Behind the Music: Lights Out and Falling
I remember arriving at the foster home. I remember feeling numb…in a trance, like I was still dreaming. It was all just a dream, but no matter what I did, I couldn't wake up.
We entered the house and I was introduced to the foster family.
There was a mom.
Another young foster girl, who had just turned 5 years old.
And a ten year old boy and his mother (The daughter and grandson of the foster mom).
The daughter, I noticed, had a bracelet around her ankle, with a blinking light…
I later found out she was under house-arrest for a DUI, and was living there with her son until she finished out her sentence.
After the night I had had, this didn't really phase me.
A few hasty introductions were made before I was instructed to wait in the bedroom while the emergency worker debriefed the family in the living room.
I took a few steps down the hall and entered the room they gestured towards.
The 5 year old girl, Kayla, was sitting on one of the twin beds, watching cartoons. She smiled and waved at me when I walked in, and asked if I wanted to watch 'SpongeBob' with her.
I told her I would love to, and I joined her on her bed.
She immediately snuggled up against me and told me she "promised to be my best friend…"
…Provided that I played with her whenever she wanted me to.
That made me smile a little.
I pinky promised that I would.
This was the beginning of a great friendship.
About 15 minutes passed before I heard the front door close and the rumble of a truck-ignition starting outside, signifying that I was now on my own with the family.
The mom, Rosa, entered the room. She looked like the storybook description of a 'grandma.'
She had a warm smile, gray hair tousled around her face, and walked with a slow and steady gait.
As she came closer, I was overcome with the smell of cigarettes, coffee, and…
Interestingly, homemade tortillas. Her specialty.
I exhaled, preparing for… anything.
She examined me for a moment and then reached out and gave me a huge, grandmotherly, hug.
"You're safe now," she said.
The tears finally came. I hadn't cried once since escaping my house the night before.
But now, in her arms, I was suddenly overcome with emotion.
She held me tightly and let me cry into her shoulder for what seemed like days.
I cried until I had no more tears left inside.
I had never before been able to cry at home, without being punished for being weak.
She held me close to her, and told me that I was loved and cared for, and that everything would be alright.
I had just met this woman. Rosa did all of that for me, in our very first meeting.
I thought to myself,
"So…this is what having a real mom, feels like."
Rosa told me that I was under a 48-hour hold, as a ward of the state.
I was not allowed to contact any of my friends. I was not allowed to leave the foster home, alone. I didn't have any clothes or basic toiletries. Rosa made sure to petition the state to get me some additional clothes to hold me over, while I was in her custody. I didn't leave her side, while I was in the house. During those two days, I helped her cook, I helped her clean, I confided in her…
I really felt like she cared.
All I could see was this loving, wonderful, nurturing woman who had accepted me into her home and as a part of her family, no questions asked.
I was beside myself.
My mom had always told me that I was a mistake.
That I was unloveable.
That if I ever tried to leave her house, no one would want me.
That I should be thanking her for being willing to "put up" with me.
My whole life I listened to these words.
I internalized these messages, despite being intellectually aware of the displaced anger, behind them.
And now, here was this woman: whom I had just met. Yet she was giving me everything that I had only ever dreamed about having. I was shocked. I was totally infatuated by her.
I began to think that maybe…
The reasoning behind the abuse wasn't due to my being a bad daughter.
Or because it was otherwise my fault.
Or that I could've done something differently to change the way things had always been for me, at home.
I started to think that maybe this was it. I started to believe that maybe, I would get the 'family' I'd always wanted in that home.
I started to get hopeful.
And the only thing stronger than fear, is hope.
But the 48 hour period ended.
The emergency worker showed up at the house late in the evening on the second day, and informed me that the charges against my mother were dropped, due to unsubstantiated evidence. The police had warned me that this would probably happen.
But I couldn't believe how quickly it had.
Rosa asked if they had even done an investigation. The worker, Benny, said they had not. That they had tried to call, but were unable to reach me.
"No one called here!" Rosa exclaimed.
Benny explained that the investigator had called my cell phone number, to get a statement. They had left a voicemail, but I didn't return the call. They had no choice but to drop the charges since they couldn't reach a complaining witness.
