Could you survive such emotional, psychological or physical traumas?
You go through childhood barely remembering what your mother smelled like. Since you never knew your mother, you’re moved from home to home 16 times by the age of 19 feeling you had about a hundred mothers.
In the process of being moved all over the place, you lose your brothers and sisters, a particular pair of shoes that felt just right, your absolutely most favorite cuddly, and a certain place on the inside of your last crib where you used to scratch with your fingernail to help you go to sleep.
You’re placed in a juvenile detention center when your only crime was not having a family of your own, and raped numerous times with no one paying the price, giving up on life and attempting suicide at the young age of ten?
I’d like to share a story with you about a little boy who has just been born.
He should be wrapped in his loving mother’s arms with his mother’s scent all about him, and with family gathering ‘round, full of joy at his birth. But he doesn’t feel those loving arms nor hear the sounds of joy. He is moved from one nursery to another. He is alone.
Days, weeks and months go by. The calendar moves toward his first birthday, yet he still remains…alone!
He hears someone…a stranger…calling his name. Someone is picking him up and saying they are taking him home.
Years pass. He has heard strangers repeat his name and say “Pack your bag…you are leaving!” ten different times. He is only six years old. Each time he has heard it, he had just begun to make friends…now they are gone. He begins to feel comfortable where he is, but now it’s time to move again. Stability and permanence would be words in a dictionary, not in his ordinary life.
Each move has brought him to unfamiliar surroundings and people. Each time he has had to pack his “brown paper bag” with all his worldly possessions. The bag is never full. No one has yet called him Son…he is only called by his first name. He hears he is a foster child for the first time. He hears the word “bastard” in relation to him as well.
No one loves him. He doesn’t belong wherever he has gone. He is treated differently than others and no one wants him. He has no permanent home. He walks from school to his temporary home slowly, having developed a fear that it may no longer be his home when he gets there.
He suddenly finds himself in a home where things are different, where he is treated with love. He is treated as part of the family and starts to lose his fear of leaving school to go home. He is getting comfortable where he is.
He is in this home one, two, three years. He believes he has finally found a home. He has made and kept friends for longer than a few months. He passes a fourth year and is half way through another.
He arrives home from school one day and sees a stranger in the house. He slows down going up the walkway and begins to tremble. He sees the one he loves and calls “Mom” crying. The stranger in the room is a caseworker from Catholic Charities. He goes to his Mom to hold her…to cry with her and comfort her.
He knows what this means and packs his “paper bag” once again. Carrying it, he is walking out of the house he has known for four and one half years as home. He looks back as he is slowly driven away…he knows in his heart he won’t be back to live here again.
He is placed in a juvenile detention center with young men who have committed every imaginable crime. His only crime is he has no parents or home to call his own.
He is the youngest boy on the block, as well as the smallest. Though he attempts to fight, he is unable to overcome the attacks of older boys. He is repeatedly sexually assaulted.
One day after being assaulted and left naked in a cell, he feels his life is no longer worth living. He attempts to hang himself with a belt, but is discovered and placed in isolation. Those responsible for the repeated rapes are never charged.
He lives in isolation for over two months while yet another temporary home is found for him.
He is in a strange place once again. He is in a new school and has no friends. He is treated as a stranger. He is not a part of this family. He is forced to eat alone.
He is given but one meal a day, and no seconds were allowed. This forces him to steal from classmates’ lunches to lessen his hunger pangs. The back porch serves as his bedroom both in summer’s heat and winter’s cold.
Christmas comes…the only gifts he receives are the clothes that were given him by the St. Vincent de Paul Society a week earlier as his semiannual clothing allotment. There is nothing from this family for him under the tree.
Months pass. He is told to “pack his bag.” They are coming for him in the morning. He is being moved yet again.
He is asleep this last night, when suddenly he is jolted awake. Before him stands another person…exposing himself. He intends to have the boy remember his last night in this house. The boy screams out in terror and lashes out every way possible.
He hears someone coming, asking, “What is going on?”
He tells his story, but is not believed. He is told, “You no good, ungrateful, lying little bastard! No wonder no one wants you! Get your bag and get your ass out of this house!”
He hears and feels the hard slap and sting of a hand across his reddened face. He is forced to sit on the outside stoop in the cold night, to await them coming to get him in the morning.
He is picked up, and soon on a plane for the first time in his life and doesn’t know where he is being taken. The person taking him is not speaking to him. He lands in a place he has never heard of and has no idea where he is, only that he has been moved again.
You have been reading this for just a few minutes. In that short time, this young boy has been moved 15 times. He has been uprooted from the only place he considered home and the people he loved. He has made friends and lost them. He has changed schools. He has been made to feel a part of a family and as a stranger. He has been sexually assaulted. He has attempted suicide. He is alone again. He is but 11 years old!
Can you imagine how this young boy felt? I don’t need to imagine any of the story just shared with you or the feelings this young boy felt. It is a story not just about any little boy. It is a TRUE story…and I WAS that young boy.
