From Crime to Counselor — and How Foster Care Helped

By Vannak Kong

Growing up in the cold, hard streets of Lowell, Massachusetts, it was vannack-large-254x300easy to get wrapped up in some kind of trouble. I always looked up to my older brother so it was inevitable I started gang banging just like he did. It was all we knew.

Living in a lower-class neighborhood with immigrant parents meant we were always babysat by grandparents or the television while they worked dead-end positions. I know my parents tried their hardest, but at the end of the day the streets raised us. We ran around doing crazy things, stole out of boredom and got into fights with whoever the enemy was at that time. My parents, never given a handbook to help adapt to “American” culture, ended up grappling with alcoholism, post traumatic stress disorder and financial worries while we, the children, tried desperately to belong.

After years of witnessing domestic violence at home I started to lash out against any and all. As kids were going home with straight A’s, I went home with black eyes and teachers asking my parents to discuss my “outrageous behavior.” My mom, who had enough, didn’t know what to do and resorted to physically disciplining me. She needed help and put me on a program calledC.H.I.N.S (Child in Need of Services), which led to involvement with the Department of Social Services.

But I continued to get arrested or kicked out of school on a weekly basis. By age 10, I was being bounced from one juvenile detention center to another. After being “rehabilitated,” my caseworker thought foster care would be best. Between the ages of 13 and 18 I lived in 23 houses. It was a nice change of pace from the ghettos of Lowell, but I ran away every chance I got, knowing I’d be caught by police officers or my caseworkers.

I just wanted to be close to my family, even if it meant hiding in the attic for just a few days or hours. I was so affected by the trauma I experienced, I wet the bed until I was 13. One time, when I was around that age, I even stole my foster parents’ expensive bicycle, riding 32 miles on a cold December morning in urine- soaked pajamas just so I could get home.

I had many questions: why would I go to a family if I had one of my own? Would they take care of me? Would I switch schools? My emotions were all over the place — I was angry at my mother for letting me go without trying to get me back, sad because my actions caused all of this, happy to be experiencing new surroundings. I was confused and ultimately broken, because it seemed like everyone had given up on me.

There should have been more home checks to see if the houses were safe. Some homes didn’t have adequate food, and a lot of these parents who were supervising kids weren’t stable themselves. One time I was made to switch homes after being settled for 7 or 8 months because the foster parent was involved in some kind of realtor-embezzling scheme. Seven months of schooling, friends and stability, all down the drain. And I remember a home where I roomed with an infant, made to watch and feed the child while the parents attended church on a daily basis.

You could tell off the bat when the parents would be fostering children as a “job” and when they genuinely wanted to give a child a better future. I experienced all kinds of homes, met many people from different ethnicities and cultures, ate microwavable ramen with one family and enjoyed prime rib on a boat with another.

At the age of 14 my life permanently changed for the better. I was moved a few hundred miles away to a foster home in a small suburb where I spent most of my teenage years doing just that, being a teenager. At first I messed up all the time. I was angry and I still missed my family. But my foster mother, Connie, took the time to teach my foster brothers and me valuable things like cooking, writing and how to find employment. I have to admit, she taught me how to be a man. Without the stability of that home I don’t know where I would be today. We need more foster parents like her. Being sent to her home was a miracle; looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Eventually, between Connie, my school friends, sports and other positive supports, I felt myself changing. Without those people who stepped up I can honestly say I don’t think I would be alive today. Others aren’t. Over the years I have met hundreds of foster children like myself. A few have committed suicide. Others are in prison.

I had to go above and beyond to get where I am at today. I worked countless nights, knocked on numerous doors and drove many miles to become a mental health counselor. I now help other at-risk kids, and continue to deal with people who struggle with the PTSD, alcoholism and depression, as my parents once had. After all I’ve endured I can say I once was a foster child, and I am absolutely okay with that.

One love.

Published on May 11, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.