I was a ward of the state of New York from age one until I graduated from high school in 1993. The foster care system saved me because my parents were addicted to drugs and neglected my siblings and me. But it also destroyed me. During my time in foster care, I was in seven different foster homes and two group homes. In five of those homes I experienced physical, sexual and what I would call spiritual abuse. The fact that the people who were supposed to protect me didn’t protect me made me feel like I was nothing. Not being protected was worse, even, than the abuse.
‘The Devil in You’
In the first foster home I can remember, I was beaten nearly every day. When the foster mother’s son raped me, she said I made it happen because I had the devil in me.
When I was 6 and 7, I lived in a foster home where the abuse continued. One of the foster mother’s sons burned me on the back of my neck several times with cigarettes. Two of her sons touched me inappropriately and she herself stomped on me because she assumed I had stolen $10 from her.
At night I was scared to walk to the bathroom. I would urinate in a corner on the floor. When the foster mother found out, she made me lie down and she covered my face with a pillow. Then she sat on my face for what seemed like an hour. I guess she was trying to discipline me but I am not sure what I was supposed to learn from that kind of discipline.
My Body Exposed
What I did learn in that home was that sex was no big deal and that even kids did it. At a young age, my sister and I would be playing in the backyard with friends and some of the boys would tell us to come behind the shed. They would pull their pants down and ask us to touch them or perform oral sex. They told us not to tell or else we would get in trouble, so we didn’t.
There were also times when repairmen would come to the foster mother’s home and she would ask them if they wanted me. Most said no but one said yes and she told me to go with him. I followed this man all the way to his truck, scared to death, until he told me, “Go back to your mother.” I was so relieved.
Family Abused Me, Too
My biological mother died during my stay in that foster home. After my mother passed, my sister and I went to stay with a family that had adopted my two older siblings.
At first we couldn’t wait. But the hell continued—this time at the hands of my own sister and brother. My older sister would torture us daily, digging her nails into our skin or hitting our knuckles with screwdrivers. She and my brother also would push my younger sister and me down the stairs to see who reached the bottom first. When our foster mother started questioning her about our bruises, my sister simply decided to hurt us under our clothes so no one would see.
Once my sister burned me so badly that my hand swelled up and started smelling.
That same night a social worker came to do a home visit. My sister made me say that I had picked up a hot pot. What upsets me most to this day is that that social worker never pulled me to the side to ask me what really happened. Now maybe I would have been too scared to tell, but the fact is that it would have been nice if she had cared enough to show me that I matter, that I have worth, that I am protected, but she didn’t. No one ever did!
My sister also made us have sex with our brother and hump her too. My brother made us perform oral sex on him. Now I understand that they’d probably been sexually abused, too.
Hard but Compassionate
Because of all the abuse, I grew up not knowing what was safe or unsafe, healthy or unhealthy, right or wrong. I never learned how to protect myself from people who wanted to harm me. I often acted hard; keeping people at a distance was the one way I knew to keep them from hurting me. But around sex, especially, I became totally confused. I truly never understood until recently that children don’t usually touch each other or have sex with other children.
When I had a daughter, and when I helped to raise my nieces and nephew and cousins, this lack of understanding about what’s considered right and wrong about sex got me into serious trouble.
I Wanted to Be a Protector
When I was in college, I helped raise me nieces and nephew. When I got my first apartment, they would visit some weekends, every summer and during the holidays. Their mother was really tough on them, and I wanted to do whatever I could to protect them. I felt like I could sense when children were unhappy or unsafe even though they were trying to act like they weren’t, because I was once like them.
I did so many fun things with my nieces and nephew: cooked, baked, did homework with them, did arts and crafts, taught them how to dance. I took them swimming and to the park. I lived in upstate New York and they lived in Queens, but I would go all the way to New York City on the bus to pick them up.
When I was 21, I had my first daughter. I wanted to raise my daughter to feel safe, loved, sheltered, protected and nurtured. At times I didn’t even know how to set limits with her because I was afraid to do anything that might be abuse.
But one day in 2001, when my daughter was 4 years old, I did something that scared my nieces and nephew and got my daughter taken away. At the time, I really didn’t know I had done anything wrong.
I Didn’t Mean to Hurt Them
That day, my nieces and nephew, two of my cousins, and my boyfriend’s kids were over. Three of the kids were 7 years old, and the others were 12 and 13. They were playing Truth or Dare and they asked me to play. While we were playing, I let some of the kids try some alcohol. At the time I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.
Then, when it was my turn, I dared two of the kids to hump each other, and then I dared another two kids to do it. They had their clothes on the whole time, and no one protested. I truly didn’t see anything wrong with my actions. In a way I thought that I was helping them. I thought that kids want to see what being sexual feels and that they might have been scared and didn’t know how to say it.
But the children knew more than I did about what was OK and not OK, and they told their parents. Their parents called child protective services to report me.
