by Vaun Reed
The early autumn leaves had already begun to fall sporadically all over the parking lot, covering the pavement in beautiful shades of oranges, reds and deep purples. Summer turning to autumn reminded me of all the places I had been because like seasons changed, so did the places I called home. As I got out the SUV, I saw a panoramic view of St. Vincent Children’s Home. A massive brown brick building. The building had huge glass doors and sprinkled throughout where white angelic statutes that complimented the building’s old catholic exterior. My social worker and I both struggled to open the heavy glass doors before finally we made our way inside. I could not help but notice the purple and white banner that hung outside the glass doors. On the banner was two hands reaching out towards one another. Along the bottom of the banner it said, “reach out to me and hold my hand.”
The message did not lessen my fears, but eventually I approached the front desk with my social worker as I held my two trash bags containing all my belongings. I felt deep sadness every time I glanced down at the bags, because with each glance, I noticed more tiny holes and small tears. That at any moment, I thought they would rip open and reveal what little I had left inside. However, the lady who worked at the front desk was nice to me and every time she smiled, she distracted me from my feelings of discomfort. Slowly, my discomfort lessened, but I don’t know if it was because she appeared like a regular old sweet lady or because she reminded me of my great aunt Eunice, or it could have been neither and that she was just exceptionally good at her job of being a secretary. After a few minutes, in strolled a dark skin man who stood enormously tall and muscular. At the time, I was only seven years old and 4’3, so anyone with his height and build would have intimidated me. He stood towering over me and instantly my feelings of discomfort returned. After he greeted me and offered to show me to my new home. He asked to carry my bags, but I was frightened by his appearance and said the opposite of what I wanted to say. “No, thank you,” I replied.
I said goodbye to my social worker, who sat quietly watching the entire interaction and followed him. As I left to my new home, my social worker mentioned that she would visit me in a few weeks after I had settled in. I chose not to respond because I had a feeling that I would not see her again. I was right because weeks later, I had a new social worker. Months later, came another social worker and so on. Yet, when I followed the man into the hallway, I saw two large open doors and through them was a beautiful chapel that looked like a small depiction of how I imagined heaven to appear. At seven years old, I imagined heaven to be expensive and full of priests. The man said to me, “Do you want to take the stairs or the elevator?” I glanced down at my bags and he chuckled. “Come on, let’s take the elevator lil man,” he said. Inside the elevator, I noticed the man had several tattoos on his arm, but the lion on his upper bicep stood out the most. That day he didn’t mention his name to me, but I later learned that his was name was Leo, inspired by his astrology sign. As we got off the elevator, I noticed the lighting had dimmed. I smelt a strong whiff of musty odor. Then I saw a group of teenagers run from down the hall screaming, “Mr. Leo,” and asked him if I was the new kid. Again, with the same chuckle, Mr. Leo replied, “Yeah he is.” I didn’t know what their intentions were, but something about their brief interaction made me feel uneasy.
The home was completely empty when we entered, so Mr. Leo took me on a tour, he showed me the bathroom first, which had a strong scent of urine and hidden in plain sight I saw small puddles of it along the floors. Then he showed me the kitchen. Chairs stood stacked alongside the wall and some chairs flipped upside down on the tables. The stacked chairs reminded me of my elementary school cafeteria. Nonetheless, the kitchen had a sink, but did not have a refrigerator. Next, we went into the large living room. There were two rear projection televisions, a video game system, three couches and an elongated counter on the right that separated the hallway and the living room. Finally, Mr. Leo showed me to my room, which was the first bedroom we had passed when we first entered. My room had three beds, three drawers and one large closet. He told me the names of my two roommates and the rules regarding a level system. In fact, it took 30 minutes for Mr. Leo to fully explain to me the level system.
In short, the level system was a behavioral leveling system that was adopted by St. Vincent Children’s Home wherein each level garnered different privileges. In total there were 4 different levels. The highest, level 4, meant that you had more privileges, while level 1 (the lowest) meant you had little to no privileges and were to stay in your room. The purpose of the leveling system was to maintain good behavior. Each week, I had the opportunity to move up within the level system based off my good behavior. Aside from the leveling system, Mr. Leo explained, there were other apartments, the Robin apartment which was for older males, ages 16-21years old and the Pauline apartment which held all females, from ages 10-21 years old. Each apartment housed 12 males and the same number was true for the female apartment.
