I would like to read you two definitions of one word. The first is: to make strenuous or violent efforts in the face of difficulties or opposition, the next is: to proceed with difficulty or with great effort.
My friends, this is the definition of my life and many peers in foster care. My life has been a series of making violent efforts and proceeding with great pains in the face of difficulty and opposition. From as far back as I could remember I struggled: from the kids on the playground making fun of me because I was a fat; to the peer pressure in high school; to the struggle of defining myself from a moral standpoint now that I am a young man.
Don’t let me kid you, behind this face there are many years of pain, suffering and moral confliction. I remember my senior year in high school, as I heard my peers struggling with not knowing which college to attend because they had so many choices, my challenge was to be accepted by one. Just as everyone’s personality is different from the person sitting next to you, the struggles you endure are just as unique.
Former foster youth share many of the same struggles no matter the route by which they enter foster care. We share the lack of support, love, food, shelter, but we also suffered the additional trauma from physical, mental and sexual abuse as well as abandonment.
As for my personal experience with the foster care system, it is considered a successful case all the way around. This is why: one kinship placement, my three younger siblings and I were able to stay together, and adoption by my grandparents was the end result.
All of those things look good on paper, but let me share with you some real talk about reality. My mother had a nervous breakdown when I was about ten, so I took on her role as the parent. That meant that, everyday, I got my three younger siblings up in the morning, made sure they ate breakfast, brushed their teeth, I helped them make their lunches and then I walked them to school. Then I smoked a couple of cigarettes and went to school myself. At least once a week I would drink alcohol with my friends before school started. While in my classes I did not care about my grades, my teachers or most of my peers. I was an overall mean and deceitful person. As soon as I returned home I cooked dinner, did the dishes, helped my siblings with their homework, cleaned the house and then I would sit down with my quote unquote father and drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes with him every single night. This pattern repeated for three years.
My mother did so many drugs when she was younger that it affected her brain. She developed a chemical imbalance in her brain and she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and manic depression along with half a dozen other psychological disorders. She was placed in and out of mental institutions and it really took a toll on us kids. To add to the mix my father and mother were mentally, physically and sexually abusive to all four of us.
After problems had raised to astronomical levels of abuse they each blamed each other and the end result was divorce. Because of my mother’s mental illness we were placed with my father; the lesser of two evils. This is also when we moved with him about two blocks away from our mother’s parents.
I continually struggled with effectively communicating my feelings I had on the inside with the outside world. You see, because I was the oldest I felt it was my duty to protect my younger siblings from the abuse my father inflicted on our bodies and emotions so I endured most of it. I became both the physical and emotional punching bag for my father’s fits of rage.
My aunt Janet and my grandparents knew something was wrong with our situation, especially when my little sister packed as much of her toys and clothes into an old suitcase as she could and ran away to grandma and grandpa’s house. At six years old my baby sister knew what was best for her, while it took the Department of Human Services four years later to come to the same conclusion. After she left my youngest brother, age nine, was soon to follow. Because of my father’s alcoholism, it took him a couple of weeks to realize that two of his kids were gone.
I still remember the haunting words of the caseworker when she came to our grandparents’ house a week and half later. She said, “Well, if you can’t stay with your grandparents, you will go into foster care and probably get split up.”
Out of all the tribulations I struggled through nothing, absolutely nothing, made my heart die as much as that statement did. At that time my siblings were like my very own children, I had accumulated more responsibly than my parents could in their forty years of life. Those words killed my heart, but it was soon brought back to life when my aunt said that was not an option, and we could all live with our grandparents.
As soon as we were placed with our grandparents, I understood for the very first time in my life what the word “consequence” meant. When dealing with the state, there are many lines of red tape that you run into, and it is definitely a struggle to cross them. There are all these restrictions, and codes and rules to follow. Some of which were: the house is too small; there are too many animals; you don’t make enough money; you can’t sign field trip permissions slips; the list went on and on. Since I was not used to following any sort of rules, I would always reply with, “Why can’t we do this?” or, “Why do we have to do that?” and the answer was the same, “Or else you’ll go into foster care.” That heart killing threat over and over again.
The only way I made it through the struggles and barriers was because of the pain that was driving me from the inside. After we moved into a larger house, we spent countless sleepless nights bringing it up to DHS’s standards. Thing like handrails being put up on every set of stairs AND grouting in all the bathrooms before we could move in.
Right about this time is where we ran into our financial problems. My grandfather was 72 and my grandmother was 62 when we were placed with them. My grandfather retired from Daimler Chrysler and was on a fixed income, my grandmother is still the manager of a fast food restaurant. There was a brand new mortgage, two car notes, four new mouths to feed, four new counseling bills, two new sets of prescriptions to be filled every week. Not to mention school supplies, school clothes, and driving an hour one way to school everyday in efforts to stay with our childhood friends. There was also the court hearings and the forced visitations with my bio father for three years which was over an hour away one way, not including the actual cost of adopting four kids (over $150 each!!!). The cost of taking four new kids at the ages of 14, 11, 9 and 6 drove our family into one financial struggle to another. To be completely honest, my grandparents just couldn’t afford us. Since there wasn’t enough help financially, the result was we were six months behind on our house payment, our cars had been repossessed and we were facing eviction. My grandparents eventually had to file bankruptcy because there simply wasn’t any help out there for us. I feel as though it’s our fault our grandparents had to do that, and if we were never placed with them, none of that would have happened. I carry that guilt inside me to this day.
Making violent efforts and proceeding with great pains in the face of difficulty and opposition - I haven’t even buffed the surface of this definition according to my life today. I have struggled through the foster care system and I had many supports along the way; my education, sibling connections, kinship placement, health care and adoption.
Even with all these supports and more that I haven’t mentioned I cannot tell you that I am satisfied with the foster care system.
We need a change in the way government dictates the lives of those who enter the foster care system NOW. Words cannot express how much my grandparents have sacrificed for my siblings and I. We picked up the slack that the government left us with and that’s not fair because someone’s not doing their job.
JJ Hitch and his siblings entered Michigan's foster care system as a result of parental abuse and neglect. They were able to remain together and live with their grandparents in Dryden, Michigan. Currently a college student, JJ has been a FosterClub All Star and has interned for Senator Debbie Stabenow in Washington, DC through the CCAI internship program.