By: Alicia Dela Cruz, BSW
I suppose most of us have seen a National Geographic documentary about a beach popular to female turtles for the purpose of building a nest to leave their clutch of future offspring. After dropping off the eggs, she returns to the water, perhaps with the hope to see one of her children someday. On that glorious day, the eggs hatch, and the beach seems to burst at an invisible seam with baby turtles—adorable, with their wet saucer-like eyes, crusted with sand, and their tiny little flippers feverishly flapping away in a feeble attempt to propel them to the safety of the water as fast as possible. Scientists speculate that these tiny little turtles have some sort of inner magnetic compass that they “set” on their way toward the water.
For those of you who have seen a documentary on these precious little creatures, you also know there is a disheartening side to their heroic beginning. As you may recall, they don’t all make it to the water. Some may get carried off by a crab, a pesky seagull, or a cunning fox. Others have the sad misfortune of either heading in the complete opposite direction out of shear panic and adrenaline, or they run up a branch or a rock and get flipped over, and despite their best effort can’t get right again. For those that do make it to the water, the real challenge has only just begun. With predators such as large fish, sharks, whales, and human beings, it is said that as many as 90% of hatchlings don’t live to their first birthday, and as few as one in every thousand sea turtles lives to adulthood.
As I sit here, among the elite, I can’t help but think of these sweet little creatures. You see, my parents kept me as long as they could. Much like the mother turtle, one day my mother woke up and said “no more.” The two days my three siblings and I ran from state to state attempting to evade the law, and our eminent removal, seem like a blur. Sitting in the living room of a family friend, making the adult decision to be placed God-knows-where all alone so my kid brother, who had not yet turned three, wouldn’t have to be scared by himself, still seems like a really bad dream.
Sitting in the car of my social worker, saying good-bye to my little brother and sister while they slept, is still one of the most painful memories I have to this day. I felt like an utter failure that day. A staff member watched over my sleeping siblings out in the car, while my social worker filled out the paperwork necessary to drop me off, alone. And that was it. There I was, but with a new clutch. I was now a part of the Salvation Army Children’s Shelter. After a month of worthless court dates, gut wrenching food, and nights filled with tears listening to my parents honk the horn across the street in an attempt to offer me hope (three honks meant “I love you”), I was moved.
After that, I was back with my younger siblings in a very nice foster home, but it only lasted six months before we were scattered to the wind again. I was moved to an emergency shelter, as it’s apparently hard to find housing for a thirteen-year-old girl, who has a mother that harasses and threatens her caregivers. After another move, I was diagnosed with depression (go figure) and locked up in a private facility. As with most things related to social work, money ran out and I was moved to a state-run facility. I danced the dance, played their games. I even made stuff up to make it look like I was making progress. I hated it there, and just wanted them to say I was better so I could leave. The day came when I moved closer to the city, closer to my original clutch, but before I would be reunited with my siblings for the first time in almost a year, something wonderful happened. My dark days beneath the suffocating sands of hopelessness, surrounded by other squawking hatchlings, seemed to be coming to an end.
The place was called Crittenton. I lived on “Old Res North.” I think, at the most, there were a dozen of us on the hall. They all seemed so different from me. Some of the girls didn’t know their dad, some had been molested by him, some had seen their mom or dad drunk or high so many times they stopped counting. Some I saw as victims and felt sorry for, and some I saw as warriors. They had the courage to run away. They had the courage to take matters into their own hands, rather than sit there and quiver like sheep, like me. Sometimes they ran from their abuse, and other times they just found different abuse.
I heard horror stories about repugnant boyfriends of mothers, bloody sheets, and vile secrets that should never have been kept. I heard a girl recount one of many times her mother left her alone for days, in order to go get high. At the age of two, she crawled to the refrigerator and ate the only thing she could reach, raw hamburger meat. It became her comfort food, even at the age of fourteen.
I listened to girls talk about gang involvement. I learned why a girl would prefer to be “beat in” to a gang rather than “sexed in.” I saw girls sob because they just wanted someone to say they were pretty, and mean it, without expecting something in return. They wanted to be loved and know that they were lovable. They wanted to truly believe that there was something in the world worth putting the razor down for. They needed to know that they were worth saving, and that someone was willing to do so. They all had court dates, social workers, and case plans. They all hurt, desperately wanted love, and had dreams. In reality, they weren’t different from me. They all told my story, just with different characters and scenes.
Those girls became my family. We shared meals, tears, hair tips, hugs, clothes (with staff permission), and countless hours of laughter. We dreamt together. We talked about what we wanted to do when we got out, and what we wanted to be when we grew up. There we were still children. We felt the safety we had sought for so long. We were able to take off our armor and allow ourselves to be seen for what we were—vulnerable. One by one, we rose from the sand, were discharged, and made our way to the big blue sea.
