Foster Homes: Refuge or Hell

My childhood was a rather messy one for the vast majority of it. There were many dark times and it was extremely trying. Along the way I spent time in three foster homes that I can remember. The impact of those experiences left their mark on me well into my adult life. It took me years to fully understand the impact that one of these foster homes in particular had on me. I do want to note that this is my personal experience and it is not necessarily a reflection of every child’s experience in the foster system.

My first foster home I was placed in at a very young age. I don’t recall exactly when I was put there but it was sometime between the age of two and five. I recall leaving that foster home when I was old enough to be in Kindergarten. My younger brother was also in foster care at the same time I was and he was roughly 2 years younger than me. We were split up and went to different homes. The details of my stay with that family are just vague memories. I do remember that the people treated me well and the day I left sticks out in my mind as if it happened just yesterday. The people that had been caring for me and their son were sitting on their couch crying. The boy was pulling at his hair because he was so upset. I had my things packed and was in tears. At that age these people were the only people I really knew. They were almost like my real parents. I had very few memories of my real parents and most of them were from the supervised visits I had with them on occasion. I was eventually sent to live with my mother and the brother I hardly knew was there too. I couldn’t honestly tell you how I felt after that but I did eventually settle into a life with my mother.

The second foster home that I was in was in Bayou Blue, Louisiana in 1992. I was ten years old at the time. My mother had taken us from Pennsylvania and violated a court ordered custody agreement in doing so. We were staying in South Terrebonne in a trailer when one night a fleet of cops came knocking at the door. After the trauma filled night was over my brother, my half sister, and I were taken and placed in the foster home in Bayou Blue. Though the dates escape my memory I do recall it being around February or March when this all happened. The couple that ran the home was a bit older and the home was really designed to take care of toddlers. I remember playing in the fields and the swamp. We ran around catching lizards that seemed to be everywhere. We used to run around and try to catch crawfish or just knock over their mounds. We had a great time and spent a lot of time just playing and watching TV. There were some neighbor kids that we spent time playing with too. We weren’t put in school but at that age I didn’t really care. We had never had much exposure to Cajun food but the lady running the place made sure we got to eat a lot of it. I think it was at that time I really started enjoying food as something more than just feeding my hunger. To this day I still enjoy Cajun cooking and I am very particular about real Cajun food versus the cheap store bought stuff. I would have to say as a whole I was pretty happy at that home. We stayed there for close to a month and eventually my sister was taken to live with her father. I would only see my sister one time in the six years following that day. A case worker eventually came and told us we were being moved to another home with older kids. I remember us asking to stay because we liked the place we were at. As much as we wanted to stay it wasn’t going to be.

The third foster home was in Chauvin. We arrived there after dark and were greeted by an older couple and about seven other kids. It seemed like a warm welcome and that this place might not be so bad. We were taken inside and given a hot meal and set up in our room. The home was bigger than anything we had ever seen. The living room alone was almost the size of some of the apartments we had lived in with our mother. The comfort we had felt on the first night wasn’t to last. It didn’t take long for my brother and I to be enrolled in school. I was in fifth grade and would attend Lacache middle school. My brother went to the local elementary school. Going to a new school so far away from home and anyone we knew was difficult. I was used to moving around and going to different schools but I had always been able to go home to familiar people. I remember just keeping to myself. At this point I was also aware that my father was fighting to get us back to Pennsylvania and I could be going back soon, so there was no real point in making friends. I came to find out that soon wasn’t going to be soon enough.

The couple that ran the place believed in hard work. I had chores growing up so doing things around the house was nothing new to me. It’s no surprise that in a house that big and with that many kids that there would be many chores that needed done as it would have been far too much for the couple to do alone. Their idea of work turned into near slavery though. We were woken up and began our day getting ready for school as most kids do. Once we were home we had a certain amount of time allotted for school work. After that we went immediately to work. While dinner was being made by the lady of the house and the girls, the boys were taken outside to garden, feed chicken, geese, turkey, weed, trim hedges and other outdoor work. We had to go look for eggs and try to bring those back too. The couple owned a rather large stretch of land about as big as a football field. I had to mow that at least once a week with a push mower. The couple also had pear trees, fig trees, and plantain trees which we had to pick. The washer was in a mud room just as you went outside and we also did the laundry and hung it up on cloths lines. When the washer was broke we washed cloths on a wash board in a basin of water. Once outside the boys were not allowed inside or near the girls. We were kept working until night. Once it was about time for bed we were allowed to go in and get the cloths we would wear to bed and then had to go back outside on the concrete patio. Once outside the boys were made to strip down to our underwear and were hosed off. We had to go one by one to an outhouse and change into our night cloths.

