Over 13 years is what I served in our nation’s foster care system. At an early age, I was removed from my birth mother. She was just a teen, and already struggled with an addiction to men and drugs, which she sold and used. My father, well, he was non-existent. At the time of my birth he was in prison. I didn’t grow up knowing what a father was, neither did I realize I missed having one.
I was born an orphan. I may as well have not existed to my parents as they were caught up in their addictions. My needs and my life weren’t significant enough for them to change. When you grow up not having a set of parents to give you a portrait to reference love, truth and purpose, you feel like you missed something. I grew up watching the examples of other people’s lives, feeling I was looking from a doubled-sided glass mirror that I could see out of, but no one could see into.
From around ages 1 to 4 I was bounced from one home to the next. I was adopted by the time I was 5. But instead of a bright beginning it was another road filled with instability, insecurity, abuse and loss. It is like I never left the system. At around 11 I returned to foster care, moving between foster homes, shelters, group homes and detention centers, from one failed placement to the next failed adoption. I was shipped from the south to the north, and lived in care in two different states.
I had approximately 20 different placements. I carried all I owned in black garbage bags. In between placements I was homeless—I slept on random couches or in abandoned apartments, and spent sleepless nights wandering in parks dark enough not to be spotted. Sometimes my homelessness was self-imposed because I knew no one wanted me. I ran from the abuse and the callus that grew from not being able to even feel anymore. Honestly, I was tired of being reminded that I was unwanted.
No one wanted to foster a teenager, unless it was for supplemental income, a babysitter, to do chores or serve as a placeholder for their pain–the punching bag of their emotional wounds, a sexual toy for their pleasure. I attended 14 different schools. Nothing in my life lasted very long. Nothing was predictable except constantly feeling rejected and unloved.
My life was marred by pain that seemed to get deeper and deeper. I remember many people saying “I Love you,” but rarely did I ever feel love. I suffered in silence repeatedly through sexual, physical and emotional abuse. It seemed like a cycle from which I could not break away, no matter what home I was placed in or whom I encountered. No safety came from the arms of the system.
I went through so many experiences, my memory had been impaired to the point that I had no timeline of the things that occurred in my life—memories seemed to bleed into each other. I didn’t have pictures or a recollection of memories reinforced throughout my childhood because even they were scattered among the multiple people and places I had bounced between.
Still, thanks to the kindness of a friend and her family, I was able to fight my way through and finish high school. My early adulthood was spent trying to put the pieces of my life together so it could make sense, give me some frame of reference, and help me find me, find who Cherish was. I had to read about a lot of my life in foster care from documents that I requested when I was 18. It is funny having to learn about yourself through written assessments from workers who visited you for not even an hour a month, if they showed up at all.
Then there was my release. I had finally grown out of the system. I found my birth parents, and while they weren’t what I expected, I learned to forgive and I have a relationship with each of them. I was blessed with a full ride to a Big Ten school. I became the first in my family to complete high school, college and graduate studies. I work in the field that I felt kidnapped and imprisoned me, to make a difference and represent hope for children who feel unloved and marred by negative experiences. I was just like them, but I was determined I WOULD NOT be another statistic, or represent the demeaning title of “state ward” or “system child.”
It is not what you go through, it is about not allowing your circumstances to become your future. Just like a camera takes new pictures, you can create new memories that develop a better portrait of the life you choose to live. There is a release date on your pain and freedom from your past.