In my family, chemical dependency and physical abuse were the tools we used to survive. That way of coping has been going strong in my family for decades. The result for my siblings and me was that we were removed and placed in foster care twice—first when I was 5 years old, and then for good when I was 8.
I grew up in the system with a powerful force inside of me: a burning desire to protect my siblings. What I never learned was how to protect myself.
That Dark Cloud Found Me
There were five of us. At home, both my parents beat me and used drugs, and I was sexually abused as well. But I believe we would have been better off staying at home. Some foster homes we were placed in weren’t any better.
At first, we were split up. I was used to taking care of my siblings and I was so worried. Finally we were put together again. We had food and a clean home, and I felt so happy to be with my siblings. It looked like a new start.
But soon that dark cloud found me and erased any thought of happiness. I’d been sexually abused before but this foster father made me do things to him that I couldn’t forget even if I’d died and was born again.
Keeping My Mouth Shut
Caseworkers warned me, as the oldest, to keep my mouth shut and do as I was told, because if I caused problems, we would be split up and would most likely not see each other again.
So I kept silent. My will and determination to keep my family together was strong. As young as I was, I felt that I had to be my siblings’ shield against our many heart-crushing encounters with monsters so much stronger than us.
Becoming a protector wasn’t something I chose but was my child-like way of coping. I didn’t want my siblings to feel how I felt—to grow up with hatred of themselves and our family, and to be ashamed of themselves.
I became a protector at the age when I should have been protected, when I needed confidence instilled and guidance shown and love felt and courage built. Instead, I concealed the hurt and pain and kept going.
Cracked and Exposed
As I got older, something in me seemed to die. I stopped being able to feel. I found a sense of being alive only in self-destruction. I was liable to do anything in order to feel: Drinking, smoking weed, staying out late and knowingly putting myself in dangerous situations. And what used to be my best friend—cutting. No one but me felt the blade as I sliced my arms to make me feel alive.
That’s how I made it through foster care. If you want to call it that. If you can make it through being snatched away from the only family that you’ve known, placed in different homes constantly, and split up; bad things continuing over and over like a song on repeat.
Now I’m 33 years old with two daughters, Danielle, 7, and Julisa, 6.
When I got pregnant with Danielle, I followed the same path as my parents. I got high while pregnant, and Danielle went into foster care at 3 months old. She is now adopted.
I didn’t want to let Julisa down like Danielle. At birth, my girls were so similar, very light skinned with curly hair. Remembering how I missed Danielle’s first steps, her first tooth, I knew I had to change something within me. I didn’t even have a picture of Danielle and me together.
I had gotten very sick while pregnant with Julisa and was in the hospital for three months. Julisa was born at only 4 pounds. I knew she needed me to protect her, and I felt I had a purpose again. God gave me another chance. I did not have to be my mother.
Something to Fight For
Still, our life together has not been easy. When Julisa was born, we were homeless and CPS came into the picture at the hospital. I enrolled in a mother-child treatment facility that was very strict. While there I realized that my mental health wasn’t as stable as I thought, and it was hard living a sober life with a newborn. But Julisa gave me something to fight for, and I graduated.
Then we moved to our own apartment in Philadelphia. Soon I had to realize that her father was abusive. He slowly separated me from the few friends I had, controlled my money, and eventually wouldn’t even let me go outside without him. When Julisa was 1, he beat me in front of her, pulling me out of my apartment in my underwear and continuing to hit me outside. That time I pressed charges and he was arrested. I knew I had to go. I had to keep my daughter safe.
At that point, I moved back to New York City to be near my siblings. It was not easy depending on public assistance, going through the shelter system to find an apartment, and constantly struggling to keep my head above water to be strong to establish a healthy environment for Julisa. But it was what I wished just one of my parents had done for me.
Five Loving Years
For five years, I kept Julisa safe, happy and loved. She was small but healthy as a horse. We celebrated holidays, she had birthday parties, I gave her an allowance, and we went to the park.
Valentine’s Days were a special day for us. I would ask Julisa, “Will you be my special valentine?” As she got older she replied, “I always will be.” That made me laugh, something rare for me. I would give her teddy bears, lots of chocolate and balloons, and her smiles would reinforce why I had to be strong.
My favorite time of the day was when she would help me make dinner before our shows came on. She would season the chicken and assist me by putting the cheese in the macaroni. When dinner was ready, we would prepare our plates of food for TV time. That was really talking time. Julisa is very inquisitive, always asking the “Why’s.”
We shared hard times and struggles. Sometimes we were low on food or money for clothes and shoes. But we shared lots of love and I was focused on being a mother. I pushed my fears aside to be there for Julisa.
When Julisa turned 5, however, our life together changed. I know now from going to therapy that her turning 5 was a huge trigger for me that I was not aware of.
