Mutual Respect

My last foster mother had unfamiliar rules and expectations, and it didn't work out. I'm trying to learn how to communicate better, so I can stay with the next foster parent.

by Tayia Day

Names have been changed.

My siblings and I went into care for a year and a half when I was 10 and 11. Ever since we returned, Mom treated me differently.

Before the separation, we had been best friends. After I returned from foster care, she wasn’t understanding anymore. She argued with me about my grades in school, my choice of friends and called me “ho,” “hooker,” and “ugly bitch.” I felt like a horrible child; I felt disowned.

It got worse as I grew older. She called the cops on me when we had arguments and when I came home late. Then she started saying she would kick me out as soon as I turned 18. I felt unwanted, so I stayed out a lot, which made my mom even madder. When I was out with my friends, I smoked weed and drank because I wanted to feel happy and forget my worries.

I wanted my mom to give me attention and help me navigate life. I needed someone who already knew me to talk to me about the consequences of what I was doing. My mom screamed and cursed me out, but didn’t talk to me about my path. I wanted her to talk to me about the bad effects of marijuana and give me guidance.

I stopped going to school a year and a half ago because I had issues with other students, and I didn’t understand the material. As I missed more class, it became harder to keep up, and then I stopped trying to learn. I didn’t officially withdraw; I just stopped showing up. I spent most of my time sleeping and getting high with my friends. I considered writing at Represent my “academic time.”

About a year ago, I took all my things and left without telling my mom. I began staying with my friend Wanda’s family, all of us sleeping in one bedroom. My mom didn’t call or get the police involved. It hurt that she didn’t try to find me.

I was close to Wanda’s family and was comfortable, even though there wasn’t much space. I could also smoke weed there, and I liked that freedom.

But as my 18th birthday approached, I realized everyone my age was graduating high school. I tried to get a job, and employers all wanted a high school diploma or for me to be in school. I’d started to dislike how I felt when I was high sometimes, really sick and down.

I Need More Help

A few months before I turned 18, I decided to go back into foster care. I wanted help with housing, with getting my high school diploma or GED, and support with college, none of which I was getting staying at Wanda’s.

I hoped for a foster parent who would push me to succeed and also respect my ideas and opinions. I wanted someone who would stick by my side but also give me time and space. I wanted motivation and support from an adult and, of course, stable housing.

Going back into care was a hard decision. Even though my mother kept yelling that she was done with me, part of me still loves her and wants to work it out with her. I worried that saying I needed to be in care would make Child Protective Services (CPS) take my sisters away from my mother. I worried that if I went into care, I’d never have a relationship with my mother again.

I went into care about eight months ago. The first place I went was the Children’s Center, an intake center for New York City foster children waiting for placement. The people at CPS told me that there were no placements for me and that I would have to stay in the Children’s Center until they found me a foster home or group home.

The other girls there sometimes fought and stole each other’s clothing. I felt unsafe and worried about my belongings. I wished I’d stayed at Wanda’s and not gone into care.

Finally, a Mentor

Meanwhile, I found a mentor through Represent. Suzette, a retired social worker, stepped in by paying for MetroCards for me to get to my summer youth job, my phone bill, and food. When I told her that CPS was keeping me at the Children’s Center, she offered to let me stay with her.

My CPS worker told me that I could stay with Suzette until I graduated from high school. But I found out later Suzette was only planning to take me until they found me a placement.

Suzette took me to fancy restaurants and bought me clothes. She corrected my grammar. She figured out I had bad eyesight and took me to get glasses, which she paid for.

She also advocated to get me back into high school, which was hard because I only had four credits. It was September when I moved in with her, and school had already started. She researched schools and finally got me into a credit recovery school, where I’ve been going for a few months. So far, I enjoy the school and the students. I just got my first report card—4 As, a B, and a C.

Before I met Suzette and went into foster care, I’d been considering Job Corps, a program that provides housing, job training, and GED classes. Job Corps serves youth ages 16 to 24, and I could finish the program in nine months instead of graduating high school when I’m 20. And I wouldn’t have to worry about CPS finding me a foster home.

