Cover Photo by Michelle Gienow
Sinika Has Been in Baltimore's Foster Care System Since She Was
12. Now That She's 18 And Out of the Program, the Question Before
Her is: What's Next?
By Afefe Tyehimba
Perched nonchalantly on a sofa's armrest inside the Gay, Lesbian,
Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in Mount Vernon, 17-year-old
Sinika, her babyish face all seriousness, reads poetry to participants
in a writing workshop. It is April, three months to go until her
Being motherless gives you a feeling like you can
hate the whole world because you can no longer
be a little girl because my mother was not there
to protect me or comfort me, but yet citizens say
they want me to move on when I know in my
heart moving on means growing
but right now my life is at a standstill
because I am tired of moving,
tired of growing so fast,
cramming shit in the back of my mind
The poem expresses Sinika's frustration at having to contend with
people's opinions about her life while she is trying to confront
her own weariness at feeling unloved, unprotected, and unprepared
for the jolt of adulthood that's fast approaching. At 5-foot-3
and 175 pounds, Sinika has grown lots since entering foster care
at age 12; but upon her 18th birthday in July, she officially,
in the foster system's vernacular, "aged out" of the
system and into a life of her own. And while her poem may be intensely
personal, Sinika's sentiments are likely shared by the 7,500 other
youths in foster care in Baltimore City, where, recent studies
by the University of Maryland School of Social Work have shown,
65 percent of Maryland's foster children reside.
Many kids in foster care might also relate to Sinika's life experiences:
abandoned by her mother, estranged from her father, and sexually
molested as a child. Then there's the matter of her being gay
in a city that, like most, has its share of homophobes.
Sinika's days as a kid in the foster-care system with little
control over her fate are fast being replaced by a future where
she'll be in charge of her own destiny. There are options, she
tells friends in the writing group during breaks: an aunt in Philadelphia
might take her in, or, after graduation in June, secondary education.
There's a local culinary school she's got her eye on, provided
she can get enough financial assistance. "My caseworker is
supposed to help me, but my [probation officer] and me don't get
along," she says, as if to explain why her future feels more
pending than planned.
Now that her 18th birthday has come and gone, Sinika is undergoing
a transition that nearly every foster child makes but few outside
of social work understand. She'll go from being a ward of the
city to being her own woman, from the public system to a private
life, and from the unforgiving control of the foster system to
the chaos of making her own way. Like her tumultuous past, Sinika's
future has no blueprint, but her basic life goals are the same
as everyone else's: to live a peaceful, stable, prosperous life
filled with people to love who love you back.
Sinika realizes very well that her future rests largely on the
strength of her own resolve. However, she says, by living through
her turbulent past and making it through the foster care system,
she's learned firsthand how "people can be bad seeds and
turn out to be good apples." More importantly, as Sinika
prepares to strike out on her own, she holds fast to the notion
that "while some of us need more help than others, others
of us have learned to create our own strength."
She's about to find how far that notion can carry her.
Born Tiffany Holland, in a town called Calvert on the Eastern
Shore in 1985, all Sinika knows of her extended family is that
its roots are in Talbot County, and that her family members had
lived "all up and down the Eastern Shore." One of four
children, Sinika remembers growing up in a household where there
was constant arguing and trial separations between her parents.
At about age 3, she says, "they split for good, and my father
took us kids back to Talbot."
Here, the details get fuzzier, not just because Sinika was so
young at the time of the split, but also because there had already
been some fracturing within the family--two of her siblings were
handed over to relatives prior to her parents' split. "All
I can remember hearing is that my mother was always on and off
drugs," Sinika says. "One minute she wanted to be with
us, the next minute she didn't." But her father (whose name
as well as that of most other family members is being withheld
due to a request for privacy) had his own brewing issues. Many
of his arguments with her mother, Sinika would later discover,
were about her father having affairs with other men.
Nonetheless, Sinika's father remarried when she was about 4,
moving her and her sister Joi (born just 11 months before Sinika)
in with his new wife and her two children in West Baltimore. There
were arguments there, too, she says, "but for a while we
looked like any other churchgoing family." Appearances would
prove very deceiving. While Joi "was always loved by everyone
and people were always asking her to come over, or she was involved
in things at church," a more retiring Sinika was often left
at home in the care of her teenage stepbrother.
