Carried nine months by a drug-addicted mother, I was born into a house where I was only as good as her next fix. I don’t know what neighborhood we lived in. I only remember the reeking smell of piss in the hallway of our project, leaks in the ceiling, cracks in the wall, no heat in the winter and no AC in the summer. My little brother and sister and I slept on the floor because we had no bed to call our own. Our fridge was as empty as a poor man’s pocket. Our mother never cooked for us; we survived on the scraps of food that she left.
Stepping on needles and glass in my mom’s old apartment, the cuts on my feet bled like the scars from my heart. I wanted my mother to love me, but her addiction consumed her. It was more powerful than her love for her own kids.
As a young child I wasn’t aware that my surroundings were unusual. People were getting mugged and beaten in the stairwell, so the cops stayed in our building like it was a police station. And in our home, drugs were an everyday object. There was nothing shocking about it, and when I think back on the other kids in our building, I realize that we weren’t the only ones suffering with a parent’s addiction. But at the time I was unafraid, because this life was all I knew.
My Heart Got Numb
As I got older, the greed of my mother’s addiction grew. When she could not get her fix, or when she was forced to go sober from the lack of cash, she would hit us with a broomstick, extension cord, or anything else that she could get her hands on. She was desperate to find some way to forget about her own problems, something that would give her a rush, a substitute for getting that high.
The only time that our mother was able to show emotion and give attention to her kids was when she was abusing us. Otherwise, she showed us no feelings, no love. Different men would come and go from the apartment. As a child, I didn’t know what was going on. Much later, I realized she was probably resorting to prostitution. But it just added fuel to the fire because once she crashed, she would be right back to abusing me and my brother and sister.
We were like rodents, scrambling around to pick up her scraps of food and trying to stay out of her way. I was hurt and confused. I thought, “How could she do this to her own kids?” After a while my heart got numb. I felt no hate toward her, but I also felt no love.
My brother and sister and I became closer than the average siblings because we had to look out for each other in order to survive. In the beginning there wasn’t much I could do to protect them from my mom’s abuse. I couldn’t even protect myself. But we would do little things to try to comfort each other. Like if my sister was beaten, I would take the leftover food and give it all to her.
Then, when I was 7, my mother’s addiction got so bad that she could not support her habit and maintain an apartment. She got evicted, and we followed her to a shelter in Brooklyn. The shelter was scary. I remember people stealing from each other.
I don’t know how much time passed, maybe a few weeks. But one warm day, we went out with our mother and she just walked away from us. We didn’t follow her, because we thought that she would be coming back. But she never did. After a while, we started getting hungry. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know how to get back to the shelter. That’s when survival mode kicked in.
I’d never been able to depend on my mother, so I didn’t really miss her when she disappeared. My main concern was getting us something to eat. When it got dark, we started walking. When we saw the projects, I thought we were home, but they weren’t the same ones we’d lived in with our mom. We didn’t know were else to go, so we followed someone into the building, cuddled up together on the floor and went to sleep.
From that day on, we were on our own on the streets. Like animals in the wild, we had to adapt to our environment. There were many nights we went hungry so we stole food, slept on the sidewalk and begged for money. But when people would just pass by, it made me cold-hearted. I felt no love, no joy, no happiness toward or from those who walked by.
I started to feel helpless but besides that, my feelings were very limited. Except toward my brother and sister. They were a warm part of my heart, just a different part of me. Only they held the keys to my emotions.
No One Looked Out for Us
We lived in filth, totally alone on the street. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs, which also served as blankets as it got colder. My brother wasn’t potty trained, so he would defecate anywhere. Obviously we couldn’t afford to buy him diapers.
We would wash ourselves in the McDonald’s bathroom sink. Sometimes we’d even sleep in restrooms at McDonald’s, Burger King or other fast food restaurants. Sometimes customers would kick us—literally kick us—to get us out of the restroom. As far as I know, no one ever checked to see if we had an adult looking out for us. Sometimes we’d lock ourselves in the restroom to sleep for a while, and the employees would unlock the door with their keys. Again, no one asked if we had a parent. They just told us to leave and sent us back out into the street.
