On any given day, about 400,000 children and teens are living in foster care in the U.S. Angela, 17, is one of them.
By Angela Velez, as told to Jane Bianchi
I’ve never met my dad, and until last year, I lived with my mom in a small apartment in New York City, where she wouldn’t let me see my older sisters, who lived on their own nearby -- or even go on the Internet. My mom forced me to sit there with her all day, but whenever I tried to talk to her, she’d just stare at the TV and say, “I’m too tired to talk.” My friends’ moms weren’t like that -- they talked to their kids -- so I knew something wasn’t right. I felt so isolated and sad.
As the years went on, life at home got worse. If I forgot to do something, like the dishes, my mom would curse at me in Spanish. Her bad attitude wore me down. So finally, one day in middle school, I got so fed up that I yelled back: “You don’t care about me!” As soon as the words came out, my mom started hitting me, and even though I asked her to stop, she just said, “Shut up! I'm not hurting you.” I felt a sharp pain in my leg, though, and when I looked down, there were cuts from where her nails had dug into my skin. I couldn’t believe my own mother could be so cruel.
Still, I never told anyone -- mostly because I was terrified of her. But last year, when I was hanging at a friend's on a Friday night, her mom saw I was upset and asked what was wrong. That’s when everything I was going through just came pouring out.
My friend's mom was so troubled by what she heard that she called Child Protective Services (CPS), a governmental organization that helps kids who are being abused or neglected. CPS deemed my mom unfit to be a parent and put me in a group home. I was thankful to be free from my mom, but I also felt scared and alone, like a misfit nobody wanted.
In the group home, I learned about foster care. Foster parents are people who become certified to temporarily care for kids who need a home. Sometimes foster care kids go back to their birth parents, sometimes they get adopted, and sometimes they stay in foster care until they can live on their own.
After I found out that I was going to foster care, part of me was relieved, but part of me thought, “What’s going to happen to me now?” I wasn't sure if foster care would be better -- or worse.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
My first foster care experience was definitely worse, or at least just as bad. When I walked in, the house smelled, and even though I brought eight bags full of clothes and books with me, nothing made it feel like home. The woman who answered the door didn’t hug me and barely talked. I felt trapped all over again.
Luckily, though, I got to leave within a few days, and walking into my second foster care home was a much different experience. These foster parents, Sandra and Henry, put their arms on my shoulders in a gentle way to show me that they cared. They then let me settle into my bedroom, and -- when I was ready -- cooked me dinner.
Now, about nine months later, Sandra and Henry are the parents I always wanted. They allow me to see my sisters, let me use the Internet, and help me with homework -- things my mom never did. And on my 17th birthday, Sandra took me out to a nice dinner. Believe it or not, no one had ever celebrated my birthday before. For the first time in my whole life, I felt happy.
Once I started living with Sandra and Henry, CPS hooked me up with a therapist. It’s helpful to discuss my problems, and she always boosts my confidence. She’ll say, “Dude, you're awesome.” After growing up around so much negativity, it feels great to be around positive people!
I’ve also been spending a lot more time with my best friend, Eric. He's like my brother. When I’m feeling down, he’ll say, “Ang, c’mon. You can do this.”
And you know, with all this support behind me, I’ve been thinking a lot about what “family” really means. A lot of people think it means a biological mom, dad, and siblings. But to me, family means people who love me and help me. It doesn’t matter if you’re blood-related; family can be anyone. When I look at my foster parents, I see that my life is finally moving in the right direction -- and that makes me smile.
One thing Sandra, Henry, and my sisters do now is ask me how I'm doing. Nobody had ever asked me that before! It’s such a simple question, but it feels so good when someone is concerned enough to ask. It has inspired me to ask other kids at school how they’re doing.
Because if there's one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can't just say that you care, you have to prove it -- and show that you care.
3 Things Angela Wants You to Know
1. Never give up. No matter what you’re going through -- even when you think you’re at your lowest point -- things will get better. It’s important to stay optimistic.
2. Don't hate. If you meet kids in foster care, don’t call them names. That’s not cool. Foster kids are the same as any other kids. There’s no reason to knock them down.
3. Speak up. If you or someone you know has a hard home life, don’t suffer in silence. Tell an adult, like a friend’s parent or a school social worker or psychologist. The sooner you reach out, the sooner you can get help.