"It started when I was about 5 or 6," Sinika recalls
one day over lunch, describing how the incidents with her stepbrother
started with touching while clothed, then touching with clothes
off, then something that hurt real bad. She wanted to tell someone
what was happening, "but he used to say, 'It's your fault,
and if you tell, you're the one who's going to get a beating.'"
Sinika's stepmother rarely spared the rod, meting out whippings
for everything from sloppy rooms to talking back, she says.
Besides, telling didn't always get results. When she was first
fondled, Sinika relayed what happened to her paternal grandmother,
who lived in the family's basement. "I know she had a talk
with my father," Sinika recalls. "But nobody ever said
anything else to me--and it didn't stop." After Sinika's
grandmother died of AIDS in 1991, taking away what at least felt
like a safety net, her father grew more distant, working all day
and staying out all night.
The abuse continued, and Sinika's behavior grew worse and worse.
"Around fifth grade, you really started seeing a change in
her," says Sinika's sister Joi. "She was acting up in
school a lot, lying and stealing." Joi didn't know the underlying
cause of her sister's behavior, but she did know things would
change for them both when, after increasing marital strife, her
father and stepmother broke up.
The move to Southwest Baltimore with her father and sister was
a welcome respite from the ordeal with her stepbrother. But that's
not to say the change was all good.
"It was about that time when my father started using drugs,"
Sinika recalls. After a brief stint trying to maintain a household
alone for his girls in Baltimore, the three "got set out--and
we wound up living with my father's friends. They were drug heads,
and it seemed like we were always in a crackhouse," she says,
adding that while she and Joi "were in school enough to pass,
we weren't there enough to learn anything."
The memories are unpleasant to Joi who, almost 19 now, is an
elegant young lady whose curled hair and designer painted nails
boost her grand dame flavor. She says she doesn't like Sinika
"bringing all this up," and worries that people will
have a bad impression of her sister. But she also stands by her
sibling, affirming the ugly truth that they "used to sleep
outside on people's porches, and half the time when we went to
school we'd be dirty or didn't eat."
By age 9, Sinika was regularly skipping school, spending her
days on playgrounds and her nights on couches, porches, or steps.
On her 10th birthday, she recalls "spending the whole day
sitting in the back of a church, just crying. I mean, they teach
you in church that if you do what you're supposed to do, you'll
get what you want," she says. Sinika wanted a mom, a stable
home, and the hugs and fussing-over that kids crave. But after
hours spent praying, Sinika went home that evening to discover
that "no one had missed me or even knew it was my birthday."
Sinika's father's drug use had escalated to the point where a
boyfriend with whom he and the kids had been living (he'd come
out of the closet by this time) acted as the girls' de facto parent.
While their father disappeared "for weeks at a time,"
Joi says the boyfriend "tried to provide for us. But he wasn't
our father, and after a while he just got tired."
Someone, presumably the boyfriend, placed a call to the Baltimore
City Department of Social Services, and the next thing the girls
knew, they were placed in the custody of their stepmother. For
Joi, it meant reuniting with members of their former church and
kids from school she'd missed. For Sinika, it meant the unhappy
prospect of living again with her stepbrother. More importantly,
it meant "getting relief, knowing where our next meal was
coming from and where we'd sleep for the night. I was just really
relieved," she says, recalling hopes that her 11th year might
take a good turn.
Sinika couldn't have been more wrong. In a matter of a few months,
she says, the stepbrother renewed their twisted acquaintance,
waiting until Joi was visiting friends, and her stepmom and her
new husband were at work. Inwardly, Sinika wrestled with feeling
the sick past repeat itself, knowing that life beyond this scene,
like the wandering she'd experienced with her father, was in some
ways even worse. As weeks turned to months to more than a year,
Sinika's emotional and mental dam eventually broke.
"I just stopped talking to everybody, I didn't eat much,
and I wouldn't go to sleep," she says. "Finally, they
put me in the hospital." Joi recalls the deciding moment
happened when Sinika "chased my stepfather with a butcher
knife. They had always been like vinegar and water, but after
that my [step]mother said Tiffany couldn't stay there anymore."
