FCYU127 cover image See all stories from issue #127, Winter 2017

True Family: Not My Relatives, Not the Gang
A winning essay from the Awards for Youth in Care
Dennis J. Santiago

“Family” commonly means a group of individuals who share a bloodline and who give you love, trust, support, honesty, and loyalty. But sometimes birth family doesn’t have your back, and then children turn to others for the love and comfort that was missing.

I was raised in a Dominican household with my grandmother, grandfather, mother, and two younger sisters. We lived in public housing, in a violent and delinquent neighborhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn. My mother dropped out of high school and couldn’t get a job that would support us all. She relied on WIC and food stamps, and by the last third of every month, the fridge was empty. I wore hand-me-downs from my cousin.

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Growing up there, I was exposed to gangs, drug dealers, and other bad influences. At age 14, when I was a freshman, I got more freedom to go out. I connected with those kids who were in gangs, who sold and bought guns, jumped and robbed people, did drugs, and went to jail. I thought the lifestyle was cool and flashy and wanted to partake in it more.

I thought those friends were family, but they were not. I became angrier and more aggressive and stubborn at home. My family didn’t like this change and criticized me. They also spread rumors about me in the neighborhood and made me feel like an outsider.

I felt neglected and despised, and I got angrier. When I was 17, my family was so scared of me that they put an order of protection out on me, and that got me turned in to the foster care system. I was devastated, as I thought foster care was terrible. Little did I know that my life would change for the better.

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In April 2014, I arrived at Kaplan House, a group home in the East Village section of Manhattan. Away from family for the first time, I felt alone.

But I was warmly welcomed by staff and several residents. And slowly, I grew to trust the counselors and some residents there. It started with small talks, getting to know one another, sharing life stories, recognizing the similarities in our lives, and sharing advice back and forth. When I’m wrong the Kaplan House staff corrects me, makes sure I understand what I did wrong, and we talk about how to fix it for the next time.

Talking to counselors, going on trips with residents, and going to staff when I need guidance all make me feel at home. Counselors teach me how to be open to new things and how to be more mature. They support me when it comes to school and vocational goals. I can trust them with my secrets or with a difficult situation.

All that support has made me feel like I can accomplish whatever task is ahead of me. The staff is a great source of motivation. Back with my birth family, nobody told me to go to school (or if they did, it was with physical force). At Kaplan, they talked to me about the negative consequences of not going to school, like low-paying jobs that will leave me less able to take care of myself. They told me I’d be looked down on if I wasn’t educated. On the plus side, they told me an education would allow me to be a professional with financial stability and more opportunities.

To my surprise, I’ve also made up with my birth family. Staff at Kaplan got me talking about them by saying, “How could your family hate you? You’re such a good kid.” I talked it through with my social worker and recreational coordinator and decided to reach out first to my grandmother. When I did, my grandmother immediately asked me what I wanted to eat—we got right to forgiveness. It’s still awkward with my mother, but it’s much better than it used to be.

November postscript: “Besides making up with my family, I graduated as valedictorian of my high school class and enrolled in college, where I’m majoring in accounting. I couldn’t have come so far without my supportive family in the foster care system.”

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