The following story describes some of the events that were contributing factors to, and took place during the year preceding, my first placement in foster care.
The first real full-fledged fight I remember having with my mother had begun over yogurt in the afternoon hours. One of us had eaten the last of it and the other was pissed off. I don’t remember who was on what side, only that we fought like teenage sisters. My mom was in her early 30’s, and I was 13. I had only been living with my mother for a very short time after having stayed with my grandmother for the previous two years, while my mother had been away in a different city, for reasons I can’t recall, if I ever did know. Naturally, there would be a period of adjustment for both of us.
A few days after the yogurt battle, my mom let me go to the mall with some friends. It was the first time she let me go out with friends who drove! Of course, we did not make it to the mall. We didn’t do anything interesting anyway. Four teenagers on a simple, uneventful joy ride, except of course that we were all, or at least I was, enjoying an early experience of FREEDOM. A couple of hours later, and we were back at my place, where my friend Todd sat down next to my mom on the sofa, and putting his hand on her knee, asked her if she was my sister. My mother giggled. Silly boy! We all had a good laugh. All that having gone well, I was allowed to go another time with the same friends on a very much the same joyride, and returned home, this time being dropped off in the driveway.
When I entered the living room I greeted my mother, who was lying on the couch watching TV. I’m not sure how or why it came up, but my mom asked me if I had been drinking. I hadn’t and told her so. She repeated her question, and I was quickly frustrated by her interrogation. Here, I had already told her I wasn’t drinking, yet she was asking again. I became defensive, an argument ensued and I, miffed, walked out the door.
After about a half-mile walk, I arrived at the mall, and having nowhere to go, decided to call my grandmother from a payphone to see if she would pick me up. As I dialed the number, my mother pulled up in her brand new maraschino cherry red Chevy Cavalier, recently purchased for her by her new boyfriend at the time (who is her husband today, over 25 years later.)
“Get in the car!”
“No! I’m calling Grandma and I’m going to stay with her”
My mother threatened with all sorts of punishment. Knowing my grandmother would be on her way, I refused to budge and watched as my mother burnt rubber leaving the parking lot, and speeding toward home. Later, at my grandmother’s house, I spoke to my mom on the phone. She told me that she was going to have me sent to the children’s hospital to be evaluated. It was a promise she promptly made good on.
The Children’s Psych Ward: A Real Trip
Once, early on in my 30-day stay at the Children’s Psych ward of Mercy Hospital, which is situated in the Conemaugh Valley overlooking the rusty Susquehanna River, my grandmother came to visit me, bringing me food treats. My grandmother also ensured that I had the opportunity to speak with my father, a largely absent alcoholic who was working in another state, via telephone. I remember him telling me this: “Kid, just play the game. You gotta play their game to get out of it.” I’m sure he didn’t think I was listening. Even I didn’t think I was listening, but I must have been because I knew what he meant without completely understanding, as though his words were some sort of code that only my subconscious mind could understand. My mother did not visit or call at any time during my stay,
I soon met Kevin, who was a teacher volunteering time there at the Children’s Psych ward of Mercy Hospital. I’d always had the worst time understanding algebra. My math problems actually began in second grade with subtraction and my distrust over crossing out zeros and making them ones. “Who were WE to be arbitrarily deciding that the zero is now a one, just because it makes the solutions to our math problems more convenient?”, I would think. But even the most challenging algebraic equations were easy the way Kevin explained the operations. To kill time, I would continually request that he give me more problems to solve. I felt good about myself when I was finding solutions. He also taught me how to draw a bit, and gave me a drawing that depicted a young girl in a field with a unicorn. It was pretty and I wish I still had it today.
Bell Bib DeVoe was all the rage then, and sometimes, in the evenings, we would play Gin Rummy, sans Gin, of course. At some point during the course of our games, I noticed that I had a stealthy view of everyone’s cards in the reflection of the plastic light cover on the ceiling. I learned to cheat at a game that didn’t matter and play the game that did.
This all occurred in 1990 or so and I guess antidepressants and anti-psychotics were not yet prescribed to children with as much ease as they are today, because I never had any of that, nor was I the recipient of any electro-convulsive therapies. I did see some kids get put down with a hypodermic needle to the ass, but that also never happened to me. They simply kept me there for a thirty-day evaluation period, at the end of which, it was declared, by some nameless authority that there was nothing wrong with me, and I was sent home, angry at my mother. She should have realized this would happen. Surely she didn’t really believe that there was something mentally wrong with me.
After my release from the children’s psych ward, I was, as usual, in a different school than the year before, my mother and I lived in a decent house that I was not ashamed of, and she was attending AA meetings on a regular basis. She was still having surgeries on her leg, which had been obliterated in a motorcycle accident 11 years prior. They had almost amputated, but some surgeons felt it was their calling to attempt a bionic leg and so began to fill it with various shapes of metal, successfully rebuilding it. For me at the time, life was pretty uneventful. Until New Year’s Eve.
I had gone to the skating rink to meet with some friends. We all decided at some point to walk down to this guy’s house and hang out and drink. Other than a couple sips from the beer tap in my Uncle’s basement, I had never experimented with alcohol before. When we arrived at the boy’s house, there were a bunch of various liquors mixed up in a jar, and we each sipped from it. I probably had two or three shots and I was giddy as all hell. I decided that I wanted to go skate, and insisted on walking back to the rink to get skated up whether anyone joined me or not.