It is both chilling and telling that Sinika has no recollection
of the butcher knife incident, saying she has tried to forget
many things in the past "just so I could move on." She
does recall being diagnosed by physicians at the hospital with
manic depression, saying she was borderline suicidal and "inventing
imaginary friends just to keep my sanity." During a six-month
hospital stay, Sinika enjoyed "chillin' with other children
for a change, eating on the regular, having a bed to sleep in.
I was content. My last month there, when I saw other people being
released, I was like, 'Please don't leave me.'"
For a brief time, in that unlikely setting, Sinika felt safe
and free to be a kid. When the time came for her own release,
Sinika entered her first group home, prescriptions for Paxil and
sleeping pills in hand. It was 1998; her 13th birthday had come
and gone, unnoticed.
When Sinika entered her first group home, she had no way of knowing
that she'd joined the ranks of some 74 percent of Maryland youth
in foster care whose lives have been harshly altered by, among
other things, parental substance abuse. She accounted for another
$10,000 in a state budget that spends that much annually for every
child placed out-of-home; and she was on the city rolls when,
in 2000, local government spent $125.5 million on foster care
and adoption services.
Sinika also had no way of knowing that, by virtue of being a
kid in foster care, she would become the subject of numerous studies
designed to analyze the plight of young people like her, and to
find ways to guide them toward more promising and stable futures.
According to a December 2002 report called "Youth Who 'Age
Out' of Foster Care: Troubled Lives, Troubling Prospects"--released
by Child Trends, a research center in Washington, D.C. --"many
of the problems experienced by foster children originated before
they entered the foster care system." It goes on to say that
such young people are often victims of "sexual or physical
abuse, neglect, or abandonment, or have a parent who is incarcerated
or otherwise unable to care for them."
If the above points were on a bingo card, Sinika would win the
game; her father was later jailed on drug charges, and her mother
never resurfaced. The Child Trends report goes to on to describe
behavioral and emotional problems overwhelmingly ascribed to youth
in foster care--a disproportionate number of whom nationwide are
black--and says that the children who "are at the highest
risk of [not getting adopted and] aging out of foster care are
those entering as teenagers [and that] children ages 11 to 15
are somewhat overrepresented among children entering care."
Unlike more than 60 percent of youth in foster care nationwide
who do not graduate high school, Sinika did, with honors, this
past June. But it remains to be seen whether she'll be among the
38 percent of those who leave foster care and keep steady employment,
or whether she'll earn more than the median $205 per week, or
whether she'll make the right personal connections to give her
"Sadly, in a lot of circumstances, because of the turmoil
that's gone on in a young person's life, they may steel themselves
[against] trusting people and don't have a keen sense of how to
navigate the pathway toward greater self-reliance," says
Ross Pologe, executive director of Fellowship of Lights, a local
nonprofit crisis intervention organization for youth. "A
lot of young people who are at that transition stage are lacking
the kind of support that an intact family would provide a child
as they make those leaps to greater independence--and so there's
no safety net." In addition, Pologe and other youth advocates
say young people like Sinika are often required to pull off feats
of independence not expected of other young adults.
"What you see happening in the middle and upper classes
is that kids are dependent," says Charlie Cooper, administrator
for the Maryland Citizens Review Board for Children, which helps
shape state policies on foster care. "Even when those young
people go to some fancy college or a state school, somebody supports
them until they're 22. Nobody says, 'This is it, baby. If you
can't make it at $7.25 an hour, it's on you.'"
Peter Pecora, senior director of research at Casey Family Programs,
a Seattle-based group that addresses policies and issues affecting
foster care around the nation, makes a similar point, saying that
"national statistics show the average son or daughter leaves
their parents' house now at about age 25." Despite even greater
pressures on them to achieve independence, Pecora says many young
people like Sinika show a surprising level of strength to rise
to the occasion. "What I found in many alumni is a real desire
and a focus so that, especially as they become parents, they will
not repeat the environment that their parents had," he says.
