Monica's Story

My family has a long history of poverty, trauma, maladaptive coping, inadequate education, and a lack of positive role models which goes as far back as my great grandparents.  Like many youth in foster care, I have been no exception and developing into an adult was a tumultuous experience. Also similar to many youth in foster care, there wasn’t a consistent group of people involved in the first eighteen years of my life. Instead, a variety of individuals influenced who I am today.

My father began his struggle with addiction at the age of fourteen and my mother was heinously abused by her father, my grandfather, and never received support to recover. At nineteen, my father, along with my last name, became well known by local law enforcement for numerous criminal offenses, including theft and drug possession, and he became imprisoned before I was born. My father would later become institutionalized, remaining out of prison for only brief periods and always returning. It appeared that my mother didn’t have sufficient time to develop into the person she wanted to be before I came along. At eighteen, she was still plagued with the demons left by my grandfather and she did not have the proper education, or mental health support, to eradicate them. Instead, she buried the trauma deep where it wouldn’t be addressed whilst navigating young motherhood in poverty. Nonetheless, my mother nobly and admirably pushed forward. She was the best mother to ever exist; she ensured I was in Head Start, beamed at every art project, every read and written word, and every song sung. As I got older, I brought her enormous pride which she radiated at parent teacher functions and other social events.

The relationship between my mother and I is best represented by a photo I kept of the two of us.  She’s young, beautiful and extremely thin. Her brown hair is curled eighties style like it always was, and her MaineCare glasses take up her entire face. Squished beside her face is mine. My red hair is intertwined with hers as our hearts are also intertwined. She squeezes my little body covered in pink footy pajamas and I squeeze right back. Both of us are looking at the camera with enormous smiles in the perfect mother daughter moment. Unfortunately, she was still angry with my grandfather for what he had done, but without any support, mental health treatment, or an outlet, I became the focal point of the pain my grandfather caused her. I was highly scrutinized and disciplines grew more and more severe, and despite the love we both shared, it wasn’t healthy for us to remain living together and my world was turned upside down. Eventually I found myself in my first foster home which was a healing and life changing experience. My foster parents transformed me by acknowledging that I wasn’t a bad kid in stark contrast to what I had always been made to believe.  My foster mom fostered an environment where I could finally be myself and blossom, an environment filled with encouragement, acceptance, empathy and love.  I was astonished that my foster mom accepted my choices, and that during family team meetings, she emphasized my strengths and interests rather than my mistakes. Her devoted attention and praise, focused on how well I was doing academically, undoubtedly led to me graduating college earlier this spring.

Unfortunately, I still had issues trusting adults and chose to leave the foster home but it wasn’t their fault. My first foster parents might not have known the impact they had on me at the time, but I will always look back at them with great love and appreciation for giving me hope and believing in the person I was truly meant to be. I will never forget what happened before I left their home. My foster father sat across from me with genuine tears in his eyes adamantly requesting I invite him and my foster mom to my high-school graduation. 

I was fortunate enough to have highly skilled and dedicated social workers who advocated and pushed for my success and best interest above all else. I whole heartedly believe that the case workers I had been assigned cared, and that made all of the difference. My initial caseworker made sure I had the accommodations necessary to do well in High School. My second caseworker helped pick me up after I fell clumsily out of custody and made a huge mess of my life.  She did this without receiving a paycheck but instead for the pure desire to see me succeed and to take on the role in society that I was meant to. It was her advocacy and support that allowed me to gain entrance into college, and even to remain in college when I continued to make mistakes.

While in foster care, I had been assigned a Family Integration Specialist from Community Care. Often when children enter care, they are in dire need of positive role models because they don’t have family members who are able. Instead, Social Workers, Family Integration Specialists, and other service providers become our role models. I was lucky enough to be provided with the best available Family Integration Specialist from Community Care. I truly believe she gave me a competitive edge in life. She modeled to me what a healthy adult-child relationship looked like. She also modeled healthy behaviors, self-worth, strength, resilience, proper communication, healthy relationship skills, and self-compassion.  I was able to confide in her, I trusted her more than I had trusted any other adult. She advised me as I navigated the tough terrain of being a ward of the state and effectively prepared me for adulthood, always with wit and humor.

A large component of my story and experience in foster care are the other children I met in my many placements. I affectionately recall the colorful characters who have enriched my life more than anyone ever has, who I met in group homes and foster homes. Straight laced individuals in other sects of life pale in comparison to the company of these individuals.  I met compulsive liars who deliciously told stories of scuba diving missions they had embarked upon the previous day, coy thieves who stole my makeup and purses. I encountered astonishingly productive, organized, and physically fit individuals with Attention Deficit Disorder who inspired me to no end. I met some of the best comedians you will ever meet, that would put any Comedy Central Stand Up to shame. They had the biggest hearts I have ever seen, and they always knew how to warm the cold sting of heartbreak especially when it came to their friends. Ultimately, I met some the best personalities in this world.

