In this blog, we continue to recognize National Child Abuse Prevention Month by sharing one young child’s journey through the foster care system, as seen through the eyes of his volunteer child advocate. Like the more than 400,000 children living in foster care within the United States, this young child whom we will call Darius did not choose to grow up in “the system.” Still, at a few months’ old, juvenile dependency court became his parent and he a “ward of the Court.” Everyone from that point forward, the first responders in his life, was given the opportunity to love him well and to set him up for success. But most of them let him down, causing him significant trauma and entirely changing the trajectory of his life.
Although there are countless wonderful foster homes, families and agencies who come alongside children in beautiful ways, far too many children in the system still experience Original and Double Abuse®. As you read Darius’ story from the eyes of a first-responder, his child advocate, we hope that you gain some insight into the challenges children in the system can face. We also hope you are inspired to become an advocate for this vulnerable population, whether you are a parent, teacher, pastor, social worker, or volunteer.
When I met Darius, I was so struck by his gentle nature. What a sweet little boy he was. I hoped I would be a positive light in his life, but I was unprepared for how hard it would be to get through to him. In the beginning, he completely closed himself off to me. He had lived in 13 homes already and experienced too much harm. He didn’t trust anyone. At only eleven years-old, he was already committed to not letting anyone new into his heart. His resolve made him feel strong and in control. For me, this meant he would not talk to me. I spent hours with him every week for months without more than an “uh-huh” coming out of his mouth. He wasn’t willing to let me get to know him. It wasn’t long before I could see the deep pain residing within him and it broke my heart. How would we ever connect?
See, I was Darius’s court-appointed advocate and I had made a weekly, 18-month commitment. How was I supposed to advocate for a child who refused to talk to me? I had to throw every preconceived notion of how this was going to work out the door. How was I going to do this? This story is about Darius, but it is also my story. I want you to know that being an advocate can be incredibly challenging. I don’t want to discourage you, but if you make this commitment thinking you are going to make a difference without being willing to be stretched and changed yourself, you probably shouldn’t do it. Your resolve to stick by them must be bigger than your discomfort and stronger than their resolve to not let you in.
Darius would never return to his parents. Their rights had been terminated when he was a baby. The law allows parents’ rights to be terminated quickly (within six months of removal) when there has been severe abuse or where one child has died from abuse, as was the case with Darius’s family. Trust me, you don’t want to read court cases from that section of the Welfare & Institutions Code – the court’s ability to terminate rights immediately depends on facts of abuse that are horrible to hear about; that none of us want to believe exist. But they do.
The trauma he had already experienced during his time in the system was too much for him to bear. One of the previous foster homes he had lived in had seemed from the outside to be the perfect home. But he and the other foster children were emotionally and physically abused by the mother, behind the father’s back. Darius eventually ran away and told the police everything that had been going on in the home. They didn’t believe him and instead offered to take him back into the same foster home, but he refused. Deciding to leave that foster home devastated him, not only because of the abuse that had occurred; he was also very attached to his foster dad, who didn’t believe him either.
As these stories often go, the foster parents had an impeccable image in the community. They were vocal advocates within the foster care system, philanthropists, and widely recognized for their achievements. Nobody wanted to believe that this foster mom could abuse the children in her care. And so they decided not to believe Darius or his foster brother. Years later and after it was too late for Darius, the truth came out when another child disclosed the foster mom’s abusive behavior. By then, the trauma of her emotional and physical abuse and the harm added by everyone’s unwillingness to believe them seared deeply into these children’s souls. They struggled for years afterward, unable to overcome the devastation this incident caused. Yet, Darius never stopped wanting to be with the foster dad, whom he was sure would adopt him giving him a forever home.
When Darius and his foster brother moved into a little group home where I first met him , they both had already given up hope. Darius did not trust anyone and believed he was all alone. Having never been a victim of the abuse he experienced, I did not truly understand what he was going through but I could empathize with him and I respected his decision to be silent. One day, I finally said to him, “Darius, I am a volunteer. No one is paying me to be here. I have made an 18 month commitment to see you every week. I will talk to the Court for you and share your wishes, dreams and needs with the judge. You can choose to do whatever you want with this time, to talk with me or not. Whatever you decide, I will keep coming back.”
