I’ve known Rachael for almost seven years. For the first part of those years I had no idea that she was part of the foster care or adoption community. When I found out she had first hand knowledge of what a child goes through when placed in foster care I found refuge in having someone with real childhood experiences help me in my journey as a foster mom. How I react, the things I say or don’t say all have dramatic impacts on my children’s lives. I have asked for her advice before, for things such as “what do you wish your (adoptive) parents would have done or said differently?” “What were the best things they did to help you bond?” Each time taking mental note of the things I could do similarly or differently for my children. This is the first time I asked her to share her story. I’ll admit I had no idea how much her story would affect me. I have a few hopes I bestow upon the readers of this post. The first one is for foster parents: I hope her story helps you take a deeper look into the lives of your children. I hope her ability to express herself now as an adult is not lost on what your children cannot, or does not yet want to verbalize. They have the same hopes, loves, fears, and many have similar experiences. Use her words to transform your care. My second is for others who have experienced foster care as a child, or for those currently in the foster care system: know you are not alone. There is power in knowing your thoughts and feelings are shared with others. Your voice is important. Let it be heard.
WARNING: This post contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence. It may be a trigger for some readers. Please read with caution. ~The Dropping Anchors Crew~
(Written by Rachael Armstrong)
I’ve never really blogged about my experiences as a child within the DSS system so bear with me as I’m not even sure where to really start. First, I should say how touched I am that the foster parents have asked for my perspective on things—that tells me I’m speaking to a group of individuals with hearts the size of Montana. I LOVE what you guys are doing for the kids and don’t ever, for one second, think you are not changing lives! You will truly never know how much.
My story starts in 1983. I was born to a single mom in Lenoir, NC, and am the oldest of three. (My biological mother is named Rheba. For simplicity’s sake, I refer to her by name since I consider my adoptive mom, “Mom”). Rheba was a beautiful, talented woman, who I remember fondly. She taught me to read and write before I started kindergarten. I remember her teaching me to roller skate at a very young age, and I loved to hear her sing and play guitar. We would sing every country song on the radio together and I developed a deep appreciation for Randy Travis. (Don’t judge…I didn’t know any better). I remember her having a great sense of humor, always making up stories, and us going on “adventures” together. I remember snippets of our adventures and weird things happening that I couldn’t entirely explain—it all felt mysterious to me and I knew something wasn’t quite right with the situations we found ourselves in but my loyalty to her was undying. I truly believe, with my entire being, that she loved me…but she had her share of problems. She was addicted to crack cocaine. She was also a raging alcoholic. She was a prostitute and a thief and I remember very early on in life learning how to steal things and following her instructions as she used me to take things from behind the jewelry counter while she distracted the sales clerk. This was before my little sister and brother were born, so I was five years old and younger.
Martin was born in the summer of 1988 and Eden was born in November of 1989; I felt immediate love and devotion to both of them. I wanted the very best for my little siblings and felt it was my duty as their big sister to care for them, keep them safe and provide for them when Rheba couldn’t.
I remember coming home from school (kindergarten and first grade) and trying to get into our apartment and the door would be locked with no Rheba to be found. Sounds of my little brother and sister crying inside would send me running for the janitor or to the office to get a key. I was always so careful in how I presented the situation and would come up with lies like, “My mom went to the store and I accidentally locked myself out,” just so she wouldn’t get in trouble. I would get into the house to find the little ones in cribs with heavy, wet diapers; crying and hungry. It was my job to make sure they were okay, so this became a regular occurrence. When Rheba realized I was capable of keeping them quiet and fed, she would disappear for longer periods of time. I remember feeling frustration because I couldn’t make sense of the directions on the back of microwavable meals but I was hungry, so I would just guess at the time needed and hope for the best. I learned to use a dish towel to open baby food jars because I wasn’t always strong enough—but thank goodness, there was always some type of food in the house. I don’t ever remember being hungry or going without. Dirty, neglected, and unattended to, yes. But never hungry. We were left alone a lot but she would always come home within a day’s time. Maybe with a party of five men and tell us to go to our rooms but she would always surface and would always make us feel loved—even if just for a few seconds. I remember her saying, “You are my pride and joy,” and with that same breath, “I need a beer.”
