The story you are about to read is a personal account of a childhood to which thousands of foster children can relate. Steven, a local seminary student who served as an intern to ICM, wanted to share his story so that the children would know that they're not alone and that the faith communities and advocates would know that the work we do for our children and the services, nurture and care that we provide to them are important not only in Georgia, but across this nation.
The names have been changed for privacy reasons.
You could say my mother didn’t have the best taste in men.
Aside from that, she was a pretty sharp woman. When she was a senior in high school, coming of age in a one-stoplight town in Indiana, she felt there were three vocational choices available to her: stay-at-home mom, teacher and nurse. The first option did not appeal to her. And she turned down an offer from the town doctor who offered to pay her way through a bachelor’s degree at DePauw University and a medical degree from Indiana, if she would be willing to take over his practice when he retired. She didn’t think she wanted to spend that much time in school. She drifted for a couple of years-- considered joining the Air Force, but eventually moved to one of the larger cities in Indiana. There, she worked as a waitress to pay her way through a nursing degree at a regional campus of Purdue. She was the first person in our immediate family to earn a college degree.
Eventually, she got married to the man her parents wanted her to marry. He was nice and they were comfortable together, but there was no passion in the relationship, and it ended quickly. Her relationship with another man led to one daughter and an on-again, off-again engagement that my mother eventually grew tired of. In the meantime, a friend of hers had moved to Atlanta and was encouraging my mother to come—and to bring her daughter, as well. One day, when Josh went to see his then off-again fiancée and daughter, he found an empty apartment and a cancelled phone line. My mother and my sister, Nola, lived in Georgia for a little over a year, staying in the area called East Atlanta.
When my mother returned to Indiana, she met my father in a bar, and he was just her type: tall, lanky, bearded, and handy with a motorcycle—everything her first husband had not been. I was conceived out of wedlock, but they were married before I was born in 1983. Dan, my father, adopted my sister who is five years older than I am.
My parents bought a house in the country somewhere in the vicinity of my mother’s small hometown. Mom took a job at a local hospital, and Dad stayed at home to cook and watch Nola and me…and Barbara, his daughter from a previous relationship, who was about Nola’s age. I have a hard time thinking of Barbara as my sister, because even though the blood lines are there, she was never really a part of my life. From what I understand, my dad was an excellent chef, and that’s pretty much the only good thing that could be said about him. He treated me very well—he was very proud of the idea of having a son. But, he was a terror to his wife and daughters: emotionally, physically and sexually abusive. I have not heard any details of the abuse, and I have not asked for them. All I know is that at some point, our house in the country burned down. Dan was the only one there at the time, and he said it was an accident—that he had been burning leaves and the fire got out of hand. Soon after this incident, he apparently raided the joint checking accounts and filed for divorce.
I was three at the time.
In the divorce proceedings, my mother won full custody of Nola and me, and full ownership of a shell of a house in the Indiana countryside. She had no financial resources, and her life was in tatters. So, she did what any sensible person would do-- she took the GRE and applied to the master’s in public health program at Harvard University. Amazingly, she was accepted and thus started preparing for a new life on the east coast. It was a chance to make up for the educational opportunities she had passed up as a senior in high school. It was a chance to embark on a new career, to support her children and provide a better life for them, without the meddling of indecisive, abusive men.
Our mother wanted to complete the program as quickly as possible, and with a minimum of debt, so she left Nola and me with our grandparents—her parents—in Indiana. Mom found work at a hospital in New Hampshire. She worked full-time but carried a full-time student load in order to complete the degree in two years. She visited us as often as she could, and we spent about a month in New Hampshire with her. I remember that Mom took me to one of her classes one evening, and bought me a very small Harvard sweatshirt. She faithfully sent money to our grandparents to help pay the bills.
This was the status quo for a year and a half, but then everything dramatically changed. Our grandparents filed for custody, claiming our mother had abandoned us. They said she had simply left one day, and was not in any way helping to support her children. Their central point of debate seemed to be that a twice-divorced, single woman who no longer attended church could not possibly provide the sort of stable home they could. After all, there were two of them, and they did attend church.
