Story By Luke Whyte
Photography by Lisa Weatherbee
Not every foster child finds a family. The forgotten ones grow up alone in the faceless embrace of bureaucracy, waiting and wishing, like runts in a litter of kittens staring hopelessly out of an emptying box. Elijah Callender was one of those children. The state covered his eyes and clutched him tightly until his 21st birthday. Then it dropped him.
Elijah was two-years-old when Children’s Services found him and his 12-year-old brother, JB, living unsupervised in a Bronx apartment. Mom hadn’t been around much – a heavy drug user, she birthed five kids with five men but didn’t raise one. So JB and Elijah were sent to live with their grandmother and third brother, CJ, in Atlanta.
Down south, the boys were a real handful for “Grandmoms,” Elijah said. “We were wild down there – running around all day and night outside.”
Holes the size of 8-year-olds were made in walls and wounds the shape of silverware tips scarred skin. Aged six, Elijah watched cops throw JB into the back of a cruiser. The brothers’ eyes met – separated by ten years and a pane of glass – and the 16-year-old said, “Open the door.” So Elijah did. And the whole family watched that night as JB jumped fences in handcuffs on the local news.
Aged eight, Elijah found a Glock pistol under a cushion in the living room chair. Boots were thrown and the front door slammed behind JB. Two months later, he was out front with a gas can throwing kerosene on the house. He lit a match. Whoosh.
“I was mad at him,” Elijah said, “for burning up all my toys.”
JB was sent to prison for arson and the rest of the family returned to New York City. Elijah and CJ had a brief stint living with their mother, but she was still heavy into drugs.
“She beat my brother with a dog chain,” says Elijah. “She tried to burn me with the stove.”
When Elijah was eight, his grandmother fell off a ladder and snapped her femur. She was left crippled and unable to care for the brothers, which forced Elijah into the foster care system for the next 12 years. He would never be adopted.
He spent the bulk of those 12 years at Children’s Village Residential School in the small town of Dobbs Ferry. Surrounded by a barbed wire fence, Children’s Village “houses and educates ‘at-risk’ boys aged 6 to 20 at a school on the premises”, according to their website.
For Elijah, however, Children’s Village, “was like a long drawn out process of being abandoned.”
“Once you spend your first night there,” he said, “and you sleep by yourself in one of those beds with all those other kids, you are no longer a child.”
“It’s like being in jail, the way they restrict your movements, the way they tell you how to act, [and] how to behave.
“It really felt like nobody loved me. No kid should have to feel like that.”
Unadopted foster children age out of care between the ages of 18 and 21. Often grossly underprepared, they stand on the edge of a financial cliff without parental lifelines, many having never cooked an egg or withdrawn from an ATM. Statistics are not on their side.
“It was very scary,” Elijah said.
Often, the little things trip them up, the things most people take for granted, “like time management or trusting someone enough to ask for help,” Elijah said. “Filling out proper paperwork, forgetting to buy groceries and shit.”
When he was discharged at age 21, Elijah had $4,000— half of which he spent on a car. “Thank God I had a job. If I didn’t have a job and I just aged out of care, I’d have been f*****.”
But eventually he lost that job and, in turn, he lost his new apartment – and landed on the doorstep of his 18-year-old sister Mariah’s dad’s apartment in Brooklyn. He slept on the couch, slinging weed to pay rent and kept his belongings in his car. He had planned to save up some money and go out to Arizona to be with his fourth brother Jerry, but one day the cops ran the plates on his car. They found out that Elijah had no registration or insurance because, “I didn’t know any better.” The car and everything inside it was impounded, and Elijah spent 10 days in jail.
When he got out, he found the remains of his life thrown into the hallway outside the apartment. When he banged on the door, Mariah’s dad appeared with a gun in his hand. Elijah got the message.
On the verge of homelessness, he made a last-ditch call to his friend Everett. Everett had been placed with Susan, a woman in Washington Heights by You Gotta Believe, an organization specializing in finding families for foster kids that age out. Susan also took Elijah in and he found work helping another You Gotta Believe representative, Denise, move into her apartment. Denise opened her arms to Elijah, and soon after, her apartment.
At times, their living arrangement resembles a storage unit as much as it does an apartment, but together, they’re building a home. Today, Elijah calls Denise mom. He helps her care for her adopted 2-year-old. She helps him plan a future. Recently, he was accepted into a school where he’s earning his GED.
For the first time in 13 years, Elijah has the one thing that could keep almost anyone aging out of care from slipping through the cracks. Elijah has a family.