Some of us grew up with two parents. Some of us had one, or three, or four. Some of us were raised by grandparents or aunts or uncles or siblings. We all know that family can take infinite forms, but what happens to kids when their biological family is incapable of taking care of them (at least according to the state government)? In the U.S., in many cases, those kids end up in the foster system, where a valiant army of social workers, case officers, lawyers, law guardians, judges, and foster parents do their best to provide safe, healthy temporary homes for them. But the foster system, like any family, is far from perfect. Having spent time in foster care makes it much less likely that you will get a high school diploma or a job, and much more likely that you will serve prison time or become homeless.
It takes incredible strength to survive and flourish when the odds are stacked against you. Here are four amazing girls who defied those grim statistics. Cristina, Mitsuka, Tamar, and Kiana all spent their teenage years in the foster system; they also share an astonishing capacity for forgiveness, breathtaking resilience, and an irrepressible ambition to define their own lives, rather than let them be defined by what’s been done to them.
Photos by Sandy. Stories as told to Rose.
When I was little, Mom used to leave us alone, sometimes for two or three days, sometimes for weeks at a time. I got used to it. One night when she wasn’t there, the cops came and got [me and my siblings] dressed and took us to the ACS [Administration for Child Services] building. They check your body all over; it’s very uncomfortable. I felt bad for my siblings. My brother was two and my sister was five. It was worse for them because they needed Mom. I needed her too, but I was already 10. I found out later that when my mom was arrested, she told the cops that we were home alone. So she snitched on herself.
They placed us at a stranger’s house. I was a well-behaved kid, but my siblings weren’t. The lady we were placed with was a cop, so she’d pull out her handcuffs and threaten us. It was terrible.
My mom got clean and we went home. But she eventually got back into drugs, and it got to the point again where she’d disappear for a week. I was fine, but my siblings were young. It’s hard to see kids go through that. Especially when you’re also a kid.
I started missing school to watch them. One day I had had enough. I said to her, “I’m not gonna watch them anymore. You say you’re gonna come back, and then you don’t come back for days or weeks. It’s too much.” She said, “You don’t want to take care of them, so leave.” I was telling her, “No, no,” and she physically took me out of the apartment. I was wearing a tank top and some shorts and that’s it. I left and never came back. It was summertime and school was almost out, and I didn’t know where to go. It was four in the morning and I was just walking around and sitting in the park. I saw a girl I knew and she said, “Come with me, you can stay in my house.” So it became like that. I just went from house to house to house.
I didn’t see my siblings anymore. I know that they eventually got taken by ACS. At that time I wasn’t thinking about them. I regret that now. I left at age 13 and didn’t think about what would happen to my family. I was a person who was very quiet and very shy and my mom just got me worked up to the point where I needed to go. ➛
I knew girls who did the stupidest things for cash or clothes. I never did that. The easiest thing for me was to watch kids or wash clothes [for money]. But I didn’t have an ID or Social Security number. Eventually, I returned to the foster care system so I could get my work permit. When you’re placed with someone, they generally take you for the cash. [The state government gives foster parents a monthly payment for a child’s care. The amount varies depending on the needs of each kid, and on the state they live in.] It’s a nice amount. But it makes you feel like everything is about money or their selfish interests. You think that a person genuinely wants to take care of you, but in reality it’s not what it is. It’s just like being on the street.
When you’re staying with a family and you start to get attached, situations can go negative. I didn’t want to be around that. Any little thing could make me go. I get uncomfortable very fast.
Sometimes at people’s houses bad things would happen. It messed me up. I don’t want to be dramatic, but you never forget, no matter how strong you are. But I just keep moving forward. I’m very emotionless, stiff. Very nonchalant. Not showing [emotion] helps me to not feel it. I just put a block on it, and that’s it. When you get hurt too many times or everything is negative in your life all the time, you have to find a way around that, or you’re going down.
Some people use their [hardship] as an excuse. You have to have a thick skin. I don’t want to say, “Grow some balls”—it sounds harsh—but people are too emotional. What keeps me together is thinking about my brother. I would never want him to see me in a bad situation. I’m the only person who can show him that you can get out of this OK.
I don’t hold anything against my mother. The twist of the story is that she is doing good, and now she needs help. She’s been clean for years, and she’s trying to make up for what she did. I feel like I have a family now, because now when I come home, my mom treats me like I’m a little kid. She goes, “Oh, I’m gonna make food for you now,” or she does my laundry. She does everything that she didn’t do before. I guess she feels like she has to make up for it. I’m not going to say I’m over it, but I forgave her a long time ago. Now my siblings are the ones who will never let her forget what happened.