When the claim for custody was filed, Mom dropped everything and came back to Indiana. Reverend Brad Craddock, a Missouri Synod Lutheran and the husband of one of my mother’s co-workers, came back to Indiana with her. Having someone with a clerical collar at her side was crucial when Mom came to our school to reclaim physical custody.
Another reinforcement came in the form of a new husband. Before the legal proceedings began, my mother was married again. His name was Joe, and he was cut from the same mold as my father: tall, lanky, bearded, and handy with a motorcycle. He must have helped, because despite the nastiness of the proceedings, she won custody.
At this point, I was five.
We left my mother’s hometown and moved back to the city, where our remolded family unit lived with Joe’s parents, in what had been his childhood home. I remember this as a good period. We often drove out to the old farm house, to clean up the property and think about rebuilding. Joe showed me all the shortcuts in the neighborhood, all the secret places where he went to play when he was my age. He was an electrician, but he had raced and done stunts on the motorcycle, and had a room full of trophies that were taller than I was.
Unfortunately, my grandparents continued to appeal the custody ruling. My mother’s lawyer advised her to move somewhere remote. She suggested either England or Hawaii. So my mother checked out the job market, found work at a hospital in Hawaii, and off we went.
The trouble with Joe did not begin until we got our own apartment. At first, we lived in a transitional apartment the hospital rented for people like my mother who had relocated to an unfamiliar city. We stayed there for about a month, until we found our own place. And when we did, Joe became the kind of stepfather he could never have been in his parent’s house or his wife’s apartment.
Joe was not just abusive; he was controlling and dominating. We did not have a television—or even toys. Action figures and other such things that came with me from Indiana were stuffed in a box and put away. We had a computer loaded with educational games. So, we could play with that. We were to be in bed by eight and awake by five. Each morning before school, we had a series of chores and exercises to do. Our education was supplemented by extra drills in math and a weekly book report. On a somewhat positive note, I remember that I devoured presidential biographies. I could name every president from one to forty-one, and several of the vice-presidents and first ladies, as well. I wanted nothing more than to grow up and become President of the United States. Joe was quite proud of this.
But he wanted to have complete control over our lives, and when his excessive demands were not met, the consequences were severe. He left bruises when he hit us. Sometimes, he would make my sister take off her clothes and stand in a corner—in front of an open window. To further her embarrassment, he would send me into the room to tell her when the punishment was over.
One night, I wet the bed and woke him up to tell him about it. He became severely angry. He made me take off my clothes and sit in the shower. He turned on the cold water. Because we had just seen the movie "Arachnophobia," I was afraid that giant spiders would push their way through the drain and into the shower. I asked him if this was possible. He said yes, and that they were especially attracted to moisture and darkness. Then he turned off the light and left the room. I could hear my mom protesting on the other side of the door. I could also hear her getting slapped.
Like my father, Joe was dominating and abusive. Like my father, he was harder on the women in his life than he was on me. My sister was absolutely heroic. She would often take the blame for things I had done, or the sole blame for things we had done together. When she was invited to spend the night with a friend, she would bring her annoying little brother along, as well. She knew I needed to be out of that apartment as much as she did. We relished having visitors or being allowed to leave. Either one was fine, because either one was a reprieve from the terror.
Eventually, my mother filed a restraining order against Joe, and we never saw him again. Despite this, we had already come to the attention of Hawaii Child Protective Services (CPS). I remember being interviewed in sterile rooms with two-way mirrors. I was shown drawings of the naked human body. I was asked if I could name the parts and if I had ever been touched there. I had not been, but my sister had.
Nola and I were removed from our home and placed in a “shelter home,” which we were told was different from a “foster home” because it was a temporary setting. After three weeks there, we were returned to our mother. One night, because of some combination of fear of Joe and fear of losing her children, Mom decided we should leave the state. She packed one suitcase for each of us—I had a coffee table book about the U.S. presidents and a Donald Duck doll. We had lived in Hawaii for one year and one day.
Before I go on with the story, there is one more thing I would like to say about Hawaii. After Joe left, my mother took down the box containing what once had been my toys. She wanted me to play with them. She was encouraging me to play with them, to “be a little boy again.” The sad thing is I didn’t really know how. I wanted to be reading a book or playing on the computer. My mother cried, and I was too young to understand why. All I knew is that I was disappointing her.
