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Last year in Texas there were more than 65,000 confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect, with over 30,000 children living in foster care. This is one of their stories, the first in a series about the current state of the foster care system.
This is Lauren’s story.
At age 22, Lauren’s baby doll face makes her look 15. Her long brown hair is thick and healthy, her face full and round. Her brown eyes do not give away the depth of the pain and suffering she has experienced in her short life and the naive sweetness in her smile masks the truth of what lies within.
She’s good at hiding what she thinks and feels, after a lifetime of learning to survive in a cruel world. She knows how to block out that world and live inside her head. I’ve spent nearly five hours talking to her, asking her questions and listening to her stories and although I feel I have a sense of who she is, a lot of that is conjecture. There is a wall she has built and it’s nearly impossible to penetrate. She prefers to stick to the facts, and as she tells her story, there isn’t a single moment when her eyes fill with tears or she becomes too fragile to continue. She may look innocent but her strength is remarkable.
Lauren’s first placement in foster care at two-years-old almost ended in an adoption with a wonderful family, but Lauren’s birth mother made a last minute decision to stop the adoption and take Lauren and her sister back. I silently wonder how Lauren’s story might have changed if that adoption had completed, if she had spent her childhood in a loving, middle class family.
Lauren’s memories are fuzzy from the period she was returned to her mother as a toddler. By age six, Lauren was removed from her home again by Child Protective Services (CPS) because her mother’s boyfriend was sexually abusing her and this time she went to live with her father. He had the support of his family and Lauren remembers being safe and loved in his home, even though he drank too much and “smoked some pot.” She is very protective of her father and his memory. The only time she shows any emotion during our conversations is when she talks about her dad. When she was nine, he died suddenly, leaving Lauren and her sister back in state care. Her mom was given the opportunity to take custody of the girls again with the stipulation that she could not have the abusive boyfriend in the home or around the girls at all. She refused.
She chose her boyfriend over her children and has never acknowledged that the abuse happened even though Lauren clearly remembers her mother being in the bed with them several times, lying next to her as she begged him to stop hurting her. This happens all the time – women choosing abusive boyfriends and husbands over their children.
Lauren returned to state care and was placed in a large foster home, one that cared for many children at a time in a group home setting where the food was kept in a locked pantry and the rules were extremely strict. When one of her foster brothers began raping her, she didn’t say anything. She figured boys and men just did that to girls and she had better get used to it. So she tried to accept it and not complain. One day she “accidentally” told someone what was happening at home. The state rushed in and removed her. She remembers feeling as though she ruined everything by admitting the truth of what was happening in that foster home and there is pain in her eyes when she talks about it.
Over the next several years, she spent some time in a psychiatric hospital and at a hospital for anorexic girls. At this point she points to her full figure and laughs at the ridiculous idea that she could actually be anorexic. I press her for details and she tells the story of a placement with a family that had strict rules for eating. You were expected to eat what you were served and not complain. Lauren was a picky eater and refused the scrambled eggs she was served on her first day in the foster home. She was served the same plate of eggs at the next meal and the next and the next. Finally, on the third day, Lauren was taken out to the front porch where her foster father held her down and forced her mouth open while her foster mother fed her the scrambled eggs. When Lauren vomited, her case worker was called and informed that Lauren wasn’t working out and she needed to be picked up immediately. The case worker arrived and demanded she answer questions with a simple yes or no.
Did you refuse to eat?
Is it true that you haven’t eaten in three days?
Did you throw up?
Lauren was taken immediately to the anorexia section of a psychiatric hospital for treatment.
Over a period of three years Lauren had 18 more placements, each one failing more quickly than the last. As her behavior became increasingly difficult to manage, CPS classified her level of care higher and higher. Thankfully, Lauren never reached the highest level, intensive. (CPS classifies children as Basic, Moderate, Specialized and Intensive) The higher your classification, the more limited your placement options become and Lauren was quickly running out of options.
She had heard good things about the long-term facility at Roy Maas Youth Alternatives (RMYA) called Meadowland, and begged to be placed there. She was convinced it was the right place for her because she didn’t want to stay in any more foster homes. She knew she was a “pain in the ass,” and she believed a residential facility provided enough structure that she could survive until she was old enough to be out on her own.
She was right. Lauren flourished at RMYA’s Meadowland facility. While she continued to struggle with anxiety, her school work improved, and her level dropped back to basic. With the strict schedule of Meadowland, weekly therapy appointments and a staff trained to help girls like Lauren heal, she began to feel happy for the first time in her life. At 16 years old, a single woman who had adopted two other teenagers, invited Lauren to visit and eventually adopted her. She left Meadowland believing she was going toward a real family and a normal life.
I wish I could say that the story ends here but it doesn’t. The adoption didn’t go well. Lauren’s anxiety peaked again. She couldn’t get along with her adopted mother or siblings and grew resentful and angry that she had left Meadowland at all.
At 18 years old, Lauren’s adoptive mother asked her to leave. Fortunately, Lauren had done well in high school and left to attend Texas Tech. Her schooling was partially paid for by the state, one of the few benefits of a childhood spent in care. Unfortunately, because of the late adoption, Lauren’s tuition was paid for but she was required to pay for her room and board and her textbooks. She just couldn’t manage it all and got involved with a man who physically and emotionally abused her.
This man beat her so badly that she had to be hospitalized and then spent time in Lubbock’s Battered Women’s Shelter. She dropped out of school for the fourth time and decided to contact RMYA’s TurningPoint Transitional Living Program for young adults who have aged out of foster care. She was told that there was space and that she was welcome. She boarded a bus that day and headed to San Antonio with a few dollars in her pocket and a duffle bag full of everything she owned in the world, ready to start over again.
Fast forward two years. Lauren sits in front of me weeks from graduating from San Antonio College with her associate’s degree in Fine Arts. She starts Texas State in the fall semester and hopes to get her degree in communication design. She is excited and nervous. Her goal is to get a good job after she graduates and she dreams of adopting a child like her someday so that she can keep someone else from going through what she went through.
She’s doing well. She still doesn’t drive but enjoys taking the bus – it gives her more time to read the spy novels she loves. She’s an RMYA success story. We celebrate her at RMYA, write about her in our newsletter, and tell stories about her to donors. We talk about the value of children like Lauren, about how much they deserve our support, love, attention, and dedication. All of these things are true.
But there is a deeper truth, of a young woman who has experienced suffering beyond my imagination. The truth of a child who was robbed of her innocence and abused by the people who should have protected her. These are the types of injuries that never fully heal. She explains that she is doing better now because the TurningPoint program requires her to attend individual and group therapy sessions, something she never would have done if she wasn’t required to. She tells me that the TurningPoint staff are like big brothers and sisters and that they were there to help her whenever she needed them so she didn’t feel so isolated. But she’s still scared and except for her sister who is her best friend, she’s still alone. Other foster kids she’s known over the years have become a make-shift family but it’s not the same. In spite of her tough exterior, Lauren is still struggling. It won’t be easy for her. She’s going to have to work hard, harder than most people, to have the kind of life she dreams of having.
But I think she’s going to do it. I really do.
There is some little fire in her that this harsh world cannot extinguish.
*Featured/top image: A day in the life of an RMYA Child: At 4 p.m. The kids are home from school and they have “room time,” which gives them a chance to settle in and unwind for a moment before chores and evening activities. Courtesy photo.