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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The System Hasn’t Served My Family
I have ideas to improve it
Tayia Day

One day when I was 10, there was a ring at the door of my grandma’s house. My 8-year-old sister, Danielle, asked who it was, and a man’s voice said, “ACS.” (That’s Child Protective Services in New York City.)

She ran to my grandma and me, and said, “GG (our nickname for our grandma), it’s ACS.” She let an older guy in—Mr. Rodriguez—who said ACS had gotten a call from someone in the building about child abuse. I was scared.

He then checked the house, which had bugs and mice. My baby sister Delilah had on a dirty diaper. Mr. Rodriguez said that the house was a dangerous environment.

I didn’t understand what this meant; I just heard someone talking crap about my GG’s house. Mind you, my sisters and I didn’t live at my grandma’s; we lived with our mom, whose house was clean. My older brother Tyrone, who was 15, was my only sibling who lived with GG; the rest of us just stayed there a lot.

But Mr. Rodriguez said he needed to contact our mom because he was taking us into foster care that night. Around the time my mom arrived, the cops did too. They told my three siblings and me to pack some things and go downstairs to the ambulance. While Tyrone, Danielle, and I walked out, Delilah clung to my mom. We were all crying our eyes out. My mom kept saying, “God, don’t do this, please.”

They pulled Delilah off my mom and put us in an ambulance. I was terrified, thinking, “What’s happening? Where are they taking us?” I held onto Delilah.

Is This Legal? Is This Forever?

At the ACS building, they asked us for our electronic devices. My brother kept his cellphone, whispering to us not to say anything because we might need it to call Mommy if they hurt us.

Then they split us up and took me to a Jamaican lady who braided my hair and told me to shower and then took me to eat. I asked her where my siblings were, and she told me not to worry about them. She took me to a room with 12 beds, each with a green blanket. The other 11 beds were empty: I was the only child sleeping in that room. The Jamaican lady sat in a chair by the door.

I lay awake wondering, “How can someone just take me away from my mom? Is this legal? Is this forever? Will I ever be able to live with my mom and siblings again?” Nobody explained to me what was going on. I found out later that ACS said my mom had neglected us because she let us stay at her mother’s dirty house.

The next day a lady told me they were going to place us into foster homes. I didn’t even know what that was, but the next day, the four of us moved to our first foster home. We three girls slept in the same room, while my brother slept in another. At night I cried for my mommy, watched Delilah, or snuck to my brother’s room for comfort. He was my only protector and a father figure to me.

I spoke to my mom on the phone, and she said that she had lost her apartment and would be staying with grandma until she could get back on her feet.

Our second day there, the foster mother got mad at us for not eating her weird breakfast—bacon, eggs, grits, and green peppers mushed up together. To punish us, she put the leftover mush in a Ziploc baggie, and kept serving it to us morning after morning. It reeked like a trash can. By the fifth day, we were so hungry that we forced each other to eat it.

Living With My Father

After a week, ACS finally got a hold of my father, and we were placed into his care in the Bronx. He had not been around as I was growing up; I had only met him two years earlier. He was living with his new wife, Alicia, and their kids. It was OK there, but I still missed Mommy.

The closet door in our bedroom was damaged from people sliding the door open wrong. My dad always said he would fix it, but a month after we got there, the accident happened.

“Danielle, Delilah, stop! You’re going to get hurt!” I shouted as they played near the closet. Then a moment later, bang! The broken door fell onto Delilah’s head. Delilah was OK, but my father still had to tell Mr. Rodriguez because he didn’t want to get in trouble. The next day both my sisters were placed in another home, all the way in Harlem.

I missed living with my sisters, and Tyrone and I hated living with Alicia. She treated us differently than our half-siblings she had with my father. She’d give us Cup Noodles and buy her kids Spanish and Chinese food. She’d buy them candy and get us nothing. She made me and my brother feel unwanted.

My father and my brother got into physical fights over small things my brother would say to him, even though Tyrone was just joking. I didn’t understand why my father got so angry.

After we’d been with him for two months, my father went to court and said he did not want my brother and me to live with him anymore. Mr. Rodriguez came to pick us up and take us back to the ACS center.

Mr. Rodriguez smiled at me and tried to hug me, which bothered me because he knew I didn’t like him. He didn’t seem to understand children or how we might feel being away from our families.

I Want to Go Home

After about two days, ACS found us separate homes. I was scared; it was my first placement alone. I was happy that at least Tyrone and I were both placed in Queens.

They placed me with a Jamaican lady in her 50s named Vivien. She told me to call her Ms. V. She fed me good food and helped me with my homework. I liked her at first, but I fell into depression. I wanted to go home.

