Tag Archives: child welfare

The Ties That Bind: Motherless Mothering

“I am sorry I was born and caused you so much pain.” The scribbling in my old dusty notebook brought back an old familiar pain, long forgotten and buried in the rubble of my foster sister’s basement. As an introspective young girl and a bit of a loner, I filled notebook after notebook with endless internal observation. My private thoughts were not entirely meant to be private. Someday I hoped to hand them to my mother, who I was taken from at 5 and saw sporadically through my elementary school years. I never had that chance. In 2004, holding my own newborn daughter in my arms, I was told my mother died years before and did not want me notified. In my daughter’s big blue eyes, I found a solace that notebook never brought me. Motherhood closed the door on most of the past, but not all.

Me and my girl.
Me and my growing mini.

The day I found out I was pregnant with my mini me, I sat in my car crying alone before I called anyone with the news. Fear, excitement, nervousness washed over me. What would she look like, a relative? I knew none. I never even saw a baby photo of myself: What mysteries would my genes bring? Would I know how to be a mother? I never really saw one for very long. Before having my daughter, I envied my friends families with their normal family struggles and battles. Their photos on the wall. Their smiling parents at games, graduations, their shared expressions, their family fights, and their tangled emotions. I was envious but just carefully observed. Now, with this new person growing inside me I had the chance to see myself in someone else. I had the chance to undo the past and bring a loved person into the world.

Anytime the umbilical cord is snapped, unnaturally broken, or tethered, the child on the other end suffers. The world seems so large and life feels so alone. As a foster child, the disconnect and mystery surrounding my young life appeared in every friendship, relationship, failure, success, happiness, or sadness.

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Orphanhood and Batman: Redifining Foster Children’s Labels

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It has been a long time since anyone looked at me and used the term “orphan,” but it happened this week. In a clinical sense, the word may fit, but its connotation implies weakness. As my mini me told me, “Aren’t Batman and Superman both orphans? So that’s it, you are my Batman.”

While I do not look good in capes, I do want to redefine the term “orphan” away from the idea of victimhood of foster children, and instead define it by eternal superpowers. Orphans do not have parents as children and are raised by strangers. While they do lose the grounding of being consistently parented, foster children have an inner strength that others do not gain until adulthood. They can use that energy to become their own heroes as adults.

Foster children are children who are taken away from biological relatives due to abuse, neglect, or parental addiction. They are placed in temporary homes until they can be reunited with a safe family member, or even adopted. Many are left in children’s homes or on the street. Homelessness, academic failure, drug use, and suicide rates are very high for former children in care. My goal as a former foster child, is to help others become advocates for themselves, create their own family, and encourage girls in foster care to redefine their strength as they become women.

I was taken from my mother and placed in foster after I was found in her basement starved, abused, and left to die. For years, a lingering court case against her and others kept me as an emotional prisoner to her apologies and to biological connections I lost forever. I was adopted, but both of my adoptive parents died within months of each other, when I was 13. Orphan-hood was in my blood it seemed and so I navigated alone. I watched foster brothers and sisters come and go, some living a life of crime, depression, and drug use. Others, who succeeded, went on to love themselves and won their internal battles against those who left them at their most vulnerable.

Without any guidance, good or bad, as a developing child the brain takes in the environment with little shelter. For some orphans, we see only the bad and keep ourselves in a bubble. For others, they absorb attention and affection anywhere they can, and often the abusers of the world hone in. Orphans are, after all, a weak link. In some ways, this is true. My weakness was and is a codependent helping of others. Out of guilt and maybe shame, I blamed myself for whatever happened in that Brooklyn home as a toddler and infant. That guilt led me to try to fix anyone and anything. It led me to poor boundaries personally. My real solace was found in being alone. When I was not fixing friends or lovers, I sought out time with myself by wandering aimlessly to recoup. It gave me a convenient excuse for not taking care of my own heart. 

While my past did dictate my solace, it did not lead me to victimhood, in fact I was determined to rewrite my story. I  had loose connections with some foster brothers and sisters. Some were good influences and believed in my few talents. I never drank or partied, in fact I was basically a very short adult, even as a teen. I studied hard and became absorbed in books. What my favorite writers like Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath could not heal for me was a sense of belonging to something. I was introspective, very much self-aware, and a mother hen. As I look back, I grew very attached to women teachers, friends’ mothers, strangers even. I sought out maternal attachments everywhere.