We flew to Ohio. There, we stayed with Reverend Craddock his wife, Teresa, and their three sons. There were only a few weeks left in the fall semester, and Nola and I were given a choice about attending school. We had been through so much in the past year. The thought of starting over again—with new friends, new teachers and new coursework—it all seemed too daunting. We needed to rest, and we were allowed to do just that.
Not long after our arrival, our grandparents found out where we were, and my grandpa attempted to abduct us. I remember him coming with a van. He picked me up, put me in, and told me to lock the door. I remember Rev. Craddock and my mom and others arguing with him in the driveway. I didn’t lock the door, and he eventually left without me.
However, Ohio Child Protective Services was now alerted to our situation. And I have to admit that at this point, it didn’t look good. We had fled from a pending investigation in Hawaii, where investigators believed my mother had been complicit in our abuse; we were living with another family; we weren’t going to school; Mom probably didn’t have a job. Police officers and a social worker came to take us away. They had no place for us to go that night, so we spent it in the county lock-up.
At this point, I was six, and I was a foster child.
Initially, Nola and I were placed in separate homes. I lived with the Pattersons, who already had three other foster children: a teenage girl, and two boys about my age. The boys were twins and mentally-challenged. I spent a strange Christmas with that cobbled-together family. The Pattersons sensed that I was lonely and in need of connection with my biological family, and they arranged for me to talk on the phone with my grandparents.
Mom came once a week for supervised visits in yet another sterile facility. Nola and I would sometimes see each other and visit briefly, along the chain-link fence that separated the elementary from the middle school. When a bed opened up in the home my sister was living in, I was asked if I wanted to move there, and I said that I did. Nola was not pleased. There was another older girl living in that house who had cut off all ties with her family, who planned to live in the foster home until she turned eighteen. Nola wanted to follow her example, and didn’t want me in her midst, reminding her that she would be leaving me behind.
When Mom came for visits, my sister would not go to see her. In retrospect, her decision made sense. She had experienced so much more pain and trauma than I had. And she was old enough to know how much our mother’s choices had contributed to that. She was frustrated, and she felt like she was done with the family. The Grissoms were offering her a way out, and she wanted to take it. But this was only one part of my sister’s descent. She started hanging around with what passed for a gang in our small town and got involved in petty theft and other crimes.
Nola, though damaged in so many ways, still tried to protect me from hurtful moments. One of the many normal kid things I missed out on is that I never learned to ride a bike. When we were in Hawaii, I had a board and learned a rudimentary form of surfing, but I never had a bike and never learned to ride one. My long-forgotten father was suddenly contacted by the state of Ohio in a fumbling attempt to figure out what to do with me. His fumbling attempt at fatherhood, was to try to buy me a bike. But this was prohibited. Gifts like that couldn’t be given to a foster child like me, lest they inhibit my ability to decide who I wanted to live with—as though that choice were mine to make. One day, Nola showed up with a bike as a present for me. It turns out the bike had been stolen from a local park.
I only saw my dad once. We spent an afternoon on the playground, and he explained to me that he was comfortable climbing on the jungle gym’s metal bars because he was a construction worker. He told me he liked raw tomatoes, but not cooked ones. I didn’t like tomatoes at all. That was the last time I ever saw him.
While my sister was branching out into a possible life of crime, I was drawing into a cocoon of my own making. I read voraciously, obsessively. I read because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Spending time alone, with a book, was my way of getting out of the chaotic, traumatic world that had already—by the age of seven—caused me so much pain. My sister was violent, angry and acting out in all the wrong ways. I was painfully shy, guilt-ridden, and withdrawn from the world. These were our means of coping.
Eventually, my mother’s visits became less and less supervised. She was living back in Indiana, about four hours from our small town in Ohio. So, sometimes she would come and rent a hotel room; and I would be allowed to spend the night with her. Sometimes, we would go out to dinner or to see a movie. Finally, my sister joined us, lured by the idea of a night on the town. At some point, I was baptized by Reverend Craddock at his church.