A few hours later, he started talking to me for the first time. “So, you’re a volunteer?”
Yes, I am a volunteer.
“No one’s paying you to come and see me?”
No, Darius, no one is paying me to spend time with you.
“Everyone is paid. They don’t really care; they have to be with me. No one’s ever volunteered to be with me.”
He was right. All who had come before me had been paid to care for him.. In this brief exchange, we experienced the breakthrough I had hoped for and Darius started to let me in.
Still, he was struggling greatly in his home and at school. He started to act out regularly so, Darius’ social worker, therapist, group home mom, and I got together and created a contract for him regarding his behavior. It was a code he would have to follow that contained clear boundaries and repercussions. The consequences outlined in the contract were aligned with the severity of the misbehavior, but they were meant to deter behavior while also continuing to establish trust and faith in their relationship. Darius responded well to the agreement. He was actually excited about it because it made him feel secure. Shortly thereafter, he tested the boundaries by rolling up a paper towel and using the kitchen stove to light it on fire like a match.
Tragically, for Darius, that decision proved to have grave consequences for him and his future. Although he blew it out immediately, his foster mom was terrified that another child would get hurt. She set aside the rules laid out in the contract and ordered an emergency removal requiring social services to take Darius away within 72 hours. She was not willing to discuss alternatives or hold to the deal—she felt horrible but was too scared something bad would happen and wanted Darius out.
The emergency nature of this move meant Darius was leaving a level four family-like group home to go to a level 14 residential treatment facility to live with 39 teenagers. All of the other children were a few years older than him and many had criminal records. All except Darius were on psychotropic medication to control their behavior. In one swift decision, this sweet little boy’s childhood was ripped away from him. I knew this was way too big of a jump in the level of care for Darius. His behavior did not warrant such a move, but the decision was made without me, his advocate.
The next morning after I heard the news, we grabbed a garbage bag full of Darius’s belongings, told him to say goodbye and moved him an hour away. He kicked and screamed the whole way there. Darius even tried to jump out of the car onto the freeway. He was TERRIFIED and so incredibly hurt. “But we had a contract!!” he screamed. “What happened to the contract? You promised!” Little did he know, that’s exactly what I said to everyone when I learned about this decision. Everyone had broken their promise to work with him. We assured him that we believed in him, but we were about to fail his test. It had only been a couple of weeks since we had signed that contract, but it didn’t matter. They still kicked him out. And his introduction into this new home was to be physically restrained. I cannot compare the trauma I experienced that day with the trauma Darius experienced, but it was deep for both of us. Just much, much deeper for him.
Within a few months at the new facility, Darius’s on-site social worker made up another “emergency” situation allowing her to medicate him without court approval. Once again, I had been deprived of the ability to advocate for this child. I had promised Darius I was required to be part of any such decision (as the Court had ordered me to be), but I never knew he was being medicated until Darius told me himself. Even worse, his counselor lied to Darius, telling him I had known making Darius believe I was just another person letting him down. Both of us were shocked to realize what had actually happened. This social worker had decided to use a loophole in the law at that time, which allowed foster children to be medicated without court approval where there is an “emergency” situation. She used it in order to control Darius’s behavior without having any accountability for her decision. Darius never was diagnosed with a disorder warranting the psychotropic drugs he had been prescribed. The Court would never have approved the request, but at that time, those emergency actions didn’t require court approval. Furious, I reported the facility, made sure he was placed in a foster home, and the facility investigated for the abuse. Too little too late for Darius, who was forced to face another new placement with more people he would never trust. He was almost thirteen at the time.
Unfortunately, Darius never found a permanent home and he continued to face many challenges. I wish I could take away the multiple layers of secondary abuse he experienced in his years with judges as parents. The trauma he endured. The rejection he didn’t deserve. The difference would have changed his life. He was born precious and continues to be an incredible human being worthy of love and success. And although he is not choosing to live his life as a victim anymore, he truly was a victim in the truest sense of the word.
If you were moved by Darius’ story and want to help generate awareness surrounding the reality of child abuse during National Child Abuse Prevention Month, please share this blog via social media, text and email. Make sure to follow The Mend Project on social media for informative and encouraging posts on all things abuse and healing.
*Name has been changed to protect this individual’s privacy.