Names have been changed.
When my sister Kimberly was born, I promised her that I would never let anyone hurt her.
Four years later, when I was 11, I was changing Kimberly’s diaper when my mother said, “Jasmine, come over here, we need to talk.”
Scared that I was in trouble, I asked, “What’s wrong this time? I cleaned….” but she interrupted, “I’m getting old and you need to start working. But not until you become a woman.”
I wondered what “being a woman” meant. I asked, “Mom, why do I have to work? I am not an adult.”
I could see her getting mad. She took a deep breath, and yelled, “It’s your job to work now or your sister will starve to death! Is that what you want? You want to kill your sister?”
My tears poured down. “Noooo Mommy! I’ll work! I don’t want my sister to die.” I expected my mom to hug me and tell me everything was going to be OK, but she just smiled a cold smile.
‘Becoming a Woman’
I didn’t discover what she meant until my 12th birthday, in my last year of elementary school.
I couldn’t wait to get home from school that day. My dad told me when he got out of dialysis that he would bring me my favorite chocolate cake. My sister told me she had a surprise for me when I got home.
I was coming out of school when I saw my cousin Johanna waiting for me. She was in high school and I was scared of her. She was in a group that sold drugs and jumped people who didn’t pay. People respected them—or were just scared of them.
I wanted to run, but I froze.
“Where are you going, little baby? You’re coming with me.”
Terrified, I said, “I want to call my mom to ask her if I have to go with you.”
Johanna called my mom on her phone, then passed it to me. “Jasmine, stop making such a big deal and go with your cousin,” my mom told me. “I’ll see you at home. Today you will be a woman.”
I didn’t know what was going on. Johanna and I got into a van with some guys in their 20s. I was scared. We stopped at a house I didn’t recognize, and my cousin pulled me into the house with her, saying she was just going to pick something up.
We walked down into a basement. I saw a big tank with a lizard and went to look at it. My cousin whispered, “I’m sorry, but I have to.” Then someone hit me on my head so hard I blacked out.
When I woke up, I was alone and my whole body was in pain. I couldn’t move; I saw blood and started to cry. I couldn’t remember anything. I wanted to run, but the pain was horrible. It hurt in places that shouldn’t hurt.
A kid came into the room. He was maybe 16 and looked scared. He told me he was here to take me home.
Kimberly Sings for Me
“Who are you?” I asked, trying not to show fear.
He looked shocked. “I’m the one who picks up the mess. Don’t tell anyone what happened because you could be killed. You are now part of the **** gang.” My mom’s family’s gang, the one my dad was trying to keep me away from. He put me in a cab and told the driver my address. My mom opened the door, and I told her what had happened.
She smiled at me in a creepy way and told me to take a shower and go to bed.
I didn’t understand. I was bruised and bloody all over—why did my mom just smile? In my room, I started crying, and Kimberly came in and asked what was wrong. I didn’t want to tell her; she was too little. She grabbed my hand and helped me into the shower. She sat on the toilet and I asked her to sing for me.
She sang songs she’d learned at school while I cried behind the shower curtain, quietly, so she wouldn’t hear me. She got into bed with me and hugged me, and we fell asleep together. I woke up when I heard my dad yelling my name. My body was still hurting.
My dad ran into the room and hugged me and I started crying again. He hugged me until I fell asleep. After that, I heard him yelling at my mom, asking what was wrong in her head.
Two days later, my mom brought me into a bar. I saw other girls my age dancing, sitting, and standing as if they were at a party. My mom left me with the bar owner, and he told me I had to do everything the guys told me to do. He said I had to smile and be pretty. I didn’t understand what was going on.
Living a Nightmare
I saw drunk men touch the young girls in places no one should and dance with them. I was so scared I hid in the bathroom. The owner got mad and called my parents. Later I learned he’d asked if he could drug me and they agreed. I couldn’t believe what was going on; it was like I was having a nightmare I didn’t understand.
My routine became to go to the bar at 3 p.m. and get home at 4 a.m. Then up for school at 6 a.m., leave school early, go to the bar, get cocaine shot into my arm with a needle, get forced to have sex with men, then go home and do it all the next day. Sometimes I gave cocaine to myself when I was stressed. It was how I coped with my life. I got addicted.
