had to actually change the date to Oct. 15. Because on Aug. 30, when we originally released, you couldn’t even buy it anywhere. It was crazy.
Allen: Wow. That’s crazy.
Petersen: It was crazy.
Allen: Oh, that’s a pretty good reason to have to push the launch, that the demand is so high. That’s exciting.
Petersen: It definitely was initially very disappointing, but I’m just like, “OK, God, this is in your hands. I trust you that it’s going to be made good.” And so, we’re less than a month out now.
Allen: So the book is “Fostered: One Woman’s Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family through Foster Care.” And I know you talk about that this book is so vulnerable. You’re so real. You’re so honest about your story. Share a little bit of your story with us. How old were you when you first entered foster care, yourself?
Petersen: So, I first went into care when I was 3 years old, due to a drug bust, but I was reunified with my mom, and that’s one of the jobs of the foster care system that people don’t understand. Sometimes people think, like, OK, kids are going to go into the foster care system and then they just get to be adopted. And then, some people are very much like, foster care’s only role is reunification.
But I like to say: Foster care’s purpose is to make families whole, whether that’s through reunification, or kinship, or adoption, or just traditional foster care.
So I was reunified with my mom, and then I lived with her until I was an adolescent, but her mental illness, it continued to get worse. And so me and my sister reentered the foster care system, and we were separated within a month of being together. Which was really hard because I thought when we entered, that it was going to be an opportunity to really have a normal family, to escape the abuse, to have a different life.
But really, we entered into just a different kind of chaos. And I went to go move throughout 10 more different homes, until I emancipated the day [I] turned 18.
Allen: So you lived in 10 different foster care homes.
Petersen: From the first time that I entered when I was 3 to when I emancipated, I believe, I lived in 12 total.
Allen: That’s a lot. What, as a kid, were some of the messages that you felt like you were receiving while you were in foster care? What were some of the things that you were wrestling with? Both as a child, as a little girl when you were in foster care, and then as a preteen, as a teen.
Petersen: I think the message was really pretty consistent. I just wanted to show people that I wasn’t a bad kid, that I was good. I had a friend who wanted to hang out with me, and she was probably my closest friend at school at the time. And her dad said, “I don’t want you to hang out with her because she’s in foster care and usually, those kids are trouble.”
And so, I just always felt like I was trying to show people, look, I’m not a bad kid. I’m a good kid. That was a huge motivation behind getting good grades and behind doing well in track. And in a way, it was kind of healthy, the places that I put it, and I’m thankful for that because it allowed for me to be where I am now.
But I definitely think that I still have conditions where I am fighting that narrative now. I just want to show, there are people who’ve walked out of my life today, and we kind of all have those people who might be more distant than others, and I always just want to be like, “But look, I’m worth being close to. Look, I’m good.” And I’m trying to prove to them that I’m not bad still.
Allen: It’s so fascinating how those things, I think, go so deep. Right? What is ingrained in us as a kid, as a teenager, it takes years to undo those things because that’s such a malleable age.
Petersen: Yeah. For sure. And I know in my heart, I know in my mind, that God made me good, that he loves me. But when people maybe have similar tendencies to the people that I experienced when I was in the foster care system, and it’s like, my brain instantly goes back to just that little girl being like, “Look, I’m good. I’m good. Let me show you.” And so honestly, I always have to go back to the truth of, God made you good. He loves you. You’ll never be enough, but Christ is enough. Just going back to that over and over again.
Allen: And where did that come from? Where did you start to find that truth and hold onto that truth of, “No, the Lord is enough, and the Lord made me in his image and said that I’m good”? Was that something that you were raised with?
Petersen: It was not something I was raised with. Kind of, it’s funny, because my birth mom would say that she’s Christian, and there were Bible verses hanging around our home. But I felt like those Scriptures were used almost in an abusive way. And then I went into the foster care system, and I had different foster families who brought me to church.
In my 11th foster home, the foster parents proclaimed the name of Jesus. We went to church every Sunday. But then behind closed doors, they abused their kids. And so there was a lot of confusion about who God was. I kind of didn’t want anything to do with him because I didn’t want to wear a mask. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be loved. And I was like, I’m just not about these people being fake, saying that they’re loving. They had a good reputation in the town. And then, in the home, it was just so different than how people perceived them. So I was really angry at God because of that.
