The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Let Me Grow Up
Demetria Mack

All I wanted was a normal life, but my mom was in and out of jail when I was little. When she was home, different violent boyfriends lived with us. I had to witness fights between them, and sometimes my mom took out her anger and frustration on me with her fists.

One February day when I was 11, I came home from school to see my mom’s friend Tiffany outside my front door, screaming my name. My 6-month-old brother was in a stroller right next to her. Scared, I ran to her.

“Demetria, I need you to unlock the door so we can go inside. I promise I will explain everything to you once we get upstairs,” she said in a panicked tone. I unlocked the door and we rushed upstairs. My mind was racing: I didn’t know what to do or say.

When we got into the apartment Tiffany said, “Your mom, she’s in jail. I’m not sure why, but pack yourself a bag of clothes. A social worker will be coming soon so we can try to figure this mess out.”

“Again,” I thought. Again she messed up and went to jail. This time, she left not only me but also a baby who could barely hold his head up.

The social worker arrived and confirmed my worry that I wasn’t going to be seeing my mom for a while. She said I was going to be put into a “Children’s Center” until they found my brother and me a foster home. I didn’t know what to expect from foster care: Would it be like the movie Annie?

At the Center, I slept in a room with about 10 other small beds in it, and all night a woman sat in a chair watching me. Other kids came and slept in the other beds, but none of them stayed more than two nights. When I was the only one there, the empty beds made me feel lonelier than ever. Why did I have to stay here so long? Didn’t anyone want me? What would happen to my brother and me?

After two weeks, I met my foster mother in a room at the Center. She was short and her eyebrows arched in a way that made her look mean.

Which Name?

“You can call me Tomasina, Josefina, or Ms. Pena,” she said. Then she asked me my name, age, what school I went to, and other questions. I answered in a small, quiet voice and added no details. I didn’t want to say too much or say the wrong things.

As I was packing my things a few days later to move into her home, those three names ran through my brain. Which one should I call her? If I called her the wrong name, would she get upset and hit me?

My social worker came to pick my brother and me up and we drove to an unfamiliar neighborhood in Brooklyn. The three names ran through my brain like a record stuck on repeat.

It was dark out, and I could barely see the small buildings and houses. The car came to a slow stop in front of three tall buildings joined together in a complex. A sign said “Ebbets Field;” an E and the T were falling off the sign. A queasy feeling filled my stomach.

“All right, hon, get ready to see your new home,” my social worker said with a smile.

Tomasina/Josefina/Ms. Pena lived on the 17th floor. We got off the elevator and stood in front of her door. My social worker knocked, and the door opened quickly. There she and her daughter stood.

They seemed nice—and they were. Ms. Pena immediately reassured me that if I wanted something from the kitchen, I could just go in and take it. But it was hard for me to just take what I wanted. I was scared that she’d change her mind and tell me I was doing the wrong thing. So I’d ask her in a mousey voice, “Can I have a cookie?”

My guard started to come down as the months went by. Ms. Pena’s gentle reminders that I was in fact part of the family started to work. I never actually settled on a name to call my foster mother directly, but when I’m talking about her I call her Ms. Pena.

My brother and I had been living there about nine months when Christmas came. I was surprised and excited that the Penas wanted us all to open gifts together. We sat in the living room on Christmas morning listening to music. Ms. Pena danced to the beat of the soft music that filled the house while everyone opened gifts.

“Are you happy?” Ms. Pena asked me. The question caught me off guard. I was happy, but I wasn’t comfortable living there yet. To be truly happy, I thought, I’d need to be comfortable.

“Yes, I am,” I replied. Could she hear the uncertainty in my voice?

It was definitely the best home I’d lived in. They didn’t hit me like my mom had. I was finally allowed, at age 11, to be a child. I could focus on school, instead of taking care of my brother and protecting my mother. I watched TV, talked to my friends, and laughed at silly YouTube videos.

