Imagine that you are a child, a very young child – say 6 years old. You are living with one parent. The other parent either died or deserted you several years ago. It doesn’t really matter which; to a child, either one carries the emotional scar of desertion.
Your remaining parent is often drunk or on drugs, rages at you and your siblings, and inflicts bodily and emotional injury from time to time. You’re never quite sure what will make him or her angry, so you’re always very careful in what you say and do. You walk on eggshells each and every day.
But it doesn’t matter. The rage can easily be provoked by someone else and turned on you in an instant. You withdraw and your emotions become numbed. You become a living, breathing “shell of a child.” You can’t concentrate on learning the things other children learn at this age; your focus is merely survival.
However, you love your parent. They’re not always angry, and their love is the only kind of love you know. It’s all you know, and it’s your security. Your bond with your siblings is strong because together you face the dangers of home life. They understand you; your dog understands you, too.
Then, suddenly, you are ripped out of the life you know, separated from your parent and your siblings. Your head is spinning; you are devastated, shocked and crying. Strangers from the Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) stormed into your house and, with no explanation, gave you three minutes to grab what you could. This is now all you own.
You had to leave behind your favorite doll, your favorite dress, the special shoes Grandma got you, your trophy from the spelling bee. All you own now is 2 pairs of pants and a few shirts you grabbed from the laundry basket, 2½ pairs of shoes because you couldn’t find the mate to one quick enough.
You weren’t allowed to take any toys, and while in shock you forgot your favorite teddy bear. After all, you thought you would be back to go to bed in your own house. No one said you wouldn’t be coming back or how long you would be gone. You’re thinking a day, maybe two.
Alone, without your siblings, you find yourself being led by a stranger down the street in a strange town holding a small black garbage bag containing a few of your clothes and possessions. It’s all you have. In the blink of an eye you no longer have family; you no longer have friends or your school; your dog is now gone from your life; and most of your prized possessions are gone . . . just like that.
In the blink of an eye, everything you knew as life is now gone. In the blink of an eye, your life no longer exists. No goodbyes – just gone! You feel like the garbage your black bag represents.
The stranger with you knocks on the door of yet another stranger who takes you inside to a room where four other children sleep. You are told this is your bed. The other children see your bag, open it and take some of the few things you own. You stand there in shock wondering what in the world just happened. No one explains or comforts you.
You don’t know these people, but you are told they are now your mother and father. You have to call this woman you don’t know “Mom” and this man “Dad.” There are all new rules to follow now, and you have no idea what most of them are. You walk on eggshells every day because you don’t know when this nightmare is going to end or if this same scenario will repeat tomorrow.
You even sense that this new Mom and Dad are more interested in the money the state provides their household than in your well-being, growth and development. You are treated as an “ordinary” child, and your new world expects you to act normally. Yet, you’re in so much distress that you no longer talk. But . . . you are quiet, so it’s easy for everyone to pretend there is no problem. No attempt is made to help you overcome the trauma of abuse and the trauma of foster care life, to encourage you, to nurture you, to teach you about life.
This ‘foster life’ will become your new life until the “lucky” day you age out. At that point, you get a $500 check and are told you are now on your own. With the tick of a clock at midnight on your eighteenth birthday, you are expected to shoulder your emotional baggage, find your way in the world, and successfully navigate the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood.
Will you succeed?
Helen Ramaglia is a foster alumni who became a foster/adoptive parent. She is the founder and Director of Fostering Superstars, a Congressional Award Winner for her work with foster children and is the author of “From Foster to Fabulous”. She is a popular speaker, trainer and advocate for foster children.