Today, 20-year-old Precious is working hard to pursue her degree in linguistics at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). The former foster youth, who grew up in San Bernardino County and was placed in foster care at the age of 12, was ultimately reunified with her family–a fact which doesn’t happen often. In her own words, Precious recounts her experience.
I grew up in a house with seven other children who were white, Mexican, black and multi-racial. The leader of our family was Mama, a single adoptive mother to all eight of us: my three brothers, my four sisters and me. We had a beautiful life. Every morning, Mama would call out each of our names to let us know breakfast was ready.
“Kristal! Debra! Keenan! Tyrone! Charlie! Precious! Evangelina! Sonya!,” Mama would shout. We wasted no time in devouring those grits, eggs and toast.
The constant noise of my home was like a lullaby to me. I loved our pool and slide in the backyard. I loved the big trees and mountains that seemed just a block away. Our family outings to baseball games, rodeos and pow-wows filled our picture albums on the walls and tabletops. We used to have Western movie nights on Mama’s bedroom floor, where we watched old movies with John Wayne. I remember wondering why life on television was black and white back in those days.
I was 12 years old when my seven siblings and I were removed from Mama’s home after one of my adoptive sisters accused my mom’s biological son of molestation.
A social worker asked the rest of us if we had ever been touched inappropriately, and I shook my head no. But four hours later, after questioning Mama and her son in the yard, the social workers came and took us away.
Angry that the social workers were not listening to me, I cried, screamed and kicked while Mama cried, “I’ll get you back!”
The first few months I spent in foster care felt like lonely, torturous years.
Initially, my sister Evangelina and I were sent to live with an older couple, probably in their 60s. Their house didn’t feel like a home. The couple didn’t socialize with us unless we were sitting at the dinner table, and we were only ever allowed to be in the living room or in our bedroom. The woman didn’t know how to comb, wash, braid or twist my hair like Mama did. So I wore two big, messy, boring pig-tails on the top of my head at school.
I felt like an outsider at that home, but I was happy that I was at least placed in the same home as my sister Evangelina, my best friend. We slowly got used to the routine: wake up, get dressed, go in the living room to watch a movie, play in the backyard for a few minutes, eat dinner and then go to bed. We prayed every night to go back to Mama, but we started to lose hope after five days.
The imposing reality was that I was in a stranger’s home and nothing was mine anymore. My beautiful old memories – of my mom and her soft brown skin, my bed, my stuffed animals smiling at me from the shelves in my room, my rocks in the yard and the roly-polies I found under them – started to fade from memory.
After just one week with the older couple, Evangelina and I were picked up and taken to our second home with Ms. Lynett, where we were reunited with our brothers Tyrone and Charlie.
Ms. Lynett was much more welcoming than our first foster parents. She told us she would take us shopping because she knew we had left many of our belongings behind. That was wonderful for us to hear, yet we were still uneasy; it was really difficult for us to trust anyone except each other. She treated us like we were loved and wanted, which is what we needed. And we had fun there. She had a sweets cabinet, many toys and games and a trampoline! We played laser tag, watched movies and danced a lot.
But I never stopped wanting my home, my Mama and my other four siblings. After weeks passed, I figured that I would never go back and asked Ms. Lynett if I should start calling her “Mom.”
“No,” she replied, “because someone wants you.”
Initially, I was hurt by her reply. She knew how to do my hair and we had grown close. But a few months later, I found out she was right.
My Lynett got a call informing us that Evangelina, and I were free to return home to Mama. Immediately, we packed up our things and went home. It seemed like a dream to see our red brick house again. I anticipated Mama’s decorations for Christmas on the front door, as I approached with a huge smile. I was also eager to see Mama and all eight of us together again.
But when I got home I saw that Mama’s face was downcast, even though she tried to smile. She said that my other four siblings chose not to return home which angered and confused me.
Despite having the Christmas tree up, decorations on the ceiling and the Christmas cards taped to the front door as usual, home wasn’t home anymore without all my siblings’ voices filling the house. Their empty beds constantly reminded us of their decision. Why wouldn’t they want to come back?
For my siblings not to return home to the one person who saved them from a bad life, it hurts. But I slowly grew to accept my life without Sonya, Debra, Keenan and Krystal. I learned to love Mama even more and appreciate her for the sacrifices she made in adopting and raising all eight of us, even when she didn’t have to.
Looking back, living in two foster homes was very difficult and strange but it made me stronger and more mature.
One of my regrets is not holding onto the positive memories of my early life of growing up with all seven of my siblings. When I try to remember how Sonya and I got along or how special my relationship with Keenan was, it’s unclear. Today, I just try to hold onto the distant memories I can remember from time to time. My advice for any youth who are in foster care is to stay positive and not to let your living situation define you or control your emotions. Don’t lose the hope that you can have a comfortable life and feel at home again. I didn’t think I ever would again, but now I do.
Reunification—which means getting the family safely back together—is almost always the first goal in a foster youth’s best interest. For foster parents, a big part of their job is to aid and assist in family reunification and provide the best temporary, safe and loving home for foster youth. For foster youth, like Precious Whiteside who was placed in foster care and ultimately reunited with her mother and four of her eight siblings, reunification with birth family can and does happen. In fact, this is the most common outcome. Today about 3 in 5 children in foster care return home to their parents or other family members. For biological parents, reunification with your children can be a monumental life-changing milestone and mark a new chapter. Above all, when family is reunited, everyone will need time to readjust to living together. After being apart, you can feel excited and happy or stressed, uncertain about how to handle some things, rejected, sad about the time you lost or milestones you missed, and afraid of losing them again.