I was born in Haiti. I left my mother there in 2007 to live with my father in the U.S. I didn’t really know him before he brought me here. My stepmother and I didn’t get along, and my father wasn’t looking out for me, so I came to New York to stay with my uncle. But then I wasn’t getting along with my uncle’s wife. If she asked me to do something and I didn’t do it, she would start beating me. So my uncle asked me to leave, even though I had nowhere else to go.
My family is kind of two-faced. One day they will smile at you, and the next they talk about you behind your back. I was 15, 16, and they didn’t care about kicking me out in the middle of the night and making me sleep on the street. If I had money then, I would have bought a ticket back to Haiti and never come back.
My father had brought me here but then didn’t take care of me. I was in the street doing whatever I wanted to. I didn’t get money from my family or anything like that. I was only 16 years old. No one was helping me. I was all alone.
I ended up moving in with my boyfriend, who was 19. I was 17. My father called the police and they called my boyfriend and started to threaten him that I had to go back [to Haiti]. I went to my uncle’s house, and he called the cops and told them I was crazy and a liar. When I lived with him before, I had been depressed and had threatened to kill myself. I stayed in the hospital for two weeks, and then did therapy for a few months. I was going through a lot. ➛
The cops took me to Kings County Hospital to examine me, but I wasn’t crazy. When they looked for my uncle to take me home, he was gone. It’s like he wanted to leave me there for good. When they called him, nobody answered. They called my father and nobody answered. So they called ACS. ACS came and they took me that same night. I was there for a night, and after that they placed me in a home.
They placed me with an American woman and her Haitian husband. I was thinking that we’re gonna have a good relationship because he’s from Haiti too, and so he’ll understand everything. But after a couple of months he started complaining about me. I was doing normal teenage stuff like talking to my boyfriend, but [my foster father] was really strict. He told the caseworker he don’t want me there. The wife couldn’t do nothing about it. She cried and said she likes me and would like for me to stay, but he didn’t want it.
At that time I was in 9th grade, age 17. They moved me to another home with a woman from Trinidad. She didn’t feed me, and there was barely food in the house. I would just go to a friend’s and eat every day after school. [My caretaker] didn’t give me any money—she was supposed to give me $80 a month plus about $300 every three months for a clothing allowance. I knew the foster agency paid her that money, but when I discussed it with my caseworker, nothing changed.
When I found out I was pregnant, I told my boyfriend. He said something about an abortion, but I didn’t want that, so we just stopped talking. I moved to an alternative maternity shelter where I finished 9th grade. I liked it there. I made a couple of friends. It was peaceful. All I wanted was relax and not think about all the family problems and bad things and moving from home to home. ➛
I gave birth to my son, Ricky, in 2010, when I was 17. I moved to a nice home where I had my own room for the first time. I was supposed to go back to the high school, but because I didn’t have anyone to watch Ricky, I missed a lot of days. Eventually I had to drop out of high school. ACS was supposed to help me with childcare, but it didn’t go through, and when it finally did it was in the middle of the year.
I was discharged from foster care six months ago, when I got this apartment. I had taken a home-health-aide class and the class for the GED, and I was doing good for myself. I got a job and I started to save money. I’m trying to get my GED and see if I can get a better job. Ricky’s father comes and sees him sometimes. He barely helps with money because he’s not working. But as long as I am taking good care of my son, I don’t care.
Even now that I’m in my own place doing my own thing, it’s still kind of hard for me that I don’t have anybody to call. I just have to deal with it. Everything would be easier if my mother was around. She’s still in Haiti. She doesn’t have much money, and none of her kids really have fathers. I send her money and visit her when I can. I am trying to bring her here. I am kind of the head of my family. I want to help them all have better lives.
I have been through so much, and I don’t want my son to go through the same thing. I’ve been to foster homes where I’ve seen my foster sisters give birth to their children and then have them placed in the system because they weren’t taking care of them. I never want to be separated from Ricky. I want him to know his mother loves him and cares for him. I don’t want him to feel how I felt.
I have always had a smart mouth. And I never took no shit from nobody. I’d always talk back to teachers. One day I got into a fight in religion class. Some kids were teasing me and I said, “If you don’t stop, I’m gonna stab you.” Religious class is not the best place for that—you’re talking about “What would Jesus do”! My teacher told me I was gonna get suspended. I knew I went too far.