Some were positive, some were not, but I concluded that rather than seeking out answers from the past, searching for long-lost family, (which proved disastrous emotionally), having my own child was the biggest part of my healing. After years of quiet envy listening to friends complain about their parents, siblings, extended family, I wanted something of my own. On January 22, 2003, whatever higher power exists, decided I needed a little blue-eyed girl to put my heart into, to build walls around, and to help design her own future with strong roots.

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It has been 12 years of non-orphanhood for me! In my eyes, becoming a mother shatters that term altogether. I finally got the normal I heard so much about. It has not been easy. Everything I wanted for her did not happen as I expected. But I got the up all nights, the lioness protection, the graduations, the crying, the sadness, the pain, and the joy of childhood laughter. For the first time, I found myself playing hopscotch and picnicking in the park. I started to love who I was and was proud of my new lineage. I had photos to hang on the wall, photos that resembled me, the good parts of me. With this new piece of me, I strived to become better. I stumbled a few times, but she helped me believe in myself and improve myself. I am forever in her debt.

For other fellow successful orphans, a strong network of close friends, or animals, or successful relationships, became their family, but the commonality is that we all tried to rebuild what many people took for granted. While my girl cannot be my only grounding, which I’m learning painfully as she gets older, I finally have let myself become more vulnerable to a deeper adult relationship and a sense of not being alone. I may even have another child or let someone lift ME up when I need it. For this orphan, that is a huge feat.  After all, what I want my daughter to see, and other former foster children to see, is that Batman or not, every orphan has the opportunities to find success amidst the ruins of our childhood enemies.

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The Other Side

At my daughter’s age, a counselor told me never to forget three important things I learned in foster care.  What happened to me was not my fault. My experiences made me mentally strong. At 12, I could take care of myself and protect myself. Don’t forget that at 42, she added.

Me, the year I was taken from my abusive mother and entered foster care.
Me, the year I was taken from my abusive mother and entered foster care.

I am not 42, but that marker is not too far off. I forget those facts when adulthood brings me the usual pains of life. Somehow her voice echoes through though, at even my lowest points. Every single child in foster care and every former foster child can muster up this power. It is a gift bestowed upon us by early brain changing, life altering events that endow us with the kind of strength others still seek.

Despite this superhero energy I dig into time and again, voids exist. Voids I try to fill, but in searching for my own identity, still lurk in the background. For more than the half a million children who were removed from abusive, negligent or drug addicted parents, and placed in care, their adulthood leaves these impenetrable gaps.

Often, my colleagues discuss what missing link displaced, abandoned, and neglected children crave most as they develop into adults. Their diligent research is aimed at stopping the negative cycles we all see in the child welfare system, generation after generation.

But, in order to stop the vicious cycle of abuse, depression, graduation failures, addiction, and mental illness that so many former foster children face, advocates must start understanding the importance of maleness.

Foster children need a balance of nurture and protection. Generally this comes from a mother and father figure ( of any gender). Without a true identity, or with a broken one, foster children clamour around their lives seeking to fill emotional buckets. They recreate themselves from nothing.

I never fell into that pile of advocates (many whom I respect and love dearly) who desperately searched for answers, for biological family, especially a father, to heal early wounds. Instead, I plowed on. Some called it denial, I called it survival. Survival sounds better.

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End of the Line ?

Former foster children live a patchwork life, with bits of  small recollections of the past, often blurred by emotional pain. Most of their own heritage and lineage remains a complete mystery. Identity is shuffled and recreated in different foster homes. In adulthood it can remain precarious. A lifetime of sorting through a past they will never find, leaves them in the cold.

In my collaboration with other foster child advocates, we talk a lot about abuse cycles, attachment issues, success, stability and strength. What is often overlooked, outside of the adoption arena, is identity and the lack of a concrete past.

Me and my end
Me and my end

Dissimilar from adoptees taken or given away at birth, most foster children are taken from their biological families after attachments, negative or positive, have formed. Children enter the foster care system due to neglect, abuse, addictions of the parents, or abandonment.

