How I Became a Foster Care Teen
Oh dear, it's here. I confess, I am not ready to tell this story. I'm never ready to tell this story. Sometimes it seems like I've said it until I'm blue in the face. Other times I feel like I've kept it a secret for half a decade. The truth is somewhere in between, I'm sure. But I will try to tell it with as much detail and honesty as I can. And I don't have any pictures or images to make it look prettier, so you'll just have to deal with a wall of very depressing text. Sorry.
To give you a slight idea of my surroundings: I grew up in a poverty-stricken area in Tennessee. We had a shed-like house which for much of my childhood had no electricity and no running water. We cooked our food on a wooden stove. We took baths in a tin basin. The Appalachian Foothills were in our backyard. My parents didn't work but made money in unconventional ways: gardening, hunting, selling pickled food (a staple when you have no electricity) cockfighting, and of course the production and selling of weed. They got welfare checks and food stamps. We had over 200 roosters (game roosters my dad used for cockfighting: interesting sidenote, he's fought Dolly Pardon's brother before) maybe five or six horses, and a pack of dogs used for guarding and hunting bears, boars, and deer, which was our primary source of meat.
This was my reality for years. At school, I was the lowest of the low. I was the awkward, buck-toothed poor kid from the woods and I had no friends. I had hand me down clothes. I was considered a charity case. Half the teachers didn't know what to do with me and half of them pitied me. I received no such pity from my classmates. For years I endured a lot of bullying, both at school and at home. Even though I had a little sister, I felt alone. Exhausted. I was constantly beaten down into a feeling of despondency. I don't remember anything making me happy in my younger years except books and drawing. But, fast forward to me at fifteen years old.
The Changing Point
Things had changed, because I was becoming my own person. I was a teenager--easy by no means--but I had no intention of sitting around and letting my dad hammer uselessness into my head the way he did my mother. We got in fist fights at least monthly; he broke my right ring finger in such a scuffle once. It's still never properly healed. He went into rages, destroying my books and artwork, and beating me, my sister, my dog, anything he could to try and convince me to back down from the fights. I never did. I tried to make it known that I wasn't afraid of him.
And then one morning, everything changed so suddenly it's still never sank in.
I had managed, despite my baggy and ugly clothing, greasy hair, and rabbit teeth, to find a boyfriend. My parents were furious, and began making plans for me to switch schools as soon as possible to get me away from this "threat." But before they ever got the chance, January 28 happened. On that morning, my sister Ariel and I, and my Dad, were piling into the pickup truck to go to school. She was in the middle, he driving, and I hopped up in the passenger seat. The door of the truck closed on my leg, so I flailed about for a bit trying to pull my leg inside. This sparked an instant barrage of screaming from my dad, who was convinced that I was "trying to jump inside to get to school to see your boyfriend."
The lunacy of it escapes me almost ten years later. I protested, he screamed some more, yelling about how I fell all over Ariel. Called me a bitch, and some other, worse things. The fight lasted several more minutes and then out of nowhere, he punched me in the face. He'd done it before and caught me unawares, but this one was a real mess. My nose was nearly broken; it began spewing blood. Both my top and bottom lips were busted and immediately began swelling up. My mouth was bleeding, my teeth had been knocked loose. For the rest of the car ride I covered my face and cried, while he continued to yell.
Finally we arrived at my high school. Still covered in blood and my mouth hurting too bad to talk, I just sobbed and walked into the cafeteria, where my friends, boyfriend and I "hung out" before class started. Everyone paused when they saw me crying, and when I finally pulled my hands away from my face I just remember seeing blood everywhere. Someone might have ran and gotten help or tissues, other people were talking to me, or hugging me--I really don't know. All I remember is seeing blood, and crying, and being surrounded by people. More people than ever. My dad had made a fatal error: other people got to witness his abuse, even if it was second-hand.
My favorite teacher in the entire world, Mrs. Montgomery, soon appeared. I don't know how long it took me to calm down, but the first thing I remember after regaining control of myself is her saying in a quiet tone, "Alex. You know I'm going to have to report this, don't you?"
