Telling the truth about the reality of foster care – being neglected, abandoned and abused.
By Mija Valdez, 21 Feb 2020
The shame and stigma of spending your teens in bad homes wrecks your self-worth and stays with you for years. It shouldn’t have to, writes Mija Valdez.
I remember it was a bright, summer day.
I was 15 and going to see my boyfriend in Cambridge. I remember being excited as I carried my bag through King’s Cross. I had packed the usual stuff for a weekend away – a change of clothes, toiletries, a phone charger. In my mind, in a couple of days, I’d be coming back home to carry on as before. To await my GCSE results. To enrol in college.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I got a phone call that told me I couldn’t go home anymore.
That moment was utterly surreal. Here I was, not really a child but nowhere near adulthood, with nowhere to go. My parents were migrants, we had no other family, and I was quite clearly, and quite suddenly, on my own. I just started to cry, and I don’t remember when I stopped.
Comforting me, my boyfriend’s parents said I could stay a while, until his mum could call social services. I didn’t really know what ‘social services’ was, but it set off alarm bells. Kids at school had been fostered and adopted, but they always seem to come from ‘bad’ families with drug addiction or violence. I suddenly felt like I was a bad child, that I was tainted. That embarrassment and shame stayed with me for the next six years.
I suddenly felt like I was a bad child, that I was tainted. That embarrassment and shame stayed with me for the next six years
As we waited for the social worker, something switched in me. I guess I moved into survival mode. I thought, I’m on my own now and the only person who is going to protect me, is me. That day I stopped crying, and I haven’t cried since.
I signed some forms and got in the social worker’s car. As houses came into view, I kept thinking, oh, I hope that’s it or that one looks nice. She stopped outside a tatty terrace and introduced me to my new foster carers – a young married couple. They showed me to my room, and the social worker got in her car and drove away.
It’s very hard to understand life in care. You’re so alone, so untethered to anything or anyone. You don’t feel as though you belong anywhere.
For me, that was damaging from the start. Straight away, I struggled to make friends in sixth form. I felt disconnected. I felt that I was stupid. I felt like I wasn’t good enough.
What didn’t help was that the foster system is incredibly transactional. Carers are given money to feed you and put a roof over your head… and that’s it. My foster mum said I should spend my weekends working unpaid in her parent’s fast food shop, when I wanted to concentrate on my A-levels and try to somehow make friends. “You should be helping out,” she would say. “You’re being paid to cover my costs, so why?” I remember saying back. Life got more awkward after that. After an incident with my foster dad, I called my social worker, told her I couldn’t stay there, and locked myself in my room for two days until she could collect me.
The next place was better. But it was never home. I wasn’t allowed to use the living room or the television, only ever able to watch my laptop in my room. I couldn’t choose what to eat. I wasn’t allowed to cook. My bedroom was on the ground floor and I wasn’t allowed upstairs. They had a bath up there, but I never saw it. I was often left to babysit my foster parents’ grandchild, or left at home to look after their two dogs, while they went away. I simply wasn’t part of the family. I’m an optimistic person who always keeps a spark of hope alive, but I will never forget the feeling of being left out.
With my first payslip I bought a TV – the first luxury I think I had ever had in my life.
Education kept me going. I got a place at university and moved back to London. I remember being stood in halls with my few boxes of stuff and, rather than freedom, that feeling of complete isolation came back. I still had no network to fall back on, nowhere to go if things went wrong.
I got a part-time job and juggled it with coursework. With my first payslip I bought a TV – the first luxury I think I had ever had in my life. My housemates were amazed, asking how I managed that. And then it struck me. I didn’t have the same open doors they did, but by working hard, I could make things happen for myself. I felt empowered.
Once I graduated, I found a charity who would help me get out into the real work. When I spoke with them, I was able to voice my ambitions and hopes for my future: a place of my own; a job where I’d be able to work hard and achieve. Thanks to someone finally listening to me and understanding me, I was able to make the necessary steps to where I am now. I have a job in the civil service, a warm comfortable flat. I have somewhere I belong. Somewhere I can call home.
Going into care was frightening and confusing and painfully lonely. But I survived it. And besides, you don’t need open doors in life to succeed, you just need to make the key.