CSMS Magazine Staff Writer
BAM!!!! “Ohhhhh!” Denise moaned to herself as she stole away to the loud darkness of her bedroom, slamming the door behind her, and contemptuously beginning to plan her next escape. She had run from her group home before, or “AWOL’d” as they called it, but this time it was going to be for good. After all, she was 19 now, and being an adult, she was done with being bossed around by the staff and their various “power trips” as she and her fellow housemates used to say.
They all lived in a group home for transitional age girls, transitional in the sense of their still being foster youth, though willingfully remaining in the child welfare system, given their having the option to stay in it, and receive services like housing, or disengage with the system on their 18th birthdays. Denise, like her housemates, was in the foster care system, after being removed from her biological parent’s custody because of severe physical abuse, and sexual abuse by her father.
Denise came to school one day in the fifth grade and winced as she delicately sat down in her rickety wooden chair. She was sent to the school nurse who found a bright red ring around the outside of her butt, which child welfare investigators later found to be as a result of Denise being held down in a bath tub of scalding hot water: the ring around her butt was from the porcelain in-lay of the tub’s floor. She was a foster kid ever since, and her road to recovery was as ugly as rocky.
She was placed in foster homes, and removed, several times due to acting out and seemingly malevolent destruction. She would urinate on the floor all over the house, she once through a 36-inch plasma television from a two story window, and engaged in countless other seemingly random and arbitrary acts of mayhem. If you asked Denise why she did these things, she wouldn’t have much of an answer. “Because I felt like it!” She might say. But the answer goes deeper. Could it be a coincidence that she and her foster sisters all seemed to have their various ways of being temperamental or violent, and that kids in “good homes” don’t seem to have nearly the same problems with self-control? Mere chance might not be able to supply an answer.
Ultimately, youth from broken homes who suffer from severe maltreatment experience skewed emotional development. Pervasive trauma disrupts the brain’s ability to process information and regulate emotion: This includes anger and aggression, of which regulatory agents develop in healthy ways as a result of children essentially learning how to regulate themselves based on their parents helping them to regulate until children can regulate themselves.
When the Denise’s of the world are denied these experiences, they are forced to rely on themselves in unhealthy ways, and begin to see adults and others around them as threatening and untrustworthy. This division between self and other can lead to testing, defiance, and violent episodes which ultimately keep abused children distant, in example of safe, from relationships which are sure to fail as they have learned through their experiences. Thus acting out behaviors are a pre-emptive strike. Given the intense nature of these youth’s behaviors, more highly structured environments, like group homes, are often required to provide these youth with the extra support they need to maintain stability. Unfortunately, being removed from the youth’s biological home, despite the abuse in the past, can be as traumatic as the abuse itself. Though the parents were abusive, at least the home life is one which is familiar. A group home is unfamiliar, and because the kids often see themselves as unwanted, being in group home can feel like the ultimate failure.
Denise’s experiences spoke similar volumes. She began smoking crack cocaine and prostituting when she was 16, and had been on a rocky road ever since. She often “worked” all night, and slept during the day: always to awaken to adult eyes bearing down on her as she tried to steal her way into the kitchen without being seen, and inevitably questioned as to where she had been all night. For the encroachment that it brought on her freedom, Denise was outraged. How dare they tell me what to do! As if I’m a child!
Ultimately, she never planned to keep doing what she was doing for long. She just needed to turn a trick to cover her cell phone bill, and then she would see a new pair of shoes she wanted. Just one more time, she would say: to the pipe and to turning tricks. And her group home knew what was going on. They tightened the restriction on her comings and goings, only to experience more rebellion and defiance which inevitably lead to more sanctions being issued and less of them being followed. The group home providers were weary and at their wits end. Denise spoke very little to her group home therapist, and was reported to be “not making much progress.” I don’t trust her, Denise said of her therapist. And sadly, this was true for Denise’s relationship with the world at large. No love. No trust. No such things, Denise often thought bitterly. And so Denise suffered in silence. At least the crack took the edge away for a time. But Denise always came back to Denise. And her group home didn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, Denise deteriorated further. She became hollow in the face, and dropped down to 100 pounds, from her old weight of 160. Denise was thrilled as she hit the scale, oblivious to her blood shot eyes, purple lips, and chattering teeth. I’m finally not fat anymore!!! Denise paraded gleefully. Meanwhile, her group home knew that she needed help. But Denise heard none of it. Do-gooders and their ideas of how I should run my life. What do they know?
