Some of Tori Hope Petersen’s earliest memories involve being trained not to talk to the police.
“When I was just four, I was convinced cops were bad people who only wanted to rip families apart, beat people up for fun, & put people in jail for no reason,” she wrote in an Instagram post last summer.
She was even shown the infamous Rodney King video to drive the point home.
“While being beaten I begged to be placed in the foster care system,” she wrote. “I was laughed at & told ‘Foster care will be worse than this.’ This was the other lie that kept me silent.”
So, Tori suffered her abuse without reprieve.
“I believed what I was told,” she said. “I remained quiet for years because I was trained to be scared of safe systems.”
Today, more than 20 years later, Tori is no longer quiet. Instead, she is a steady, thoughtful and loving advocate for foster youths. She is also a supporter and a challenger to the systems that can (but don’t always) keep them safe.
“All glory be to God, forever and ever.”
In July, Tori—the little girl who once suffered immense abuse and struggled her way through the foster care system—was crowned Mrs. Universe 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Afterwards, she posted to social media the announcement of her win, writing, “All glory be to God, forever and ever.”
Before that, Victoria (“Tori”) Hope Petersen was widely known for her Christian heart, her personal pro-life testimony, and her loving devotion to foster youth, which she shares as a public speaker, writer, and social media influencer.
She reflects on the hardships she faced as a child in the foster care system with both grace and grit, showing mercy to her biological mother and reflecting on both the good and the bad of the system she has spent years fighting.
In one Instagram post, she shared the vivid memory of being abandoned by her own court appointed special advocate (CASA) and being left to deal with her mother’s anger.
“No one will take this case. This is crazy!” the CASA said before storming out of the court room.
Months later, a new CASA was appointed to Tori’s case.
“I know what your last advocate said,” she told Tori. “But I am not going anywhere. Your mom will not scare me away. You will not scare me away. I am here for you. I am here to stay.”
Tori’s new CASA stuck to her word and influenced Tori’s life for the better. Tori explained:
I would spend over 4 more years in the foster care system & she spent those 4 years advocating for what was in my best interest. She kept her promise & because of her advocacy I told myself I’d be an advocate like her. God has directed my path of advocacy in ways that make my heart soar & my CASA paved the way. She gave me the words to be a voice & a vision to speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves.
Now, Tori is doing all she can, not just to speak up for foster youths, but to raise their voices so that they might be heard.
After winning Mrs. Minnesota Universe earlier this summer, she shared some thoughts on the motivation behind her entering pageantry. Along with “enjoying God” in the process, she hoped to elevate the voices of foster youths:
Being Mrs. Minnesota Universe has allowed me another opportunity to inform people of how they can help youth in foster care from the perspective of a former foster youth, foster mom, and advocate! Through this venture, I am NOT going to be a voice for the voiceless. I am going to give the voiceless opportunities to raise their voices! The voiceless have a voice. We just need to listen!
At 25 years old, she is married to her husband, Jacob, and is the mother of two biological children and one adult son the couple adopted. The Petersens are also certified foster parents who welcomed and regretfully said “goodbye” to a sibling group of three this year.
As painful as that was for the Petersen family, Tori also knows that foster care and adoption stories are far from linear or simple.
“This is love. And so much more.”
“Many youth enter foster care more than once,” she wrote earlier this year. “Each year, approximately 18,000 youth emancipate without a forever family, like I did. As an adult, I didn’t ‘find’ my forever family. They had already been in my life for years. I simply entered my forever family while still having a relationship with my biological mom & some foster parents.”
It was Tori’s track coach who became like a father to her when she was in high school.
In the midst of the turbulence that was her adolescence, Scott offered a calm and stable presence for Tori. And he showed strong belief in her abilities.
“I think you can win state,” he told her during the middle of a practice one hot summer day.
Then he paused, took in a deep breath, and finished the sentence: ‘If you do what I say.’
“I had never even qualified for the state championship track meet in an individual event,” she wrote in a blog post. “But I stubbornly thought to myself, ‘I will do everything he says, and if I don’t win, he is to blame.’ I didn’t have any reason to believe in myself as much as he did.”
For a year, Tori followed Scott’s training, devotedly showing up to practices, all while repeatedly questioning herself and Scott.
“Scott’s devotion to me was unwavering and father-like,” she wrote. “I sought out his opinion and guidance, not just as my coach, but as a dad.”
After Tori turned 18 and emancipated, she experienced homelessness, bouncing around from house to house. Eventually, Scott offered Tori a forever home with his family, informing her that his biological daughters had given their heartfelt approval.
“I felt on top of the world,” Tori wrote.
Soon after, Tori fulfilled the belief Scott voiced to her one year prior.
“Weeks later, I stood on top of the podium at the state championship meet in Ohio four times,” she wrote. “I represented my school as the 50th girl in Ohio to win four state titles in one meet. Additionally, I became the first individual woman and the first person of color to win a state championship title from my high school.”
Although the family considered adult adoption, the court and lawyer fees were immense. But Scott and his family offered Tori their last name.
“I was not officially adopted, yet it was just as beautiful as adoption,” she wrote on Instagram, continuing:
Maybe even more beautiful because despite not having court papers, my adoptive family continues to choose me.
And even when my dad chose me, I slammed doors in his face & cussed at him. Even when he chose me, I tested him to see if he’d still choose me. Adoption didn’t make the trauma go away. For some time, it emphasized it all.
This is foster care. This is adoption. This is family. This is redemption. This is breaking generational curses. This is love. And so much more.
Because of her track victories in high school, Tori was offered scholarships to multiple colleges. In 2018, she graduated from Hillsdale College, becoming part of the 3 percent of former foster youths to graduate college with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The next week, Scott walked her down the aisle and gave her away at her wedding.
Scott’s example continues to cast light into her life today. As foster and adoptive parents, the Petersens are now providing the safety and love that Scott once provided to Tori.
“When all is said and done, I don’t care to be remembered as a powerhouse,” she writes. “I hope to be remembered as a safe house.”
To learn more about Indiana Right to Life’s adoption project, So Many Special Families, visit somanyspecialfamilies.org.