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Who’s in My Family Tree?
My past makes it hard for me to trust
Jennifer R.

Names have been changed.

In 6th grade the teacher gave us an assignment to make a family tree. I was very nervous because I only had my adopted mother, who never got married, to put on the tree. And I feel like everyone is out to hurt me, so “family” is a hard word for me to understand.

My birth mother is dead; my adoptive mother abused me; and I went into care when I was 12. Foster care is the first place I’ve felt support. I am still figuring out who I can trust and how I can get those things that other people get from their parents.

I was born in Paraguay, in South America. My birth mother was very young when she had me and very poor; she named me Marta. When I was a few months old she gave me up to an adoption agency.

I was adopted by a white woman named Sharon when I was 16 months old. In 1994, she brought me to live with her on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She changed my name to Jennifer.

Sharon had money and wrote books, but she was a terrible mother. For as long as I can remember, she pulled my hair, hit me, pinched me, dragged me around the apartment, and screamed at me. Sometimes this was because I wet the bed, sometimes for nothing. She also punished me for tiny things like sitting down on my suitcase when I was tired or being on the phone for too long.

When I was 5, I started fighting back, screaming and punching her in the arms. After that, she hit me less and abused me verbally more.

Other times, she was sort of loving. She would kiss me on my cheek and hold my hand when we went out. That made me feel that there was a chance that maybe one day she’d change. But then she’d do something else mean.

My aggression and pain at home started to show in school. Starting in about 2nd grade I got into a lot of fights. I was miserable at school. I never knew where I fit in.

No Adults Protect Me

I was the tallest kid in my class and I started developing very early, at age 7. That year I made friends with a girl named Samantha, and I started to go on play dates with her at her house. It was fun at first but then her father started staring at me. Then he started grabbing my breasts and telling me he wanted to be inside of me. He would show me porno and give me sex toys. I didn’t use the toys, but I was scared and confused.

I didn’t really understand. I just felt very uncomfortable. I couldn’t ask for help; I never told Samantha. One of my friends saw him do it and told my mom. My mom said to me, “Your fast ass wanted him to touch you. You might as well be a f-ckin’ prostitute.”

She told me that a prostitute was a woman who is always with a lot of boys and is always having sex with different men every day. I couldn’t understand because I wasn’t doing any of those things. I was 7 years old.

I hated my mother for not believing me and for judging me. That just gave me more anger and hate. The abuse by Samantha’s father continued for several more years, and I never told anyone until it was over. I held it all inside of me.

My mom continued to yell at me and put me down. One time in 4th grade, a group of five or six kids in my class saw and heard my mom abusing me outside of school. The next day they surrounded me and said, “What did you do wrong that your mom doesn’t love you?”

That same group called me “weird,” “stupid,” or “retarded” because I was quiet. I told my mother and she said, “Those kids are right. Look at you; I won’t be surprised if you end up poor like your mother. You’re lucky to have me.” She would tell me that she loved me and that she was a great parent, but I couldn’t understand the love she thought she gave to me.

I realized I wanted to go to Harvard and be an obstetrician when I was in the 5th grade, and she would tell me, “That’s unrealistic for a girl your age to even think of,” and “Only brilliant, rich people go to Harvard.” I felt belittled and put down, but she didn’t shatter those dreams. I still have them.

Middle School: My Escape

My mother gave me a cell phone when I was 12 and stopped walking me to and from school. I became more independent. Middle school was like my escape route away from my mother and from the kids who used to torment me in elementary school.

At Wagner, my middle school, I was a different person than I was in elementary school. I saw my mom less, and that helped me focus on myself and not feel unsafe. Being safe led me to friends and when they didn’t hurt me, I started to trust. My new friends were popular, and hanging out with them made me more popular. People liked me.

image by YC-Art Dept

Right after I turned 12, I met Aaron, and he became my boyfriend. Aaron was mostly a good guy, but I realize now he pressured me to have sex before I was ready. Back then, I thought sex was love so every time we had sex I thought he loved me. Now I think that if he really loved me then he would have waited until I was ready.

The day I went into care, I had snuck out of school and gone to my apartment. My mother came home early from meeting her editor and got a call about my cutting school. Soon after that there was a ring at our door, and two women were standing outside.