This guy, Erik, walked me back to the rink where I proceeded to get my skates and stumble around trying to get my skates on, all the while giggling and asking for pizza. The manager of the rink escorted me to a back room, where he attempted to reach my mother by phone but had no luck. Oh, did I mention this was New Year’s Eve? She probably had plans and was out with friends. The manager of the skating rink eventually decided to call the police, and when they showed up, I told them that I had been hanging with some friends just across the field. Unbelievably, the police took me back to my friend’s house where I had been drinking and dropped me off there.
I don’t remember how I actually got home that night but someone gave me a ride, and when I arrived home it was early enough that I beat my mother home. I remember lying on the couch in the living room watching music videos. When my mom arrived I instantly felt guilty and I told her what had happened. As she walked into the room and looked at me, I said, “Mom I was drinking, I’m sorry.” She kindly thanked me for being honest and told me to go to bed and sleep it off, so I did.
When the police called a couple of days later to inform my mother that there would be a fine she was furious, not with them, but with me. Prior to learning of the fine, she hadn’t been furious at all but seemed to understand that these things happen. Teenagers make bad decisions about drinking, and I obviously felt badly enough about it that I wasn’t intending to repeat the scenario. But the fine pushed her to a level of anger that I hadn’t expected. Still, I could never have imagined that I would ultimately be experience placement in foster care, sent away to live with complete strangers.
The Final Straw
After several months at my new school, I was just barely feeling like maybe I had some friends or at least acquaintances at school who I could laugh with. One day in chorus class, all the girls I wanted to engage with, were egging me on to hit this other girl. I don’t remember why, but we are talking about a gaggle of 13-year-old girls, so there probably was no reason. Nevertheless, caving to peer pressure, and wanting to showcase my boldness for my new friends, I walked directly up behind this girl and I smacked her upside the head. I didn’t’ even think much about it, I just did it.
My poor decision making and the actions that followed were certainly worthy of a suspension from school, or a long time in detention, but for me, the consequences would be life-changing. Rather than facing disciplinary actions by the school, the girl’s parents actually pressed charges against me and I ended up with six months’ probation for a simple assault and harassment charge. I don’t even recall if the school suspended me or not, but if they did, it was nothing by comparison.
A Wrong Move
Like many teenagers who live with a divorced single parent where the other parent is semi available, “I want to go live with my (insert opposite parent here)!” was a statement I often made when upset with my mother. I guess she thought It was a great idea because it was decided that I would do just that, and I was promptly sent to my father to live with him. I had to switch schools again, but at least I would be at the same school I had attended when I stayed with my grandmother, so there was some familiarity.
Normally, when he was in town from working construction jobs across the country, my dad would stay with my grandmother, but at this time, he had acquired a small shack in the center of Conemaugh Valley. I didn’t like people knowing I lived there, but I did my best to scrub the floors and all the faucets and mirrors to make it clean and nice. I remember feeling quite at home there in that little shack, but I didn’t want my peers to know how poor we were. Looking back, it seems like everyone there was poor, and we were even poorer.
To both my chagrin and delight, every once in a while someone would come looking for me and find me in that little shack. The connection I felt when that happened was more important to me than successfully hiding my circumstance. I felt flattered that someone wanted to see me badly enough to hunt me down and invite me out from my hiding spot. I might occasionally skip school with a person such as this. We would start off with every intention of going to school, but walking through nature, a mile-long path through the woods; we would sometimes lose our way. There was no real trouble over this.
The trouble was that my dad was an alcoholic. Functional in terms of always going to work, but dysfunctional in his after-work activities which consisted solely of hours at the American Legion drinking whiskey and beer. My dad was fine with beer, but the whiskey brought the tears forth, which I suspect were followed by a sense of shame. Whatever feeling he was having it was not positive and would cause him to act out, picking a fight with whoever was nearby. Sometimes, I would be the nearest person in proximity and would be the target of his anger.
My dad didn’t ever really beat me or anything, though he would threaten to do so. I got the belt a couple of times when younger, but my dad just scared me because he would get loud and would say mean or inappropriate things to me. It was abusive on an emotional level. Never overtly sexual, but I was aware of his low opinion of women when he was drunk. I was also aware that, when he was not drunk, he felt quite differently. My Dad, when not drinking whiskey, was a kind person and would help anyone out. He liked to tell jokes and was good at making people laugh. I learned my first dirty joke from my dad, of course, as I believe every teenage daughter should. He liked to ride his Harley and drink beers. I’m not excusing his poor behavior or decisions, but as an alcoholic ‘Nam vet turned biker; he scarcely knew what to do with his 13-year-old daughter.
Basically, my dad would talk a lot of shit when he drank. Inevitably, he would end up telling me to get lost during one of his tirades. If I didn’t like it there, I was free to go he would say. And so, I left, effectively putting myself on the streets. The first time I left, I went to stay with a girlfriend who was a bit older than me and had her own apartment. One day, I arrived at the apartment to find none other than my Dad there, sitting in the kitchen with my friend, who, being a good host, had offered my dad a beer and was chatting him up. I returned with him to our shack that day, but of course, there would be another argument in the future and my dad would again tell me to take a hike, and I would do as I was told. One time, my dad had called the police to report me missing, and after about two weeks, they located me and informed my probation officer of the situation. I was sent to the juvenile detention center where I stayed for about two months before an appropriate placement in a Children’s home became available.
Thus began my first foster care placement and experience as a ward of the State of Pennsylvania.