They had called the cell phone that had been thrown across the room during the final fight with my mother, and was still lying somewhere on the floor in my mother's apartment.
I didn't understand how "not being able to reach me" was really a plausible excuse, when I was in state custody, at the time. I didn't know exactly where I was…some house in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.
The state children youth and families department placed me there. They told me I wasn't allowed to contact anyone. I hadn't tried to. I had no idea what was happening.
They should have made sure the investigating officers could get in touch with me, before dropping the investigation entirely.
All questions that would never really be answered.
Benny simply shook his head. He seemed like he was upset about it, as well. But he didn't offer any further explanation. He said that since the charges were dropped against mummy dearest, I would normally just return home…but in this case, that wasn't an option.
Not because she was abusive.
But because she told the case worker that she was fearful of the possibility of my returning home. In her version of the story, she claimed that she had been forced to ask me to leave the house due to my 'erratic' behavior that night, and that I had pushed her, in response. She told them I had attacked her, out of nowhere.
She said she just wanted me to get help, because I was very, very sick “mentally.”
She said that she thought it might be necessary to have me committed, because I was a danger to society.
That I could snap at any moment.
That I was violent and terrorized her in her own home.
Rosa laughed, aloud, upon hearing this.
"That woman sounds like a nutcase.The girl barely even speaks. Hasn't eaten a thing since she's been here. She's like a sweet little puppy dog. Timid little thing. If she was 'violent' and 'dangerous', I think I would've noticed by now," she said.
I probably should've been slightly offended by that statement…
But it was true, after all.
Benny cleared his throat and made eye contact with me for the first time since he had arrived.
"I know. But since the charges were dropped, the state no longer has any say in the matter."
I looked at him, blankly. His eyes darted away from mine.
He was staring at the floor as he spoke this next bit.
"After tonight, you will no longer be in state custody.
So... you can't stay here.
You can't go home, because your mother won't allow you to do so. However, since the charges were actually dropped against her, she still has her parental rights. You are a minor…so we can't go really go against her wishes without just cause. Now that she's not being charged with anything…we have to honor her wishes."
I looked at him blankly. I could feel myself shutting down, because I knew whatever he was about to say was going to be absolutely atrocious.
He finally looked up at me, in response to my silence.
"She said that the best place for you, right now…would be a homeless shelter. While you get on your feet. All the children's shelters are actually full right now…um. I'm not sure what you can…do. You can't go…you can't go home. And you can't stay here, unless you are in state custody.
We can't help you. I'm sorry."
Rosa's mouth was hanging open.
The foster dad, Joe, had been standing in the kitchen during all of this.
He came over and sat next to me on the couch, suddenly very interested in the discussion.
The room was spinning.
"Why can't I just stay with my friends, instead?" I asked, in barely even a whisper.
"Your mom said she doesn't approve of your staying with friends because you're so…"dangerous."
He still couldn't look me in the eye.
"Your only option is a homeless shelter or with another court appointed legal guardian-and. I mean…
You don't really have anyone else, right?
"Never met him."
"Since your mom is your only real family…she is the only one with a say here, kid. I'm sorry. If you do go stay at a friend's house, you will be AWOL.
Do you know what that means?
You would be a 'runaway,' since you would be going somewhere without your mom's permission.
That means any friend you stay with... will be brought up on charges for harboring you.
If your mom finds out where you are and calls us...we would have to send the police to arrest them if they take you in and fail to report your whereabouts to your mom."
Rosa looked over at me. There was a deep sadness in her eyes. She turned back to Benny.
"This is some bullshit," she said.
I was trying not to cry.
My mom was winning, so far. I should've never gone against her. I should've known I didn't have a chance.
Joe cleared his throat and asked,
"What happens if she stays here. She won't make it in a shelter. Look at her. The kids in there would eat her up alive."
"A shelter? No. Full of gang members and hoodlums!" Rosa added.
They weren't helping to calm my nerves, much.
"Well, the only person checking up on you would be me. And I…"
He trailed off and looked at me for a long time.
"Look. If you feel safer here…I'm not going to stop you from staying, tonight. There's something else."