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Blue Pin of Courage

I wore a blue pin this week and had someone approach me, “Is that for Autism awareness?” I felt almost bad saying no, but my blue this month is for child abuse prevention month. Child abuse kills 5 children in the US a day. A DAY. Thousands of other victims a day go on living; their young lives physically, mentally, and socially altered.

Child abuse is rampant and knows no ethnic or economical boundary. More often than not, a trusted caregiver or parent is the child’s abuser. The truth is not everyone loves their children and not everyone protects and cares for their children. As a mother, this is hard to accept.

I live mostly for my daughter, every day I wake up thankful I have her. I spend my nights worrying about her, my decisions center around her needs. But, not everyone feels this sense toward even their own children.  As I type this, hundreds of children in America are being hit, starved, burned, molested, and left in the dark at the hands of those who brought them into this world. They have no out. And when they wake up tomorrow, their abuser will either continue to abuse, or further perpetuate the sick cycle of abuse by rewarding the child with praise and affection, regaining trust.. only to abuse again.

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Me and my girl

What is the key to preventing child abuse? Like winning any other battle, we must understand the enemy. How do they infiltrate? How do they succeed?

Abusers gain a powerful tool, trust; either by proxy or because the child knows no other way. TRUST is the open door for an abuser. A parent, caregiver or family member often already has this trust by biological or situational nature. Children are born innocent and their only security comes from what is under their roof.

In recent years, many programs aim to help parents, caregivers and teachers recognize these grooming tactics. But what about parents who abuse? As we delve more into the causes of abuse, or indicators, rather, there really is not a picture of a parent abuser. It happens in trailer parks, it happens in mansions.

City officials were investigating my mother and other adults in my house, when I was found at  5;  abused, beaten, burnt, and starved for a long period of time.  They came to my home half a dozen times looking into suspicion of severe abuse of my older brother. No one knew for over a year that my mother had another child. She kept me locked in a basement and lied to the police. A case worker literally turned on a light on the staircase, and my brother finally uttered he had a little sister.

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Kit Kat Bars and Hope

I was 9 years old, but my little legs and little belly made me look about 5. I was cute, no doubt. Stumbling into the social service office, I looked over at my case worker Drew’s desk to make sure the picture I drew him was proudly displayed.

Drew was a very tall man, probably about 35 years old, though at my age he seemed ancient to me. Because of our stark height difference, he often patted me on the head like a puppy. I liked him a great deal; he was the first man in my life I ever trusted. He was kind-hearted, never raised his voice,  and lit up when I walked by. He lavished me with compliments.  I looked forward to our meetings, though at the time I did not understand his role.  I just knew that when I sat in his office, he had toys and Kit Kat bars. I liked Kit Kat bars!

The year after I was taken from my mother. I was tiny!
The year after I was taken from my mother. I was tiny!

One day, he seemed a little unnerved, almost shaken. His smile was different. I knew, even in my young mind, that our conversation was not going to be a fun one. So, I clutched a wooden doll and looked for my Kit Kat bar. I braced myself for some type of bad news.  A lot of what Drew imparted to me is being imparted to thousands of children a day who enter the foster care system.

Drew  was one of the social workers who found me at about age 5 locked in a basement with burn marks, bruises, and left very sick from malnutrition. I was not toilet trained, could not walk and did not talk.  His accidental finding brought me to a hospital and led to the arrest of my mother and others in my home. I was then placed in a foster home.  The brother I was found with was sent somewhere else.

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The Ebb and Flow of Letting Go

My nerves and heart were both tested this week. The realization that the world can intrude on the safe, secure space I have built for my mini me, came crashing. Former foster children who become loving parents are rocked hard deep in the soul even by minor intrusions on the children we have sometimes smothered for their own protection! 🙂

Me and my girl.
Me and my girl prepare for Santa’s visit!

Often our minds are flooded with the physical and emotional trials of our own past; innocence and trust ripped from us before we knew what either meant. The moments that flash like slide show images when insecurity, fear, doubt, and frustrations sit at our door as adults. It is startling. This is why many former foster children try not to love or attach to anything. For those like me, who ventured into loving motherhood, the slope is especially tricky. We are vulnerable, so is the object of our unconditional affection; it is a tough reality to face.

I have prided myself on being a good parent. Mini me trusts me, relies on me, she feels loved and wanted. Check. But what about what the rest of the world can do to this gentle creature I helped create? There are things I can protect her from and do; people I keep her far from, events and situations we avoid..but what about what is outside my grasp? This is something I had not considered.

