I had the opportunity to speak to some of the children affected by the foster care system. I spoke to a boy who, at the tender age of just six years old told me matter-of-factly, “My mommy is sick and I’m waiting here until she gets better.” I spoke to a young woman who, at 18, had just aged out of the system and spent nearly two hours on the phone with me, wrestling with her feelings of hopelessness, abandonment and anxiety about her future. “You grow up learning the worst lessons,” she had told me, “You learn that nothing is permanent, no one is trustworthy, and everyone lives their lives so alone. All I have is me, and all I’ve had is me since I was way too young. I couldn’t rely on the people you’re supposed to be able to rely on, and that’s just so unfair. It follows you everywhere.”
But, the most moving story I heard was not one spoken to me, but one that I read. I spoke to a 12 year old middle school student, who had been through the foster care system and returned back to her biological family. When we spoke she was timid, reserved and shy. “It would be easier for me to write it out,” she had said. A week later, this is the essay that I found in my inbox.
My Life As A Kid In Foster Care
I am 12 years old. I live with my mom, my little brother and my stepdad. I was 5 years old the first time I got taken away. I remember we were putting on shoes to go outside, me and my brother, when they came to take us. They walked around our apartment. It was full of junk and messy, but I didn’t know that’s why they were there. I just remember they left me and my brothers in the living room, and when my mom came back with them she was crying. She cried while she packed up our stuff, and she cried while she hugged us goodbye and we left in a car with people we didn’t even know. The social worker told us, “It’s just a sleepover, you’ll go back home soon.” But, it wasn’t soon. It was two and a half years. They asked me questions that I didn’t know the right answer to, and I was so nervous about getting them right. They asked me if my mom smoked, if she smoked inside or outside the house, if they were cigarettes she bought at the store or made herself. They asked me if my mom ever got mad, and what did she when she got mad? I remember not knowing the what the right answers were, or why they were asking about my mom. I wanted my mom, and I felt so worried for her because I saw her crying. I felt so scared and sad, because they didn’t even tell me where I was going. But I believed I would go home the next day.
I went to a house with my brother that made me uncomfortable. It was dark when we got there and it smelled like old lady. The social workers dropped us off and just left us with our bags of stuff. It wasn’t even all our stuff, they did not give my mom time to pack much stuff, which really made me believe it would only be a sleepover for a night. I still feel angry when I think about it. Sometimes when I was little I would think about how I wanted to take my social worker and put her in the middle of the desert, with no food or water or anyone, and check in with her two and a half years later to see how she felt. I would imagine she would feel like I did, sad and angry and confused and alone, but at the same time so relieved to get out of the desert alive.
My mom is an alcoholic. I didn’t know that when I was little, but I know that now. I remember when I was little my mom had a husband, I used to call him my dad. Living with him was nothing but terror. He would hit her and scream at her and break her bones. Sometimes I would just lay in my bed at night with my eyes widen open, just listening to her hurt him. When I was three she took us away and left. We lived in a shelter but I was happy. My mom would play with us and read to us and cook us dinner, pretty much like a normal mom but we were homeless. Living in a shelter doesn’t feel homeless, though, not like you think about when you hear the word and think of living on the sidewalk or in a dirty tent under a bridge. When I was four we moved to our own apartment and for a little while everything was fine. Then my mom started to clean up the house less often, and left us with babysitters more. Sometimes we’d wake up in the morning with her still gone and the babysitter still there. One time I woke up in the middle of the night and when I walked out of my room she was packing up all the stuff in the living room into boxes, and pacing around the house. I watched her pack and unpack and check the doors to see if they were locked, over and over. She looked afraid, and that made me feel afraid, too. I remember when she put me back in my bed she fell asleep in my bed too. I wondered for a long time if she was packing because she knew we were going to be taken away. Now I understand that my mom had something called PTSD from what had happened with her ex husband. It’s what happens to people when they get abused. She would stay up at night and worry that he was coming to find us and that we would have to leave. Then she would drink until she fell asleep. I only know this because after I left foster care we started to see a counselor, and she told me this with my counselor so I wouldn’t feel like it was my fault, but I always knew it wasn’t, I think. I would blame her sometimes, but mostly the social workers. I know in my head that when I was really little life was probably really bad for us, but I didn’t always feel like it was, if that even makes sense! And your parents are always your parents no matter what, you can’t just not love them. That’s not possible.
I know my mom always tried, and tried and tried. But I also know sometimes she failed. But she always would tell me the truth at least. When I would ask the social workers or the foster family when I could go home, they would always say “soon”. We must have different versions of soon. But when I would ask my mom she would always say “I don’t know but I’m trying.” I know it’s probably weird, but that always felt better to hear. Foster care can make you feel unwanted and lied to unless your parents tell you they’re trying. And I know my mom told the truth, because after 2 and a half years we got to go home. I counted every single day, I used to be able to say how many days I was gone to the day. I can’t now. But I guess that’s because I finally got to stop counting days.
Foster care teaches you how not to get close to people or trust them. The first foster home I was in I got comfortable, and then one day out of nowhere we found out we had to leave. My grandmother wanted us to move in with her. Nobody told us until the minute we had to leave. Three months later we had to leave again. I think that’s when I stopped caring. I would purposely throw fits and act up, especially if I didn’t like my foster family. Then they’d have to move me to another. Sometimes I’d go to the hospital, and my mom would show up for extra visits. That made me want to act up more, even if the foster family was OK. One time I was in the ER expecting my mom to show up but she never did. When I asked when my mom was coming the social worker told me, “She’s not allowed to come anymore, you can’t misbehave and expect to get extra visits any more, you can see her when you stabilize.” I was so upset and angry and felt defeated. It’s not fair to punish a kid for wanting to see her mother. I didn’t know any other way, and when that stopped working I didn’t know what to do. My only regret is that my brother would get left alone. I wish I would have thought of him more.
If I could change foster care one big thing I would change is to not lie to kids. When you tell a kid that they will go home soon they will believe you, and its the worst feeling when it doesn’t happen. I would let kids see their moms as much as they could and I would remember that parents are people too. I could be angry at my mom for being an alcoholic and losing us and sometimes I am, but I’m more mad even when she tried nobody ever tried to help us. For six months the social worker would tell us “you can go home this month.” And then it would never happen. I don’t know why to this day exactly, but I know that when we would have weekends with my mom things were fine. Finally we got a new social worker who told us we’d go home, and it was finally true. It shouldn’t be because you get a new social worker that you get to go home.
I know not every mom who loses her kids is like my mom, but I know she believes that most any mom can be. And because of her I think I do too. I’m so proud of my mom sometimes that it almost makes me want to cry, but happy tears, because she worked so hard to get us back and give us a good life. If I tell my friends who didn’t know me 4 years ago that I was in foster care they don’t even believe me. My mom got married again to my stepdad,he’s just a regular dad to me. And she is just like a regular mom. We have a house and a life that some of my friends have even been jealous of. If they only knew! I wonder sometimes what would have happened if we didn’t get a new social worker. I really don’t know. I just feel lucky to have the mom that I have and that things worked out. But I still get upset sometimes, because I lost parts of my childhood that I’ll never get back. Police cars still make me nervous, and for the first two years I lived with my mom I was always so worried that someone would come in the middle of the night to take me away. I feel really bad for the kids who have parents that don’t try as hard as mine did, or that don’t have social workers that are willing to give a second chance. I know that as a kid, for me, I don’t think I would ever be OK again if my family didn’t get one.