Editor’s Note: In an effort to help prioritize family placements, the use of group homes is on the decline. Many children and youth have found the care provided to be lacking, sometimes severely. Girls in particular have exhibited runaway behavior at a higher rate than boys. While placing them at an even greater risk for homelessness and human trafficking victimization, fleeing these sometimes abusive or neglectful temporary homes feels like the only recourse for some girls.
TRIGGER WARNING: The following contains content that may be harmful or traumatizing to some readers.
I stepped to the edge of the sidewalk. As I was going to step into the street as cars were coming, the social worker grabbed my arm. We drove to my house to get a few of my belongings and saw my stepdad being hauled away. The shoe he had used to hit me was in an officer’s hand and he was in handcuffs. As the worker and officer walked me inside, my brother asked me if I was happy that I “had destroyed his family.” If I was happy with “what I caused.” My sister was just sad and didn’t quite understand what had happened. I was taken to an emergency placement outside of town, in Hollister somewhere. I ran away because I didn’t know where I was. I remember somehow making it back down to Watsonville and being placed in a group home in the middle of nowhere.
It was a co-ed group home in an old two-story house. There were boys to the left of the hallway and girls to the right. The boys each had their own rooms, but we girls shared one room with single beds in the master bedroom. We had a schedule for all meals and the kitchen was off-limits outside of mealtimes and at bedtime. Different staff members, men and women, were always coming in, doing shifts. It was hard to keep track of who was working there at first, but I caught on fast.
I was always seeing families visit on family days, but I never had anyone visit me. I just sat in my room until everyone left because I didn’t want anyone to see. Lots of girls would come in with drugs and the boys didn’t live there for long except one who was a lot like me and never had visitors. Soon there were three of us that connected because we had no family that could come see us. It was around that time that I found out that my mom was going to give up her rights as my mom.
I remember going to the court hearing and sitting there just feeling like shit. Seeing my mom on the other side and just thinking “why did I say anything to the counselor?” I wanted to say sorry but couldn’t. The room was big, full of seats, and the judge was talking. Nothing he said made any sense to me. All I remember hearing was when he asked if my mom agreed with the decision being made by the courts. Then he said, “I hereby terminate parental rights,” and everyone agreed, and the hearing was over. I was legally no longer my mom’s daughter.
I started catching on to who was a heavy sleeper in the house. When there was a party at the closest house down the hill, I would sneak out and bring back alcohol or whatever else I could get my hands on. One day I got caught with weed and as I ran to destroy the evidence, one of the male staff, who had already been on my case about everything, pushed me out of the way so I couldn’t flush it. But he was too late and had no evidence that I had anything. That made him angry. He called the cops and because I stated that he pushed me out of the way, they felt it was best to move me to a different group home. I was so angry. I was leaving the only friends that I had. The new group home couldn’t transport me to my school, so I began at a new school with no friends.
The group home I landed at was an all-girls group home and with the school right next door. We really didn’t see the outside world unless we went to an AA meeting and that was the most exciting thing to happen. Like before, we had a strict schedule with limited access to the kitchen, shower, and phone. We had no passes unless we knew that we were at a certain phase or if we were transitioning out because we were about to be 18 (I was 16). We only had one male night staff there and the rest were women. We all had our favorite there who she was, in all fairness, like a big sister and really was there to help us. The rest of the staff, like in the other group home, were there just to do their shift, enforce the rules, and babysit us with lots of restrictions.
The male night staff gave me a weird vibe, though I didn’t know him well. I would see the older girls go in the office with him and be there and then everyone would come downstairs to the kitchen, eat, drink, and do drugs. That staff member let us do whatever we wanted as long as we didn’t get caught and, of course, we didn’t get caught. Later I found out that one of the girls was having sex with him in exchange for us to get to do what we were doing. She didn’t want to do that anymore and she didn’t know how to make it stop.
I felt horrible. The other girls had hidden this from me. They used me to sneak out and bring back stuff for them and didn’t want me to get freaked out. When I found out, I remember telling the girls that I was done helping and they threatened me and the other girl. Before night fell, I ran away with that girl so that we didn’t get jumped by the others. We got separated and the cops found me and brought me back to the group home.
I let everything out. I told them I did not feel safe there. That the man that would come watch us during the night was asking for sex in exchange for us to do whatever we wanted. I told them that we snuck out, smoked, did drugs, and drank there. And, because I said all that, I was moved to another group home. It seemed like every time that I spoke up about what was happening, I would get in trouble. I never really got close to anyone because I felt that if I did, they would just eventually go away. Who wanted to be close with a troubled kid?
Every time someone would see me out with the group home I’d get asked “What did you do?” “Why are you in a group home now?” So, I made up this story that I just kept running away from home and the courts took me away for that. Some of it was true. I ran away from a group home. But I didn’t want anyone knowing my mom gave me up because the few times I did say what happened, people bad-mouthed my mom. It did not feel any better by them saying stupid comments about what type of mom she was to do that.
After leaving that group home, they found a foster home that accepted me. I remember that I was excited because they said this lady would take me to AA meetings. That she was in recovery herself and really nice. There was another girl there that I would share a room with who also was in foster care like me. Well, I got there and, yes, there was a girl there who I shared a room with, who hated being with that lady. She called her “Crazy Lady.” She was in recovery but did not want any part of taking me or supporting me in attending meetings. She never let anyone from school come over to hang out. She always said I was grounded and couldn’t have people over. She always had excuses to not pick me up or the other girl I shared a room with. And if we were out and needed to get ahold of her, she would turn off her cell phone and unplug the house phone from the wall so no one would interrupt her TV show. So, if I was out at a meeting in the evening, I’d have to figure out how to get home on my own.
Mind you, she never gave us any money for the bus or money for food or bought us anything. All she did was make dinner and if we ate, we ate, and if we didn’t that was not her issue. Whether we liked the food or if it tasted good was not something she cared about either. She just made frozen stuff she had in the freezer most of the time. She was a house painter and only worked when she got hired, so she was always home!
I began to cut more because I was mad and felt horrible that this woman treated us this way. The girl that shared a room with me also hated “Crazy Lady” and wanted to get moved to another home, but her social worker was not listening, and they would never come visit us. And even if they did, they came when we were at school. One time I happened to be home when the social worker stopped by, and I told her everything that was happening. Well guess what happened when I told her? Yup, I got moved and so did the other girl! Thank God because honestly that lady was crazy! So, I ended up at another all-girls group home hidden up in the hills of Watsonville.