The Safety Contract
At that point, I didn't care. I would've been happy living on the street. I didn't know what "reported" meant, but I learned minutes later. Cops swarmed the school. Detectives interviewed me and someone from the Department of Human Services inspected and photographed my wounds. I spent the entire exhausting day in the counselor's office repeating the story and answering questions about my living situation through two swollen lips and a sore nose. These caseworkers put their pea brains together and came up with what they thought was a grand plan. Let me explain it to you.
It was a "Safety Contract" that my parents and I, as well as DFS (Dept. of Family Services) would all sign and agree by law, to bind to. The contract details:
-I would be allowed to go to therapy for depression and abuse.
-My parents would be required to go to parenting classes.
-My parents would be required to go to anger management classes.
-I would need to keep a "C" average at school.
-DFS would maintain a safe and loving family environment and meet with us regularly.
When they showed me this, I literally laughed in their face, even with my busted lips. I shook my head and said in a really condescending voice, "You will never get my dad to sign that."
"Oh, yes we will," she responded with a smile. "We've taken your sister."
Apparently, while I was at school being interviewed by all these fucking idiots, other caseworkers and cops showed up at the elementary school, took my sister, transported her to the local courthouse, and called my parents and threatened to remove her from their custody unless they signed the contract. I was not only appalled, I was horrified. My ass was grass. I tried to explain this to several people. From what I heard, my dad had exploded into a fury and showed up at the courthouse with a gun, where my mother pleaded with him and signed the goddamn contract. Anything to get her little baby back. Since no one at the courthouse had been shot, I was pretty sure that I was going to be the moment I got back home.
I argued, nobody listened. I tried explaining that I knew my lunatic family far better than they did. I warned them that I might not be seen from again. Nobody took me seriously. All those bozo DFS employees kept saying, "Well, they HAVE to abide by the contract! They've already signed it!"
There was nothing for it but sign the shit myself, and go back home and await my death. So I signed it, and as I was walking to the bus, my friend Brice caught up with me. Brice was my best friend, my only source of relief, a person who understood me and actually defended me from the moment we'd become friends. January 28 is a special day because it was his birthday. As he walked me to my bus (to me, my execution bus) he assured me. "ANYTHING you need. Call me. Anytime. Whatever it is. I will help you." I could see the worry in his face, and it scared me, because Brice was always a lot stronger than me.
My Planned "Future"
Even though I always taunted my father with "I'm not scared of you" the truth was that I was really horrified. I was always scared of bruises, broken bones, being thrown out (which I was, many times, and had to sleep in trees to avoid coyotes) and all of the pain and suffering that comes with standing up to a bully. That day I was more scared than ever. And my parents were acting more strange than ever. Normally, they would've both attacked me the moment I walked in the door, beaten me to a bloody pulp, insulted me and screamed at me until they felt satisfied, but they were different. Calm, and almost happy-giddy with some secret knowledge that they shared with me.
They had begun to pull my school work. I was to be home schooled. I was to sleep outside (keep in mind, it's January) and be their servant. The garden work and animal maintenance they usually did would be my full-time job, and I was to cook and clean whenever they said. Since it was apparent I was "rebelling" they had also outlined a schedule for me to get "my ass whooped" which in their vocabulary translates to punched and hit with a leather belt until I bled. My dad was gleeful when he proclaimed I would be "so tired you have to sit down, but too bloody to be comfortable."
I think they anticipated a fight, but instead I turned to go do my "chore" of taking care of our 200 game roosters. It was a routine anyway, now one chore in a long list of farm work they considered my "punishment." So, I walked outside, grabbed my coat, and picked up the gallon jugs I used to refill the roosters' water dishes. It was already dark, again--January, around 6pm, and I had blanked out, going about the farm work with a probably really stupid look on my face. I finished my work in the dark, and then with nothing on my person but my coat, I left. I decided to walk to a neighbor's house--about a mile away--and ask to use their phone to call Brice. I had no idea what Brice could do to help me, but it was my only chance.
At some point during my walk, I heard my parents get in their truck and drive to our other property, where the horses were kept. It was customary of them to put off work until dark, so I figured I had plenty of time to buy. The neighbor I had hoped would help was horrified when he saw me on his porch. My dad's a little notorious. He declined my offer and told me to go back home. Irate, I did: I had to sneak past my parents themselves, since the properties were connected. I remember being in the dark and hearing my mother's voice, but I didn't want to know what she was saying.