Other times we’d take shelter inside the projects. We’d wait in the shadows and after a person entered the building, one of us would quietly come forward and hold the door. The other two of us would run in and we’d spend the night on the stairs or in the hallway. It really wasn’t any better than sleeping in the restroom at McDonald’s, because the stairs were full of places where people had pissed. We’d have to find a place to lie down where there was no piss, but the smell still invaded our air and made it difficult to sleep. And when winter came, it was cold sleeping on the floor.
We went to different stores each night to steal food, moving carefully so we wouldn’t be noticed. We’d put the food items in our pants and shirts, and while the cashier was dealing with a customer, we’d walk out.
We couldn’t really steal from McDonald’s and KFC, so we’d wait till the end of a shift when they dumped food out and we ate out of the garbage. This was very dangerous, because we were competing with other homeless people, mainly adults, who hadn’t eaten in days.
Depending Only on Each Other
At first, it was hard to let go of the past. As rough as our lives had been before, I still had hope of finding our mom. But after a while I had to give up the past. If you don’t stay focused on the present in circumstances like that, you’re setting yourself up for failure, because you’re distracted from what needs to happen right now in order to survive. Getting caught wasn’t an option. Only our survival.
I never saw caring for my siblings as a short-term responsibility. I took it as a permanent responsibility, in place of a mother and father. I was the authority, but we needed each other to survive. They depended on me to make strategies and come up with plans for how we were going to eat and where we were going to sleep, to find something to wear and to protect them. I depended on them for motivation, which helped me protect not only them but myself.
My brother and sister gave me a strong will and something to believe in when I didn’t believe we’d make it. They helped me find courage; I had to be strong for them. When I had a cold heart, they kept me warm inside. For their sake, I learned to numb my feelings when I was hurting. This was important, because if I had spent time getting attached to other people, or feeling hurt when other people mistreated us, I wouldn’t have had the energy to keep going. Instead, I just focused on my brother and sister, and did everything for them. That was how I survived.
For months we lived this way, until my brother got caught stealing one summer day. His ribs were sticking out, dried spit crusted on his mouth from dehydration, wearing two different shoes on his feet and no shirt. The sun’s heat blazed on his skin as he ran out of a nearby corner store with stolen goods.
Pulled Into the System
The patrolman spotted him running down the street with one kids’ size 11 boot and another size 6 toward the building where my sister and I were waiting. The door was cracked, and when my brother went to open the door he got caught. That’s when the patrolman discovered the rest of us and we got pulled into the system.
When they explained what would happen to us next, I was relieved. We were going to have clean clothes, food and a roof over our heads. I felt like I was in heaven, but little did I know that the physical and mental abuse would regenerate itself.
We lived in a group home for children for a while and were then placed in foster home after foster home, about 12 altogether. A lot of these homes were physically abusive. I remember that they’d treat their own kids good while they’d smack and hit us—sometimes with belt buckles—and tell us we weren’t worth nothing.
Finally, when I was about 13, we found a good foster home. Our foster mother showed us love and compassion. She never called us nasty names or beat on us.
Drowning in Sorrow
I wasn’t used to kindness from an adult, because I’d been abused all my life. I couldn’t let her love me. Her love felt different, it felt like something was missing. In fact, something was being gained, but I couldn’t see it at the time. I’d never known an adult to give me love.
My foster mother finally had to let me go because I kept pulling away and her love couldn’t hold me. Abuse had broken my heart into a million pieces and she tried to pull it together, like a puzzle. But my hatred for my past foster families who abused me and used me for the money made me sink like an anchor and I drowned in sorrow.
She couldn’t handle me, so I was moved to another foster home. It was a good home, but I tried to sabotage it because I just wanted to be back with my siblings. I’d start fires, or drink too much alcohol so that the ambulance would have to come and take me to the hospital.