The day I left, I hoped I would see my sisters again. I knew that it was unlikely. I hadn’t run across any other friends I had made along the way, and they didn’t even have families like these girls. They had mothers or fathers or both to go home to—people who would love them, if they would just let them in. What they had was everything we talked about—family, friends, a house, and a room with stuff in it. They had everything I didn’t have. They had no reason to talk to me ever again, and I didn’t expect that they would. I had become accustomed to being forgotten about.
As I crossed the beach, making my way through high school, I saw my first sister falter. My foster mother called me into her room one morning. There was a special on Geraldo on teen gang involvement, and sitting center stage was my friend Winnie, only now her name was “G Love.” She was on stage talking up how hard she was, and everything she had done, how her gang was her family and she would always stay true to them. She and her friend “Sweet Pea” became regulars on the show when the topic was gangs. The last time I saw Winnie (names have been changed for purposes of this article), she was patched in via satellite. Her sister, “Sweet Pea” was offering a tearful, heartfelt apology. “Sweet-Pea” had turned state’s evidence against her, and now Winnie was serving 18-25 for murder.
Staying true to history, funding had apparently run out for Dina, and she was moved from the private facility where we were to one that was state-run and on tight lockdown. Being the beautifully creative young girl she was, she set fire to a bathroom, took off, and was never heard from again.
I heard from Rita when I was nineteen. She called me crying one day. She was pregnant and wanted to leave her boyfriend. She could tolerate him when she wasn’t pregnant, but was worried he was going to hit her hard enough to make her lose the baby. So we devised a plan for me to come get her while he was at work, but the best laid plans....When I arrived to pick her up, I got out of the car and began to walk toward the front door. I almost didn’t hear my name, but fortunately the rain had let up a bit. That was when I realized, the voice was coming from underneath the car I parked next to. Cold, wet, and dirty, my friend wiggled out from underneath the car and got into mine. She stayed with me for a few weeks but later returned to him. He was apparently sorry, and she couldn’t be a single mom. Years later, my foster mother ran into her at a casino. She was dealing cards, had five kids, and they were all with the same guy.
Just as I breached the water, I caught a glimpse of Z. Her dream came true. She was a mother. She had a beautiful little girl. She had an exciting job in movies that only needed her to fly out on the weekend, which was perfect for a single mom. The plus was that it got her out of stripping; the down side was coke was still all over the place at work. Our habit was the only thing we had in common by then, but we promised each other we would not let another holiday go by without seeing each other. That was the last time we spoke.
So, on I swam, with the hope I would see at least one of them again. Maybe Winnie would get out early on good behavior, or Z would be in a legit movie, or I would run into Dina at a Tori Amos concert (I hadn’t discovered Tori until after I left Dina, but I figured it was the kind of singer she would have liked).
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that seeing them is not likely, but I haven’t given up hope. Sure Winnie got all turned around, but she can still get right. Yes, Rita got taken by a cunning fox, but maybe he dropped her along the way. And maybe, just maybe, Z got flipped back onto her stomach and in my rush to get to the water, I missed it. I hope not for me, not for the statistics to be better, but for them. The girls who kept me company, held my hand, hugged me when I cried, told me it was going to be okay, and told me I was pretty without asking for anything in return. I want for them to be where I am right now. I want them to feel the wondrous sense of accomplishment that I do. I am just a couple of months away from being one of the best statistics a girl could ask to be. I am going to be among the two percent of foster youth that have “aged out” of care to earn their bachelor’s degree.
Of course, this life has not been without its fair share of hard lessons, and believe me when I say I have the scars to prove I’ve learned them, but trust me when I say it was worth it. I have had my run-ins with sharks, men, or whatever you want to call them, but I have come out alive. I am wiser to the ways the world functions, on this side of the waves and the other. I have been in the darkness, smothering in the sands of my own self-sabotage. I have felt the panic and desperation of not knowing where I’m going, or if anyone will help me get there. I’ve glided along the current terrified of what I will encounter in the emerging darkness. I prayed countless times for mercy I never truly felt I deserved.
Through it all, I have not only survived, I have lived and am thriving. I am living an amazing life that I pray is only in its early stages. I have learned to love, listen, and be willing to take risks. More importantly than my willingness, I have learned to take those risks, and regardless of their outcome, I have learned their invaluable lessons. Not all of those dreams I talked about with the girls have come true yet, but I have allowed myself to dream new, bigger dreams. More importantly, I have mustered the courage to make them come true. I make them happen because I am worth it. I make them happen because maybe they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t believe they were good enough, smart enough, or worth it. I want them to see we in fact are not different. We are the same. We survived, and now it is our time to live.
Alicia Dela Cruz graduated with her BSW in December 2010 from the University of South Florida. She is currently seeking her MSW at USF with an emphasis in child welfare.