He cleared his throat.
"We've scheduled a conference for tomorrow to discuss this case.
You need to be there.
You, your mother and the CYFD supervisor and placement workers.
It's a meeting where we evaluate the situation and come up with a game-plan that works for the whole family.
If you really want to stay here, with this family…say so at the meeting.
Technically you are no longer in state custody…but If you runaway, we really won't be able to help you.
You don't want these people to think you are a trouble-maker.
So try to just do everything you are asked. Okay? Just go to this meeting, and tell them why you want to stay here."
With that, Benny got up stiffly, put on his coat and let himself out the front door.
We all sat there in silence for a few minutes.
Rosa stood up, slowly.
"There's nothing we can do about this tonight, hijita. Try to get some sleep. We'll deal with it in the morning."
She gave me a quick but reassuring hug, and scuffled off to bed, without another word.
Joe sat with me on the couch for a moment longer. He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. "We'll take care of you. Don't you worry your pretty little head, about it."
I was such a mixed-bag of emotions, I couldn't process anything that had just happened. I couldn't believe my mom was going to this great of lengths to ruin my life. Actually, I could believe it, but it was still incredibly overwhelming.
The next morning came. Rosa and Joe drove me into the city for the 'meeting'. My whole body was trembling when we arrived outside of the "Children Youth and Families" building. This is the same woman who had tried to kill me, just a few short nights ago. And the state thought it was a good plan to just have us 'talk it out'.
But my mom wasn't there. She had gotten out of jail the night before, and hopped on a plane that morning for work…doing whatever it is she did for a living. I still don’t actually know…
They escorted me into a conference room with a big round table. A phone sat in the center of the table, and they informed me that they were going to have my mother dial-in and attend the meeting via 'speaker-phone', since she was unable to cancel her work trip to be there in person.
They told me that my mother had expressed extreme concern about the situation to them, and was ‘oh so upset’ that she couldn't get time-off work.
They said it like she was doing me a huge favor, by calling-in to participate in this conference.
At this mediation, my mom asserted (over the phone) that I was very ill. She explained that I needed to be in a homeless shelter, as opposed to staying with friends- as a "safety precaution."
Joe and Rosa sat in on the meeting. I didn't speak much. I really was very timid, back then. I had so much I wanted to say…but I just. Couldn't bring myself to say any of it. Rosa sure did, however. She talked and talked. By the end of the meeting, it was decided that though my mom would maintain her parental rights- I would be allowed to stay in the foster home, with Rosa and Joe's blessing.
The plan was such that the state would no longer be involved in my case, nor would they be liable for me (as they would be if I were a ward of the state.) But I was allowed to stay in the Foster Home. It was either that or a homeless shelter, so I chose that.
But essentially, it was Rosa and Joe doing me a solid and letting me stay with them-even after they didn't have to.
They wouldn't get paychecks from the state for me.
No assistance from social services.
They were taking me into their home, and helping me to get on my feet because they had good hearts and wanted to help.
Rosa told me that I could stay with them until I turned 18. She told me that I wouldn't need to stay any longer, because I was going to get to school in New York by my 18th birthday. She said it so firmly…you couldn't NOT believe it.
My mother soon realized that she had been duped, however. She had agreed to an arrangement that meant that she had no idea where I was, and couldn't get to me.
Foster home location information is confidential. She wouldn't be able to find me as long as I was staying with them. The state didn't have to tell her the address.
I was safe from her wrath, as long as I stayed there.
She still had plenty of control though. She threatened to sue the state so many times, that they seemed to be scared to go against most of her wishes.
I wasn't technically in state custody-but, according to the arrangement, I agreed to be under the state's direct supervision.
The state was taking orders from my mother (for reasons I still don't quite understand). I had to, under my mother's orders, be evaluated by several psychiatrists for various mental conditions.
It seemed she made them up, as she went along. Every doctor they forced me to see, said that I didn't exhibit any of the 'signs' or 'symptoms' that my mother was describing.
Several of the doctors also went on to say that her claims were completely unfounded.
The state entertained her münchausen syndrome for a long time, before deciding that enough was enough.
