Slightly Open Arms

A foster mother who seems great at first turns out to be an abusive drunk. It makes it hard to open up to anyone.

by Chantel Jackson

Throughout my childhood, my mom planted a distrust of others. My siblings and I barely saw other family members. We weren’t allowed to go to other people’s houses, and when Child Protective Services (CPS) visited ours, my mom said they were bad people and not to talk to them. As a child, I thought no one wanted to help or look out for us except each other.

Yet my mom dated men that even as a child I could see were bad news. She implanted “All outsiders are bad,” but I thought, “Wait, a minute, this guy IN our house is bad, so how’d Mommy come to this conclusion?”

I was confused and didn’t know what the word trust meant. I also saw that our home life was chaotic; my peers were not getting pulled out of class to talk to CPS. I also noticed that other parents picked their children up at school while I picked my little brothers up and we walked or took the bus home by ourselves.

When I was 13, the summer after 8th grade, my mother moved her abusive alcoholic boyfriend Michael into our apartment. She began drinking too. It was hell witnessing him abuse her, so I finally broke the rule of not speaking the business of the house. When I was a freshman in high school, I told CPS workers who came to school to talk to me about what was going on. Soon after that, in October of 9th grade, my older sister Taniah and I went into care, and my little brothers went to live with their father.

Taniah and I were placed in the home of Ms. G. in Queens. Ms. G. welcomed us into her beautiful, clean home to join four other foster children, ages 1 to 6, whom she said she planned to adopt. The 6-year-old, Kimberly, was mildly retarded. Also living there were Ms. G.’s biological daughter Kayla, 19, and adopted daughter, Cristal, 22. I was 14.

The house had a huge yard and many rooms. Ms. G.’s room was on the ground floor along with the room the three little girls shared. Their brother had his own room downstairs, but he liked to sleep in the bed with Ms. G.. Upstairs, Kayla and Cristal each had their own room, and Taniah and I shared a room.

Dream to Nightmare

Ms. G. seemed like a dream mother at first. She cooked exquisite meals almost every day. She took us to get full sets at the nail salon and to clothing outlets upstate. She let us use her iPad and phone. Ms. G. bought my sister and me whatever clothes we needed and gave us money when we left in the morning for school.

It seemed my mother had given me the wrong impression of foster care. I was comfortable living there and we fit right in like we were family. We all got along great, joking, watching movies, and staying up late listening to music. I generally dislike kids, but I enjoyed helping out with the younger ones and helping around the house. I started to trust this family.

But a few months in, we saw another side of our foster mom. Taniah and I came out of our room one evening to see Ms. G. swaying side to side with her eyelids low. We asked Cristal what was wrong with her. She told us that Ms. G. had gone in her room and drunk from her bottle of Hennessey.

She slurred meanly at Taniah and me, “Oh, here come the thotties. How come y’all always f-cking all those niggas?” I’d seen enough drunk abusiveness before to not be shocked, but the trust I’d given to Ms. G. withered in that moment. It felt like a step back—and like my mother’s words coming true.

Ms. G. continued to run us down as “thots” whenever she drank. Taniah and I were tomboys, basketball players, who gravitated toward boys as friends, so these insults were off-base and didn’t sting. She verbally abused Cristal when she was drunk, too: “Uh-oh, look at Ms. Piggy, here she comes!”

She got drunk and abusive at least once a week. Her biological daughter and the three youngest foster siblings did not feel the wrath of her drunken alter ego, but Cristal, Kimberly, Taniah, and I did. This went on for about three months before my sister decided to run away.

In February, Taniah told me her plan: to leave from the laundromat and go to our grandma’s house, where Mommy was staying. As she finished gathering up the laundry, she asked, “Wassup? You coming with or no?”

I had a list of pros and cons in my head. The biggest con was that if I went AWOL, it would only extend my stay in care. I knew they’d look for us at my grandmother’s. I shook my head no in response.

Petty and Violent

I didn’t express it, but I did feel somewhat abandoned. When Taniah didn’t return from the laundromat, Ms. G. went there and found the clothes in the dryer. CPS found Taniah and placed her in another home. She and I didn’t speak for about nine months after that. I was mad she’d left me there alone, and she was mad that I didn’t run away with her.

After Taniah left, Ms. G. started spoiling me, buying me sneakers and an iPhone after I passed all my Regents exams. She told me to gloat about my new possessions on social media to show Taniah what she was missing. She urged me, “Did you post your new Jordans?” and “Post your new phone; let’s see if your sister likes it.”

It was sad to hear an adult talk like this, especially a 50-something church-going lady who supposedly loved kids oh so much. The things she said and did made me want to be just as conniving and manipulative with her. I skipped school every day, and when they called the house I told her I was going but arriving late. Every time she asked if I had money I said no, so she’d give me more. I felt that I deserved everything I could get for putting up with this environment.