I will never forget the day they took my daughter, August 18, 2001. Two child protective workers knocked on my apartment door informing me that they had permission to remove my child and my sister’s children because of allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
At that minute I just wanted to kill myself. I wanted to yell, scream, plead with them not to take my daughter. The thing I feared the most was happening. A system that harmed me tremendously now had my baby girl. I was afraid that some of the same things that had happened to me in foster care were going to happen to her. I wondered, “Will she be as strong as I was? Will she be able to survive?”
But I didn’t try to cover anything up, because I feared that if I wasn’t honest, I’d never get my daughter home. I told the workers everything that had happened, and I took all the steps required of me: parenting classes, drug testing, psychiatric evaluation, therapy and a sex offenders’ class (until they learned the extent of what had actually happened and I was no longer required to go). After 9 months, I got my daughter back.
Still, I am sad to say that even though I did everything I needed to do, I was just going through the motions. I did the services so that my daughter could come home but I didn’t see that what I did was wrong. My thoughts were: “I didn’t force anybody, no one protested, this is what I did as a kid.”
I also responded defensively because I felt all the judgment and anger being thrown at me. The evaluating psychiatrist even looked me in the face and called me “sick.” After that, I just shut down. I didn’t want to think that I might be sick. I can understand now why my family was angry, but back then I didn’t understand.
A Late Wake-Up Call
It wasn’t until a few years later that I began to realize that something was wrong with how I was thinking. Once again, some children were over and once again they were playing Truth or Dare. This time, I dared my nephew and another girl to go in the bathroom and do whatever they wanted.
After they went in the bathroom, I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, this is what got me in trouble the last time.” It was like waking up from a dream. Something didn’t seem right about what I had done, even though I didn’t know what it was. I stopped playing and thought to myself, “I could get in trouble again.” For the first time, I wanted some help.
Finally, in February 2008, I went to a Medicaid center for a pregnancy test, and while I was there, the intake worker learned some of my life history. At the end of my visit she asked me if I would like to see a therapist, and I told her, “Yes.”
Someone I Could Trust
In the beginning it was hard for me to trust, but I believe God heard my need for help and sent this therapist into my life. The therapist’s practice was based in her Christian faith, and that made it easier for me to trust her. She also showed me again and again that she was caring, open-minded and non-judgmental.
We talked about so many painful topics from my childhood before we talked about my actions. The therapist helped me to not blame myself for being raped, beaten, tortured, molested, and burned. She helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault.
Building up that trust helped me to open up about what I had done to my nieces, nephew, cousins and my boyfriend’s children.
Time for My Apologies
I was still scared. I didn’t want to be judged or called “sick” again. But my therapist was compassionate, honest and straightforward.
When I said things like, “I don’t know why everyone is upset. This is what kids do. This is what I did,” she tried to help me see it from other people’s points of view. One time she asked me, “What if someone did that to your daughter?” When she asked me that, my heart sped up and my voice grew tight and anxious.
That was the moment when I understood, for the first time, that what I had done was wrong. When I thought about my daughter, I could feel how vulnerable children really are. Sex had been such an expected part of my childhood that it was hard for me to remember that being raped and touched was terrifying to me at first. But I always tried to protect my daughter more than I was protected myself, and when I thought about her being exposed to sexual behaviors at a young age, I could feel that what I had done was a violation of the children’s trust and security.
That is when I decided to reach out to every child that was involved, take responsibility and apologize. Some of them were open to talking to me and some were not. One of my nieces wrote back to me saying that she still loved me, but that my actions had had a deep impact on her and had set back her growth. That made me feel terrible. Still, I believe that reaching out was important in order for me to heal myself and for me to try to help the children I had hurt.
There Are Other Ways
I am telling my story now because I think my story is an important reminder of how damaging abuse really is, and how much it can distort survivors’ sense of right and wrong. Children need to be protected from that abuse, especially when they are in a system that is supposed to protect them.
I also want the child welfare system to remember that most people can’t learn from their mistakes if they have no trust in the people who are supposed to help them. Many people need help to overcome abuse and grow into people who can protect themselves and their children. That help has to come from people who are caring, open-minded, non-judgmental and who understand that people can make even serious mistakes and still be good people inside.
I am telling my story because I want parents to know that there is help out there, if you find the right kind of help. I didn’t repeat abusive behaviors because I wanted to hurt anyone or because I wanted others to feel what I went through. I did it because, to me, those behaviors were “normal.” It took someone I could really trust to get through to me that I had a damaged sense of right and wrong.
I know that some people may judge me, ridicule me and possibly even hate me for what I did. But I believe the benefits of helping others outweigh the risks. What’s done is done. I can’t go back and change that. If I could I certainly would. I still love my nieces and nephews and cousins very much. I am sad our relationship was destroyed because of my unhealthiness. We used to be very, very, very close. But I can go forward. I am in a place now where I am not ashamed to admit what I did.