Every year, about 20,000 of the 542,000 children in foster care in America “age out” as they turn 21. All of a sudden, they have to fend for themselves. Five percent of them — about 1,100 young adults — are left on their own in the New York City area. Who are they?
Removed from their birth parents because of abuse, neglect or abandonment, foster kids typically grow up in various homes, staying for as little as a few days or as long as a few years, but rarely with enough stability to get the education and skills they need to start out on their own.
This is the underlying theme of “Everyone Needs Someone,” a group project by Salaam Garage in New York that is now on exhibit at the Long Island Children’s Museum through Sept. 2. Some of the stories are below; more pictures and information about how to help can be found at www.salaamgarage.com.
Teddie (Photo by Moya McAllister)
Kicked out of his/her mother’s home at the age of 14 by his mother’s boyfriend, Teddie entered foster care and lived in several group homes until he aged out at 18. Since then, he has been homeless, couch-surfing with various friends or romantic partners, staying in LGBT-specific (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transexual) shelters, but never fitting in.
Shirley (Photo by Alejandra Villa)
Shirley Newman is a consistent mother. A former foster child, she keeps her three children on a rigid daily schedule: school, snack time, homework, dinner and bath.
Shirley, 29, had a far different upbringing. She was only three years old when her mother left her with her drug-addicted father, and took Shirley’s two younger siblings with her. Shirley and her father moved in with his girlfriend, Marie, an alcoholic who was just as abusive as Shirley’s father. When Shirley was eight, neighbors reported the abuse.
“I remember being taken out of school by total strangers and having to sit all day in a tall building near the Grand Concourse [in the Bronx], and the next thing I knew I was on Long Island,” she says. ‘
Ten months later she was taken back to her father without an explanation. “I was just a puppet on a string; I was so used to being pulled wherever I was told,” she says now.
Renald (Photo by Heather Walsh)
Renald is a quiet, soft-spoken 22-year-old living in his first apartment and attending college. Renald had a traditional family and the comforts of home — until he was 13 years old. Suddenly, one day he and his younger brothers were placed into the foster care system on Long Island without any warning, and for reasons he is unable to explain. He would never return home.
As a young adult, Renald is beating the odds. While many foster kids never complete high school and end up jobless and homeless, he is attending The College at Old Westbury, part of the State University of New York. He aspires to become a lawyer.
Nefertiti (Photo by Amelia Coffaro)
24-year-old Nefertiti said she dreams of being a social worker so that she can help kids who are going through difficult situations. At an age when most kids learned how to ride a bike, she learned to cook, clean and take care of herself. Feeling unsafe at her grandmother’s house, Nefertiti saw school as her escape. She recalls academic awards like Student of the Month and Honor Roll with pride.
Linda (Photo by Ian Spanier)
Twenty one-year-old Linda was thrust into the foster care system at the age of three. Born in Charlottesville, Virginia to a drug-addicted mother, she, along with her four brothers and two sisters, were scattered by the foster care system when her mother decided she could no longer take care of them and left them at a friend’s house.
Krista (Photo by Heather Walsh)
Krista had a secure home life until she was five. Her parents were young adults with “conflicts” and were unable to care for her and her 9-year-old sister, so the girls were sent to live with their grandfather. The stay was short-lived.
“Each time your stuff is packed up and the social worker is standing there telling you that you are going somewhere else, you feel abandoned. You feel unwanted. You feel you aren’t worthy,” says Krista. That happened 10 times and the invisible wounds, she says, don’t heal in adulthood.
Elijah (Lisa Weatherbee)
Elijah was two years old when Children’s Services found him and his 12-year-old brother, JB, living unsupervised in a Bronx apartment. Mom hadn’t been around much — a heavy drug user, she gave birth to five kids with five men but didn’t raise any of them.
So JB and Elijah were sent to live with their grandmother and third brother, CJ, in Atlanta. When he was eight years old, his grandmother fell off a ladder and broke her leg. She was left crippled and unable to care for the brothers. Elijah was forced into the foster care system for the next 12 years.
When he was discharged at age 21, Elijah had $4,000 — half of which he spent on a car. “Thank God I had a job. If I didn’t have a job and I just aged out of care, I’d have been f*****.”
Dmitriy (Photo by Heather Walsh)
Dmitriy was born in Russia and, at age three, was placed in an orphanage four hours southwest of Moscow. In his eyes, the building looked like a castle, but he wasn’t treated like royalty. There were roughly 100 kids grouped into “families” with no formal living standards, structure or discipline, he says.
An American family adopted him when he was 11. His new life with a mother, father, two brothers and a nice house in the Long Island suburbs with a swimming pool appeared to be ideal.
But one day, unable to control his anger, Dmitriy got into a brawl with his adoptive father. He was removed from the home and sent to a psychiatric facility for more than a year. He says he felt like a prisoner. After returning home for a short period he was placed in a series of group homes.
At 21, Dmitriy aged out of the foster care system on Long Island. While many young adults in the same situation are uneducated, unemployed and homeless, he has a high school diploma, a full-time job and an apartment to call home.
Aquarianne (Photo by Yvonne Allaway)
Aquarianne lost her father when she was 11. Her mother was an absent figure, an addict who was unable to give her children a home.
At 18, Aquarianne was officially aged out. After high school, she attended Queensborough Community College (she is still paying off the student loans). It was there that she tapped into her passion for the performing arts and met her current partner and father of her daughter. They are now expecting a second child.
She talks of her resolve to graduate from college on time, recalling, “One semester I took 17 credits.” That same inspiration led her to attend a final exam on the day before she gave birth. She earned her college degree — an accomplishment that at one time seemed unfathomable. Now 21, she continues to prove that nothing is out of her reach.
Alex (Jorden Hollender)
Alex never knew his biological father, and he was taken away from his mother, who was HIV positive, when he was just five years old. Alex instead spent his teen years living in group residences, and he called members of the Bloods — the famed Bronx gang — his family.
“I was the type of guy who was always in the streets, always selling drugs, always fighting people,” says Alex. “I didn’t care about my life,” he says, “so I just went with them, did what I had to do.”