And then, they were caught in their abuse. I went to move on to my 12th foster home, and the foster mom proclaimed the name of Jesus, took me to church every Sunday. And she really sacrificed a lot for me, changed her lifestyle, felt like she just really loved me.
And I was like, I felt like God taught me, “There are two different ways you can proclaim my name, and one is going to hurt people and one is going to heal people. One’s going to push people away from me and one’s going to draw people closer to me.” And that was hard for me to wrap my head around because, I think, I still was about how could you be so good and people have to endure the suffering?
And then, as I just kept going to church, I started to realize, we endure suffering because we are reflections of Christ and we are made in God’s image, and Christ’s greatest glory was through suffering. And if we have to suffer to reflect him, it also means that our suffering wasn’t wasted because his wasn’t.
And so, I really held onto that hope. And I just said, like, “God, you’re the father I’ve always been looking for. You’re the father that’s loved me, and protected me, and filled the gap that no earthly father ever could have. And so, I’m your daughter. I’m going to give this life to you. And you’re going to use my suffering for good. I trust that you’re going to use this suffering for good.” And he has ever since.
Allen: So how old were you when you were adopted?
Petersen: I was adopted as an adult. And I was, actually, I should say, I was never actually officially adopted. I say I was adopted.
So my senior year, my junior year, in between my junior and senior year, my track coach said, “Tori, I think you can go on to the state track meet and you can win it.” And I was like, OK, I’m just going to give that a whirl. And if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to blame him, because this was his crazy idea. I’m like, that is crazy. But through that, we became really close. I trained with him nearly every day, and he would bring me to his house and he would cook me dinner.
I emancipated the foster care system when I was 18, so sometimes I didn’t have anywhere to go. And he ended up inviting me into his home and letting me be a part of his family. And he really meant it. He was like, “I can be your dad. My daughters are your sisters. My mom is your grandma. We are here for you.”
And that year, I went on to be a four-time state champion in track and field. That’s what allowed me to get a full-ride scholarship to college and become part of the 3% of foster youth to graduate college.
But in the midst of all of that, he was always there. He was the home that I came back to during the holidays … The very few foster kids that do go on to college, they don’t have places to go back home to. They just chill at college during Christmas break, and they might not have people to spend Christmas with. Or, there are some nonprofits that house kids during the holidays. But I went home, I got to go home every Christmas, and they always treated me, and they still do.
I think I say it like it’s in the past because then, I wasn’t expecting them to be my family after college. I just thought, “OK, this is, they’re just standing in so I have somewhere to go for Christmas.” And then it was so much more than that, always though, but I couldn’t, in my heart and in my mind, register that.
And then, when I graduated college and they came and visited, I was living in Minnesota for a few years, so 12 hours away from them, and they drove all the way there to visit me. And my grandma came with them, and my dad, Scott, he walked me down the aisle at my wedding. So I think it was after college that it really sunk in.
I changed my name to his family last name when I was in college. And so that’s when we said that I was adopted—the adult adoption was like $3,000, where a name change was like $100, so that’s why we did it that way. Because we were like, “This is what we can afford.” And so we were like, “Yes, I’m adopted.” It was a hard adoption. But I think it really sunk in after I graduated college. So I was like, “Oh, this really is a forever thing.”
Allen: That’s so beautiful. I love that. And to have that kind of hit you in waves of, like, “Oh, no, this is real. They have said yes to me.”
Petersen: Yes. Yeah.
Allen: That is so beautiful. And you went to Hillsdale College. How did you end up choosing Hillsdale?
Petersen: So, this is such a silly story. I actually did not go to Hillsdale College. My first year of college, I went to Ursuline College. And I felt like I wasn’t living my faith. There wasn’t a rigorous faith community there, even though they said they were a religious college.
I was saved when I was 17, and then I went to college, and I didn’t really know how to walk out my faith. I wanted to be a reflection of Jesus and I wasn’t, and I didn’t know how to be. And I kept falling into these old unhealthy habits, and I knew they were sinful, and I knew they were wrong, and I knew that they didn’t glorify God.
So I actually googled, “Most Christian colleges in the nation.” And the first one that came up was Brigham Young [University] and the second one that came up was Hillsdale. No joke.