She gave up on the whole 'mental illness' thing, and moved on to insisting that I was an 'unhealthy weight' and had a 'severe thyroid disorder' that actually required hospitalization.
This is what that unhealthy weight apparently looked like.
These pictures were taken during my senior year…I was a on the cheer/drill team.
So, without doing any background work to ensure the validity of this claim (including just using their eyes to assess that one) the state told me I had to go to the hospital and have blood drawn on multiple occasions and undergo a bunch of invasive tests for this disorder that my mother claimed I had.
When all of the results came back negative, they thought my mother must've just made an honest mistake.
It was almost like, if she had claimed me to be an alien-Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones would've shown up to escort me to area 51.
...But I did everything I was told. Because I didn't have a choice. Because I was too scared to go against it. And I didn't want to have to leave the foster home, where I had felt the safest and most wanted that I had felt in my entire life.
I had managed to get a job in all of this-though I don't know how. I had no ID, no birth certificate, I didn't know my social security number.
My mother refused to provide any of this information, and the state didn't seem to mind.
I don't recall how all of it worked out in the end, but I did get a job.
I worked with my best friend, Ashley, at the local Sears in the mall.
I was saving up my money and calling the school in New York every day to try and get my scholarship back and work out a way to get there by my 18th birthday.
It was this looming deadline, that terrified me. I had to figure it out before it was too late.
But…after awhile, things seemed to be going fine.
I was doing okay. I was making money, living at the foster home, and Rosa was teaching me how to take care of myself. It is amazing how helpless you are when you are 'under 18’…
And then, when you don't have parents to help you, you are just thrown out into the real world with nothing-no chance of making it.
All I could do, was try to find a way to get my dream back, before that happened. I had to focus on and keep faith in something, so I didn't fall apart completely.
I had no credit history and couldn't even begin to establish it until I turned 18, so I could barely even get a cell phone, in my own name.
Various members of my brother's side of the family reached out in support during this time…though they couldn't do much if anything for me, because they weren't "blood-relatives."
In legal-terms, they may as well have been complete strangers.
My mom would not grant any of them legal permission to take me in-even though some of them offered to fly me out to California (we had moved to New Mexico, by this time) to stay with them.
I hadn't seen any of those people since I was a toddler…but they all sounded nice on the phone. If I had known then what I know now…I would've just left against the state's will.
They probably wouldn't have tried to track me down. But I didn't know any better than to just do as I was told. I thought, in the end…these people were just trying to help me.
I just felt stuck. Living in a foster home while still incongruously being under my abusive mother's thumb, was draining.
I didn't think things could get any worse.
But Rosa was so supportive. She believed I could find a way to overcome it. I couldn't give up.
She had been combatting every negative thing my mother had been saying about me to the state…telling them how wonderful I was. How I quickly became like a daughter to her. How I was nothing like the horrible picture my mother was trying to paint of me.
To this day, I wonder why it was that everything my mother said was instantly taken as true. If they would've just bothered to look into her history a little bit, they would've seen that this was the same woman who abandoned her own son when he was 7 years old. Who disappeared and moved away with his little sister, without so much as a goodbye.
That I found him and reconnected with him on myspace 10 years later was a miracle in it of itself- and she was furious when she found out I had.
This woman terrorized both of us, was estranged from her family…but none of that mattered. She was a business woman. She was articulate.
And she threatened to 'sue' the state every time they even thought about advocating for me. And they must've really wanted to avoid that lawsuit, because they did pretty much everything she said.
But no matter. It was what it was. I had Rosa on my side. I had her. I was safe with her. I owed her so much.
So when Joe started to act strangely, I decided not to tell her.
I didn't want to make her mad. I had noticed it from the moment I had gotten there, but I chose to ignore it. The way he looked at me. He made me feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t pinpoint why, but I felt it. I didn't say anything.
I needed these people.
They seemed to be the only ones with any real influence in this situation, other than my mother. They had the power to help me and I needed them on my side.
Joe would drive me to work each day. The house was quite far from humanity, and Rosa said the bus wasn't safe for me to take from their house.