When I opened the door, Ariel stood in the front of the house, eleven years old and FURIOUS. "MOM AND DAD KNOW YOU RAN AWAY!" she yelled, "THEY CALLED THE COPS ON YOU!"
I stood there, probably again with a stupid look on my face. Their sense of authority, their attitude, had been implemented perfectly on her. She was such a pretty little freckled blond kid, and she already had hate and misery stuffed down her throat so that she couldn't even be happy to see her sister. She was just furious that I had the guts to "show back up" at home after so blatantly running away. Like my parents, I think she expected a fight from me. Though I couldn't admit it until years after, I was so hurt by the way she greeted me at the door. I wanted her to hug me, tell me she missed me, ask me if I was okay. With me being fifteen and her being eleven, maybe that's asking too much. But I still stood there in the doorway with time ticking until my parents got back home--or until the police showed up.
I don't know why I left when I did. I think it was because I had no options left. That's what I tell people, anyway. The older I got, the less acceptable this half-life was for me, until one day it wasn't acceptable at all. I didn't feel strong or empowered. No holy ghost spoke to me. Nobody took me by the hand and said it would be all right--that has still never happened. My emotions, usually so strong and full of verve, were dulled to the point of my flame almost being extinguished. I had to get out of there. To my brain, it was life or death. I'm still conditioned to think that way. I don't know what would've happened if I hadn't left, and I try not to think about it.
Ariel yelled after me when I left; I have no idea what she said. I walked up the side road we lived on. I kept going. About 500 yards away, I hid behind an abandoned house and tried to collect my thoughts. A little reality set in here, but not much. What are you doing? You have to go back. You have nowhere to go. They'll just find you and take you back anyway. Just go home. They'll understand when you explain. Before I could reasonably start to talk myself out of this outlandish idea, I heard car engines starting up all along the road we lived on, and throughout the "holler" in general. I would later find out from my sister that my dad had called all the neighbors and told them I was missing; a neighborhood search party had started.
I ran, through fields and backyards, having no idea where I was going in the pitch black, using the headlights of people searching for me as the only light I had. By this time, it was perhaps 9pm. Not far from where I was, but seemingly an eternity away, was a gas station that stayed open late. With seven or eight neighbors and family members running the few main roads up and down looking for me, I had no chance of making it to that place before I was found. But something caught my eye eventually: a nearby landscaping job in progress had left a large overturned tree in someone's yard, with an almost six-foot deep hole filled with dirt and chopped up tree branches right beside it. I dashed across the road and sort of fell into the hole, laying on my back. It was literally three or four feet away from the road, but I thought the large tree trunk would hide any visibility of the hole.
I could hear my dad's truck engine. I could identify several neighbors' cars as well. They passed right by me, several times. At one point, my dad and one of his cousins passed each other and stopped their trucks to have a small chat--I have no idea if they were talking about me, because the truck engine drowned out their voice--but they were possibly fifteen, twenty feet away. My plan was to sit there until they gave up. Police cars went by too, with a spotlight. Nobody found me. They all seemed to head in a different direction, but I was not going to take risks. I stubbornly sat there on the firewood, looking at the sky and still void of most coherent thought.
It started to rain. Then sleet. If you have never had the luxury of sleet cutting into your face as sharp as a knife and cold as the Arctic, then kudos to you. I don't miss the sensation. Lying in that ditch, even with my heavy winter coat, I got so sick I was barely able to speak when I had court the next week (but that's another story.) Everyone marveled that I hadn't caught pneumonia. Later it was established that I had, and they offered me cough syrup to chug at my court hearing. Either way, I laid there until I heard nothing but the occasional car engine, and I bolted from my little hidey hole and toward the gas station.
I had no money for a payphone. One of my classmates was pumping gas; I frantically asked him if he had fifty cents. He stared at me oddly, seeming to understand the situation was dire, but shook his head; he had no change. I ran into the gas station and half begged, half demanded to use their phone to call my friend. Since Brice was a town away, I called another friend--Melissa--who was 17, had her own car, and knew where to come get me. She told me she'd leave immediately, and to wait right there.
