Youth Voice Writing Contest 2022 — Finalist, Essay
I was 16 years old when I entered the foster care system. Prior to that, my life felt like it was slowly deteriorating, but I still had a place to call home, my mom, my school, my daily routines, and the comfort in knowing what to expect from each. At the time, my mom and I were being tracked and followed, with our home broken into and devices hacked by my mom’s ex-boyfriend. We had to consistently check the house, re-open new bank accounts and close old ones, and try to work with the police in filing a report. My mom was also sick and had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). At least, we thought she had MS until we found rat poisoning in her hair follicles during a doctor visit. Either way, this meant I had to calm her when she had seizures, do my part around the house, and, sometimes, be her emotional support in the same way she was for me. A few months later, my mother was taken to jail. Child Protective Services (CPS) took me to be questioned by the detectives on my mom’s case. Prior to questioning, I was put in a cell overnight. That was my first encounter with any kind of child welfare.
After an additional 4 hours in holding, CPS took me to my biological father. My father and I would fight every day. Verbal fights turned into physical abuse. I explained this to my social worker, but like every social worker following protocol, she was for reunification. I was told that I was the problem and had to cooperate. I was told to just go along with whatever he wanted or go easy on him. I tried but my dad did not know how to raise me during these hard times, nor did he want to. He wanted whatever benefits he was told he would get from the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). I later wrote a letter to the judge, explaining to her what I had been going through. She released me to live with my uncle and aunt. This meant I would not see my dad unless we were in therapy being supervised by California Wraparound. As for visits with my mom, I hadn’t spoken to her for the first ten months of her incarceration because both of our individual courts arranged a protective order. I only saw her in courtrooms. Even then, if the cop caught her turning her head towards me, my mom would be called out to face forward.
Reunification took a toll on me because I was being forced to see someone who was bad for me and, instead, was kept away from someone who was good for me. I had attended therapy every Friday for two hours with my dad, but there was no rational talking. I tried having the court remove the therapeutic supervised visits with my dad, but they insisted it was only “fair.” From the emotional damage of criminal justice court and therapy visits with my dad, I was on suicidal watch. When the paperwork filled with evidence of my dad’s abuse finally got to the judge, she then decided I needed a break.
I got better eventually, thanks to school. I worked hard in my credit recovery classes and junior classes and took ten classes total that year. I spoke with my counselor about my college options. She explained to me that I was on track to graduate high school and attend a community college, but if I wanted to attend a university, I would have to complete a full schedule of classes and college courses. I figured the worst-case scenario is that I graduate anyways and attend a community college. So, for my senior year, I took eight classes and joined two clubs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The “perks” Marcus, the Wraparound coordinator, told me about started to show. Wraparound was doing their part to help me where I needed. I can’t say I did it all for benefits, but it did help me look forward to my future. I was fortunate to have a future.
I applied to many universities and got accepted into Penn State University. One of my top three colleges chose me. I graduated high school with my diploma and with Honors. I also was able to have my first year at Penn State paid through scholarships. Knowing that by the end of the school year, I will be living the dorm life working towards my college degree, gave me relief. When I turned 18, I was speaking with my mom again and had a good connection with everyone in my Wraparound team. I wanted to major in media studies and work towards being an editor-in-chief for a magazine. Thankfully, I was able to accomplish this, but child welfare gave and took a lot. I was not allowed to see or speak to my mom, could not go anywhere unsupervised, was always in a courtroom, and was always forced to try reunification with my dad. In return, I met great people to support me and received some foster care benefits.
Family reunification in child welfare mainly separates families. The policy of reunification forces relationships which only causes division and reveals other family members’ true intentions. However, I did learn and grow a lot from that. So, in a way, it does have its “perks.”