Children today continuously face an environment ravaged by crime, parental drug addiction, lack of appropriate health care, and countless other obstacles to healthy growth. For many children, each day demands a serious struggle simply to survive.
I lived this struggle first-hand. Twenty years ago, I entered the foster care system and stayed in a group home for ten years because my parents, who were heroin addicts, were unable to care for me. I felt institutionalized, alone, and longed for my own family.
But that experience has made me living proof that a child can turn a difficult situation into something positive. I have worked professionally as a dancer, and I am now a social worker with a Masters degree from Columbia University and an attorney with a law degree from Fordham University.
I currently work for South Brooklyn Legal Services representing families in Housing Court and am committed to improving the lives of the poor and disadvantaged.
I want to tell my story because I want to fuel and inspire the dreams of foster children and child welfare advocates everywhere.
For me, the road to success was lined with pain, longing, bitterness, and a determination to succeed. I was only nine when New York City’s Child Welfare Administration removed me from my mother. I felt scared and confused. I wanted to know where Mom was and why she wasn’t there to take care of me. Then, thinking of her feverishly searching for her veins, it was easy to see how drugs had consumed her life.
Mom would often confess how sorry she was and how, from now on, things would be different. She’d say she would stop using drugs so life would be better for her children. She’d say I would be able to go to school regularly and be like other kids. She promised home would be more than a dilapidated hole in the wall or the subway.
But even with those words, I wondered if she loved me. I saw her desperation and pain. I wanted to rescue her, and I wanted a mother to love, nurture, and provide for me.
When I went to the Center for Children and Families, then known as the QSPCC, I had no family of my own. I was told my stay would be temporary and “only until your mother gets herself together.” But Mom never did. Home became a group home. And temporary turned into ten years. Despite the social workers and counselors who took an interest in me and encouraged me, I longed for a family of my own.
In grade school and college I can remember being envious of people with normal families with minor family problems. Because I wanted so much to be accepted, I didn’t want my classmates to know I was in a group home. Such a disclosure would have generated too many questions, or worse, might have led to abandonment yet again. So I learned to avoid such topics or quickly excused myself and kept my secret.
When I first arrived at the Center, I was very bitter and withdrawn. But the teachers and counselors there became the only stable forces in my life for many years. And those relationships have endured; several remain in my life even now. Their constant presence provided the foundation I needed to feel safe and loved, and to realize I had the ability to learn and the determination to excel.
Ultimately, I learned to accept what made me different and discovered it wasn’t a bad thing. And although there are scars that remain from those earlier years, much has changed. Mom has become a friend, and we can now laugh together and finally be a family.
Certainly there is no substitute for a permanent home, but I would have chosen a group home over my biological family because it provided a continuity that otherwise would not have existed.
There are no easy answers to providing permanent stable homes for children, but we all must make a commitment.
Advocacy groups must continue to work to improve children’s lives. Legislators must endorse stronger laws addressing the needs of vulnerable children. And children in the system must learn to advocate for themselves and to never accept mediocrity.
Even in the most seemingly hopeless situation, there can be a better life. Together we must work at empowering ourselves and each other so we can make a difference.
Source: By Garnethi Pettiford, Reprinted from “The Coalition Voice”, Winter 1995