Aging Out

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 18th birthday:

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 support.

"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 years.

"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 felt terrible."

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 and trinkets.

"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 more concrete.

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 sister.

"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."

© 2003 Baltimore City Paper. All Rights Reserved.


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