Once school ended things began to get worse. The couple purchased a trailer in Montegut along the bayou. I can’t remember the name of that bayou anymore. There, we were once again expected to work. We were told it was a camp but it really seemed like more of a reason to find work for us. We had to paint the inside and outside of the place. The older boys helped tar the roof. We also had crab cages and a boat and had to catch crabs. I have to admit I did enjoy crabbing and was one of the first to jump at the chance to do it. There seemed like a kind of freedom being out in the boat and away from everyone. The couple also had a relative that owned a huge stretch of farm land. We would be taken out to the farm and would pick different vegetables like okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans. We would also spend hours digging up potatoes and cutting down sugar cane. If you have never picked okra, it’s not the most pleasant experience especially if you have to do it with bare hands like we did. Okra is covered in fine needles and we also had to contend with fire ants. Sugar cane has razor sharp leaves and I usually found myself covered in cuts once I left the field. Another relative owned a shrimp boat. There were times we also found ourselves lugging bushels and bushels of shrimp. Looking back I realize much of that work was done to provide food for the large house full of people, but as a child that didn’t matter to me. All I knew was that I worked nearly nonstop.

The house we lived in had three refrigerators and each was padlocked shut. We were not allowed access to any of the food. That was something that was strictly controlled. We did have sweets from time to time. Every few weeks we would make stop at a local bread distributor and pick up bread and cakes that were about to expire. They would all be frozen so we would have them later. We didn’t often get to have those things though. We did get three meals a day and I got more exposure to great southern food.

Entertainment was something of a rarity in that home. We were allowed to watch Elvis movies mostly and that was on an extremely rare occasion and on an even rarer occasion we got to watch movies that sent a good religious message. The lady of the house was very religious, though I never remember her or any of us attending church. If she wasn’t cooking she was usually working on writing some kind of religious book but I never really knew what it was about. I remember on a few occasions we were allowed in her office so we could apply ointment to sores she would get on her back.

Discipline was different from anything I had experienced up to that point in my life. I was used to being hit, spanked, grounded to my bed for weeks at a time, not being allowed to eat, screamed at, and stuck in corners for insane amounts of time. These people did none of that. Instead they would make you get on your knees on searing concrete or rock near a wall. You had to keep your back straight the whole time. It was much like standing in a corner but with the addition of extreme pain in your knees. There were many times I got up and my skin was cracked and bleeding. Mercy and understanding were not abundant in that house but swift discipline was. It was the first time I was exposed to “Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell.” (Proverbs 23:13-14) or roughly “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” I would hear this many more times in my life to explain why it was acceptable to beat me or hurt me physically in some way. That line has stuck with me all my life and as an adult I came to view it as nothing more than the rallying cry of child abusers to justify their mistreatment of children. As a child and as an adult I can say that my life wasn’t one of being spoiled. It was one of wondering why those who were supposed to care for me and love me would cause me so much pain. It made me feel isolated, alone, and unwanted. To make matters worse the God that was supposed to love me was perfectly ok with it. As an adult, my own pursuit of faith made me realize that God had no part in that. When I would fight back and argue with the lady of the house over the way we were treated I was usually met with screaming and her getting the other kids to yell and scream at me in her defense. On several occasions I was told she would make sure that I was never able to go back to either of my parents and I would be there until I became an adult.

In my life I had experienced some of the good that a foster home had to offer and some of the bad. Each child is different and their experience is different. With the good homes I was ripped away from a caring stable home and thrust into an uncertain future. In that last foster home I was left with a great deal of anxiety and feelings of isolation. In September of 1992 I returned to Pennsylvania to live with my paternal grandparents. I was never the same child after that experience. I had a hard time developing friendships and felt a connection with very few people. I harbored a lot of anger and distrust for most people in my life. The years that followed had their own issues and I never got the help as a child that I needed. In most cases the issues were made worse, but I see that last foster home as a defining turning point in my life. Despite the abuse in my life I retained a care free happy personality up until that point. After that I had been changed and the road to recovery was lonely and painful. As a small child I wanted nothing more than to please those I loved and get their acceptance. I was a good kid for the most part albeit some minor mischief. In that last foster home I developed a defiant personality that followed me well into adulthood. I urge anyone dealing with a child coming from a foster home to make sure they receive some kind of treatment once they are introduced back into the home. Even if the foster home was a good one, the child is still going through a major life change and people coming in and out of their life can have a long lasting impact on the child that most people may not ever understand let alone the child. I strongly caution against dismissing anything the child tells you about their experience. Ignoring abuse in a foster home and not seeking help can let your child with long term scars that can follow them for a lifetime.

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