But going into Job Corps would mean losing foster care benefits—free housing until age 21, and money for college until age 23.

Foster Parent Challenges

After I’d been living with Suzette for about a month and a half, we got in an argument. She said she didn’t have enough money to buy me clothing, food, and accessories. During the fight, she said that my staying there was “supposed to be temporary.”

The word “temporary” gave me butterflies. That’s when I found out that she told CPS that she was only keeping me until they found a placement, to rescue me from the Children’s Center. It was a misunderstanding, but it hurt me and made me feel unwanted. When she told me I was welcome in her home, I assumed it was for a longer time.

She also got upset when I stayed out until 2 in the morning. Suzette said, “This isn’t going to work for me,” to try to get me to follow her rules. But those words made me feel abandoned again and made me not want to be there. I lost my temper a few times. When I was mad, I left the house without telling her and ignored what she said to me. Once, I blurted out that I wished I’d never said OK to living in her home.

Sometimes I lashed out at Suzette because she was in the mother role. I’m angry and hurt to be back in care when I have a mother. Suzette and I decided that it was best for me to move out. I hope to learn from what didn’t go well with Suzette.

Trying Again

A month ago, I moved in with a new foster mother, Diane, and I’m trying to make it work better with her. We’ve already talked about her former foster children and how the agency has treated her. It’s the first time I’d thought about the foster mother’s point of view, and I don’t want to make her life harder the way some foster kids had.

Diane was in care herself, and that helps me relate to her. She is also trying to prepare me for independence, which I appreciate. She’s teaching me to cook. She said, “When you live on your own, I can come over to your house and eat a good meal.”

She said she does not want to see me as a child but as an adult; she wants us to have mutual respect for one another. My mother told me over and over that I’d never succeed, and it felt great hearing that someone believed in my future as an independent adult.

She told me early on, “I don’t want you to get mad and just up and leave one day. I’m here to offer help, and if you don’t want it then you don’t want it. If my home is not a place where you feel happy, then I have no problem with you making the decision to leave.”

I liked that she was allowing me my own feelings about a place where I’m told to live. At my mom’s house and former foster mother’s house, I felt as if my feelings were questioned.

Diane has three other foster children plus two grown daughters who live there. Her daughters are nice to me even though we aren’t blood-related. They smile and ask me if I’m hungry.

I feel lucky I got this foster home. To make it work, I come home around 8 on school days, well before my 11 p.m. curfew, and I spend weekends at home. Diane does not have many rules; I just need to ask to use things in the house because they may be someone else’s.

It upset me when my former foster mom said “temporary,” so I told Diane and her daughters that that word triggers me. I also told them that I hate being yelled at for something I simply can’t do any better, like getting a bad grade in math class.

They all told me they understand and they will do their best not to say that word to me. I told Diane that my anger with someone in the mother role is sometimes anger at my mother. She said that she doesn’t want to be another mother to me if it makes me feel uncomfortable, but she does want to be a foster mom. It was nice to hear that. We have not had any conflicts yet.

Suzette wanted me to talk to her more, so at Diane’s I’m hanging out more and talking to the family. I offer to help with cleaning and doing the dishes. I have stayed in even on weekends so my foster family doesn’t think that I don’t want to be involved or get help from them.

I’m glad Diane said she wants us to have mutual respect. To have that mutually respectful bond, I need to leave the issues I had with my mom in the past. That will let Diane be herself and me be myself, and we can figure out how to get along.

How to Help Youth Feel Safe Yet Independent

Watch for Triggers
• Tayia is probably not the only youth triggered by the word “temporary.” It carries the threat of yet another disruption, so it’s best not to say it. Similarly, don’t threaten the youth by saying or even implying, “I may ask the agency to remove you if you don’t behave.”

• Ask young people what upsets them and tell them you will try not to say or do those things.

Respect Old Relationships
• Tell foster youth that you are not trying to replace the birth parent, but you are there for them.

Look Forward, Not Back
• Refer to a future together, like Diane’s remark, “When you have your own place, you can cook me a meal.”

It upset me when my former foster mom said "temporary," so I told Diane and her daughters that that word triggers me.
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