Social Services got involved in our lives when I was six or seven. Rheba had a boyfriend named Dewey who beat the living hell out of her on a regular basis. We were told he was our father and we all called him, “Daddy” but he was missing a lot of my life and I never could make sense of that. (Come to find out, he is Eden’s biological father—Martin and I have no idea who our biological fathers are.) I loved him and cared for him but my loyalty was always to Rheba because I hated seeing how he treated her and how he spoke to her. I hated hearing the names he called her and feeling like I needed to speak up and defend her all the time, when she would hang her head in silence. The biggest fight I remember them having was in our small apartment, on the kitchen floor. I held Martin and Eden beside me and we all cried and screamed as he held her down, repeatedly punched her in the face, and threw countless beer bottles against the wall while screaming for us to shut up. Somehow, we were never harmed. I even remember jumping on his back one time and trying to pull him off of her. He ignored me completely and continued to pulverize her face—with me hanging on around his neck. I hate to admit any lingering trauma as a result of my childhood because I’ve worked so hard to put my issues behind me and flourish but the sound of breaking glass will probably always make me cringe. Fortunately, I believe that sound and the sounds of frequent domestic assaults is what led our neighbors in the apartment complex to call the police and get Social Services involved.
I was at school one day, in the first grade, and the end of the day came. I went out to get in line for the school bus and a middle aged guy approached me with my teacher and explained I would be going with him. I was immediately terrified, uneasy, and my first question was, “Why?” I can still see the pained expression on his face as he tried to stay calm and reassuring while explaining that my mommy was out of town for a little while. I knew something was very wrong and I panicked. I told the teacher I’d never met this weird man, I’m pretty sure, “Stranger Danger!” escaped my loud little mouth a few times, and then it hit me: I’m at school. Martin and Eden are…where?! Once my teacher assured me it was fine to go with him and I learned I would be joining my little siblings, I went willingly but I can recall that car ride in detail even to this day. I was painted a picture of a nice house, with a sweet, old lady who likes to be called “Mawmaw” and it was going to be all hunky dory until Rheba got back. Little did I know that would be two years. Little did the strange man know I didn’t believe a word of what he said. I instinctively knew this was bad. Very bad.
Mawmaw was an abusive, emotionally manipulative, widow. She was in her mid-fifties at the time and already had one foster child—a boy, a year older than me. I’m not sure of his exact diagnosis but she referred to him as “retarded.” He was socially awkward and I would guess he had Tourette syndrome but he was always nice to me and we got along and played well together. His name was Steven and I would love to know whatever happened to him. He and my little brother seemed to bear the brunt of her aggression and unpredictable rages but I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut. I knew we were there to stay and I knew better than to say anything to my case worker when I saw her because I feared retaliation. Martin, however, was there from the time he was 2-4; crucial developmental years. He was into everything, wanted to ride bikes, get dirty, and play outdoors. Inevitably, no matter what he did, it caused her to flip slap out. He was tied to a chair with duct tape and belts on more than one occasion. He was locked in the basement and told Mawmaw’s dead husband would watch him in the dark. He was paddled relentlessly for things that were not his fault. I remember her telling me she had to show Steven who was boss and she would literally sit on his back and rub his nose in the carpet when he would get upset about something. He would be so embarrassed that he wouldn’t come out of his room for the rest of the night. Martin developed a terrible stutter. Eden was the baby and was generally treated like a princess. I snuck around, trying to keep the peace.
