The Journey

By Demetrius Napolitano

Demetrius largeLast October, I turned 21 and aged out of the system that had raised me – for better or for worse – for 20 years and 10 months of my life.  Growing up, my hopes and dreams for stability and a “forever family” – something all children need and are entitled to – were constantly thwarted by multiple foster care placements, broken promises and a failed adoption.

I was placed into foster care due to severe neglect and drug abuse in my home.  The first several years of my life, moving from home to home, are still a blur. I remember being tied up in the basement of a foster home, and being forced to walk across hot rice.  For years I thought this was a dream, but my older brother told me it was real … these were some of the first memories of my childhood.

When I turned 10, my birth mother died of cancer.  While she was on her death bed, Mrs. Johnson, who had already adopted my older brother and me, promised that she would protect and take care of us. After three years of enduring non-stop abuse, I ran away, then was put back into the system. It felt like a repeat of losing my biological parents. I blamed myself for everything. And I was angry.

My self-confidence plummeted and any feelings of self-worth I had left were ripped out from under me.  The resentment I carried towards the Johnsons left me unable to trust. I started acting out and getting into a lot of trouble, my way of coping with the pain and anger. My actions led to me being placed in a non-secure juvenile detention center for 3 months.

Just as I was about to lose all hope, my life completely changed.  It was the day my social worker, Ms. Toni Ince, told me: “Demetrius, you will leave me before I leave you.” A feeling of security and reassurance began to permeate like never before. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and that is true. But it takes one person to change the trajectory of a child’s life. My social worker was that one person.

I started working hard and graduated high school with honors. I was one of three to speak in front of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and soon after received a full scholarship to St. John’s University to get my Associates. I recently was accepted to NYU, my dream school, to finish my undergrad.  I became a public speaker for child welfare organizations like Lawyers for Children, The Jamel Robinson Child Reform Initiative, the New York State Citizens Coalition for Children and Children’s Rights.

With accomplishments piling up, I felt great, but there was something missing—a family. In the 6 years since juvenile detention, I lived in approximately 25 foster care placements. Some homes weren’t supportive. Some were even abusive.  Others didn’t last because I would not give them a chance. I was terrified of possibly being rejected and would leave a family before they had a chance to leave me. I would test my foster parents and siblings until they kicked me out.  Time after time, they did.

Until I found the Greens. I was placed with them when I was 19. After every argument I would tell my foster father, “Go ahead, call the agency. Tell them you want me to leave.” He would always say, “No. If you want to call them, then call them, but I’m not going to. I don’t want you to leave.”  With time, I finally believed him, and I know in my heart that they will always be a part of my “forever family.”

In April 2014, a mentor introduced me to John and Katie Napolitano, a couple who had already committed to two brothers in foster care. The months went by, and one evening they told me to hold out my hands. Inside they put the keys to their home, alongside a key chain with the letter “D.”  “Demetrius, we want you to know that you always have a home, and just like the Greens, we are your forever family.” In that moment, I sensed something that my past had never allowed me to feel: peace. Inspired to give adoption another chance, I asked John and Katie to adopt me—and they said yes.

There was one other thing I needed to heal—to reconcile with Mrs. Johnson. Every time I returned to her home I was rebuffed; my eyes would meet with the pavement as I tried to fight back the tears. I decided to return with my hand offered in love and forgiveness. I told her I was sorry, that I would never give up on her and she should not have given up on me. Before I knew it, we both were crying. As I walked away, she called out, “Demetrius, I am proud of you. Whatever you are doing, continue, because you are making your mother proud.”

Walking to the train that afternoon I learned a valuable lesson: Through faith and forgiveness even the past can be healed.

Published on May 12, 2016 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.