This was my first ACS home visit. The women looked nice but also very strict. One of them took me into the dining room to ask me questions like “Are you safe?” and “Is there abuse going on here?”

I told them lies because I knew if I told them about my mother’s abuse she would find out and just start going crazy. Then the ACS workers talked to my mom and suggested that they take me to the ACS building. She said “Yes, take this b-tch out of my house right f-ckin’ now. I can’t take it anymore.” I was shocked and hurt. They told me to pack my clothes and get ready to leave. I left with them.

Into Care

I was not sure where I was going. I was upset about that but also happy that I’d be free from my mother’s abuse. I stayed in the ACS building for two weeks, with littler kids. We were fed so well that I even gained a few pounds. We went on trips to the park and the store. There was also a yoga teacher. It was fun.

Then I was moved to a diagnostic center so they could evaluate where I should go next. I stayed there for about six months. I had already been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was on medication. I enjoyed the diagnostic center; it was an away camp to me. Then I went to a residental treatment center (RTC) north of New York City called Hawthorne, where I’ve been living for the past three years.

Finally Treated Well

When I first saw Hawthorne, it looked so beautiful. It reminded me of a college campus. It’s nice there. The school is way easier than the schools that I used to go to. And most important, people there are nice to me.

Miss Fernandez is my director at Hawthorne. She lets us hang out with her in her office and we talk to her about our concerns, and how we feel. She does not look at us as residents; she sees us as her children. When we deserve it we get everything from her—for example, she gives me day passes to the mall when I’m well-behaved. But if we get caught up in the negative, she disciplines us in a way that’s fair and not scary.

Unlike my mother she tells me the truth and she does not put me down. Miss Fernandez is really fair. She taught me money management, traveling skills, and other adult things.

I’ve learned in the RTC that family isn’t just blood. My friend Rosa and I dated for a while, but now we call each other “sister.” That’s partly because we call the same man “father”—Darrel, who’s a good friend of Miss Fernandez’s and works on our campus. Darrel cares for me and Rosa and also another girl named Tia. He prays for us; and he’s there when we’re feeling sad. Rosa and I have arguments, but what sisters don’t? We’re not perfect.

My best friends Tiffany, Alexis, and Mawiyah supported me too. When I’d dress up, they told me how beautiful I look. I’d say, “No I’m not, I look ugly.” But they’d tell me to stop saying that because I look better than some girls. They did everything they could to make me feel beautiful. They would say they wish they were me. Those words really touched me, and step by step I started to feel better about myself.

Three and a half years after that family tree assignment, I still don’t know who I’d put in the line above me. My birth mom from Paraguay who I don’t remember? Sharon who abused me? I would rather put the people who really cared and really loved ME through my years in foster care.

Who Am I?

I’m not even sure if I’d want to be Jennifer on the family tree. I was born Marta, and Jennifer is sad and depressed a lot. Jennifer feels alone in this world. Marta wasn’t abused and she can be happy. If I’m going on a ride at Disney World I feel more like Marta.

But Jennifer’s also gotten close to people over the past few years, and Marta has been forgotten. I don’t want to change my name back because everyone knows me as Jennifer. What if one day in the future I become famous and my friends see my name? They’ll say, “Oh I know her.”

The good people I’ve met in the last three years help me like myself, but it will take a long time for the hurt Sharon caused me to go away. I will never know how it feels to have a mother’s love. Even though I have put distance between myself and Sharon and even though I have kind people in my life, I still wonder: Why am I here? There are some people at Hawthorne who tell me I don’t belong or to get out. Am I so horrible that people don’t want to be next to me? Why am I always mistreated? Who am I? Do I belong on this earth? These questions still go through my head a lot.

I do see now that the things my mother said were a lie. I do have a future. I’m learning to love myself for who I am, and I will keep trying to let other people love me too. That’s hard because I feel like they all are going to turn their backs on me some time in my life. It’s still really hard to let people love me because I have the feeling that they don’t care. But I’m starting to trust people, little by little.

This story is part of the health literacy series, which is generously supported by the Cigna Foundation.

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