I had many foster sisters and brothers who taught me the most valuable education. They taught me that the meaning of friendship is family. I was in many co-ed group homes, but I will never forget one particular group home I lived in which was all girls, that is where I met my lifelong friends who are now my chosen family. We would spent countless nights setting off alarms to cause riots, a very effective exercise in teamwork, and laughing over clever one liners. Sometimes we would just sit on each other’s beds to keep each other company at night before going to sleep. Like magic, I felt my persistent loneliness and alienation melt away. We were a tribe, we were a different breed. We were all there for each other, we all positively influenced each other with all of our very different strengths. For some girls it was going to work out, for others it was knowing how to build fast friendships, for me it was writing complaint letters about the staff. We all shared the resiliency of being different and being forced to be independent and yet we were all able to build a comradery.  My foster brothers and sisters and fellow group home residents also taught me the true motivators of human behavior such as aggression. This was usually due to the pain of feeling inadequate and being left behind. Sure many of us held maladaptive behaviors. In addition to aggression, cutting was common, manipulation of staff, bullying, hyper sexuality, theft, suicidal ideation and so on.  However, many of us learned to overcome this in adulthood and we became stronger and wiser for it.

Sadly, not all of us overcame maladaptive coping into adulthood. I’m often perplexed when I hear the mentality of adults who make mistakes, whether it be of law enforcement officials or social service providers. It seems the common philosophy is that when you become an adult, if you make mistakes it’s because you are defective or unmotivated. I hear many social service providers say they would much rather work with kids than adults because adults are more of a challenge to motivate. My question is, what do you think broken kids become?

Not all of the kids I grew up with made it to the other side. In fact, many of them didn’t. Many of the adults that held affectionate nicknames in my group home have really suffered as adults. I have watched my friends who are also my family unable to obtain mental health treatment and left to suffer. I’ve watched boys and girls who are deeply embedded in my heart grow up to wear orange jump suits and twisted, mangled faces, flooded with tears. I’ve witnessed too many kids who experienced heart wrenching separation from their families grow up to have their own children removed. Many of the kids I grew up with have turned to drugs to ease their emotional pain like their parents before them. These individuals are now merely biological parents, inmates, addicts, prostitutes, and mentally ill individuals to people who do not know them like I do.

What made the difference for me in being successful in my life was not a superior work ethic, or any superior abilities. First and foremost, it was because of the positive role models from Community Care and other agencies that I was given. I strongly believe if the adults I just described had received role models who truly believed in their worth and didn’t give up on them like I did, they would be as successful, if not more successful than me. I believe they can still be successful and the only thing standing in their way is people further perpetuating the myth that they are not worthy.

I believe I was fated to become a social worker because I was blessed to have witnessed the power truly caring social workers have in building individuals and communities. I also felt obligated to give back and to do my part in advocating for, and improving the lives of, individuals who have shared and suffered my experience. Soon, I will proudly serve children in foster care as a Family Integration Specialist for Community Care, the very agency that has aided in my own success. I will always bring with me the devotion and dedication my Family Integration Specialist instilled in me, and I will do my all to ensure the young individuals I work with truly see their value and potential and are prepared to be successful adults.

Now I’d like to relay a few final words to current and former foster children everywhere. Or, just individuals who have had a tumultuous life in general. It is never going to be easy but it does get better. Whether you are a felon, have an illness, are homeless, suffering a mental health challenge, or working on reunifying with your children, your life can improve. Improving your life only takes creativity, willpower, and, most importantly, truly good friends. The only way to be independent and strong is to know when and who to ask for help and guidance. I would not be where I am today if I did not reach out and receive help from teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, mentors, professors, and friends. You are good at something, focus on it. Too often, foster children are made to feel as though they have too few strengths, especially in academics. I often hear “I can’t spell,” or “my writing is terrible.” This is alarming to me, because if a child gives up on academics early in life, it impacts almost all aspects of his or her adult life.  I’ve met many Electrical Engineers who have terrible handwriting; focus on your interest and on where you are skilled. It is important to do your best and hard work can be very gratifying, and so can continuous learning. Relationships start with your relationship with yourself; focus on yourself first the rest will fall into place. Embrace your weirdness, you will often be misunderstood and feel like you have trouble fitting in, in school, work, or social activities. I understand this can be excruciating. Hold strong, eventually you’ll realize this is your biggest advantage. I have found that to be true. Please don’t give up, you are a vital and rare individual; we need you to educate, inspire, and improve us all.