We launched a writing contest to see what former foster youth had to say about their time in care or their experiences with the justice system. The contest gave youth the opportunity to write on one of three themes: “What does home mean to you?” “What’s one thing the child welfare or juvenile justice system could have done to help you but didn’t?” and “How has the criminal justice and/or correctional system impacted your family and you personally?” Here is the runner-up essay for the “justice system impact” category.
Why are so many people afraid to use their own voices? Why are we, as the victims, so likely to blame ourselves? Maybe we deserved the heartache. Maybe we are enraged at ourselves for speaking, hoping the truth will set us free. What went wrong along the way in society to make victims feel tremendous shame, or does it go deeper within our “justice systems” so to speak, or is it a little bit of both? Why, in the end, do many of us victims share one thing in common? Shame and regret and almost wishing we would not have said a peep, because it would have been much easier that way. Here is a little bit of my story.
What got me to writing this paper was actually being a child in the Office of Children and Youth myself. My mother was a mail-order bride from the Philippines, and she traveled to the United States to immediately marry my father. During their relationship, my dad struggled with opioid addiction frequently, and I can vividly recall those memories myself, flashbacks to when my mom would force my father’s pills down the toilet, and constant screaming and domestic abuse.
Ultimately, my father’s addiction was too strong to defeat and as a result, he passed away in 2004 when I was only 5 years old. I love my father, and as I have grown older I have come to terms that he wasn’t a bad man. He loved me, but he faced his own demons with addiction. We struggled with poverty through the years, and lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my two brothers, my mother and myself. We often struggled to pay bills and afford groceries. This left my mother with one option, and that was to work. This left my older brother, though not “old” at all, to watch after my little brother and I. A few years later, my mother got a new boyfriend and we ended up moving in with him. Eventually, they would marry.
Throughout elementary school and middle school, I suffered years of sexual abuse by my mother’s soon-to-be husband. Being unable to cope with this, my mother often let out physical and verbal abuse on me on a daily basis. Having these things happen to me really changed my perspective on life and forced me to grow up at a faster pace than everyone else. I want to be that voice for kids that I never had, and if I can in any way impact even just a few students, I will be happy.
My first run-in with the system was when police came to my door after an altercation between my older brother and my mom ensued. This was slowly building up due to years of emotional and physical abuse and extreme neglect. Things had gotten so bad with my mom refusing to take responsibility as a mother that my brother had to walk to the grocery store to provide us food. Neighbors, hearing loud fighting from next door, called authorities and a few minutes later, there was an officer at the door. My mother pinned the blame onto us and labeled us as out of control, so much so that the officers refused to even listen to our pleas for help. This was the first time I asked for help and was turned away.
After this first attempt at help failing, I remained silent for quite some time. It was at this point in my life that my mother flat-out decided that she did not want to be our mother anymore and simply threw us out like we were leftover food. My brothers and I were placed at a shelter for a week, while we waited in hopes that a distant relative or a family friend would be able to save us. That’s the other thing with the system, kids who are abused are treated no differently than youth who are in the same shelter for breaking the law. The staff was very caring and understanding, but for anyone that age, it was traumatizing nonetheless. I can just remember the terrible anxiety I had during that time and how I wished it would just go away. I was angry at the world, my mother, my caseworker, the cops, everyone.
Luckily, that time of being rescued did come. I felt like a puppy at the mall just hoping someone would want me, hoping that I wouldn’t get separated from the only thing I did have — my brothers. My estranged aunt and uncle were more than willing to take us all in, but the court wanted my older brother to be able to enjoy his senior year of high school and live the normal teenage life that he never was able to because he was forced into being our parental figure. He ended up moving in with the music teacher at our high school who he looked up to as a parental figure in his life.
After my younger brother and I were placed with my aunt and uncle, many court dates and follow-ups were mandatory each month. Prior to one, I asked my attorney about the best course of action to take against my mother. She was threatening that she would press charges on my older brother for assault, even though that never occurred. I asked if there was anything we could do about the fact that she would leave us unsupervised — sometimes without food — for weeks at a time to spend time with her boyfriend. My attorney broke the truth to me that there really was nothing they could do to prove that she had abused us, because the abuse went far beneath the surface. My mother did not end up going through with the charges and the case was dropped.
Throughout my time living with my aunt and uncle I began to flourish in all realms of my life and had the love I always dreamed of having. After realizing I was in a safe environment with them, they were the first people I ever told about my sexual abuse. It was a hard thing to process, and I didn’t even know why I spoke up. But when I did, my words came out of me involuntarily and I couldn’t get them to stop. Immediately, they went to the authorities so that we could take this to court. The process to get to court was a long and tedious one that struck my emotions over and over again. I came out about the abuse when I was 15, but it wasn’t until I was 18 that I finally made it to court. The judge allowed the trial to be continually postponed. I was repeatedly given court dates that never actually arrived. Finally, that day came to go to trial, and I didn’t fully process that until I was on my way over to the courthouse in my dressed-up court apparel.
I walked in that day having to accept the fact that my mom was there supporting the man who brought me tremendous misery and trauma throughout the years. When I went on the stand to tell my story, I watched her laugh and smirk at my nervousness and despair, and in that moment I never felt more alone and empty. In front of jury of 12 people, I had to relive what happened to me over and over again. I got tripped up by the defense numerous times. That was their goal — to make the victim feel like the attacker. It got so bad at one point the defense attorney screamed during my accounts of sexual abuse, “Liar!” The judge intervened and said if he were to say anything like that to me again, he was going to be thrown out immediately. During the two longest days of my life, my attacker continuously lied directly to my face and covered up the years of torment he brought me so effortlessly. Something broke in me, a feeling I never had before. He successfully managed to convince the jury otherwise, and after two long-awaited anxious days the verdict was in: “Not guilty.” Those words stabbed me like a knife, and pierced my soul. I fell down to my knees in agony while my own mother walked right by as if I were never her daughter, the one she gave birth to.
Reflecting back on this, I have come to realize that the jury finding my attacker guilty or not doesn’t really matter, because the truth had set me free. I want people like me to know to never be ashamed to speak up. I had the opportunity to face my attacker and look him right in the eye, letting him know he hadn’t defeated me and I was far too strong to remain silent. I spoke up with the intention that maybe I could save other children from him. That is why I wanted him in prison, where he belongs. I wanted to make sure he could never hurt anyone else the way he hurt me. Although the justice system didn’t give me the outcome I desired, it still hasn’t changed who I am as a person. If anything, I continue to grow and relate to other survivors of sexual abuse and realize that I am far from alone; the “Me too” movement, sadly, is huge. About a year after the trial, my abuser was diagnosed with cancer and only lived for a few more months. To this day, I have no contact with my mother and wish to keep it that way.
Moving forward despite these tragedies in my life, I am very hopeful and optimistic for my future and I only continue to grow stronger every day. It takes a lot of courage to tell my story again, but I am glad I can, in hopes others might relate and find solace.
Shaney Mitchell is currently a junior at Clarion University where she is perusing a degree in secondary education. She is actively engaged in her school’s chamber singers as well as being the vice president of the University Student Programming Board. She hopes her story reaches others and helps them remain strong despite the past, because the future holds so much.
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