So he would drive me to work. He would insist that I held his hand during the drive. He said he just wanted to make me feel 'loved'.
So he wanted to hold my hand.
But I wasn't about to protest. If I had to hold this creepy guy's hand in the car on the way to work every day, so be it. I'd dealt with worse.
I had nowhere else to go.
And he came as a 'package deal' along with Rosa, so I figured if I wanted her on my side...I had to deal with her husband.
It got progressively more…. weird, as the days passed.
I shared a room with Kayla (the 5 year old).
He began to come into the room in the middle of the night. He would just sit on the foot of my bed. Just sit there, staring.
I would pretend to be asleep.
Nothing more would happen.
I still figured that I just had to deal with it.
My mom was saying that I was this awful person who ruins people's lives, and the state seems to be eating it up.
Rosa is the only one who is keeping them from letting my mom have me committed,
for christ's sake.
I have since come to realize that my mom really didn't have as much power as I thought she did.
….But when I was 17… it seemed like I didn't stand a chance against her, especially with the state catering to her every whim. S
he was the only thing I'd ever known. I really actually didn't know if I really could survive without her. But I had Rosa teaching me how to be independent of her. Standing up for me.
I couldn't risk losing that.
Joe started coming into the room more often.
It got worse. It started with him massaging my back, occasionally.
He didn't say much when he was doing this.
Just that I shouldn't make noise, because I might wake Kayla up-who was sleeping in the bed right next to me.
I didn't scream. I didn't try to stop him.
I just kept my eyes closed, tight.
Pretended to be asleep.
I kept telling myself that It was just something I would have to deal with.
That I probably deserved it, because bad things just continued to happen to me so I must be inviting them in, somehow.
I decided that If he ever bothered Kayla, I would absolutely step in. But as long as
it was just me,…
I could handle it.
I could get over it.
I couldn't risk losing the safety I had of being able to stay in that house.
The next stop was a homeless shelter.
And it would have looked so bad, had I gotten kicked out of that house.
It would make it seem like every horrible thing my mom was saying about me, was true.
Who was to say that Rosa would've believed me, had I told her what was happening?
She had accepted me into her home. I couldn't ruin her family, like that. I owed her that much.
So I still didn't say anything.
This went on for awhile.
I was slowly disappearing inside myself.
But I just focused on the fact that I only had a few more months to figure out my life before I lost my window of opportunity, completely.
I didn't focus on anything else.
I did end up confiding in a few people about what was going on with Joe…
Rosa's daughter, was among them.
Everyone told me that I would be better off if I didn't cause any trouble by saying something.
"Just try to stay away from him, as best you can," was the advice I received from multiple sources.
“Just lock your bedroom door.”
So I tried locking the door at night, but Rosa found it locked one morning and it was the one time she got upset with me.
She said that there were to be no locked doors in her house.
That I had to keep the door cracked, never closed, unless I was changing.
Especially since she needed to be able to check in on Kayla, easily.
I apologized and promised I wouldn't ever lock the door again. I didn’t even have my own key to this house, so who was I to lock any of its doors. I hadn’t had my own keys since I left my mother’s house. I just wanted to be in a home. I just wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere.
I decided I would just have to deal with it for a little bit longer.
Just a few more months.
I was getting closer to making New York happen. I was going to get out soon.
As soon as I did, I was planning on anonymously reporting what he had been doing.
Kayla was getting adopted at the end of the year, by a nice family in another state, so I figured she would be fine.
She was leaving that house, soon.
And he never paid any attention to her, anyway. She was too young to interest him.
I just had to bide my time.
A few more weeks passed. I was making due.
One morning, Rosa's grandson got very sick.
I found out later that he had his appendix removed. So you can imagine the excruciating pain he was in at the time that led them to call 911.
An ambulance came for him, to take him to the hospital.
It was still dark outside.
Everyone went with him-even his mom. She was allowed to break her house-arrest for emergencies like this.
Kayla had woken up in all of the commotion.
She came over and jumped into my bed. She told me she was scared. The sirens were so loud.
Two other little foster children were sleeping over that night, under respite (When foster parents go out of town, the kids are placed temporarily in other homes until their assigned foster parents return; Foster children are generally not allowed to leave state-lines.)