I would do things to try to win my foster mother’s approval and wanted very much for her to like me. I tried to speak like her, I would intentionally misspell things because she would accuse me of being a “know it all” when I did well in school, and I would say mean things to my brother and Steven just because that’s how she spoke to them. Behind her back, we all had a love/hate relationship with her and it was agreed that we would never tell on one another because the punishments were so severe. I think it’s because we had never known stability and were grasping at straws for some kind of caring adult to be present and involved in our lives. Mawmaw didn’t care anything about being good to us—she cared about the check she got from the state. She actually told me once that I was more expensive than what I was worth and I wouldn’t be getting new shoes for school as a result. I remember crying myself to sleep that night because I had been made fun of for my old shoes so many times in the previous grade and all I wanted was to fit in with my classmates.
Mawmaw nannied a little girl named Tennille. She was very thin and sassy and I thought she was beautiful. Tennille got preferential treatment over all the foster children and made it well known she was not one of us. I thought she was cool and seemed to have a great life, so I befriended her. She was my “best friend” the whole two years I was there but she was a little Mawmaw minion and would report any of my naughty activity when she had the chance. The worst punishment I remember dealing with was extended corner time. I would be forced to stand with my nose in a corner while Mawmaw watched her shows and if my legs shook, she would use a switch (that I, of course, had to pick out myself) to mark up the backs of my legs as a reminder that you don’t pout in time out. I don’t have any way of knowing how long I stood in those corners but my guess is an hour average, each time. She would leave Tennille to watch me while she went about her work.
After two years of this foster home, I was finally told by my case worker (an amazing lady by the name of Lauren) that I would “definitely” be adopted. I remember her telling me the news and I remember asking several times, “Definitely?!” It was official. And I was TERRIFIED. My foster mother made a huge ordeal out of it and scared the life out of me by suggesting I would end up in a home with Asian people who ate dogs and other similar comments.
Turns out, a nice non-dog-eating dentist in Charlotte saw the three of us in a DSS “catalog,” as I call it. He shared it with his wife and other two adopted sons, and they all felt we were meant to be a part of their family. This was September of 1992. He contacted my case worker and tried to arrange a meeting with us. Lauren’s supervisor had some issues with the family being located in Charlotte and took issue with how small their cars were (he and the wife both drove sporty little Acuras at the time). I was NOT impressed that a guy with two boys (blech!) wanted to adopt me. I thought they sounded hoity-toity, the idea of living in a “big city” scared me, and I really wanted a big sister —not TWO brothers. I made all my opinions very well known but little did I know what was happening behind the scenes.
To make a very long story short: My parents obviously did end up with us. The judge ruling on our case made our adoptions contingent on Rheba’s ability to complete a rehab program. If she couldn’t, he would terminate her rights. Somehow, my dad was able to coordinate a meeting with her and talked her into signing her rights away long before the date the judge set. He promised to give her updates and pictures of us until we were 18 and told her if the judge terminated her rights, she wouldn’t get that luxury…and to my knowledge, he always held up his end of the deal. I remember he and my mom posing Martin, Eden and me for pictures of just the three of us annually but they would never come right out and tell us that’s what they were up to…but being the little whippersnapper I was, I figured it out. I would smile my biggest smile just to communicate to her that I was happy and okay.
On December 26, 1992, I went home with the Armstrongs to a beautiful, brick home near South Park Mall, I was given a nice room all to myself, my mom took me shopping for all new clothes and shoes and let me pick anywhere I wanted to eat for our “mother daughter time” as she called it (bless her heart, I usually picked Pizza Hut). I got my first pair of pumps (remember the shoes that were supposed to help you jump higher and play better basketball?!), and I began my new life at the age of nine. I was tormented by their lack of Southern cooking abilities and the fact they ate cream of wheat instead of grits. I hated that they didn’t allow much sugar or any soft drinks in the house, and I couldn’t understand their fascination with modern art/décor. To me, it looked like Beetlejuice threw up all over the living room…but this is coming from the child who knew nothing but Randy Travis, all the way hot dogs, trailer parks, and was adept at dodging Budweiser cans on the floor.