"And there's a very, very strong desire to avoid repeating
the cycle of substance abuse or neglect."
Prior to her 18th birthday in July, Sinika was well-aware of
the challenges she faced, and was determined, high school diploma
in hand, to meet them head-on. After about 15 foster placements
in five years, she finally has a foster parent with whom she clicks--a
60-year-old woman who has offered kinship and care to foster children
for some 20 years--and she knew about the Foster Care Independence
Act of 1999, which offers federal funding for independent-living
programs, job training, and post-secondary education for former
foster children aged 18 to 21.
But when she was just entering her teens and living "in
a group home that felt like an institution;" and when she
was feeling torn apart from her sister Joi, and everyone else
she'd known or loved--none of the above mattered to Sinika. What
mattered was staying somehow connected with family, including
her birth mother, from whom she'd heard nothing in more than 10
"I ran away [from the group home] to Philadelphia, because
I knew my mother was supposed to be there--somewhere," Sinika
says. Fourteen at the time, in early 2000, she remembers having
$200--the profit from petty thievery--and exactly three outfits.
She paid $12.50 for a one-way bus ticket. "I didn't even
think about getting a round-trip ticket," she says, feeling
resolute at the time about finding and reuniting with her mother.
"I walked around, looking for places I remembered [as a
toddler], and realized just how little I remembered," she
says. Slowly, as the days turned into weeks, it dawned upon Sinika
that her mother wouldn't simply materialize on the streets in
front of her, and that she hadn't a clue how to find her. Since
her arrival, she'd been sleeping in parks at night and wandering
the streets aimlessly by day. Growing despondent, and not wanting
to go back to the group home in Baltimore, "I started to
feel like I was just ready to die," she says.
Not really, though. In fact, Sinika fought hard to stay alive
during what turned into a six-month homeless stint in Philadelphia.
At night, when the $200 had become a memory and city parks were
nesting spots, Sinika, who's short but husky, began to rob people.
"I'd take all the anger I felt, no weapons mind you, and
just grab people who walked by--and hope they had more than $1.50,"
she says. The beat-downs she administered sometimes got ugly,
depending, she says, on "whether it had been two or three
days since I'd eaten, or whether I'd had any sleep."
One night, after she'd robbed a man and gone to get something
to eat, Sinika returned to the park to find an ambulance taking
him away. It was a turning point. "I realized I was turning
into a monster--and that really wasn't me," she says. "I
In a drastic switch, Sinika found a new outlet for pent-up, years-long
anger and fear. One day while strolling Philadelphia's streets,
Sinika entered a community center that featured writing programs.
Inside was a man named Malachi. "He was reading a poem, and
it was like I couldn't stop staring at him, like I knew him,"
she says. After the workshop, Sinika introduced herself to Malachi,
and that night spent her evening in the park writing poetry. The
next day she took it to Malachi, who, after reading it over, said,
"'Do you realize you can't spell, baby?' I got mad, like
I ain't doing this shit no more." But she did, every day
the center's doors opened. "I kept writing," she says.
"And eventually it started to feel like I could face my own
reality, and that it was time to go home."
Back in Baltimore, Sinika found there were warrants for her arrest
as a runaway and no beds at her former group home. Thus started
a cycle of reassignments and more warrants for runaway stints,
prompted mostly, she says, from feeling unwanted. In some placements,
caregivers "were like, 'This is the cereal for my kids, this
[off-brand] is yours. We eat steak, you eat hamburgers--and don't
go in my refrigerator without asking,'" she says. "And
I can't tell you how many times I've been locked out and no one
would get up to open the door."
More accommodating were thugs on the street--dope users and dealers,
like one who got used to seeing her hanging on the streets and
dubbed her "Little Red" because of her light skin and
innocent face. Finally, a dealer offered "to put me on,"
she says. "At the time I wanted to be happy, and I thought
money was happiness." Her hard work and easygoing manner
earned Sinika fast promotions from marijuana to crack cocaine
to heroin dealing in areas like Park Heights where, at age 15,
she made $2,000 during an average week. She was no happier, though.