My behavior finally caused me to be placed in a residential treatment center. I didn’t realize that the only thing that kept me strong, my siblings, would be taken away from me. If I’d known, I would have done anything in my power to keep them in my life.
Where Did They Go?
At first I kept in touch with my brother and sister. But one day, about six months after I moved to the RTC, I called our old foster mother, who they still lived with, and no one called me back. I called again and the answering machine said they no longer lived there. I was so shocked and disturbed. Why would someone want to keep me away from my brother and sister?
As I got older, I tried to find a way to contact them, but I got nowhere. My law guardian explained that they’d been adopted by my former foster mother, so their file was confidential. They weren’t allowed to give me any information about my brother and sister. I was hurt. I continued trying to find them by looking up their names and the foster mother’s name on the computer, but I had no luck.
In the process of writing this story, I suddenly realized that my brother and sister are now teenagers. It was the first time I’d thought of them that way; in my mind, they were still children. When I realized they were teenagers, my first thought was, “That’s crazy.” I started thinking about my sister with a boyfriend and how I would act. How would I explain to my little brother about protecting himself and practicing safe sex? How would they manage without me there as a positive authority figure? Who did they call on when they needed help?
I also wonder if they think about me. I want to know if they miss me, if they feel the same way about me as I feel about them. Knowing that they’re alive gives me hope, but not knowing what’s going to happen to them worries me very much. If they died, I wouldn’t even know. If I found out years later, me not being there would hurt me even more.
They’re Still My Inspiration
My childhood was nonexistent, and I can never get it back. Too young, I had to face the cold reality of the streets. Even though I’m 19 now, I can’t help but let out the inner child sometimes. I try to be serious, but my vibe and my energy change the mood with people around my age. Some people think there’s something wrong with me, but I’m just trying to get back something that was taken.
The picture in my mind is still of my brother and sister with me, frozen in our childhood years. I haven’t been able to put an updated picture in the frame. I dwell on my childhood, always wondering about what I was like as a kid. The only two people who shared those times were my brother and sister. Without them, I’ll never have a complete picture of who I was then.
The author of “Torn Apart” lost touch with his brother and sister in what’s known as a closed adoption. His siblings’ records were sealed and he wasn’t allowed to have any contact with them.
But more and more, child welfare experts say that siblings—in most cases—should be able to stay connected both during foster care and after they’re adopted. That means trying to have siblings adopted into the same family, and, if that’s not possible, setting up an open adoption so that they can remain in contact.
If you’re trying to stay connected with your siblings, it’s important to know what’s happening with your case and to speak up about your wants and needs. Here are a few tips:
• Stand up for yourself. Caseworkers, judges and lawyers must listen to you and consider what you want when it comes to placement and adoption. And a new federal law now requires agencies to make reasonable efforts to place siblings together in foster care.
• You always have the right to ask questions about your siblings, and you should. If it’s not possible for you to be placed with your siblings during foster care, your agency should set up sibling visits and cover transportation costs so that you can keep in touch. If that’s not happening, tell your lawyer (and the judge at your next permanency hearing).
• Your lawyer is your advocate. Stay in touch with him/her, keep repeating your wants and needs, and if you feel like you’re not getting what you need, speak up.
• If you find out that you or your siblings are being adopted, ask whether an open adoption is possible. If it’s not, try to make a plan with your siblings for staying in touch. (If you have access to a computer, e-mail or MySpace can be a good way to do this.)
• If you’ve been separated from siblings through a closed adoption, you may still be able to reconnect with them. Laws vary state by state, but generally once your siblings have turned 18 (or in some states 21), you are legally entitled to search for them.
• Just make sure that you’re emotionally ready to start that journey. Joe Soll, director of Adoption Crossroads (a nonprofit organization for people dealing with family separation due to adoption or foster care), suggests reading up and joining a support group six months before beginning your search for family so that you are as prepared as possible for the strong emotions that can come up.
• For information on support groups in your state, visit the Adoption Crossroads website and click on “search support sites.” Some of these groups can also help you with your search.