It was still dark outside, and I was so, so tired.
I got up and peeked through the curtain on the little window in the room. I saw the ambulance driving away with Joe's truck following behind.
I guessed that everyone in the house had gone.
I was old enough to look after the kids, after all. I found it odd that they didn't wake me to tell me to watch them…
But I assumed that they had just figured I was up. That they had forgotten to check in with me to tell to take care of the little ones, in the hurry.
Kayla asked if she could go watch cartoons with the other girl who was there (close to her age-a little older. She was awake as well.)
I went ahead and let her.
It seemed harmless and I thought it would make her feel better.
That, and I knew there was no way I was convincing her to go right back to bed.
I took her into the living room and set up the TV for her and the other girl.
I laid out their blankets on the couch and they cuddled up to watch old reruns of Bugs Bunny.
There was another child still sleeping in the spare bed in the living room, so I made them promise to keep it down.
I told them I was going to go lay down for a bit longer, since I had to go to work in a few hours.
I told them I would keep the bedroom door open, and would hear them if they got too loud.
I told them to come get me, if they needed anything.
They nodded without even looking at me, completely engrossed in their show.
With that, I went back into the bedroom and laid down.
I closed my eyes.
I could hear the girls giggling softly at the cartoon in the next room.
I started to drift off, though I could never completely fall asleep those days.
That's when I heard the door close.
With my eyes still closed, I said:
"Kayla, I don't feel like playing right now, ok?
I'll come and hang out with you two, in a little bit."
I heard the click of the door locking before I felt someone sit down at the foot of the bed.
The mattress sunk down much lower than Kayla's little body could've displaced it.
I stopped breathing.
I had never been completely alone in the house with him, before. I thought he had left.
Where had he been lurking?
His truck wasn't outside.
I braced myself for the usual. I clenched my teeth and closed my eyes and pretended like I was somewhere else. Far, far away from that room.
He didn't move.
I felt him staring at me.
He asked me what it was like...
To be unwanted.
I didn't respond.
“Please go away,” I thought.
I kept my eyes closed.
He asked me if anyone had ever loved me, before.
I didn't respond.
I squeezed my eyes shut tighter.
“Maybe he’ll just leave, “ I thought.
If I don’t say anything, he’ll just leave.
He asked me if I knew that I had nowhere else to go.
I wanted to scream.
But nothing would come out.
He asked me how I was going to repay him for letting me stay in his house when he didn't have to anymore.
I felt myself totally shut down.
I knew what was about to happen.
But I couldn’t speak.
I opened my eyes.
He was half-dressed.
But he was always half-dressed.
He always walked around without a shirt.
He was caressing himself.
And staring at me.
I was laying on my side.
He was sitting on the bed, in front of my legs.
I averted my eyes to the floor.
He moved his entire body onto the bed, so now he was laying next to me with his face barely an inch away from mine.
I closed my eyes and prayed for Rosa to come home. I prayed for someone to come back and make him stop.
Now I was pinned on the bed between him and the wall.
I couldn't move.
My whole body was rigid.
He told me not to make any noise, unless I wanted the kids to join us.
I did manage to say something, this time.
"Please don't do this,"
It was barely audible.
Barely above a whisper.
He said that he knew that I really wanted him to.
He said that I had been flirting with him since I arrived.
He was disgusting. Like, vomit-inducing, disgusting.
Like, you look at him and want to gauge your eyes out.
In any other life, I would have crossed the street if I had seen him coming, instead of having to pass him on the sidewalk.
But I couldn’t move.
I had all these thoughts racing in my head…
About how nobody would believe me.
About how I had nowhere else to go.
About how I had no one else to save me.
I closed my eyes.
He was taking off my clothes.
I thought, maybe I could fight him off…
Maybe I could grab the lamp off the nightstand and I could...
I could hit him.
But then what?
What would he do?
It will be my story against his… and I’m the bad kid. I’m the kid whose mother beats her up…I’m the kid whose mother doesn’t want her.
I’m the kid who nobody believes.
I’m the bad kid.
I went somewhere else in my head.
I went totally numb.