It took me a LONG time to get accustomed to their way of doing things. I was resistant to authority (still am!) from the word go. I was determined to test their limits and I had a really hard time letting them be the parents. They were incredibly patient with me and loved me, and I grew to love and adore them as well.
If I could offer one bit of advice to anyone adopting or fostering a child with a traumatic past: Let them talk/express themselves without judgment. Never let them shock you. Kids in those kind of situations become adults WAY too fast and we are able to pick up on subtleties our peers probably wouldn’t. Surviving taught me to read people’s emotions and this was no exception when it came to my new parents. I never wanted to hurt their feelings by telling them that I still loved and missed Rheba or that I thought of her often. I never wanted to return to her or felt my life would be better off with her by any means…but any mention of her and my mom would bristle. I felt that, even if it wasn’t her words that told me. So I became concerned for her feelings on the subject and would limit what I would say around her. I don’t need to tell you foster parents that identity is important to a child. Their background or culture shapes who they are and I feel like they should be encouraged to talk openly about their feelings. They will test you, they will push limits, and you will feel mean for enforcing your rules. Tough. That’s part of the game. You have no idea how badly they need you to be “tough” for them.
If my mom showed weakness, I would prey on it. I knew how to push her buttons and the woman was a saint because she would walk away and gather her composure before responding to me most of the time. My dad was never rattled by any of my issues. He rolled with all the punches of me being his first (and incredibly challenging) girl. They never knew what to expect from me and I never knew from day to day what new thing I would discover that would drive them batty—but I certainly tried. Maybe part of it was to see if they would give up on me, too. They knew that and I remember my mom telling me, “I love you no matter what you do. No matter what you say. You can’t make me stop loving you. You can make me mad at you and I can want to ring your neck but my love for you isn’t something you have control over.” It would piss me off because she would normally say that while she was explaining what kind of discipline I was about to receive…but it resonated with me and I believed her. I knew I was loved. I knew they were my forever. They chose us. We weren’t biological accidents to them. They signed up willingly to carry our baggage and set up a safe place for us to unpack…and I’m eternally grateful.
To give you an update on my life now and the people mentioned in this story:
Lauren: My case worker. She just found me on Facebook a few weeks ago. I updated her on life and she was so happy to hear from me. I finally got to tell her thank you for all she did to get us into the best home ever!
Steven: My foster brother. He was still with Mawmaw when we left in December of 1992. I’ve never seen or heard from him since.
Martin: My brother. He is working at a printing shop as a manager/supervisor and has a GORGEOUS little girl named Autumn who is six years old. She’s quite the feisty one.
Eden: My sister. She is a manager of a dental practice, has been married for five years to a police officer, and they are planning to have their first child this year.
Tennille: My foster home BFF. I stalked on Facebook a couple years ago. She looked like something out of a bad reality show and was working in fast food, still trying to earn a degree at age 28.
Mawmaw: I call her number every once in a while to see if that old hag is dead yet. Last time I called, she still answered and I still silently hung up. I’ve not spoken to her since we were adopted.
Dewey: He got my cell number years ago after I hunted him down. He calls about once a year to tell me how sorry his life is now with no license from so many DWI’s and no one to take him to appointments.
Rheba: I found her when I turned 20. Living with her mother, riding a moped, missing most of her teeth, and shaking uncontrollably all the time. I wanted answers but she was never able to give any and couldn’t formulate a clear sentence. I gave her my number out of pity but then she began calling and asking for money so I haven’t spoken to her since.
Me: I manage my dad’s dental practice, I’m horrible at relationships, I love my dog more than anything, I volunteer for a pit bull rescue and a domestic violence shelter, and I’m always consciously aware of exactly how lucky and blessed I am. My story is a complicated one that’s shaped me, stretched me and taught me so much. For the most part, I don’t deal with a lot of lingering trauma. I have a bad dream about once a year, I don’t like the sound of breaking glass, and I get seething mad when I see someone mistreat someone who can’t defend themselves. All in all, I think I turned out okay.