Since I was new to the group home, I started on level 1. Therefore, I had no privileges. Mr. Leo told me that I needed to wait in my room until the other boys returned from school. When I walked into my room, I realized that my room did not have a door. In fact, none of the 6 bedrooms had doors. Eventually, I no longer could hold in my emotions and I sunk my face into the pillow and cried myself to sleep that day. In that moment I knew that I was never going to return to my original home.
… For my younger sister Thomeshia, living back home was no better. Often, she says it was her worst nightmare. Out of my three siblings, Thomeshia was the only sibling who did not initially get separated from my mother and placed into foster care. At the time, she was staying with her biological father, when child protective services came to evacuate us from our mother’s home. Honestly, I envied my sister because I wished that I was the one who had stayed behind. Recently, on my 26th Birthday I received a call from older brother, who contacted Thomeshia. “It was hell living with momma. She was not herself after y’all left. We got kicked out of the house we all use to live in because she couldn’t afford it and always had to move somewhere different,” said Thomeshia.
For the rest of us, the court ruled against my mother and placed my two brothers and I in foster care. In court documents it stated that when we lived with our mother, we resided in unsanitary conditions, lacked adequate food and that me and my older brother Terrance missed more than 20 days of school. Therefore, the court defined our case as parental neglect. My older brother Terrance and I were the first to be placed in foster care, followed by my youngest brother, Tyrek, who was adopted out of state and only 10 months old at the time. Then years later, for the same reasons, Thomeshia was placed in foster care.
After a year of being placed in foster care, my mother lost her parental and visiting rights. She lost her rights after she failed to appear at family court hearings and scheduled visits for me and Terrance. “I remember when she stopped coming around and how you always cried, thinking she’d show up, but that’s all I remembered,” said Terrance. It’s been over 18 years and still my older brother’s attitude has remained the same. Terrance has always appeared unaffected by foster care because nothing about foster care seemed to have troubled him. Possibly, he is better at hiding his emotions than the rest of us. “I remember the last time I saw y’all we were all at McDonalds and momma broke down crying,” said Thomeshia. For me, it’s a moment that I will never forget, it was as if I saw my mother physically give up on her children. Throughout my childhood, the image of my mother crying and resting her head in her lap inside McDonalds troubled me. I was too young to have witnessed my mother cry, but more importantly, I was too young to understand why my mother had given up.
At school, I never could escape harassment because I lived with the same people that tormented me every day. Unlike my siblings, they both grew up mostly in foster homes instead of a large group home. The key difference between a foster home and a group home is the amount of people you’re housed with. A foster home is like a traditional family home (no more than 4 people), whereas a group home is like a juvenile prison that’s full of misguided children. By age 13, from the absence of my mother, I became more aggressive. I knew every hurtful word because it was often used against me. I became a bully because I was bullied. Yet, my peers weren’t the only bullies, the staff workers at the group home were also bullies. In fact, several of the staff members started a lot of the fights and pinned a lot of us against each other. “I was so terrified of you,” Gerald my former roommate confessed to me via Facebook message. “You were mean as fuck to me.” Gerald is now 28 years old and he still can recount the fear that I implanted on him as a child. “When you left, nothing changed. Another dude came in and took over the Francis Apartment. Every day he fought with somebody else, but I left shortly after you left... so I never dealt with it for long,” said Gerald.
We were all a part of a system that had failed us. For years, my family has been struggling with the effects of the foster care system. Legally, we are no longer in foster care because since then we have all aged out. Foster care was intended to help fix families, instead it shattered our family completely. Now as adults, we rarely speak to one another. Somewhere down the line, for all of us, we learned how to live without each other. In times of need, we abandon one another because that’s been the only life we have known. As for my youngest brother Tyrek, no one knows where he is. His absence mimics the dynamic of our family. “I miss how things use to be. I know it wasn’t all good, but we were all so close. One day, I do hope that we all can be a family again,” said Thomeshia.