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Foster Teens: ''Family' Is A Hard Word For Me To Understand'

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This is a teen-written article from our friends at Represent Magazine, a platform for and by young people in foster care. Some details, such as names, from this young woman's story have been changed.

By Jennifer R.

In sixth 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 five, 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 second 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 seven. 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 seven 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 fourth 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 fifth 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.

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?”

Click here to read the rest of the story on representmag.org.

Reprinted with permission from Youth Communication.