What We Might Not Say

I was in care and now work in preventive services. My experience helps me recognize how youth might be suffering in silence within their families.

by Tristan Gangi

Growing up in care made me feel like I was standing between two houses. Through the window of the earlier home, I saw familiarity wrapped in trauma. In the foster home was disconnect, the love I never felt, and wanting to belong.

I was in a group home from age 14 to 15, and then with one foster family until I aged out. Despite this, I graduated college, then earned my Master of Social Work degree from New York University. Now I work as an interventionist/therapist for the same child welfare organization that ran my group home, helping families change destructive behavior patterns.

The system we use is called Functional Family Therapy, or FFT. FFT is a preventive service provided to families at risk of having a child go into foster care. Used in 45 states and 10 countries, FFT addresses teens’ emotional or behavior problems by looking at the way the whole family functions. My background makes me especially sensitive to what children aren’t getting and why they might not be able to speak up about it.

Using Me to Get Money

My memories of living with my biological family before age 15 become hazier every day. To answer the all-too-familiar questions: Yes, I know my parents; and yes, they are both still alive. Their choice to not be a part of my life is ongoing and still painful.

I grew up in a single-parent household. My father was never in the picture and offered my mother $300 to get an abortion, according to her. I never really fact-checked that or any other stories about him because we had no communication.

My mother and I were close when I was little. We’d snuggle up and play video games together. It was just the two of us for most of my childhood and we felt like a team. That made the years from 6th grade on especially hard to accept.

When I was in the 6th grade, my mother took my father to court for child support, and he petitioned for visitation rights. Up until that point, I had never met him. Our first meeting was at his workplace: My mother and grandparents took me there and introduced him as my father. He handed me a DVD of the Leprechaun movies that happened to be in his office and made awkward small talk. I wanted to punch him in the face, thinking about the stories my mother shared about her life after she got pregnant.

My mom went to family court to petition for child support and the court ordered him to pay. For reasons I don’t understand, I now had to meet with him weekly, always accompanied by my mother. I never looked forward to these interactions. I knew even then that these visits were not motivated by his wanting to know me, but by my mother’s need for financial assistance. He had a car, so on our visits he’d drive her to do her errands.

When I told her I didn’t want to make these visits, we’d get into verbal arguments—or worse. Being hit with a belt on any body part that she could catch as I ran from the “punishment” was common throughout my childhood. So was being sent to bed without supper.

I was also bullied in school for my economic status. We lived in a trailer park, and I was called “trailer trash” by more fortunate classmates in my Catholic school. Some adults at the school did come through for me: The principal donated my first computer, and my tuition for my last two years of middle school was anonymously paid for. But the abuse at home and bullying at school took its toll.

Not a Bad Child

In 7th grade I spiraled down into self-harm, cutting myself when I reached an emotional boiling point. Cutting was a way to transfer the emotional pain into something I understood better. I didn’t hide the scars. Looking back, I see it was a way to show those around me I was hurting.

My mother often grounded me for my “bad behavior,” which consisted of being on the computer for too long or putting up fights about seeing my father. She didn’t know how to deal with my cutting, so we just didn’t talk about it; that wasn’t something she punished me for.

I was not allowed to hang out with friends outside of school: I woke up, went to school, did my homework, and then played World of Warcraft for hours. I wasn’t a bad child; at least I don’t think so.

None of my family came to my 8th grade graduation. My mother’s excuse was that she couldn’t get a hair appointment. The reception after the ceremony was hard. My friends’ families asked where my family was, and I avoided answering. I congratulated my friends and left. That night was the first time I thought about suicide, but not the last.

For whatever reason, my mother’s skipping my graduation remains my worst experience. It was so triggering that I didn’t attend any of my graduations after that until grad school. And that was only for those who’d become my family.

Calling the Cops

As a freshman in high school, I got off to a good start. I made more friends and started dating a girl. Three weeks into our relationship, though, I had a strange conversation with my girlfriend. Turns out my mother had called her.