Ms. G. seemed to have no memory of her drunken rages. One Sunday she brightly said, “Come and eat breakfast so you can get ready for church.” I glared at her.

“What happened?” was her response to my death stare.

“You don’t remember what you were doing last night?” She looked blank, so I filled her in:

“You said, ‘Dumb b-tch, ho, your mom doesn’t give a f-ck about you! I don’t have to do the things I do for you!’”

I looked at her, longing for an explanation or an apology.

“Really? I don’t remember that. I don’t think I was that bad,” she calmly replied.

I walked away in disgust and disbelief. Why would I lie?

Once she tried to choke me and, defending me, Cristal pushed her into a bookshelf. As Cristal ran down the steps, Ms. G. threw the vacuum cleaner down at her.

YC-Art Dept.

No Way Home

The younger kids were the only reason I didn’t report her. If they were removed from her home, they would probably be separated. No one would take in three little siblings only a year apart from each other. I’d heard how special needs kids were treated in foster homes and decided they’d be better off with Ms. G.

Before I knew it, a year had passed. I was waiting for CPS to say, “You’re moving back with your mom.” Even that seemed better than the disaster I was living in.

But then my mother killed Michael, her abuser. I was stunned as I read the news reports. I felt a sense of despair. Now I’d never live with my siblings again, and I’d be stuck in this terrible home forever.

I attempted suicide and ended up in the psych ward. While I was in the hospital, Ms. G. called me to say she’d told the foster care agency that I needed a “new environment.”

The foster home I entered after the hospital didn’t have the alcohol and abuse, but it did have the same bait-and-switch. First I was treated like family, and then I was treated like a foster child. It went from three meals a day to either one or none. The foster mom was calling me her daughter, but stole my monthly allowance from me.

Finally, Someone Genuine

During my off-and-on three-year living arrangement with this foster mom, I was placed in a home with a genuine person, Ms. Harrington, for a short time. Every time I stepped out the door, Ms. Harrington put her hand on my shoulder, closed her eyes, bowed her head, and said a prayer for my family and friends and me.

Even though I’m agnostic, I felt a sense of comfort from her. She fed me three meals a day, asked if I needed pocket money when I was going out, and gave me more allowance than she was supposed to. I even received gifts on holidays. I was only there for six months, and I trusted her more than any adult I had ever met. She seemed to genuinely care.

My grades were excellent while I lived there. Ms. Harrington felt like a loving grandma, and she made me care about my future. I often felt hopeless, but she lifted my spirits every time I walked out that door with her prayers.

Now I’m in another placement where I don’t feel at home. My first day there, my new foster mom asked me what shows I liked to watch.

I said, “I don’t watch TV; I’d rather read books.”

She looked at me, confused. “Well that’s odd.”

She cooks for us foster children only once or twice a week, and the refrigerator is usually empty. My room is small and cluttered, and she seems to do the minimum to get the money from the agency.

Slightly Open Arms

Living with so many people who aren’t what they seem makes me cautious with everyone. I have a fear of people hiding their real, selfish bad selves behind a nice façade; I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I reject kind gestures and words because I don’t believe them. Former friends who have seen me grow, change, and overcome trials reach out, and I respond, “I appreciate it but I’m OK”; “I’m fine”; “Thanks for the offer but I’m managing.” Part of it is I really do like to be alone. I’d rather read and write instead of partying. People often call me standoffish, and I can’t say they’re wrong.

I’m only 19, but I’ve accepted that I’ll never have an adult take care of me. Instead I hope to find a peer to trust. I’m looking for people who show compassion with their actions, not their words. I’d like a relationship with someone who doesn’t make me feel like a burden. I want us to do and say meaningful things without expecting anything in return. That’s the foundation of a trusting relationship.

But my past experiences form a wall between me and other people: I have my guard up against everyone I come into contact with. I think if I were able to trust even one person, it would make me more sociable and less pessimistic.

I know that my fear and suspicion will make me miss out on friends, jobs, and other opportunities. To try and overcome my past and learn to trust the right people, I’ve recently enrolled in psychotherapy and am working toward overcoming my mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I take part in supportive groups at a place called STEPS to End Family Violence. I can be opinionated and understood there, which makes it feel like a safe space.

I try to stay open and converse. I join groups I wouldn’t have joined before. I’m not ready to open all the way up, but I’m not ignoring and closing people off either. My path to finding someone to trust is to communicate with others who share my interests: music, art, books, photography, writing, and spirituality. I can’t undo what’s happened to me, but I’m moving forward with slightly open arms.

I think if I were able to trust even one person, it would make me more sociable and less pessimistic.