I literally just googled, “Am I Mormon?” And I read some things and I’m like, “OK, see, I don’t think I’m Mormon.” I didn’t know, I just knew that I loved Jesus. I love this man that I learned about in church, and that I read about in my Bible, and I wanted to be him. I wanted to love people like he did. I wanted to reach people on the margins like he did. I wanted to include people like he did, but I didn’t know how to do that. And I didn’t know anything else. And I knew that he saved me. I knew that he loved me, and that truth completely changed me.
And so, the second college on the list was Hillsdale College. And I ran track, and I reached out to the track coach, and I said, “I need a full ride to come here. I … can’t go to college because I don’t have any money. And I don’t have parents to help me. So this is what I need, but I really want to come to Hillsdale.” And he got back to me and he said, “Absolutely, we want you here.” It was probably the next day, he was like, “Absolutely we want you here.”
I know part of it was because of my talents, which is fine. I’ll take it. I’ll take it. And so, I transferred to Hillsdale the next year. I’m so grateful I did. I got a really good education, and my faith really was formed exactly how I want, better than I could have imagined, exactly how. I prayed the prayer, “God, if I’m going to transfer … ” Because it was like, you only get one shot to transfer, you can’t transfer twice.
And so I was like, “God, if I’m going to transfer, please make this the right school.” And now I really think, I love the way that God … I think that God teaches all of us, things like this, we just have to have our eyes open to him and our hearts aware. But I love the way that God has taught me. But he taught me, through the 11th foster home and the 12th foster home, how proclaiming his name could hurt people and heal people. That there’s two different ways to go about it.
And then in college, he taught me where we are rooted. The environment that we are in really does affect the way we express our faith, and the way we walk in our faith. Because I think, people can be like, “Well, this is between me and God.” But really, God calls us to community for a reason. And I’m so thankful that he taught me that, through my transfer, and through my experience at Hillsdale.
Allen: That’s incredible. Wow. And how did you go from being at Hillsdale, running track, graduating, and then starting to speak, and share your story, and really gaining this platform?
Petersen: So, I had my first speaking engagement when I was 16. My church, they were like, “We want you to share what it’s like being in foster care.” My church had a huge heart for kids in foster care. A lot of the people in leadership were foster parents, or had para-church foster care ministries. They were very involved. And so, they would have me at their foster care trainings, and so, seeds were planted then.
I had no idea that this is what I was going to be doing, but I see that God was planting seeds, and they were equipping me to do what I’m doing now. And yeah, they were just like, share, and so I did that. I did awareness events. And then of course, I took kind of a break when I was in college, but still, some places would reach out, just nonprofits in different churches, and they’d be like, “Hey, can you come share your testimony?” And I would.
I would sit on the stage, I was so nervous. And I would shake because I was so nervous. And then, I graduated college, and still, people kept… I wasn’t a good speaker, but people kept asking me. And so, I felt like to say no, was to say no to God. He had given me this story. He had done a work in my life, and I did not want to waste the testimony that he had given me. And so, I just kept saying, “Yes.” I hated it. But I just kept saying, “Yes.” …
So when I would kind of prepare my talks, I would type them all out, and I realized that I loved writing. Sometimes I would share my talks, just the writing part, not me speaking, because that freaked me out too much. But [I’d share] the writing part on social media, and people would reply, and they’d be like, “Tori, you got to write a book. You’re such a good writer.”
And I was like, “Oh, they’re just saying that, because they feel bad for me, because I grew up in foster care.” But people kept saying it. So I was like, “Maybe I should write a book.” So I started pitching the literary agents, and they were like, “Nobody knows you, you can’t write a book.” And I was like, “Whoa, OK. I didn’t know people had to know me to write a book.” I don’t know the authors that I’m reading.
But I was like, “OK, I’m just going to keep sharing on social media.” And then through that, people started to know me. And it was actually a publisher that reached out to me and said, “Hey, do you want to write a book for us?” Which is a very roundabout way of getting a book deal. You’re supposed to get a literary agent first, your literary agent’s supposed to … pitch to publishers. So I had my publisher first, and then I had to go run and get a literary agent, which I knew exactly who I wanted, because I had done a lot of research beforehand.
But it was so crazy, because when I started writing the book, I was like, this book is for kids in foster care to show them that they’re not alone, that they have a hope and a future. That they can overcome all things through Christ Jesus. That their identity is a child of God.
