My family was a big one, including my two biological sisters and the foster children we welcomed into our home.
It was a Saturday night. When we sat down for dinner we noticed, but didn’t acknowledge, how my father was in “a mood.” This usually meant the first one of us to say anything that could anger him would get it.
All us kids being seven and under waited as patiently as we could while my mother quickly and quietly served our food in order to keep Father happy. This was a typical night for us, walking on eggshells in order to not trigger Father’s anger issues.
Dylan, a two-year-old foster child who had been in our home for two weeks, said he didn’t like his hot dog. None of us could have expected those would be his last words.
My father got upset and took Dylan to the garage where we all normally went to get beat, and started beating him. Getting increasingly more angry that Dylan was flinching and defending himself, my father hit harder and took his last swing to his head with a hard object, ultimately killing him.
That was the night that changed the course of my life forever. I was taken away three days later and placed into foster care in Modesto, Calif., not knowing what had happened or what the future held for me and my family. I was four years old at the time.
Eventually, my father was placed into prison with a 25-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, and my mom got five years for child endangerment. My sisters and I got our sentences, too. My oldest sister was sentenced to 12 years in the foster care system and then more in AB-12 extended foster care; my youngest 12 years in foster care, and she’s now working towards being adopted by a loving family. I got 12 years in foster care, and then reunification with my mother.
The thing I heard the most from adults during my time in the system was that “the ultimate goal is reunification,” but never did I hear about how the state supports that process, or doesn’t.
My experience went a little like this: I was 14 going on 15, living in my 80th placement where I was being abused and reported it to any and everyone who would give me the time of day.
My never-around county worker seemed to decide it was too much work to find me an 81st placement, and instead sent me on an extended overnight pass to my biological mother’s house.
I stayed with her and her boyfriend, Mark, until I had a team decision meeting (TDM) a few weeks later. My mom and I showed up with all my luggage in the car, ready to move to another placement. Instead I was told that I could go home, and my mother and I, like “blind sheeple,” agreed, not knowing what reunification really entailed.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. In fact, for years I had asked to go home to my mother’s so that I could stop moving from one foster home to the next but had been told over and over that it couldn’t happen yet. One reason given was that Mark’s home had to be certified, and it had not yet been approved. This didn’t make sense to me but what did I know – I was just 14.
We did not know that by reunifying, I wouldn’t qualify for extended foster care. We also did not know I would almost immediately be stripped of any of the foster-care-related “privileges” I had been receiving or was about to receive, such as the Independent Living Program, many grants for college, or even Medi-cal coverage.
I didn’t understand that 12 years, the PTSD, severe anxiety disorder, and the hatred towards this strange woman that I carried in my suitcase would come up months later in the many different forms they did.
My mother and I didn’t anticipate the complete restart of our relationship, the “hi, nice to meet you’s” happening all over again, or the time spent going over and finding appropriate ground rules. It was just like the first week in a new foster home all over again. And this was supposed to be my mother.
We never knew that we would need classes we couldn’t get in finance, emotions, parenting, budgeting, and so many other supports in order to get through this journey together. We didn’t know until it was too late, and we were already reunified.
I’m starting this conversation because if someone had given me some of this information I might have advocated in that TDM to stay in care in order to keep my mental health and stability more on track, instead of letting my county worker call the shots.
With the implementation of California’s Continuum of Care Reform in January stressing the importance of family, the state needs to continue providing support to children and youth who are reunified. We foster youth shouldn’t suffer because the cheapest and easiest way to deal with us is reunification without any services.
One size doesn’t fit all, and this isn’t fair but hey, what do I know – I’m only 17.
Mariah Corder is a young advocate who strives to reform the foster care system with California Youth Connection where she has been involved for three years.