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It’s My Party-Celebrations and Foster Children

2002, NY. Pregnant with my mini me and glowing!
2002, NY. Pregnant with my mini me and glowing!

Today is my Mini Me’s 12th birthday. Her big blue eyes have been rolling all week, because I dragged out baby pictures left and right all week. Mini me sighs heavily, simply because a  recollection of our connection, is already very real to her. For children in foster care, this day of birth comes with a painful clause in small writing. It is a reminder that their personal past has been erased or deleted. It is a reminder of  a history often long gone or wrought with pain.

Birthdays are a celebration of life, it is a mark of importance of the child to his or her family.  Foster children have been abused, neglected, or lived with a parent with addictions who is gone, and so this validation of importance is not fed.  The violent, or tragic separation or abandonment, of children by their parent or both parents rings loudly on this day. A connection to the happy event of their birth is often not ever born or shared with them. Generally, the day is wrought with mystery, confusion, or even memories of physical pain.

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A Reason to Believe

I spent a lot of time in my own mind as a foster child, dreaming up my ideal holiday that would not ever come. For me, the lights of Rockefeller Center scripted fantastical stories that eased the pain of being forgotten.

While most of the world, no matter what tradition, awaits big family meals and the exchange of gifts; for children lost in the child welfare system the holidays can wreak havoc on their fragile souls.

Me. the year I was taken from my mother and entered foster care.
Me. the year I was taken from my mother and entered foster care.

After being found in a basement, beaten, burned and starved at age 5, I entered foster care. The ferocious court battles, the on and off again appearances of my illusive mother, plagued me well into my teen years. Often during holidays, I wondered where my mother lived and if she too saw the crystal star at the top of the grandest tree in the world. I wandered. I made excuses for her in my mind.

Certainly I was loveable or at least I hoped so, but alas dreams stayed dreams. I held my breath each year, thinking some knock would come to the door..a long lost sibling explaining the big mishap. My father maybe? I would’ve settled for a man with a familiar feature walking down my street, even. Maybe my mother would run to me, presents in hand, cloaked in her long dark hair at the door, looking for absolution! The stories spun in my young mind over and over again each Christmas.

Me and my girl prepare for Santa's visit!
Me and my girl prepare for Santa’s visit!

Many foster children feel discarded like yesterdays trash around the holidays; discarded by those who brought them into the world, by a child welfare system that doesn’t protect them, and by the fairy tales they hear other children recite. It is a childhood interrupted by an all too soon reality.

My childhood Christmas came decades after my childhood, when my daughter was born.  Because then..I did not need answers anymore. I had my own link, someone belonged to me.Every other sense of my own family seemed to fail, but not my blue-eyed girl depending almost solely on me.

A girl whose eyes lit up next to the big tree. A girl who still waits anxiously for Santa.  A girl whose heart is so big that she leaves an unmarked gift under the tree every year for a girl in foster care.

Becoming a mother saved my soul from a past that did not want to let go. All former foster children can be saved, with a sense of belonging to something unconditional, far from the discard pile.

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Power in Permanency: Foster Children Need Family

Me, about a year after being taken from my mother, 1981.
Me, about a year after being taken from my mother, 1981.

Courts in New York State made a decision this week which has spurred some debate over foster children and the idea of family. A foster child, loved by two people who lived in two different homes was made adoptable by them both.Critics of this recent case argue that one parent in two homes was not an “ideal” FAMILY.

Foster children have no real concept of an ideal family, they simply need stability and safety. They create a family through a network of friends and temporary siblings who come and go. To them there is no Uncle or crazy cousins, loving grandparents, memories of watching siblings grow. They have lost that idea by being abused or neglected and placed with strangers, temporarily. They do not need what some people argue is ideal. They need to sleep under a warm roof, with no threat in the middle of night or their safety, they want to trust that they will not be abandoned, they need protection from the “family” who abused them, and they need to stay in one safe home as long as possible. One parent, a gay parent, a parent of a different race, is the best alternative to the street, or to pedophiles and abusers.

The negative feedback this case has received in certain circles astounds me. It came to me, at about 3 am this morning, that maybe the people fighting against “alternative” permanent placement, have no understanding of American foster children and their circumstances.
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