My mother had asked, “Why are you with him? Do you know he cuts himself?” At the time, she didn’t, so that’s how she found out. When I confronted my mother about it, our fight turned physical, and my mom called the cops. Every altercation from then on ended with her calling the cops because I was “uncontrollable.”

I was not the aggressor, but my voice as a child meant nothing. That Christmas, my mother told me that I hadn’t shown good enough behavior to deserve any gifts. This led to a fight; she called the cops and I cut myself. The cops saw the fresh self-harm marks, and I was hospitalized for more than two weeks for suicidal ideation.

A month later, after another altercation, I ran away to my girlfriend’s house to escape what was going on. She pointed out to me that I had a black eye and her family talked with me about what to do. I decided to call the cops—my mom did it all the time—not knowing what that would put into motion.

The cops called my father, looking for somewhere to move me. He said, and I quote, “I don’t care what you do with him,” and hung up. I spent the next year of my life in a group home and faced more hardships. These included being jumped in my sleep for being the only White kid, coming home to my belongings ransacked or destroyed, and unidentified bodily fluids on my bedding and mattress.

Second-Tier Child

At age 15, I was placed with a foster family, and was under their care until I aged out.

My foster family had two biological children, one my age and one two years older. All three kids got the same food, same housing, and the same type of emotional support, but when it came to gifts or what we were allowed to do, I received less. I felt like a second-tier child.

A parent always had to be home when I was home and I couldn’t have friends over unsupervised. Their own kids didn’t have those rules. I understand needing to earn parents’ trust at first, but this lasted the whole time I lived there. I thought, “If they don’t think I have trustworthy friends, what does that say about what they think of me as a person?” I also had a curfew at a reasonable time for my age, but earlier than their sons.

When I asked the family for something, such as textbooks for college my freshman year, they usually said they could not afford it. Yet I saw them spend lavishly on themselves and their own children. One Christmas, I received $100 as a gift, while the biological children each got $1,000.

It was a hard situation. How could I address it without coming off as rude or ungrateful? I’d had Christmases with no gifts, so why should I complain about getting something, even if it wasn’t equal to others? The family gave me a roof over my head and didn’t abuse me, but it silently stung getting less than their biological children.

When I was 19, I stopped going “home.” Due to feeling unwelcome at my foster family’s, I began staying at my college campus during academic months and my fraternity house on breaks till I aged out of care.

I try to use what I’ve learned as a social worker to assess my own relationship with my foster family. I don’t believe our relationship was functional, meaning I never had a sense of belonging. I didn’t feel like I had what I needed, and I never voiced what I was lacking.

Did I have food? Yes. Did I have shelter? Yes. Did it feel like a place I could call my home? No. On the outside looking in, you would see that I had all the necessities, but I always felt like I was a guest there.

Foster Parents Need to Offer Help

We foster children notice and observe disparities in treatment. Many youth stay quiet because we fear we may end up somewhere worse than where we currently are. I was not about to cause a fight over receiving less than my “brothers.” Especially not after the nightmare in the group home.

The unequal treatment also made me feel that if I asked my foster family for help, I would get a “NO.” So why bother asking? When I went away to college, I refused to ask them for help no matter how badly I was struggling. Instead I started relying on myself for things I needed and worked two jobs in order to survive. I think what hurt the most was that they never visited me at college after the move-in weekend, but they frequently visited their biological son at his college.

Foster parents should read between the lines and offer assistance they think their foster child may need. It can be hard for someone who has gone through so much disappointment to have the courage to ask for help. Even if we don’t need it, it shows the child you care. I over-relied on myself to an almost survivalist extent. I hid from my foster parents, among other things, the fact that I still cut. I couldn’t be me when I was with them.

In my biological and foster families, different issues prevented me from feeling whole or that I belonged. With my biological family, I suffered physical and emotional abuse. My foster family at times reinforced the emotional and psychological emptiness. Both of these families were missing different pieces.

Now when I work with families, I remember those pieces as I study the puzzle of a family’s relationships. Though I help each member of the family to the best of my ability, my main client is the youth. I advocate for those without a voice and ask the questions I was too afraid to ask for myself.

It can be hard for someone who has gone through so much disappointment to have the courage to ask for help.
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