Reality of Aging Out

Tanya Cooper large-newestI never thought I would say it, but you must go through something in order to gain experience for your true calling. Going through foster care affected my life by making me stronger.

My mom was an alcoholic and heroin addict who would eventually die from her addiction. She would lose track of time and leave us alone for long periods. She would think, “Oh, I left the pancake batter there for them a few hours ago … they have enough to eat.” In reality it would have been weeks, and we couldn’t cook because the electricity had been turned off — we had to add water and drink the batter. Eventually my aunt called Child Protective Services because the skin on my bottom was eaten so badly by roaches and mice. That’s how the state got involved.

I went into foster care at age 5 with a sister who is three years older than me, and my younger brothers, Mark and Robert. Rob and I were the only ones who stayed together. Mark, who was a newborn when we entered care, got adopted when he was around 3. I remember the caseworkers telling us, “Say goodbye to your brother … He’s young enough to forget about everything, to forget about all of this and have a normal life.” We were like, “Why would he want to forget about us?” I remember feeling, “Oh, it CAN get worse?” We thought that the worst was being taken from mom. I’ve never reconnected with him; I’ve been looking for him forever.

I also was separated from my sister after she tried to protect me from three boys in one of our first foster homes. She landed in a group home where a group of girls held her down and burned her with cigarettes. We used to visit her until she started running away. She had to get out of there. She grew up on the streets.

In many ways I had a more positive experience in care. But I endured years of sexual abuse by two older foster brothers (I called them foster monsters). My rapes were treated lightly, covered up. When I received my records years later, they said, “Tanya is experimenting with her foster brothers.” They never mentioned I was used as a sex slave for years.

It’s somewhat ironic that I faced sexual abuse in foster care. Though my mother had major issues, she never let men near us — my aunt and I suspected that she had been molested herself, because she was extremely protective in that way. I could have been adopted by my foster family, but chose not to because they had adopted one of my abusers. So there I was, aging out of care for the first time, without even a bank account. I was given the option to “go to the military” or sign myself back into state care and go to a girls’ residence. I chose the residence.

This place actually saved my life! Sister Lillian, a nun at St. Helena’s, and a counselor, Gamilah, taught me how to love myself, how to turn pain into art. I discovered my many hidden talents and learned that I can help others going through similar experiences. I also learned not to focus on the bad things that happen but the good things–like living in a neighborhood where I no longer faced the challenges of Brooklyn group homes, and having a family that never called me “foster” – most of my friends had no idea that I was in state care.

I aged out for a second time at 21, got a modeling contract and later went to Paris to model. I am thankful for those days as I discovered the world! I also found good people who taught me how to live a life with meaning.

For years I was used to hotels and traveling, so I never set up a permanent home until my first daughter was born. She inspired me to earn my Bachelors of Applied Science from NYU. And Rob inspired me to help abused and neglected kids. I wrote Surviving Foster Care and Making It Work For You, to give advice to youth in foster and group homes. I also started FosterKidsUnite, Inc., to help aged-out foster youth and those without parents who are seeking higher education. We provide scholarships and send gift boxes during December exams.

My best advice to kids going through foster care: Know that you have a divine purpose and everything you experience will make you stronger — IF you maintain your sanity and get therapy. Even if you’re going through abuse, applaud yourself for sticking around and not bailing out on life. Once you get proper help, this too shall pass and then you can help others heal with your talents or gifts.
Sister Lillian and Gamilah helped me break my angry shell and get to the good of Tanya, of me. You can’t hold onto anger or past hurt. Talk or write about it, release it and let it go! The best thing my foster mom ever said to me: “Sometimes your parents are only a vehicle to get you here!” You will meet many who will help carry you through, but you must do the work to get to your destination.

Published on May 28, 2015 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.