What they didn’t know, Denise did. She knew where her heart was. I know ‘what to do.” Hundreds of miles north, in the remote regions of the mountains, her 5 year old daughter Denisha was in a foster home of her own: having been placed in and out of home care due to Denise’s repeated failed drug tests, and leaving her daughter alone and unsupervised for hours when she would be granted over-night visits.
Thus the relationship with the foster care system was intergenerational. Denise is the mother; the state is the father, same for Denisha. It was a love-hate relationship indeed. One upon which Denise was determined to overcome, this time. Her daughter needed her mother. And Denisha isn’t the only one . . . Denise thought to herself. Moma, Moma . . . Denisha. Denisha: Her chubby cheeks, the corner of her mouth where the gurgled saliva would trickle out when she laughed. Denise remembered her daughter’s face, and smiled, first happily, and then bitter-sweet.
Quietly, in the darkness of her room, Denise began to cry, and then angrily swiped at the tear at the onset of her cheek. Does no good anyway. Anger was much easier for Denise, quick to her side, quick to join her in a fight. And fighting she was, as she thrust her meager belongings into the backpack on her bed. Denise’s fight was with the system which had taken her from her family, and her daughter from her. Bastards. Told me I cant see my daughter. Denise couldn’t let it happen. Let Denisha grow up like me! In a maze of court rooms, and social workers, signing papers, and foster homes. It was a nightmare. At least AWOL’ing made it one you could wake up from.
And so Denise’s journey began. With her belongings slung over her shoulder, she crept out the front door, latching it silently behind her. Off she went to the north. To Denisha. To her light. It was far, but she could make it. Denisha was what was missing from her life. That emptiness. That void. Yes, that’s Denisha’s place. Denise day dreamed long over her plans, to the other girls, her social worker, the group home staff. She needs me, Denise would say of her daughter. And mother needed daughter too. Denisha gave Denise meaning in a world devoid of it, made the wrong right, made the cruel loving. All the good stuff. Reminded Denise that at least one good thing came from her life: and Denise could suffer no longer. Down the street she went to the bus station, digging into her pockets. Empty. She bit her lip grimly. There’s always a way I can make money. She swallowed a cringing lump in her throat. Working always brought shudders to her spine, not enough showers in the world to make her clean again after it was finally over. Fuck it, ain’t no other way. And so off she went. The last time, Denise told herself.
She tried to remember that the good life lay not far away. Denisha, Denisha. Minutes after Denise hit the corner in front of a liquor store with winos asleep against the wall and cracked gray concrete at her feet, a car pulled up alongside her. A heavy set man, with long stringy white hair, greedy eyes, and a cracked-mouth smile out the passenger side window. Denise’s insides crackled and sputtered, she almost vomited. But she mustered her resolve. This or the group home. The man inside the car slobbered something out the window, not quite English; the smell of cheap liquor assaulting Denise’s senses as she closed the passenger side door behind her. Maybe the group home isn’t so bad after all . . . Denisha, Denisha . . . No, I’ve got to do this. Gotta get back to my girl. Take her home. . . Home. The word stuck fast in her mind, a bitter sweet quality to it.
Denise never felt like she was home. Her first home was burglarized by her stepfather creeping into her bed at night, then foster homes, then the group home. . . Denise couldn’t let that happen to her daughter, her light. Denisha, Denisha. . . Gotta get her home. There’s no place like home. Denise smiled dreamily at the thought, forgetting where she was, somehow already made it inside a dingy motel room with a broken T.V.. Her tenant for the night smiled gleefully, drool oozing from the corner of his mouth, thinking the smile was for him, his invitation. Welcome home!!! The man hissed, a hand up Denise shirt leaving her twisted in agony. His hand stung like hornets. Denise closed her eyes, counting second by second, until it was over. But it was like getting home to her daughter. It couldn’t happen fast enough.
Note: Graham Danzer is a writer who lives in San Francisco. Mr. Danzer also holds a master’s degree in Social Work. He is Ph.D candidate in his field.
Also see FATAL ATTRACTION