Then, in the midst of me sharing, I realized, people were telling me, that I was educating foster parents, and then case workers, and lawyers, and people involved in foster care. And then, people who wanted to be involved in foster care, but didn’t know how. And then, people who wanted to reach people on the margins, but didn’t know how.
And then it just became, I was educating the whole church, and it was not what I anticipated at all. I was like, this book is for those 10 foster kids that really need to know that Jesus loves them. And then it was like, no, this book is it. … These are literally reviews, and what people have said, the book has taught people. They said, “It’s taught me how to love. And it’s taught me how to reach people that I wouldn’t have otherwise done by myself.” And that is so encouraging to me, because that is exactly what I actually want done with the book. I just didn’t know it.
Allen: That is so cool. What encouragement, to hear people say that, that you are having that impact that you desired in your heart to have years ago, and to see that on such a widespread scale that a book can have. It’s so incredible. And you’re living it too, obviously, every day in your personal life. You and your husband, Jacob, you all got married in 2018, and since then, you all yourselves have adopted.
Petersen: Yes. So my husband and I took in a young man, who’s now an adult, and we adopted him. And we have two biological children. And we also, that sister who I was once separated from, now lives with me full time. I’m her kinship care provider. And yeah, it’s been, foster care is like a wild ride from this side. I thought it was a wild ride as a kid, but this is a whole different thing.
Allen: You’re on the other side of the narrative now, loving those kids that need it so much. Yeah. That is wild. And you’ve actually started something, called the Beloved Initiative. Share just a little bit about what that is.
Petersen: Yeah. The Beloved Initiative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. There’s this idea of being a voice for the voiceless. You’ve probably heard that. And that really works well for the pre-born. It does. But for people outside the womb, that really doesn’t work well. We don’t really need to speak for anyone. People have a voice, and so. We just need to amplify it and listen to them. So the nonprofit is, really I say that, we’re learning to be professional lovers of people.
And I think one of the ways that we do that, is we don’t speak for others. We don’t say we’re a voice for the voiceless. We say the voiceless have a voice. We’re just going to amplify it and listen to it. So we create opportunities to do that.
One of the ways we started was, we gave foster families, free family photos. Because free family photos are huge investment, we know that. But you don’t know if this child’s going to be in your home the next week or the next month.
But at the same time, children deserve to see their pictures on a wall. They’re told they belong. But then, the things that surround them don’t really communicate that. They can’t paint their own room. There’s caution around that. They don’t have pictures of themselves hanging on a wall. So we wanted to do that.
And then at these photo shoots, we would ask the kids, we would say, “What do you want people to know about you being in foster care? What do you want people to know about you as foster youth or just as a person?” And someone, I did that because that’s what someone asked me. It was one of my first ever advocacy events. A nonprofit leader said, “What do you want people to know?” And I wrote it on a poster board, stop stereotyping me. And I wrote another one that said, I’m not a bad kid. And people were walking by, and they had tears in their eyes. And so, I just know that stories have power, and I want to tell them.
So another thing that we’re doing is, we create writing workshops and retreats at a very low cost, and sometimes free for a survivor, so that they can tell their stories just as I have. Because our stories are like our testimonies of what God has done in our lives, need to be shared. They influence people. They impact people to get involved. And they inspire people to live differently, to live better.
Allen: And your husband, Jacob, he’s jumped right into this with you. Is this something that he’s always had a heart and passion for?
Petersen: Yeah. I think we’ve just both grown into it, actually. Because when we actually got married, neither of us were like, we were not going to do foster care. Both of us were like, “No. No foster care.”
But it was actually a teacher who, she had homeschooled her children. And after she had homeschooled her children, she was like, “I don’t know what to do now. What should I do?” And I said, “You should go into the public school system. Those kids need a strong Christian woman to be a light to the world, salt of the earth, that is you. Go into those public schools.” And she was like, “No public schools are like, they’re just so bad. They’re so corrupt. I would never do that.” And I was like, it made me mad in my heart. And I’m not saying she was wrong. I’m just saying, it made me mad.
Because I was like, we have the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. That means we can step into the most broken places, and we can bring healing and wholeness to them. And that should always be our approach in heart, towards broken spaces. But I was looking at the foster care system saying the same exact thing.
Allen: And the conviction sets in.
