I once lived in an overcrowded, roach infested, public housing apartment in Astoria, Queens. From her lack of concern, you would think my foster mom enjoyed the roaches’ company. I certainly didn’t, and so I reported my discomfort to my social worker. The home was shut down, and my foster brother, Elijah, and I moved to a new one.
Expecting better accommodations, I was surprised to find that the grass wasn’t as green as I had hoped. In our new home, I could always count on there being a glistening cold bottle of Smirnoff Ice in the fridge. And one day, out of curiosity, I took a sip. It tasted just like a stronger version of lemonade, to me. Who knew something so fruity could bring the demon out of my foster mom?
“You a**holes. You brought the fu**ing roaches in my house,” she would slur from the sides of her mouth in between sips. Elijah laughed. I didn’t find it funny. Yet, it continued…*sip sip slur slur*. I was 11 and Elijah was 14.
Our new foster mom was a librarian by day, a verbally abusive alcoholic at night, and one heck of a liar. Just like in the other home, I spoke up about my discomfort to my social worker. An “investigation” ensued and somehow the culprit turned out to be me. I was called a liar and was sent back to live in her home. Thankfully, the abusive incidents subsided, but the damage was done. No more Christmas presents or birthday gifts for me.
So how did I deal, you may wonder. It had been two years since I was put in foster care because of my birth mom’s own addiction to drugs, and this home was my third placement. I was exhausted and ready to go back to my mother. I was already traumatized and re-traumatized in the care of those who were supposed to make it all better.
The psychiatric hospital was my escape from the madness. I acted out frequently, threatening to kill myself and doing anything I knew would land me back in the hospital. I found the nurses and the frequent activities to be more comforting than my reality back “home.” The nurses were more consoling than my foster mom. They frequently checked my vitals and made sure I had enough supplies for arts and crafts. Simply put, they cared.
In addition to the hospital visits, I was inundated with medication that was supposed to help control my behavior. But instead of helping, it caused me to gain weight and often left me drowsy.
While these experiences were undoubtedly horrifying, it is because of them, and the injustices I have witnessed since my emancipation, that I have been working tirelessly on behalf of kids in foster care.
I recently worked at a summer camp where many children took psychotropic medication. I saw a boy, who coincidentally shared my name, called out of arts and crafts to take his medication. Michael had been acting like a typical 8 year old, and actively participating in the activities. But the medication changed all of that. When he returned from the nurse, there was a noticeable difference in his energy. He was subdued and not as alert. Even if it was only for a moment, he missed out on a piece of his childhood.
In that moment, I wished there was a way I could directly inform the doctor about what I witnessed. And so I decided to work on a website that would improve communication around the mental health treatment of children in foster care. I am in the process of creating Mind the GaP, which can be found at www.mtgap.org. The site will give doctors direct feedback from teachers, camp counselors and others who work with children in foster care for extended periods of time. With the feedback, I hope doctors will be better able to provide more comprehensive symptom assessment and side-effect management.
Foster care is undoubtedly a complex, multi-layered system. But today, I am taking the pledge to solve one problem, hoping my efforts, along with those of many other advocates and reformers, will improve the system for disadvantaged children everywhere. Our efforts can be greatly enhanced with your help. Consider lending a hand, because our children’s lives and livelihoods depend on it.
Published on May 7, 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.