I was placed in foster care the day of my birth. Though my birth mother had indicated months before my birth that she was placing me for adoption, the home for unwed mothers did nothing prior to my birth to arrange one. I spent my first six months in the nursery of the hospital where I was born and then was moved back to the nursery of the home for unwed mothers for almost another six months. The merry go round of the system had already begun.
Shortly before my first birthday I was placed in a foster home…already in three places by age one and none to really call home! I was bounced from place to place; a total of 15 times in 11 years. I sometimes slipped through the cracks and got shuffled around unnoticed and forgotten. No reason was ever given for the move, nor was I ever spoken to about moving. I was voiceless as others controlled what was to happen to me.
What were they thinking when they sent me to a foster home without telling them about the special ways I needed to be handled because I had never stayed anywhere long enough to get attached to anybody? And when that family got rid of me, and the next, and the next, did they think I was going to take it all lying down? Did they think I was supposed to just be sweet and adorable and ready to connect to yet another family who was going to throw me away?
After a while, I had lost too many people that I might have cared about. I had been with too many “parents” who really weren’t, because they couldn’t hold me tightly in their hearts at all. No one understood how I was being changed by all these losses (in my heart and in my behavior).
I was always living on the outside looking in. I thought when I was little everyone was the same; only to find out I was treated differently, not because of who I was, but rather what I was.
I lived in a world of never knowing; where I would live, who would take care of me, or where I would go to school. I never knew if I would ever be secure again, where home is or where I belonged.
I rarely had friends as I was seldom in one place long enough to make them. I didn’t know what it felt like to attend the same school more than a year or so.
One is always movable once you have no home to call your own. A home is not just a place to lay one’s head. A home is where you can stay, where you can be comfortable, where you know you will always be safe and secure.
Once I got used to all the moving and different schools I somehow found within myself a space to furnish as I would my room, finding scraps of things I could embrace. I could at least become comfortable knowing I was alone, knowing I would be the only one who is going to look out for me.
I became known as a loner. I depended on nobody but myself. This caused more problems.
I built brick walls and didn’t let anyone in. Once the walls were in place it took much to take them down. If they start to come down and something happened, I would put them back up higher than they were before.
Each time I got hurt, the walls were built higher. I lost much time in keeping those walls high and strong. I had no trust, no bond, and it made it hard to build a relationship. If I was lucky enough to find someone who was willing to fight for me, I still would not totally depend on them, which hurt them. I saw the pain in their eyes, which in return, hurt me even more. The hurt only caused more pain and started the walls to be raised again, or I ran and kept on running, from one relationship to another.
My childhood is almost impossible to trace. It was only years later and after many years of research that I was able to begin putting it all together.
I was an enigma tangled up in a mystery. I was the lost puzzle pieces swept under the rug. I was a missing link in a chain of life. I had no roots. I was like tumbleweed blown in the wind calling home wherever the breeze took me. I was a chameleon changing colors to blend into my surroundings.
My losses were etched upon my face and within my eyes pain for which no penance can atone. How could I be forced to move continuously from place to place?
At age 11 the state gave up on me and sent me off to Boys Town, Nebraska to be someone else’s burden, even though I was born in Detroit, Michigan. They put an 11 year old boy who had never been out of Detroit or on a plane, with a caseworker who would not say a word to me throughout the over four-hour flight as to where I was being sent.
Aging out of the system was my sixteenth and final move. I was basically thrown out on the streets as the system washed its hands of me. Whether I had gained a support system or not, I was now considered an adult and sent out on my own. It was up to me to make it or not.
It is no wonder I have moved a number of times in the years since. I was used to it! Yet, somehow despite what I had endured, I survived with a peculiar grace, even though my heart should have turned to stone as I was moved about from place to place so very often.
The system was responsible for providing my most basic needs as a child. By basics I don’t mean simply shelter and food, but a stable home life, the knowledge that someone actually gave a damn about me, self-worth, and most importantly, the ability to trust those responsible for me! They did not even come close to achieving them.
As a child, all I ever truly wanted was a place to call home, a family to love me, someone to call me SON! I don’t think I desired too much…one family I could love and call my own! Because of the system, those simple desires NEVER became a reality!
How did I feel during and after my years in foster care? I felt pain and anger, like a nobody, unwanted, depressed, and in constant fear of what each new day might bring. I also felt, worthless, a failure, second class, alone, depressed, that no one understood, felt no one really cared about me, and that life was not worth living.
During the years on the merry-go-round of the foster care system I questioned: What was wrong with me? Why didn’t anyone want me? Will I ever have a family?
These were just a few of the feelings and questions that haunted me throughout my childhood and beyond. At that time I did not realize that the problem was not me but the “system” itself.
That is the impact and damage the foster care system caused that I had to overcome. The damage only began to be reversed when “the system” made the decision to give up on me. Yes, they actually made a decision that I was the failure and sent me off to an orphanage for boys for someone else to deal with.
