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.