After I got suspended, my mom gave me the silent treatment and then a beating. Things were already strained at home. My father has bad dementia and was in a nursing home after his third or fourth stroke. My grandmother came to live with us—she is blind. I cooked, I cleaned, I made sure the aprons were pressed. My responsibilities started when my father had his first stroke. I was 9 or 10, in fifth grade. I was always eager to show people that I could hold my own. But somewhere along the line it stopped being fun and started being a necessity to do these things at home. There was a lot on my plate.
I was at my wit’s end. So I tried to kill myself. I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I just didn’t want to be around anyone. A part of me felt bad because I’d be leaving behind my father. But at the end of the day I was just like, I’ll see him another time. My father was the only thing that mattered to me and that wasn’t a reason to live anymore. I just didn’t care. ➛
There was this guidance counselor that had gained my trust. I went to her in the morning before school and told her what [pills] I had taken. I can’t describe the scared look in her eyes. All she did was hug me. I didn’t get how serious the situation was [before that]. I knew it would raise so many red flags. She tried to get in touch with my mom for a good minute. My mom didn’t answer her phone. The police came and got my mom and she told them I was just craving attention.
That guidance counselor visited me in the hospital more times than my mom did. ACS launched an investigation. You don’t know how it messes with your head when you are in a psych unit and your mom doesn’t even bring you food or clothing. She doesn’t bring you the necessities you need. It really just makes you appreciate certain things so much more.
I had experienced every type of abuse possible from members of my family. It’s ironic: Family court is supposed to bring families together, but it tore ours apart. In court, my mom said that I was making everything up. Some things in life you cannot fake. You cannot fake blood test results. You cannot fake rape kits. It either happens or it doesn’t.
After I got out of the hospital, I was very angry. The sight of my mother annoyed the hell out of me. The roles kind of changed. Before she was the angry, abusive type. I changed from being a passive person to being an angry person. I hated it, because it made me feel really shitty to degrade other people. ➛
My mom’s boyfriend came to live with us. I was like, I have a whole problem trusting men, and you’re gonna bring this man who’s not even my father to come live with me? So I started acting out. I was very paranoid. Any female who’s been through what I’ve been through, they don’t want any male around them, they want a safe place.
He told me I couldn’t use his microwave. It was very tedious fight, but I was so angry. To this day I don’t know what I got arrested for. It was the most traumatic thing ever. I was like, Never again I didn’t have my papers, I wasn’t a documented alien in this country yet. I was like, Oh my god, they are going to deport me, I am going to have to live in Guyana again. I am Americanized, I really don’t want to go back to Guyana!
ACS petitioned for neglect. I got a court-appointed lawyer and a social worker. I had an order of protection against me, so I couldn’t live in that house anymore, and I was still underage. In foster care I have a roof over my head, a place to sleep, and a place to take a shower, foster siblings to take care of.
At the end of the day, friends won’t be there for you. As much as family messes with you, family will forever be there with you. With you but not necessarily for you. As many troubles as I might have with you, I’m depending on you to do right by me. Because you’re my mother.
She comes into the supermarket where I work to do her MoneyGrams. My manager pushed me to reach out to her. Every time I spoke about her, she saw the anger and the hate and the pain behind everything. I have to try to move on. She made a mistake, but I have to move on. I have to prepare to be by myself.
My first time I went into foster care, I was 13. My [birth] parents used to beat me a lot. I went to school after my dad had beaten me and I had welts all over my body. The teacher saw it and she called it in.
When someone calls ACS, they remove you before finding out if it’s the truth. They took me to the ACS building on First Avenue. I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to be at home with my friends, so I kept leaving, and they kept coming to get me, like at 3 AM when I was sleeping. I cursed out my social worker. They thought I was a bad influence on my other siblings, so they put me in a group home. At that point, my mom was visiting me, and things were better. We were at peace. My dad moved to the basement. I moved home, but then my mom and I started fighting again.
ACS came and got me. They didn’t have a placement for me, so I stayed [in the ACS building]. That’s when I caught my first charge as a juvenile. We were in class, and I was acting up. A security guy came and asked me to get my books and he said something to me and I said something back, and the next thing I know I was beating him. He had some type of police rank , so I got locked up in juvie [a juvenile detention center].
I went to Spofford [Juvenile Detention Center]. I was there for two weeks. I hated it. So depressing. Then I went to Crossroads, where you await your trial. I stayed there for a year, until my trial was over. It was like real jail. You couldn’t wear regular clothes—you had to wear a jumper. My mom visited me like twice the whole year I was there.