Actually, it was their failure and their sending me away, which began my redemption…the beginning of the repair that would be necessary if I were not to become what I felt I was, or what “the system” had already determined I was.
I arrived at Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys; better known as Boys Town, Nebraska an embittered young boy, angry at the world, caring less about school, hating any type of authority. I was already well on my way of becoming just another failing statistic of the system. I would go from fifth grade through the tenth with this type of attitude.
It appeared to me that all Boys Town wanted to do was to keep me there until I aged out of the system. Teachers passed me on from grade to grade no matter how little effort I made. By the end of my sophomore year, I ranked near the bottom of my class. It was not due to lack of intelligence but rather that I just didn’t care.
Going to college was something that never even entered into my mind. No one was there to attempt to deal with all the anger that was within me.
Things slowly began changing. Three people entered my life that was to have an influence upon me. They took it upon themselves to take a young man under siege in his life and teach him to reach for his fullest potential. Though all three are now deceased, they continue to influence me and will do so for the rest of my life.
The Executive Director of Boys Town took me under his wing as I went to work for him as his cook’s assistant. We spent hours talking. He always had an open door for me when I felt I needed to talk. He provided me with a “father” figure, missing from the early days of my childhood. He went further out of his way to support me than his position required.
As a small child I loved to argue. My tenth grade English teacher that year saw something positive in my argumentative nature. She kept me after school one day early in the school year. She talked to me about my arguing and how she saw it as ability, if it were directed in the proper way. I had no idea what she was talking about.
She took me to another English teacher, also the coach for the newly begun Speech and Debate Team. She simply told him, “I think I have a debater for you.” Yeah, I could now argue, and get away with it!
The debate coach, of course, let me know that with the ability to argue, I now had to prove my case. This meant lots of hard work researching the question being debated. It also meant that to be part of the debate team and go to tournaments, my grades had to improve. I was determined to do whatever it took to make the team.
Someone finally saw something positive in me!
I made the novice debate team that year. I was a good debater, even though rough around the edges. My senior year; I made the varsity debate team. My partner and I were, if I say so myself, great. We were rarely defeated. We traveled throughout the Midwest on weekends during the season, accumulating numerous trophies as winners of the tournaments. Our record at the end of the season was 289 wins as opposed to only 29 defeats.
I finally felt I had accomplished something. I was worth something. I could do more with my life than the low expectations the foster care system and I had previously set for me.
When that light bulb went on in my head, I knew I had a decision to make that would determine where my life was headed. I could sit on the sidelines of the highway of life whining about my childhood, blaming others for my failures and actually make my life a failure. Or, I could decide to say, “OK, I was dealt a bad hand at birth and my childhood had been a disaster. However, now is the time for me to travel the road of accepting the responsibility for my actions and determine my life is in my control and no one else’s.”
It was not a difficult decision. The highway of whine and blame is a well traveled one…too crowded for my taste. I was alone in my life, no matter whether I was willing to accept it or not…I was responsible for my future. I decided to travel the highway of responsibility!
Graduation from Boys Town is different from any other high school graduation in the country. You are not only graduating high school; you are also losing “your home.”
At Boys Town the graduation ceremony was at 2p.m. and all graduates had to be off campus by 5p.m.Graduation meant I was now an adult and it was time for me to go out into the world and make whatever mark on it I was capable of. It meant that for the first time in over seven years, I would once again be “homeless.”
With a few final good-byes and wishes of good luck it was time to go; time to “leave my home.” The only good thing was that this time I was not leaving home with only “a paper bag.” I was leaving with suitcases of clothes, boxes of books and mementos collected over seven years. I also carried with me a fully paid college scholarship. I had gone from near the bottom of my class to the top five per cent. It was the only way I could afford college
There I was at eighteen with no place to go. Though I had received a scholarship to college in the fall I spent that summer in a small dirty apartment then on the streets and shelters surviving in anyway I could until fall. I was determined not to be the “failure” the system had classified me to be.
Boys Town had given me a diploma and opportunity. The foster care system, that had moved me time and time again, gave me a letter only stating I was now on my own!
I went on to receive a college degree. Only two per cent of those who age out of the system ever receive a college degree. I have had a successful professional career in the years that have followed.
Facing obstacles during my childhood did not end the challenges I would face later in life. Years were needed to overcome the damage inflicted by the system: finding out at 53 of the one foster family that attempted to adopt me three times only to be turned down each time, there would be the years of searching for my immediate birth family and ultimately being rejected by them…to name but a few of them. The will to survive garnered during my childhood along with my deep faith would prove beneficial when facing each of these obstacles.
Today I battle for reform of the system. I write articles, I speak to groups, blog and have authored a book–anything I can do to cause change in the system so youth in the system today will not face the same issues I was forced to face.
My web site: http://www.larrya.us