The thought that my parents might be calling the gas station to find out if I had been there crossed my mind, and from the strange way the cashier looked at me I thought they might have already called. With my long black hair, big puffy blue marshmallow coat, and Worley teeth and height I wasn't really hard to describe. So I went outside to wait for Melissa. Standing under the bright floodlights of the gas station seemed stupid, but luckily off to the side of the business an old monument to a moonshine still (you can't make this shit up) was hidden in shadow. It was good enough; I climbed onto the structure and sat up there like freaking Batman stalking bad guys. I was hidden, but every little noise scared me. I think a lot of my PTSD comes from that time in my life. I was surrounded by darkness, certain no one would look for me by a moonshine still, and every time a car door slammed I jumped and tried not to scream. My imagination seemed to kick in full force, warning me of the horrors that would happen if my Dad found me.
Melissa came. I got in her car. We drove to her house. She fed me chicken liver with mustard, the first real food I'd had since lunch at school (if you consider that real food.) I called the police and told them I was safe, and to please stop looking for me. Knowing my dad, they consented, happy to not have to deal with him for a night, and then I called Brice. I can't remember if it was past midnight or not (and thus still his birthday) but he and his family drove out in by this time a torrent of rain, to get me and have me spend the night at their house. Brice and I ate birthday cake and laughed about friends at school. We didn't go to bed until really late, and the next morning, we showed up at school together.
My Last Day As A "Normal" Teen
I was something of a celebrity, at this point. With a high school of probably 100 students, word gets around fast. Police cars were stationed at all entrances of the school to ensure my Dad wouldn't show up. The football coach asked the football players to keep an eye on me all day (as a lot of the school was in separate buildings and I had to walk long distances outside.) The guys protectively swamped me and were very polite about making sure I was okay, though they of course pried me for information I was not going to give. Brice was attached to me all day. We were both a little jumpy: I had visions of my dad breaking in the classroom doors, and every time a door opened we braced ourselves.
The teachers, from what I understand, were talking with DFS and the police. The principal as well. Brice's mom filed for emergency custody of me, which blew my mind. The fact that someone--a stranger--wanted me to be safe was a completely alien experience. When I found out about it I fought not to cry. My dad had threatened Mrs. Montgomery (the teacher who reported his abuse) with a gun to the head: she busied herself with a restraining order. Brice's mother also got a restraining order, from what I recall. The fact that people had to go to lengths to protect themselves for helping me still hurts. It hurt so bad then that I couldn't enjoy my short "freedom." Even though Brice was already talking me up with how great it would be to live together, how everything was going to get better for me. He, the principal, his mother, and I all went to meet up with another derpa-derpa caseworker toward the end of the school day.
It wasn't good news.
A "Foster Child"
Apparently, someone in the Department of Family Services had a fucking brain synapse and figured out that my dad was dangerous. I guess his multiple threats and restraining orders (plus a mile-long criminal record) worked against him for once in his life. It was decided that staying in my home county was too unsafe. Even though it was a thirty minute drive from my parents' house to the actual city, that wasn't far enough. With everything they'd seen and heard over the past day or so (apparently they weren't listening when I STRAIGHT UP TOLD THEM) made them take drastic action. I was being moved counties. I was being taken into custody. I was being officially, legally protected from my biological family.
Read: I was no longer a regular teenager, if I ever was one. I was a foster "child." That word still really pisses me off. I was a teenager. I was old enough to get out of that house by my goddamn self, I was NOT a child. My legal guardian was the State of Tennessee and all her fine, wonderful, caseworkers. I would be assigned whatever foster family wanted to take me in, total strangers.
The next few days would be a flurry of hanging out in this and that office, getting paperwork together, my parents signing away rights, saying hasty and depressing goodbyes to everything I knew, preparing for the court date which would determine what "long term" plan we would come up with to get me "back with family." Because a foster child's goal is ALWAYS family first. Everyone promised me that things would be okay from here on out; I wouldn't live in fear, I wouldn't feel alone. I would know what a real family was like.
They were wrong, but I did what I had been trained to do: I set my jaw and decided to get through it the best I could.
And that is the story of how I became a foster teen.
(Me at 16--six months into foster care. I always thought I looked older than I do now in this photo.)