When Children’s Rights Board Member Darryl “DMC” McDaniels recommended honoring Rosie Perez with our Children’s Rights Champion Award, he was on to something.
We already knew about Rosie’s incredible artistic and philanthropic work — but only when she spoke at our annual benefit did we learn details about her childhood spent as a ward of the state of New York.
Now Rosie is sharing those experiences in her new book, “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (with Great Hair).”
In her memoir, Rosie recounts how, at just 3 years old, her mentally-ill mother took her from her loving aunt and put her in a Catholic home for boys and girls in Westchester. She describes the home as a “campuslike compound,” where she got a solid education but was hit and deprived food as punishment and often felt scared and confused. “No one tucked us in. No one kissed us good-night. No one told us they loved us and they’d see us in the morning,” she writes.
At 8, she was moved further north to a group home run by the church, where a string of caregivers moved in and out. One “group home parent” — whom Rosie says she “never wanted to be alone with” — left after a girl reported he raped her, Rosie writes. Rosie was also sent to another group home, where the girls fought viciously with each other. And things weren’t any easier when she visited her mother’s house — she says her mother physically abused her, and her half-brother tried to molest her.
Rosie spent about a decade in state care, before she was finally allowed to move back in with her loving aunt at 14. She credits her aunt, father and supportive counselors and a nun with believing in and encouraging her.
“Listen to me. You can make it!” she recalls Sister Mary-Grace telling her. “I knew it when I first laid eyes on you. Study hard, be good, and get yourself out of here … You must stay focused. You must do that for yourself.” Clearly Rosie did, though she constantly heard about those who couldn’t.
“Some kids whose parents took them back permanently … couldn’t readjust, or were subjected to abuse. They would end up on the streets, in jail, or even back at the Home …” she writes. “Some who … were released into society once they turned eighteen with no one to go to, didn’t always do well either. Post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological factors would hit them as well — hard. They would end up on the streets too, or drug addicts, or emotionally disabled … This haunted me.”
Rosie was one of the kids who made it, but her experiences left her struggling with clinical depression and PTSD,something she kept close to her chest for years.
“I didn’t really want to write about this story of mine, yet felt like it was a responsibility that I couldn’t avoid,” Rosie says. “I held back because I didn’t have the emotional strength to lay out the years of abuse for the entire world to see. But I’m now ready to share my journey, communicate how good it feels to no longer live in fear of what others may think, and move on.”
Though Rosie experienced state care years ago, her account mirrors many of the issues Children’s Rights is still fighting to improve in child welfare systems across the United States. Through our comprehensive reform campaigns, we compel states to make foster care safer, move kids between placements less often, and put fewer children in institutions and more in family-like settings. We also ensure kids spend less time in care and are safely reunited with relatives or placed in supportive families more quickly.
“When Rosie opened up about her childhood at the Children’s Rights benefit last fall, we were moved by all she had overcome and by her passion to make things better for kids today,” said Sandy Santana, Chief Operating Office at Children’s Rights. “Now everyone can hear her story — and discover what life can be like for kids in state care.”