Older Now

image by YC-Art Dept

But it was hard to trust anyone. I appreciated the new feeling of safety, but as I got older that started to feel constricting. Ms. Pena was more controlling than my mom, and at first I didn’t mind. But when I was 14, my social group started to grow, and I started to develop into who I wanted to be. I wanted some privacy, and Ms. Pena didn’t like that.

I was lying on my bed one evening, and Ms. Pena came in waving her phone with a picture of me in a bathing suit that I had posted on Facebook.

“Why are you posting this? You shouldn’t be showing off your body like this for the world to see,” she said.

I didn’t know how to react. I was upset that she’d been lurking on Facebook and also upset that she was confronting me about a picture of me in a bathing suit. Was this the first time she’d looked at my Facebook? And why was she shaming me? If I was a boy and I posted a picture in a bathing suit, would she have reacted the same way?

“I just thought it was a nice picture so I wanted to post it,” I answered in a small voice.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen you post things like that. I always see you posting pictures with your tongue sticking out. Why do you have to do that? It makes you look ugly.”

At this point I got angry. “I do it because I like the way it looks! Why do you have to be watching my social life? I’m a smart girl; I know what to do and what not to do on the internet.” I felt tears running down my cheeks as I expressed my feelings to her for one of the first times. Before, I would never vocalize how I felt when I disagreed with her, but this made me so angry I blurted everything out without thinking too much about it.

“Why can’t I just have privacy? In foster care, I can’t keep anything to myself. My whole life is told to people I barely even know, and now I can’t even live my life without someone watching what I post.” Although I was upset, it felt good to get all of this out.

Ms. Pena didn’t say anything. She walked out of the room not giving me an answer or anything. Later, she said, “You hurt my feelings.”

Give Trust to Get It

She never did address what I’d said. I wasn’t sure how what I did or said hurt her, and I was so angry that I didn’t bother to ask why. It seemed to me like she’d made it all about her. It seemed like the fact that I was in foster care and that I’d never had privacy didn’t matter to her.

I started to distance myself from her even more. I stayed to myself so she wouldn’t judge me. I felt alone again. I have a lot to say, but I worry that if I voice these opinions, she won’t care or she’ll dismiss what I say.

Having lived through so much abuse and abandonment by my mom, I don’t have much experience talking things through or working them out. I hope that that is something Ms. Pena can acknowledge. I’m also not used to adults having my best interests in mind.

I wonder if Ms. Pena is overprotective because if something happens to me, she could get into big trouble from the foster care agency. I also wonder if she knows the difference in maturity between an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old (going on 16).

It’s hard for me to be vulnerable, but I wish we could at least try to understand one another’s feelings. To understand that we are two people who think differently. Even though it scares me, I think we need to vocalize our thoughts to each other and keep in mind how the other person may feel.

I am grateful to Ms. Pena for caring about me, but I want her to trust me as well. I am maturing, and I know as well as she does what is best for me. I may dress provocatively sometimes, but no more than any other teen. And I’m a good kid; I work hard at school, do extracurricular activities, and am responsible. I’ve given her no reason not to trust me. It hurts to know that no matter what I do, she will continue to look at me as a little kid.

I’d like to say to her: “I’m willing to do things to make it better for both of us. I’m grateful for your worry about me and I know you want the best for me, but I wish you’d trust me. And I’ll work on trusting you more: When I was younger, adults always broke my trust and that still affects me. So I’m not as open, even though it’s been four years and even though you’ve been a good foster mom.” I want to tell her, “Be patient; I am still struggling with letting people in.”

Foster Parents: Tips From a Teen

Remember where they’ve come from. Odds are your foster teen has every reason not to trust adults, so be patient.

Don’t take teenage rebellion personally. Beyond the normal teen limit-testing, they may be figuring out if they can trust any adult.

Privacy is even more important for a teen in care. They’ve often had to tell strangers intimate and painful things. Allow teens their boundaries. If you are going to monitor their social media use, discuss it with them.

Be clear about rules and structure, but hear the teen’s side.

You can help both boys and girls think about how they present themselves online. Talk more with a girl about her interests and less about her appearance or dress. The world is paying sudden attention to her body; you can help her focus on what’s inside.

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