Petersen: Oh, yeah. And I was like, “Oh God.” And so, through my anger for this mom teacher, God was like, he was really like, “OK, but look at the plank in your eye.” … I went to a conference, and at this conference there was a speaker who was… It was just a leadership conference, not a foster care conference. And it is so rare that you have foster care people, because the foster care community, very tight knit. We all hang around each other. We all go to the same conferences and stuff.
It is very rare that a foster care speaker goes to just a general leadership conference. And he was there. And he was telling people to get involved. And I was just like, “OK.”
Allen: I get it. I get it.
Petersen: Yeah. Yes.
Allen: Oh, that’s too good. Well, I can’t have you on, and not ask about your doing pageants, and being crowned Mrs. Universe 2021.
Petersen: Oh my gosh.
Allen: Which, I didn’t even realize until recently, that Mrs. Universe is different from Miss Universe, that it is an actual thing that people can do. How did you get into that?
Petersen: OK. Oh my gosh. So it’s a doozy. My husband and I were fostering a sibling group of three, three and under. We had five kids, three and under, with our two biological children, and then, we were adopting our son. So it was just a wild time and I was drained, and I thought, “I just want to do something fun. I want to do something different.”
Someone presented me the opportunity, a pageant. And I had kind of been like, “I would never do that. I’m too good for that. That’s superficial.” But actually, when I thought about it, I was like, “Wow, that sounds so fun.” Just to dress up and do your makeup, to get your hair done.
Petersen: In my mom sweatpants, in my messy bun. That’s what I’m wearing right now on this podcast. And so, I was like, “We’re just going to give it a whirl.” And I’m a competitor. Track put this competitive spirit in me.
And it was also in a season. I was just like, “God, I’m working for you. I’ll do anything for you.” And I was in prayer, and I just felt like God was like, “You don’t have to work for me. You just be with me, just enjoy me.” And I was like, “I don’t even know how to enjoy God.” Quite honestly, the way I understood God was like, it was that I just do all this life, all this stuff to just glorify him. And I think that is how we should live. Live a life that brings glory to our heavenly father. But I also think that God calls us to enjoy him. And so I was like, “I don’t know how to enjoy you.” And then, the opportunity of pageantry was brought about. And I was like, “I think that would be enjoyable. Let’s just do it.”
And there were some times that were like, this is ridiculous. I’ll be totally honest. It’s not the first thing that I present myself as. Because I think it’s a distraction to who I really want to be known as, which is, I just want to be known as a professional lover of people, a servant of God. And it’s like this flashy cool title, but I’m the same person that I was before it, and that I was after it. And I think that’s also the importance of a title like that though, is that if you have it, that you can carry out the integrity of it. So that’s what the title means to me. I hope that I’m living up to it, not in the way that I dress, or do my makeup, or my hair, but in the way that I serve my community.
Allen: I think you are. I think you absolutely are. It’s a resounding yes with that.
Petersen: Thank you.
Allen: We have one question that we love to ask all guests on this show, and that is, do you consider yourself a feminist? Yes or no? Why or why not?
Petersen: I’m going to say, yes.
Allen: OK. Why?
Petersen: I think that women have so much strength and power as moms. And there are so many women that, they’re the foundation of their home, and they’re also the foundation of their workplace. And I just think of everything that a woman has to balance. Balance is such a silly word, because none of us are really balancing anything. We’re all falling off the tightrope, and just getting back on. But I think, I guess how gracefully women can do that, with the load they carry. I guess this is the image I have. I literally have an image of a woman carrying a huge book bag, walking on a tightrope. I’ve never communicated this before. Walking on a tightrope, and just falling off, and just gracefully getting the backpack, and getting back on that tightrope.
I think that’s what we do as women. I think that we are so powerful. And I think that the word feminism has been used and abused, and I’m just going to take it back, and say that women, it just means that women have power. Women are incredible loving beings that are the foundation of our society.
Allen: I think that was my favorite answer that we’ve ever had on the show.
Petersen: I love that. What? Really, that’s crazy.
Allen: That was phenomenal. Okay. So, Tori, before we let you go, share with us how we can follow you, and how we can get your book on Oct. 15.
Petersen: Sure. I’m most active on Instagram. And you can contact me on my website if you don’t do Instagram. You can find the book anywhere, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target. And it’s called, “Fostered: One Woman’s Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family Through Foster Care.”
Allen: I love it. Tori, thank you so much for your time. This has been a blast.
Petersen: Thank you.
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