I wanted to sleep all day. I missed many days of school and spent a lot of time playing with the creatures in the backyard. I thought of the worms, ants, and snails as my secret family.

image by YC-Art Dept

I asked if my sisters could come live with us, and the agency and Ms. V. said OK. My brother was doing fine in his foster home, so he stayed there.

After a couple of weeks of my sisters living with us, Ms. V started to get fed up with my sleeping and my sisters playing on the staircase. (They’d never seen stairs inside a house.) She started giving me beer and rum and giving my sisters pills. I knew that was wrong and I told my mom. She told the caseworkers.

The three of us were removed from Ms. V’s care the next morning and placed with a Haitian lady named Ms. Foundation. She treated my sisters and me very well. She had a backyard we played in. Her older daughter had a little girl around Delilah’s age, and her cousin had a daughter that age too. That cousin drove us to school.

Ms. Foundation took us trick-or-treating at Halloween. She taught me how to understand and speak Creole, and I felt safe and happy in her home.

But Ms. Foundation had to go to Haiti because her mom was sick. The agency placed us with a couple who had already adopted two girls. We hated their house. It was big and dirty and smelled weird.

My sisters and I fought with the other girls over our stuff. One of the girls kicked Delilah down the stairs because of a toy. Danielle and I started to fight the girl. We were removed that night, spent a week with another family, and then we got to go back to our mother.

On the way from our last foster home, we picked up my brother from his foster house. I kept thinking, “God, please don’t let them take us away from Mommy ever again.”

Help We Could Have Used

In total, we lived with strangers for a year and a half. In that time, no social worker asked us what we wanted or needed or made sure we were safe. Nobody told me about my rights and responsibilities, such as what I have to tell foster care staff and lawyers and judges and what I don’t.

It wasn’t so great when we got home, either. I think ACS could have done a better job preparing Danielle and me to be reunited with our mother. We could have used training in how to behave and how to keep away from drugs and other trouble. ACS and our agency failed to check on us. They told us there would be six-month follow-up visits after we went back to my mom’s, but nobody ever came.

We had some family therapy, but the first and only time I went, my mom made fun of what I said and blamed me for our issues. I didn’t want to go back.

The agency should have started the family therapy during home visits while we were in care. The therapist should have kept everyone from being mean to each other. That would have helped us understand and talk to each other.

I’ve heard of family therapists playing games that helped people explore their issues and bring families closer. This therapist kept trying to make us talk even when people were arguing and screaming. She created more problems for us to deal with!

Both Danielle and I suffer from anxiety and depression. I have an ACS worker because Danielle was skipping school and ACS opened a case. I have asked my mom and ACS workers for therapy. My caseworkers said they’ll look into it, but haven’t done anything.

I don’t understand why any of it happened. I don’t understand why ACS didn’t keep the four of us together in a foster home while they helped my mom get an apartment. Instead of offering my family help or training, they kept us apart for too long.

If I Ran the System

Now I’m 17 years old. If I ran the foster care system, I’d avoid separating families by helping them love one another and work together as a team. I’d provide classes for kids who are damaged by their parents and/or foster parents and by being in the system.

In these classes, trained workers would hold one-on-one talks, group therapy, and games teaching safety and wellness. I thought up a game called “How Well Do You Know Me,” where each person says five things about themselves. At the end, everyone says what they know about each other. I’d also have kids participate in something I call “A Friend in Need,” where kids are paired up with new friends every week and share each other’s interests and hobbies. The goal is to make sure no one feels alone, everyone feels safe, and they learn about friendship. I’ve come up with these games because I could have used them, and there was nothing like this for me.

Kids with the same issues, for example, those who’ve experienced various types of abuse, those who have trouble controlling their anger, and those trying to repair their relationships with their families, should be in the same classes. I find it easier to talk to people who have gone through the same stuff I have or have the same goals.

Some of these classes could help prepare youth to reunite with their birth parents. But I’m almost 18, and I think it’s too late for me. Now, I wish I had workers to help me make up for what I’m not getting from my mom. Even though I’m no longer in foster care, I need help getting my stuff together so I can be better on my own after I move out. My mom isn’t helping me prepare to succeed in life, but foster care didn’t help either. I wish we could do better.

Tayia’s Tips For Policy And Practice

Avoid separating families whenever possible.

Make sure youth in care understand their rights.

Hold classes for young people in care that are aimed at creating friendships in a safe environment. Make them fun, with games!

Help youth in care connect with others who have had similar experiences.

Help foster youth through the transition back to living with birth parents with therapy and other supports.

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