Many options were considered for our placement, but the whole time, the only ones really fighting for us were our mother and the Grissoms. Mom incurred more than twenty-thousand dollars in legal debt fighting the state of Ohio, while commuting four hours whenever she could to visit us. She resented the Grissoms for encouraging my sister’s nascent decision to stay with them. After all, what did they know about our family, she questioned?
Once, I was brought to the judge’s chambers to talk to him about who I wanted to live with. I suspected the choice was between my mother and the Grissoms, so I chose my grandparents. I was withdrawn and guilt-ridden, and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I thought this would be a good compromise. When the judge told me my grandparents were not an option, I chose my mother. She was the one I wanted to disappoint less.
Ultimately, she did win custody, and we moved from our small town to a city in Indiana. Soon after, a man drove past our burnt shell of a house in the Indiana countryside. He found out that my mother owned the property and contacted her. The profit from the sale neatly paid her legal debt.
My sister and I spent the rest of our young lives in that city. When I graduated from high school, I went to a small, liberal arts college in central Indiana. I returned home to work for two years, and then moved to Georgia, where I currently attend a Presbyterian seminary. My mom, sister, two nephews and one niece still live back home.
As much as this would make for a happy end to a tragic story, I can’t leave things at this point. You see, when we were liberated from foster care and moved to our current home, Nola continued to hang out with a bad crowd. The difference was that the city offered more opportunities to get into deeper kinds of trouble. She spent some time in a local juvenile detention center and some time on probation. And even though she hasn’t been in legal trouble since then, she married someone who, like herself, has had his own set of problems with law enforcement. When I was a junior in high school, he spent a few months in prison.
Nola had her first child a couple of months after she graduated from high school—twelve years ago. She and her husband, whom she married three years ago, have three children. They don’t live in a safe neighborhood, but there is some stability in their lives. The father is there, and they both work.
Still, I often wonder where my sister would be if things had been different? What if our mother had given up her fight for her? What if our mother had not been an educated, white woman with access to lawyers? Would Nola have spent more time in juvenile hall, like so many other girls, being traumatized by another radical change in her chaotic life? Would she have had less access to alternative forms of sentencing, like probation, or the SOCAP program operated by our local YMCA? What if Mom hadn’t summoned the courage to leave when her children were in danger? What would life have been like for us without all the financial help our mother has been able to give us? Where would we be? And what irreparable destructive patterns would be repeating themselves in our lives?
As for me, I did not come out of all this unscathed. Not by any means. When we moved to our current home, Mom and Nola were constantly fighting, and I was always caught in the middle. As the third member of that unstable household, I was expected to take a side, and with me being who I was—I didn’t want to let anyone down. Ever.
On more than one occasion, counselors have told me that my intelligence saved me from the chaos of my childhood. I learned very early on that I could avoid the pain by shoving it deep down and suppressing the emotions. I learned how to minimize and intellectualize. I cracked jokes. I analyzed everything until it couldn’t possibly hurt me. As I have grown up, I have learned that these coping mechanisms have done me a great deal of harm, but they were the best thing when I was young.
In many ways, my sister and I exemplify the two paths abused children can walk. She was old enough to realize the injustice of our experience, and that injustice made her angry. It led to violence and crime and other kinds of acting out. I, on the other hand, was young enough to think I deserved to be abused, that I had genuinely done something wrong and deserved to be punished. My response was to withdraw from the world, become ridden with guilt, and minimize myself and my emotions. In high school, I had very few friends. I didn’t know how to relate to other kids, because my experiences had been so different from theirs. I had been forced to grow up far too soon. And besides, it was more comfortable for me to live in my own world, anyway.
Still, I think our mother’s strength, courage and resilience saved my sister and me from what could have been a far worse outcome. Today, my sister has a family of her own—a husband and three children. I am in seminary preparing to become a minister. My road from there to here has not been easy, but therapy and education have provided a way up and a way out. I am now more engaged with the world around me, more confident, and better able to cope with life in healthy ways.
Of course, in some ways, I will always be some remnant of that abused child huddling in a cold shower in Hawaii. I will always be someone whose childhood was stolen away from him, who saw too much trauma and experienced too much pain. I will never be able to leave that experience completely behind. But at least now, I know how to deal with it. At least now, I am no longer paralyzed. God can do miraculous things in the worst of situations. If nothing else, I am living proof of that.