Youth Voice Writing Contest 2022 — First Place, Essay
Walking through the cracked front door of the muddy brown apartment building, my mother and I took the shaky, old elevator up three floors. We walked down two long hallways that had flickering and noisy lights that dimly lit the path. The carpet in the hallways was the same muddy brown color as the apartment building, although I feel they weren’t always that color. The floor was decorated with needles and blood stains, small and dusty Ziplock bags, and crumpled-up tin foil. Roaches scattered away from our feet, disappearing into the once-white walls that sported mysterious stains and graffiti markings. We walked past the unit in the corner that housed a man who wears long dangly earrings, a registered sex offender who liked to stop by doors and simply stare. We also passed another unit that housed a mother and her adolescent son who both indulged in the same drugs. We finally made it to the unit where my mom was staying with an older woman who traded her pain pills for cigarettes. To anyone on the outside, this wouldn’t look like a safe place to bring a child. But, to me, this was the safest place on Earth. It was where my mom was. Safety, to me, was being with my mother, no matter where we were.
A few weeks before I was first placed in foster care, we were packing up our tiny little one-bedroom apartment. I was convinced that my mom and I were going to be moving to Las Vegas to live with my aunt and that my dad would be going off on some cruise ship to play music. Instead, we were being evicted from our apartment. It didn’t matter to me, though. Instead of seeing the situation as scary, I saw it through rose-colored lenses. I felt at ease because I knew that I would be with my mom. But, then, the worst day of my life happened. Everything came crashing down when I was taken away from my mom. Instead of feeling safe, I felt threatened and insecure.
After being placed in foster care, I attempted to grasp onto any feeling of safety I could find. At that time, safety was emotionally attaching myself to various items I would get from my mom, regardless of what it was. If I lost or broke one of those items, I would have a panic attack and absolutely lose it. Basic necessities like having food to eat, a roof over my head, and not having to worry about being hit or neglected mattered very little to me. What mattered to me more than absolutely anything was when I was going to go back with my mom and finally feel safe again. Whether or not I truly would be safe wasn’t a concern for me.
When I was placed in my third foster home, I was supposed to have two short, monitored visits with my mom weekly. What I got, instead, was unlimited overnight visits to her apartment because my foster mom didn’t care where we went, as long as we were back for the occasional social worker visits. Even though my mom’s apartment building was run down and shabby, I saw it through rose-colored lenses. It was comfortable because it wasn’t foster care. It was safe because it was where my mom was. Once upon a time, foster care was a place where children didn’t have to question their safety anymore. But, when I was in foster care, my safety was completely up to me and my own intuition. So, as a 13-year-old girl in foster care, what was safety to me? Safety was familiarity, certainty, and routine. In my foster home, I never knew what to expect. But, with my mom, it never changed. So, safety, to me, was found solely in my mother.
When I found out I wasn’t going to be reunified with my mom, I felt like I had to simply accept that I would be living in a world of discontentment indefinitely. Even after I was adopted at 16, I felt physically safe, but my heart felt vulnerable and bruised. My heart had not felt safe in a very long time. Every night, I prayed that my mom would be happy and healthy and that she would forgive me for being adopted because I thought that would heal my heart and make me feel safe. It never worked. After I turned 18 and was on my own, I was then faced with a life-altering choice. Now, I could choose to be with my mom if I truly wanted to. I could give myself that happily-ever-after I dreamed of for so many years. To my surprise, though, the thought of doing so no longer felt safe. It no longer brought me comfort. So, at 18, I was faced with the question — what is safety to me now? Years of exploration brought me to the conclusion that safety, to me, meant contentment above all else. As a child, I was most content when I was with my mom. I then interpreted that contentment as safety.
Safety to me today is the same as what safety was to me back when I was in foster care. However, now, I don’t associate it with a person. Safety, to me, is still familiarity, certainty, and routine. It’s what I always craved that I never had. Today, I don’t view things through rose-colored lenses the way I did when I was a child in foster care. Today, I recognize that I am finally safe. I am safe because, now, it is in my control. To a lot of children still in foster care who don’t have that control, that feeling of safety might still be associated with the presence of their family.