I think it's hard to explain my experience in foster care without a glimpse of the rest of my life; it gives a clearer picture as to what really led up to my experience, and how these things impacted me. I was born in 1989, which means I am 32 years old today. My parents had me when they were 18 years old and came from a lower-middle-class family. The first time I remember being taken away from them, I was four years old. My 2-year-old cousin and I were sleeping in the middle of the night and were woken up by police officers who told me that I had to come with them. I think my parents had been in a car accident drunk driving and we had been left alone in the house. I remember being scared they took us to a strange industrial-like building, which now I think was the children's shelter in San Jose, CA. I’m not sure if this is true but I remember being told to strip naked and was told I had to shower. There were strangers watching me and I felt uncomfortable. My cousin and I were in a nursery for I don't know, maybe a day, maybe a few days, maybe longer. There were several other children there, one of them stole a toy from my baby cousin and he cried, so I took it back from the kid, then I got in trouble. Next thing I remember, my grandparents on my mother's side came and got me from that place, but they couldn’t take my cousin and I felt horrible about leaving him there. (The photo is of my cousin and I from 1996)
For the next few years, I lived with my grandparents and my life was stable, I had visits sometimes with my mother, and I missed her tremendously. It's really hard to remember dates or when things exactly happened but I think around 4th grade my mom was able to get me back in her custody. We moved into a small studio, and we shared a bed. I saw my dad sometimes as they were off and on, but most of the time they fought. My grandparents would check up on me, and my mother would tell me they tried to steal me from her. Sometime later my mother met a new boyfriend, and he was charming and really nice to me. We all lived together, and my mother's drinking was getting bad again. He didn't like it, so I finally felt like I had someone on my side. One night my mother found out that he had been molesting me for several years and we went to the police. I told them what happened, and we filed a police report. As time went on, my mother asked me if I wanted to run away and not testify against him in court. I was scared so I said yes.
We packed all our things in a car and started driving. Sometimes she would be falling asleep at the wheel, and I would have to shake her to wake up. We would stop at payphones, and I would hear her talking to someone about the boyfriend or something. I didn’t really understand what was happening. One night we slept in our car in LA and then we kept driving, we drove through Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, until we arrived in Tennessee. We pulled up to a waffle house, there were two older men sitting at a table waiting for us. I recognized one of them, I had met him one time before when he was visiting my mom's boyfriend; it was his father. The other man told him to follow us, and we drove to a small house out on a farm. I stayed here with my mom for a few months. My mom asked me if I wanted to stay with her friend from high school, Sandy, who lived in Texas, I had never met her before, and I said yes.
Sandy had two twin boys my age. She enrolled me in school, I was in sixth grade. Sandy was sweet to me and her boys were kind. All the kids at school thought it was so cool that I was from California, they would ask me questions like, “Have you ever met a movie star?” or “Do you know how to surf?” of which I had neither, but it felt nice. I even went to a school dance and had my first kiss on the dance floor. At this time my grandparents had hired a private investigator to try and find me. They got ahold of Sandy and asked me if I wanted to come home. I said yes.
My grandparents enrolled me in another school, and nothing ever happened again with testifying against my offender. It's whispered in my family that the man's father had ties to the mob and hired a hitman to kill me and my mother, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever really know. My mom was arrested for extortion, did some time in jail in Tennessee, and then hitchhiked back to California. She and my dad got back together and were expecting a baby. One day I got home from school and my grandmother told me to pack my things again because my parents had won custody of me, and I was going to live with them. She cried, but I was happy to live with my parents again, I missed them. I moved in with my parents and my baby brother in a small studio in the Santa Cruz mountains.