I really thought that with all my time served, they were going to let me go home after a year and six months. They held me all that time and then I was found guilty. It was so stupid. I went to a detention center in Brentwood, in Long Island, which was all right. I still got into trouble. I’m kind of a leader, so I manipulated the other girls into doing stuff. One Christmas, we had a riot. I started it by refusing to go to bed at 9 PM. I said, “We all gonna sit here in a circle and crochet instead of going to our rooms.” But then when the guards came, everyone got really crazy. They were breaking windows and beating the guards, and I’m like, “Oh my god, these girls are just bugging.” When the security guard watched the tapes, she said to me, “You sitting here watching everything and you behind everything.” ➛
I was at Brentwood for two years, and then I started to wonder why I was still there. I got a good lawyer and went back to court. They said that because I kept misbehaving and getting into fights they gave me holds—extensions on my time. Every time I argued I got 10 days’ extension on my sentence, without me knowing. I also found out that I didn’t go home as soon as I was supposed to because my mother didn’t want to go come get me. I was 16—what was I gonna do, stay there until I was 21? I was like, What does she think this is, a babysitting service? That didn’t make any sense to me.
I was furious. It was because of her I was there. Yes, I did the crime, but I just feel like if she was being more of a mother, I wouldn’t have to be in the ACS building in the first place. If the case was against my dad, why was I the one who had to leave?
When they released me, my mom didn’t even come get me. They had to drive me home in handcuffs and shackles, “just in case you do something stupid.” I came home in my uniform, then packed up my stuff and left. I enrolled in Job Corps, but I didn’t like it, so I got myself kicked out by telling a teacher I was going to throw her kids out the window.
When I got home, my mom was mad, but I didn’t care, because she was always mad. We started fighting again, even fist-to-fist fighting. One time she let her friend hit me and when he got off, I went right for her. I’m like, “You gonna let a man put his hands on me? What type of mother is you?” I know you’re not supposed to hit your mother, but I was so mad because that wasn’t the first time she let a man put his hands on me. My dad did it.
I met my dad when I was seven. We went to Antigua, and my parents got married. He was a pirate—not the kind of pirate you see on TV, but those kinds of pirates that go to countries and steal gold or oil. At first, I was happy to meet him. But after a while, my mom asked him when he was going to start beating me. Because she used to beat me when she was little. It was like a rage she had, an uncontrollable rage. She could never get enough. I was used to that. But I wasn’t used to a man hitting me—that’s more powerful. He would use one of those heavy-duty leather belts that you use for construction. After a while I got bigger and I was like, I’m not gonna tolerate this no more. So I started fighting back. He tried to beat my little sister too, but I wouldn’t let him, because she was only five.
You ever read the story of The Child Called It? About a child who was beat mercilessly? A lot of things that he went through, I went through. My mom never understood what she did wrong. She always blamed me. She could never take responsibility for what she did. ➛
At my mom’s house, there was no electricity, no fridge for the food. There was no heat. My social worker told me to go stay with my dad. I was like, You pure idiot, don’t you know about the cases against him? But I didn’t have a choice, so I stayed with him for a month. Then I told my dad’s girlfriend about his other kids in the U.S. and in Panama, and he got really mad. He took the TV out of the living room and disconnected the phone. You just don’t do that to a teenager! You can take away the TV, but not the phone! Oh my gosh, I was so upset. I got into a rage and turned into the old me. I kicked open his bedroom door and I took ammonia and poured it all over. I destroyed his room. I went back to juvie for that.
After that, I wasn’t supposed to return to the house, because there was an order of protection. Where else was I supposed to go? And I had just found out that I was pregnant. I had too much pride at the time to tell my baby’s father I needed help. He knew to some extent how bad it was, but I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the [ACS] office and I said, “My baby’s father’s not gonna support me and this baby.” They drove me to some place in the Bronx, a maternity group home. I gave birth to my son three months early. No one in my family came to visit while I was in the hospital. Not my mother, not my grandmother, not my baby’s father.
I applied for housing when I was 17. My son was special-needs, so it was only three months before they called me back and offered me this apartment. I haven’t talked to my mom in a year. My grandmother hasn’t come. I haven’t met a more dysfunctional family. My sister is 12, and it’s like a sequel. Whatever I went through, she’s going through. She’s watching the kids and cleaning. I think they are all getting abused still. My mother’s belt don’t discriminate. I want to get my sister out of that house. Even though I had bad times at the group homes, I would actually rather live there than at home with my mom.
Sometimes I love her, even now, through everything. I think about the mother she could have been, and the moments that we had that were good. But the stuff she do, to this day I can’t understand. It just don’t register in my head. Because now I am a mom, I couldn’t imagine doing that to my son, or anybody doing that to my son. So it’s not that hard to imagine raising my son and avoiding the mistakes my mom made. I don’t want my son to struggle like I did. I refuse. ♦