As early as I can remember I knew what “the belt” meant. It meant my mom was drunk, angry and “Henry was going to get it.” My mother’s anger toward me was always transparent; I was a boy and men had done her wrong. For that I would pay. Verbal, emotional, and physical abuse highlighted my earliest memories. My sister was four years younger than me and did not experience the abuse.
My first experience in foster care was when I was 5. After beating me, mom returned to the bars leaving my sister and me alone, in an empty trailer, sleeping on cardboard boxes. A neighbor must have called the authorities. We were placed in foster care for a few weeks then returned home.
The next five years were filled with beatings, verbal and emotional assaults that shaved every ounce of my self-worth. When our mom was between jobs or boyfriends we would live with friends in Minneapolis, whom my sister and I called “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” I was safe, as they wouldn’t tolerate my mother beating me, but it never lasted long.
I was with mom on June 21, 1987, when I was beat with the belt to the point neighbors called the police. We were removed from her care again. I was placed in a shelter at St. Joseph’s Home for Children in South Minneapolis and my sister soon returned home. Because “Grandma” and “Grandpa” were not blood relatives, the court would not allow me to live with them.
In October, I went to a foster home. While I was safe from my mother’s physical abuse, her emotional abuse continued over the next three years – in our therapy sessions and during my weekend visits home. Eventually I told the judge that I did not want to see her.
For four years, I lived with the same foster family. I called them “mom” and “dad” and begged them to adopt me. One day, I returned to find my bags packed and was told I was “visiting” a potential new home. My feelings of self-worth and sense of belonging deteriorated completely. That weekend visit turned into my final foster home, where I would eventually age out of the system. I told my new foster parents that I would eat, sleep and shower at their home, but I would not consider them my family. The next three years I kept busy outside of the home – keeping busy has always been my coping mechanism.
Despite all this, I knew I deserved better. I wasn’t gifted academically, athletically or in the arts. I had to work hard for any success. One thing I did was surround myself with positive role models. They taught me that college would be an avenue to independence. Despite poor test scores and grades, I was accepted to one school my senior year.
My life changed the day I was dropped off on campus. I remember seeing my foster parents’ van drive away while other families hugged and kissed their kids. I believed I would never see them again. I was alone, and it was up to me to thrive or struggle. I dealt with lonely holidays by working. I had nowhere to live in the summers, so I worked as a camp counselor to put a roof over my head and make money.
Through a lot of hard work and commitment, I thrived in college. I earned journalism and theater scholarships, represented my school at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) marathon championships, was captain of the lacrosse team and graduated with honors. These successes started to rebuild my self-esteem. College was the best therapy!
My foster parents and social worker slowly weaved themselves back into my life. Over the past few years the woman that was my social worker and whom I thought I’d never see after high school graduation has earned a spot as “mom” in my heart.
Adult life hasn’t been without failure. I’ve been divorced, fired and made poor financial decisions. But the resilience built as a child prepared me for life as an adult. Last year I finally fulfilled two of my dreams. I graduated with an MBAand built my house. For the first time in my life I have somewhere permanent to live. I’m back in foster care, but now as a part of an organization’s leadership team. I call it “The family biz,” like so many foster alum who end up giving back as social workers, community leaders and foster parents themselves.
As foster youth we must overcome our challenges, surround ourselves with the right people, and build our own “family” with people that want the best for us and whom we can learn positive life skills from. We can’t let anyone stop us from following our dreams.
Published on May 20, 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.