My parents were still drinking, and I would find baby bottles with rancid milk left around the house. He was so small. At the time I did not know, but he had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome. I would often be left caring for him, and it was a lot. I started school at the end of 7th grade there, and by 8th grade, I had made friends and started smoking weed and drinking. My parents were often drunk, and on the way to school we would sometimes stop at the liquor store so they could buy a shooter, or some vodka and they would put it in a water bottle to continue driving. They fought a lot—my whole life they fought. Often my mother would hit my dad, would yell, and throw things. One time she stabbed a knife into a cutting board and her hand went down the blade cutting the tendons in her hand. My mother and I would often yell at each other.
Around this time, I had started experimenting with harder drugs. Some of my friend's parents did meth, so we would steal their old meth pipes and try it. I would ask my parents to get me a Smirnoff ice from the liquor store, and I would steal their cigarettes and weed. One day my parents were having a bad fight, I'm not sure how I ended up in the middle of it, but I did, and my mother ended up hitting me in the face. I called a family friend that would sometimes let me sleep on the couch when things got bad with my parents, and he came and got me. I showed up to school that day, with a black eye, and a friend's mother who knew me and my family asked if I had been hit by my parents. I told her yes. She told the principal who called CPS. I was called into the office and met with a social worker, I told them what happened, and they took me to an office. I had none of my belongings.
I was taken to another shelter, again it looked industrial, and I was searched. I shared a room with another girl, and there were many other teens there. One of the staff asked me why I was there, and before I could finish, she said I looked like a troublemaker. I don't remember exactly what she said but I remember getting the sense that she thought I had gotten myself there because I was a bad kid. And in some regards, I was. I got caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom and got punished. My little brother showed up sometime later, and I got to visit with him in the nursery. He was around three years old at that point and was still non-verbal. I didn't know that there was anything wrong with him. My grandparents had moved out of state and could not take me this time.
From the shelter, I went to a group home. I was told it was temporary until they found me a foster home. Again, several other teens were there, and I shared a room with someone. I honestly couldn't even tell you their name or what they looked like. My friend's mom took me in for a while, and then my friend got mad at me and I had to move out again. I then went to a foster home with several girls in it. It was out of county, San Jose. The family was an older couple that had custody of their granddaughter who had her own room, and then four other girls and we all shared rooms. They had their own set of customs at their house, that I had to quickly adapt to. I would hear them discussing how much money they got for each girl. The biological granddaughter liked me, so I got to move into her room. She stole my things, I got mad, and got kicked out.
From there I went to a couple who had no other children, and I was their first Foster. She made me call her “Miss”. Another new school in East San Jose. I would shoulder tap for cigarettes. I would sneak out and smoke weed. I had supervised visits with my mom and my little brother. My little brother lived in another foster home, where I was concerned for him. He would come to court with bruises and the older kids would beat him up, his face sunburned so badly there were blisters. My mother had unsupervised visits with us finally, and she would take me and my brother out, and we would drink together. One day she dropped me back off at my foster home and I found out she had fell asleep in the parking lot of a carwash with my brother in the back seat. I wasn’t allowed to see her again for a while. I got caught smoking weed again and got kicked out of my foster home.
Oh, I think I forgot a foster home somewhere, but there was another one, that again “didn’t work out”, as the social workers would say, “not a good fit”. Not all of them were bad. Mostly I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I was scared and angry with no one really telling me what was going on. So yeah, after that last one I ended up in another group home, at least this one was closer to where I was from. It was in Watsonville. I was 15 I think, and six other girls lived there.
On my first day there was a “crisis” because one of the girls tried to drink shampoo in the house. Every time we came and went from the house we were searched. The staff office had a lock on it, and we had to ask for our shampoo, shaving razor, or food from the fridge; everything had locks on it. I couldn't have a cell phone. I hated it there, but my social worker said that they couldn’t find any other foster homes for me. I moved to another group home for the older girls, and I asked to go back to my previous school which was two bus rides in the morning. I lived in Aptos and my school was in Ben Lomond. I didn’t mind because I got to be out longer from my group home. We had a point system, and if you did everything right you got to be on the highest point system. So I did, most of the time. I got straight A’s in school and I did whatever it took to be out of my group home as much as possible to get through those years. I had weekend passes with friends almost every weekend.