Sometimes I wouldn’t go to school because I was too tired. I had Saturday and Sunday off and spent those days with my sister and my dad. My dad knew what was going on, but we never talked about it. With the money I had left over after paying all the bills, we bought food and clothes for my sister. I was happy that my sister was getting what she needed to live.
This went on for four years. When I was 16, I was walking into the bar one day, and someone grabbed my arm so hard that I turned around ready to punch him. But it was Danny, from elementary school. He was the first boyfriend I ever had, a year younger than me.
I was so happy to see him but scared because I was next to the bar. He asked why I was going in there. I was embarrassed and told him to leave me alone and get out of my life. Then I went to work.
The whole day I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and I had a weird feeling in my belly. When I got home my dad was furious and my mom was yelling. My mom told me a guy had come to the house to tell them that I was working at a bar. My heart stopped; I didn’t expect Danny to care that much about me. I asked my mom what happened after that.
“I kicked him out and told him to mind his own business.”
The next day after work I saw Danny by the train. He asked me why my parents were letting me work at the bar. I told him he should just leave and walked away. He followed me onto the subway, and the whole ride home he asked questions: “Don’t you want to go to college? Is this the life you want?” But the question that hit me the hardest was, “Do you want your sister to follow in your footsteps?”
That’s when I started asking myself, “What am I doing with my life? Was this OK for me or for my sister?” I did want to have an education and be someone. But I only went to school every once in a blue moon. I didn’t have friends. For the next week Danny rode the train home from work with me, and I told him everything. He told me I deserved a better future.
I told him if I stood up to my parents, I could get kicked out. He said I could live with his cousin upstate and I could get a job—one where I felt good about myself. Danny gave me the courage to confront my parents.
One Friday after work, I told my parents, “I want to quit the bar. I want to go to school. I want a future.”
My dad looked surprised and my mom turned red.
“What do you mean? You need to work! Are you crazy?“
I cut her off: “But you could work! You’re not sick. You’re never home! Why can’t you work? I am not the adult. You two are.”
Then my dad pulled out a knife and held it to my neck. He said, “You are going to work whether you like it or not, OK?”
My heart dropped. I would have expected threats from my mom but never from my father. That’s when I knew I had to leave.
I ran away to Danny’s cousin’s house upstate and got a job in a restaurant. I had my own room, and I only had to pay for my own food, clothing, and other things I needed. I was still sending money to my parents. I told my sister where I was living, but I told her not to tell my parents.
Before I moved upstate, Danny asked me to be his girlfriend. I said yes. He helped me get out of the nightmare I was living and showed me another side of life. One day we lay in the grass watching the sky together. I realized I had missed so much of life, including how beautiful the world was.
One day my sister called and said my father was very sick. I rushed back, and there were police ready to arrest me for being a runaway. In the police car, I told the officers about working in the bar. They took me to the Child Protective Services building.
A worker told me that in foster care I could go to school, get fed, and be taken care of just by staying in care. I told Danny about the conversation and he agreed that foster care would let me live my childhood.
I was tired of having to be a grownup. I wanted to go to school and graduate and then do something with my life so I could take my sister in. I went into foster care.
I gave the social worker the addresses of the bar that I had “worked” in and also other bars on that same block owned by the same guy. A few days later the owners and the pimps were arrested.
Going Back for Kimberly
It was winter, and all my winter clothes were at my parents’ house. I called my mom to ask her for coats and shoes, but she didn’t pick up or answer my messages. I went to my parents’ apartment and knocked on the door to see my sister, but my parents ignored me. I threw pebbles at my sister’s window until finally my mom opened the door and threw cold water on me.
Danny told me not to go to my parents’, but I wanted my sister to know that I wasn’t going to give up on her no matter what. My mom got more violent after the water-throwing. She spit on me, hit me, and pushed me down the stairs like an animal. But I didn’t give up.
I got into a good foster home, and seven months later, my dad asked for my forgiveness and said he wanted to change. After that, my dad got my sister and me together a lot, behind my mother’s back. But my dad passed away very recently, and since then my mother won’t let me see my sister. I am fighting in Family Court to get visits with her.
My foster mother has agreed to take my sister in if my mom loses custody, and I would love that. ACS says they can’t remove my sister until something happens to her, but my adult support team is helping me keep the case open. I hope those eyes on my mother keep my sister from having to “work.” My sister’s about to turn 11, and I will do anything to save her from what happened to me.