She just kept busy by messing around with girls--to whom she'd
felt attracted since the onset of puberty--and giving them weed
"Back then I was a different person to everyone I knew,"
Sinika says. "To people who were negative, they saw me as
a best friend. I had to be tough and couldn't show sadness. That's
not the heart I had, but that was the person I was portraying."
She still wrote sometimes, but didn't tell anybody.
In the summer of 2001, when Sinika was 16, the hustling came
to an abrupt halt when, during a marijuana transport from New
Jersey on Interstate 95, she was arrested with four other people.
It was her first offense, so she was sentenced to serve only three
months in the Waxter Juvenile Detention Center in Laurel. It was,
she swears, the only such wake-up call she'd ever need.
"It was horrifying, you feel like an animal," she says.
"People tell you when to pee, when to sleep, and you feel
like you're not as important as the rest of the people in the
world." Then there was the timing of everything: 30 seconds
to pee, three minutes tops for "a number two," she says.
Released after two months for good behavior, Sinika vowed to find
a healthier way to deal with her life. "I started going to
church, especially during the day when no one is there, and I
kept writing poetry because it gave me a more positive image of
my life," she says. "I'm not a supermodel, but I'm not
a bad person either. And I told myself I just couldn't allow girls
or guys or anybody to dictate to me about myself."
In the nearly two years since Sinika hit the proverbial wall
at Waxter, she claims to have worked hard at taking hold of her
life and aiming it someplace besides where it's been. Best of
all, she says--besides graduating high school--is that her most
recent placement is going much smoother than many in the past.
Her most recent foster mother, who asked that her name not be
used, attributes that to her age and experience with young people
like Sinika. She says she's seen kids "grow up with a wealth
of excuses and doing a lot of sticking their head in the sand.
. . . Sometimes you spend all of your time trying to make them
understand this is your circumstance, but this is not you. They
have a hard time trying to divide where that goes. It's a roller-coaster
type of thing."
In Sinika, her foster mother sees a person with "a strong
need for family, who's been hurt and gone through a whole lot,"
she says. But Sinika also wants to create a brighter future, first
by learning, with the help of her guardian, "how to get motivated
to take action and be proactive about her future--to see where
Sinika fits in this world and what she expects to do," her
foster mother says. "She's had [DSS caseworkers] who have
looked forward to her not being able to do what she sets out to
do, and she doesn't have allies in the right places. But I tell
her she's going to have to stick it out. They're depending on
her to flop out."
That won't happen, says Sinika, who's making plans to enroll
in culinary school in the fall. "The thought of being able
to make something and make other people feel good is a wonderful
thing," she says, laughing about her prepared dishes one
day being featured in the pages of Gourmet magazine. "By
the time I turn 40, I want to be able to say I've got my own café
or sit-down diner." Sinika says these things the way a person
with dreams and no blueprints would. But she has gotten very good
at making changes.
Last year, Tiffany Holland unofficially adopted her new name.
While browsing through a book of love symbols, she saw a crab,
the symbol of her zodiac sign, Cancer. "Underneath the crab,
it said, 'Sinika, goddess of light and beauty . . . with the attitude
of a mighty man, but the strength of a woman.'" Now, Sinika
must follow up that symbolic act of self-definition with something
She says she has made vast improvements from her earlier life
but still is no saint. There have been broken curfews, a couple
of drinks (no drugs, she says), and friskiness with girls. But
during the last year and a half, there's also been a profound
inner change that's come with young adulthood, something Sinika
says feels permanent and which seeps its way into recent poetry:
The rain falls with my sorrow
pours with my tears--the moon
shines with my heartache--the stars
peak at my sadness--I feel like the
Universe wants me to be down--
Out--unhappy--but the sun is
Shining and my sorrow fades
My tears stop, my heartache
Changes to pride
My sadness overgrown with beauty . . .
"To tell you the truth, I don't know what changed her,"
says Joi, who is herself a parent now and engaged to be married.
"But she seemed to realize that she had to grow up and make
life what she wants it to be. She had to learn to think about
Tiffany and not everybody else." Exactly, says Joi's younger
"I'm out to prove to myself and the world that I can do
something and make it last," Sinika says. "And to show
that I did it on my own."
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