Jan, their mother, only added to the family chaos by careering in and out of her children’s lives. Sometimes they lived in apartments, sometimes in shelters or drug-infested motels.
At school — when the kids attended — they kept mostly to themselves, not wanting classmates to know how they were living. But it inevitably showed. Amy and her twin Jessica, for instance, went without meals there because Jan sometimes failed to sign them up for the lunch programs. They would sit hungry and desolate in the schoolyard as the other kids gobbled their sandwiches.
Meals at home were a different challenge: when Jan was around, the twins were expected to cook. Once, a boyfriend of Jan’s became enraged because Amy did not have dinner promptly on the table. He grabbed the child by the hair and threw her against the refrigerator.
The girl suffered other violence and finally told her social worker. The woman was stunned. “My God, why didn’t you tell me before?” she asked. “I thought we’d be taken away,” Amy replied.
Two weeks later social workers came knocking, and the young girl’s nightmare unfolded. Amy and Jessica were to be taken to a juvenile detention center.
Meanwhile, Amy watched, distraught, as her other siblings were trundled out to waiting cars, bound for separate foster homes. Looking into their anguished faces, she could only manage to say, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The kids, lonely and depressed, spent six months apart from each other until they were sent to live with their maternal grandmother. Although Jan was forbidden to stay with her children, Amy’s grandmother took pity on her daughter and allowed her to re-enter the children’s lives, plunging them back into chaos. At 14, Jessica left home for good. Meanwhile, all the children were falling further and further behind in school.
As a ninth-grader, Amy could read only at a fourth-grade level. With envy she studied the kids who dressed well and excelled in class, and wished she could somehow enter their world. And leave hers behind forever.
Walking across the school grounds one day, Amy spotted a table littered with college brochures. She browsed through pictures of spacious campuses and happy, contented kids — all of it looking impossibly glamorous and unachievable. But a guidance counselor soon gave her unexpected hope. Amy could attend college, she was told, and for free. It would take a scholarship, though, and for that she’d need much better grades. Amy immediately signed up for summer school. During her junior and senior years, she diligently attended classes, then went to work after school from 3:30 to 11:30, returned to her grandmother’s place and plowed through homework till the early hours of the morning.
Amy’s resolve was strengthened further during these tough months by a boy she met at school, Jerry (name has been changed to protect privacy). For the first time in her life, Amy felt that someone really listened to her, and truly cared. Their friendship turned to love, and Amy had no doubt that the two would marry and have children together.
But during this time, unbeknown to the social workers, Jan had come to live in her mother’s house, throwing the family into fresh tumult. Amy’s grandmother couldn’t turn her daughter out of her home, even when Jan was high on drugs. One afternoon Amy was summoned to the high school. A social worker was waiting for her.
“We know your mother has been staying with you,” the social worker said, “and that Joey pricked his finger on a drug needle.” Amy braced herself, knowing what was coming next. “We’re going to have to put you guys in foster care.” “No! Don’t split us up!” the girl blurted. “Can’t you just leave it the way it is?” The social worker shook his head. Amy’s voice then rose like the howl of a lioness protecting her cubs: “Why can’t I take them? I take care of them all the time anyway.” The social worker hesitated, then said, “Maybe. Once you’re 18, you could apply to become their relative caretaker. Then you’d be their foster mother until we find a home where all of you can be together.” “I’ll do it,” Amy said. She hadn’t a clue what was involved, but that mattered little. She would just forge ahead, a day at a time, as she had all her life.
And, somehow, she would make things turn out right.