I had a hard time relating to other kids my age, as it's hard when you don't have the same things to talk about. I didn’t really have parents to complain about grounding me. If I got in trouble at my group home, they would separate me from everyone and not allow me to talk to anyone in the house. They had a term for it, but I can't remember it now. I remember AWOL, which meant a girl ran from the group home. I never did but some girls had, which is why I think they usually put us in places far away from our original homes, so we couldn't run as easily. I got in trouble a few times for smoking cigarettes; I didn't do anything except smoke cigarettes when I could. One time I helped a girl by giving her my clean pee because we would get drug tested. I mean things were a lot different than growing up with your parents.
My mother told the courts that my dad was not the father of my brother, which was a surprise to everyone involved. Apparently, she had been in a relationship with someone in Tennessee, had gotten pregnant, came back to California, and told my dad it was his. I only found out a few years ago that the man may have been the same man that was hired to kill me and my mother back then, and that he had fallen in love with her. The man stepped up and took custody of my brother and he moved to Tennessee. I was able to visit him about once a year. My mother later had another son who was born addicted to meth, and later diagnosed with Autism. He was taken from her at birth in the hospital and after a short stint in a foster home was able to be adopted by my maternal grandparents where he still lives today at 15 years old.
Well anyways, you get the picture. I graduated high school when I was 17. Because of the rules of the group home, I wasn’t able to get a driver’s license or own a car until I was 18. On the day I turned 18, I moved into a transitional housing program and finally had my own place and my own car. I attended Cabrillo, and eventually transferred to UCSC. During that time, I had my own battles with alcoholism, and ended up getting a DUI 2 weeks before my 22nd birthday. I ended up getting sober, and have continued with that sobriety till today, 10 years. Right after graduating, I met a man, got engaged, and pregnant shortly after. We broke up after he relapsed when my son was 8 months old, and I became a single mother.
when I was at UCSC I met a woman through the Independent Living Program who wanted to support a foster youth who had goals of continuing their education. She has financially and emotionally supported me since I first met her when I was 22. I also had a close family friend who ended up officially adopting me at the age of 28. These are two people that really supported me throughout my life and helped me achieve my goals.
2020 and the next few years were difficult for everyone, due to the pandemic, societal stress, and the CZU fire. Personally, I started a master’s program in 2020 and completed it in 2022. My mother died in 2020 in a car accident, due to her using. My adopted father suddenly passed away in 2022 from pancreatic cancer.
I have worked with foster youth as a career and given back to that population. I am the first in my family to graduate college, and I am the first to get a masters. When people ask me how I did it, I honestly don't know. I have tried to find the statistics for how many foster youths get their masters, and I cannot find any. Apparently only 3%-10.8% get a bachelor's degree. I went to 12 different grade schools, alone. I know that the people in my life who stepped up, who had no formal obligation and were a support to me is probably the only thing that I can recognize that might be different than other youth that were in my situation. Because I had adults in my life that stepped up and offered support, I was given an advantage that many other children take for granted. I feel this contributed to my accomplishments.
I know this is true for CASA, and I love the organization so much. When I work with youth today and if they have that option, I really try to share with them the benefits of a CASA. I never formally had a CASA (I refused one when it was offered because I felt like I had enough people in my business and to report to), but I did have solid people in my life. They say sometimes that's all it takes to make a difference in foster youth’s life, one stable person. Most of the time I think I just needed someone I could count on. I needed one thing that wasn't going to change in my life, like the social workers, the homes, the schools, the expectations, what is happening with my court case; I just needed one thing not to change.
I am less resentful now about my experience in foster care, and I know that if I had stayed with my parents I would not be in as good of shape as a human being as I am today. But the system is far from perfect.
I hope my story helps someone make that decision. We each have a story, and they are all different, and we all deserve to have someone hear it. Thank You.