Since 2012, Rise has worked with or interviewed more than 40 mothers who grew up in foster care. Here, five New York City mothers share their perspectives on how child welfare can better partner with parents who grew up in care. Chitara Plasencia, 17, Jennie Alvarado, 18, and TyAsia Nicholson, 21, are members of a support group for young mothers at Lawyers For Children, which provides legal and social work advocacy for young people in foster care. Piazadora Footman, 29, and Lashonda Murray, 29, are from Rise.
1. If you want our children to be safe, make it safer for us to ask for help. And keep reaching out with support.
Chitara: The other day I had a fight with my baby’s father. My baby was not in the room, but when my caseworker found out, she said to me: “Your actions make me question whether you’re fit to be a mother.” I started feeling very depressed, very anxious and jumpy. I told my caseworker I was thinking of going on medication. Again she questioned whether I was fit to be a mother. I don’t think it’s fair to get treated like that when I’m asking for help. If the child welfare system wants our children to be safe, it needs to make sure we feel safe asking for help.
TyAsia: When you’re in foster care, you can feel like you can’t trust anybody and nobody is going to be there for you.
When I started going to the support group at Lawyers For Children (LFC), the leader of the group, Mary Ellen, would call or text me after hours or on the weekend just to make sure I was OK. If I told her l felt like banging my head into the wall, she would talk it through with me and help me calm down. Mary Ellen also opened up so many opportunities for me. She even helped me become a youth ambassador for LFC, which means I speak to professionals about my experiences as a youth in foster care.
It’s important for people who care about us to keep reaching out, even if we don’t respond at first. When someone takes care of us, it’s easier for us to take care of our children.
2. Connect us to help outside the system.
Jennie: I’ve been in foster care since I was 3 years old but I’ve never run to my agency to tell them anything. When I do need something, I see a doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist outside the system. Why? I don’t want anything I say to be used against me.
Many moms don’t trust the system. Caseworkers should help those moms get connected to outside help, so at least we’re getting help from somewhere. Before we leave care, we should also know what help is in our community.
3. Let us hear from parents who have been there and help us connect to our peers.
Pia: When I had a child, I wanted to be a mom so bad but I just wasn’t ready. I had my baby out at night while I was selling drugs. I knew it was wrong but I needed to survive, and I was afraid that if I told anyone I needed help, they’d think I couldn’t do it. I would have liked to hear from parents like the mother I am today. We can tell young moms: “We went through this, and you do have a future.” By telling our stories, we can also help caseworkers and foster parents better understand what younger moms are going through.
TyAsia: Moms who grew up in foster care should also have a chance to have fun with their kids and other young families. When I started going to support group, I didn’t trust opening up to the other moms. But when I saw my son making friends, that helped me. Sometimes our kids teach us that if they can trust, we can too.
4. Tell us before you make a report.
Lashonda: Too often, mothers don’t know they’re being reported until someone is knocking at our door. That leaves us living in fear.
When I had my third child, I had an organization called Robin’s Nest doing home-visiting with me. When my relationship turned violent, my worker told me: “I have to make the phone call. Your relationship is bad for you, and either you’re going to get hurt or your kids are.” I was so scared but I didn’t feel betrayed. I told her, “I respect that you are telling me.”
Reports are always scary, but we are less scared when there is communication.
5. Remember that we want to be good parents.
Lashonda: I was sexually abused as a child, and when my son was born I was afraid that if I rubbed his back, I was seducing him, and if I kissed and hugged him, I was molesting him. With help, I learned the difference between good and bad touch, and now I give my children lots of hugs and kisses. When I ask my children, “Do you know I love you?” and they say, “We know,” that’s the icing on the cake.
Most of us struggle with how our childhoods affect our parenting, even if we don’t want to admit it. It’s important for people who want to help us to understand that.
Pia: My past makes me want to know my children in ways I was never known and play with them in ways I didn’t get to play. When it snowed, we went outside and made snowmen and snow angels.
I went to lots of parenting classes that just made me feel like giving up. What I finally learned was to keep trying different approaches and keep finding different ways of getting help. I used to be afraid to be a parent. I’ve had to reset my mind so that I’m no longer afraid.