First, my life had fallen apart when I was 5—that’s when I entered foster care. I was also raped that year.
Second, Julisa entering elementary school felt very different from daycare. Dropping her off at school opened up doors of fear in my heart—thoughts of Julisa getting molested or hurt, and fears that I had no control anymore. When she was younger, I could pretty much control who she was around. When she started kindergarten, that just wasn’t as true anymore.
Driving Myself Crazy
As time passed I became more uptight and strict—overprotective to the max. Sometimes I overdressed her because I didn’t want her body to show, and I would panic over minor things. Once I yelled at her because she took her extra pants off at school. (True she had on two pairs of pants, tights and leggings.) I reacted with passion because I thought that if someone with ill intentions had harmed her, I could never forgive myself. I would feel that I wasn’t a good mother.
I started driving myself crazy, calling her school or popping up there. I would not let her sleep at a friend’s house. I just wanted to keep her close to me. In reality, I was becoming unstable with worry. When I went to therapy, I would focus on Julisa’s safety instead of on me.
Hurt and Pain
Then, on June 16, 2014, Julisa was removed from my care. The report made against me claimed drug use, excessive drinking, mental instability, starving Julisa and leaving her alone.
For months after Julisa was taken, I felt like I could not go on. My outlook on everything was very negative. I felt like my past just wouldn’t stay in the past.
My fear also built rapidly because of not having Julisa in my care. I wondered, “Is someone touching her? Is she being taken care of?” At the same time, I didn’t even want to visit Julisa. I was too ashamed.
I totally shut down. I refused to cooperate with ACS. I was on a very destructive path. I became distant from family and friends. I was drinking more than usual. I didn’t go to therapy or take my meds. I dismissed any caseworker or case planner—basically anyone in the child welfare system. I couldn’t face that I was doing the same thing that my parents did, which is run and take blame when I should have sought help for myself.
Ready for Change
It took two months and a very special friend with a trip down South to get myself back together. I stopped drinking. Cooking, taking care of my friend’s children and my friend, I realized again that I needed Julisa and Julisa needed me.
I had to make a choice: Did I want to keep complaining or did I want to show the agency, lawyers and judge how passionate I felt about reunification with my daughter?
I returned to New York with a goal of Julisa returning to me. I told myself, “Being angry and mad isn’t going to work. Maybe I need to work on myself so I can be even better for Julisa.” I also told myself, “I can and I will be her protector.”
Facing the foster care system as a parent hasn’t been easy. My past keeps threatening to destroy me. It’s hard to protect my daughter when I still don’t feel protected myself.
During one visit with my daughter, as I was about to leave, she started crying and said, “Don’t leave me Mommy.” Immediately, I was frozen. Everything seemed to stop moving. My mind was so far gone. It felt like an out-of-body experience. I was 5 years old again and crying for my mother not to leave me with her boyfriend, who sexually abused me, but she did.
In that moment, I felt a fear deep within that felt like it would consume my soul. I wondered, “Did someone hurt my baby?” Guilt started to suffocate me. I felt that I had failed at being a mother. I felt like I was nothing.
Automatically, negative coping skills kicked in. I grabbed my bag and took out a beer and drank it—right in our visit at the agency. (Stupid, huh?) It felt like I could either drink or cut, and cutting would be worse. I couldn’t think of any other way to hold it together.
Pushing the Dark Cloud Aside
Despite setbacks, I’ve accomplished a lot. I went to outpatient treatment and am clean of all drugs. I completed a 12-week Parenting Journey class. I go to therapy every week and take my medication. I wrote this story in a 16-week writing group for Rise magazine. Most important, I see Julisa twice every week.
One important thing I learned in Parenting Journey is that how I was raised as a child is affected my parenting. I might not have harmed my daughter physically but I was raising my child in fear.
I also learned that I need to take care of myself so I can be the best for Julisa. By that I mean: Watch what I put into my body. Don’t put myself into risky situations like I did when I was depressed. I believed that pushing my own needs to the side couldn’t harm my daughter but it did. To protect her, I need to protect myself.
Parenting Journey helped me see and express my fears clearly. The dark cloud I felt would always follow me from childhood started to fade and the light I had inside started to shine through.
The Good in Me
Making all of these positive changes sober has not been easy but I feel stronger facing my fears. I’ve also built an arsenal of positive people—the other parents in my groups, the Rise staff, and many of the staff at my foster care agency, Graham Windham, see the good that was always in me.
Thinking back to the day Julisa was taken away from me 9 months ago, I ask myself, “What is different now? Am I better or worse than before she left home?” I’m trying to stay hopeful. I’m trying to keep opening up when I feel like shutting down. I’m trying to believe that my family curse is losing. I’m at the beginning of beating it, but it’s a start.