Story by Brook Burlando
Edited by Molly Miltenberger and Natalie St.Martin
Drawing by Natalie St.Martin
Photography by Della Chen
By age 15 I had stumbled onto a genius trick. All I needed to say was that I wanted to kill myself and I’d be placed into a hospital. When I was a psych patient, I wasn’t a foster kid.
I had been voluntarily and involuntarily placed in adult and adolescent psychiatric wards numerous times. After living in a therapeutic group home for two years, I was placed into my last official foster home at 17 and I struggled through the 10th grade for the 3rd time.
The school system could not balance the credits I had earned from the numerous school districts I had moved through. Finally I dropped out of the 11th grade and stepped out on my own as a vulnerable and naïve 19 year old who had “aged out” of a system that had failed me as miserably as my own family had years before.
I had been taught zero life skills. I’d never held a job. I didn’t know how to make a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t know what a budget was or how to fill out a check. I didn’t know how to apply for an apartment or scramble an egg.
The first place I moved to was a room for rent in a crack house. I was terrified and practically helpless. I was thrilled at not being a foster kid, but I didn’t know anything else. One fact that gave me a sense of control over my life was that no one would get paid to house me ever again. I had been consistently treated as a second-class person in foster homes—I was valued as a source of income, but not wanted or loved as a human being.
As a child, I had been sexually abused by my dad for as long as I could remember. When I was 12 years old, I told a staff member at school. Child Protective Services removed me from my family during lunch recess the next day.
I was not allowed to say goodbye to my brothers or to call my mom. Over night, I lost all contact with my parents, my twin brother, my five other brothers, my grandma, my aunt, and a God that I thought I knew. I had only the clothes on my back.
On one of the first nights away from my family, I laid in a twin sized bed that I shared with another foster kid and listened to the foster mom talk with her neighbor, who was also a foster mom. Over their nightly tea, the two women ran down the list of names of each kid in their homes and compared prices for each. The neighbor was jealous of the amount my foster mom received for me. My foster mom explained that if she accepted the older ones, she too could earn more money.
At 13, I almost killed myself by swallowing an entire bottle of allergy medication. I did not intend to die; I merely wanted attention—any attention. I learned to survive the foster care system and all my loneliness, anger and sadness by threatening suicide, self-harming or wildly acting out. I became labeled by my caseworkers as “hard to place” and was set into a pattern of being placed only into homes licensed as Respite, which meant moving between homes roughly every 35 days.
One Respite placement was exceptionally abusive. It was the only placement I ever attempted to run away from. The other girls and I were kept locked in the basement. Food was set out for us on the top step of the stairs. We fought like animals for the food because there was never enough. The other girls would gang up on me. On more than one occasion I woke up in the bathtub, stripped of my clothing, having been beaten unconscious by them.
I called my caseworker and she told me she was calling the police and that I had better return to the home because everyone was sick of my lies and no one else wanted me.
After I aged out, I relied on my previous “suicidal behaviors” and spent the next five years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. I was placed on Social Security and I tried to navigate a world that I didn’t feel I belonged in. I depended heavily on the few adults that invested in a relationship with me. In a sense I forced them to replace and fill the role of family.
Then, within a two week time period, I became homeless, unemployed, and discovered that I was pregnant. At 26, I had surrounded myself with immaturity, drugs, sex and chaos. I was out of control emotionally, and detached from God, people and myself.
As a young girl, I had wanted to be a mom. In fact, I wanted to be a great mom. I longed for traditions, routine, permanency and worth. But because I was homeless during my pregnancy and had no friends or family willing to house me, I was at serious risk of losing my child to the system.
After living in shelters for 8 months, I found housing through Catholic Community Services. I was able to give birth and bring my child home with me. I was scared and overwhelmed to be a mom, but in the group home, I observed other mothers and copied them. I knew that I knew nothing about parenting, so I learned to ask questions. I grew up fast!
God gave me my son in order to turn my life into a new direction–a direction that shows me just how good He is and just how protective He is. God has shown me that He was with me all along, even when I was at my lowest and my loneliest.
He showed me that I am not as indispensable as I had felt in that first foster home. He was with me when I swallowed the bottle of medicine. He heard me as I was burning and cutting on myself; while I screamed, “Can’t you see how I’m hurting!” He has kept me alive, and helped me to learn to live in new ways.
I’m sitting at my kitchen table as I write this and my son is running around playing. My life now resembles nothing like the life of growing up in the foster care system. Instead of bouncing around from home to home, I have raised my child in the same home for 8 years. His school photos are on the walls, food is in the fridge, and clothes are in the closets. The electricity is on; the house plants are growing. There are sticky spots on the floors, and a cat is curled up on the couch. This is my home. This is the home that I wanted as I was aged out of the foster care system. I’m surrounded by friends and family. I don’t question my worth. I know I’m wanted and even cherished. I no longer live terrified of my future or the unknown. I have stability, maturity and strength. I have joy and a huge sense of humor.
I am that great mom I wanted to be, but none of this is because of my own strength. My son Tress is 11 years old and such a sweet hilarious blessing. Miraculously, in the past few years I’ve been reunited with my biological family. I’m able to forgive my parents. I was a foster kid and I was aged out. Now I’m living a healthy life full of worth and meaning. There is hope.