Fostering the Road to Nowhere
By Ashly P. Ash
‘C’mon Mister, me and my brother are hungry. And my sisters, too, but they’re at home,’ Trent’s older brother took a step closer to the police car.
The policeman took off his hat, tossed it on the driver’s side and pulled his lunch pail off the seat. He closed the door and turned to square with them. Trent could tell by his face the last thing he wanted to deal with at the end of his shift was a couple of troubled kids.
‘Where are your parents?’ The policeman inquired, as Trent’s heart began to beat faster.
If his mother found out they were talking to a policeman she would have their asses. He looked at Travis, hoping his brother would keep his mouth shut, and tugged his sleeve in a let’s get out of here signal.
Travis shrugged him off, ‘Mom n’ us live with our grandparents. Everything is ok, Mister. We are hungry, is all. Like for a snack.’ Travis smiled hopefully, nodding his head in persuasion.
Eyeing them wearily, the policeman nodded and motioned for them to follow him into his house. This made Trent even more nervous. Even if they were three houses down from where they and their mother lived with their grandparents, they weren’t supposed to be hanging out with cops. Cops ask questions, their mother said, and questions led to jail.
After filling themselves up on leftover mashed potatoes, green beans, an apple, and a split ham sandwich the two boys ran out of the front door whooping and hollering with glee. Trent emptied the contents of his pockets, revealing an extra piece of ham and apple for their sisters. Travis had a banana he swiped from the counter when the cop wasn’t looking. Both boys hi-fived one another, tickled with their loot.
‘I told you, boy, just hang with me!’ Travis assured his little brother. But Trent felt torn about that. They were in this together but Travis had 12 years to his 7, and he was able to force Trent to do things that Trent didn’t want to do.
‘Mom will have our asses if she knows you’re in with the cop.’
‘Who’s gonna squeal? You?’ Travis poked.
‘No!’ Trent hated the feeling of having to defend his loyalty to his brother.
‘Then shut up and thank me for the only meal you’re getting for the day.’
Travis was right and Trent knew that. They hadn’t had food to eat in two days except what was for lunch at school. Today was Saturday and it was a long time until noon Monday. ‘Travis? Do you think the cop knows about us?’
Travis shrugged, ‘Who cares.’ It wasn’t a question. It was a statement that went beyond two words to engulf the entire attitude that said as long as we get ours, it doesn’t matter what people think or say. It was the attitude that Trent was forced to comply with every day he went to school with dirty clothes and mud on his face. It was the attitude he was forced to adapt to when his mother took him to the gas station to steal Tasty Cakes while she distracted the cashier. It was the stereotype he saw in his own dad, his mom’s boyfriends, and now Travis.
Back in their grandparent’s yard Trent squatted in the mud and Travis picked up a stick. ‘Man, Dad would be proud of me!’ He pretended to bat at an invisible ball before dropping the stick and putting his fingers together in some unknown gang sign, ‘He would want me to feed you. I did that, yo.’
Trent looked at his older brother and shook his head. ‘Stop acting black, yo.’
When he got off the bus from school the following Friday, CYF (Children, Youth, and Families) agents were at the bus stop. Trent knew it was them by the cheap pantsuit on the woman and the too-baggy jacket on the fat man. Even in his own unkempt state he knew the agents were trying too hard to be important. Trent itched his head, slapping at lice, and walked right past them with the eldest sister, Michelle. Travis, on the other hand, marched right up to them, dragging with him their littlest sister, Celi. Travis unashamedly called on the agents to show whatever goodies they had. At this, Trent stopped and stared with disbelief and jealousy, wondering if the agents would produce. Sure enough, the agents had lollipops and super balls, making Celi squeal and Travis beckon to him. Trent shook his head and kept walking; he didn’t want anything from those assholes. They were just going to make their life hell, anyway.
Catching up to Trent, the laughing siblings and business-like agents followed him up to the door of his grandparent’s house. Trent knew the agents wouldn’t enter without permission so he bolted out in front of everyone, through the front door, and pushed it shut behind him. He shouted for his mom to come up from the basement, ‘The Po’s are here!’
He heard the shuffle of her feet on the steps and a scuffle as she tripped and recovered. Listening further, Trent heard a heavier set of feet and groaned as he realized Leonard was with her. She burst through the basement door into the living room and pushed past Trent, shoving him aside, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you little bastard?’
‘I just did, Mom.’
She looked out from around the curtain and pulled her shirt in and out in bellows to fan away the smell and smoke of whatever she had been doing. Just then, Trent’s Mom-mom came down the steps from upstairs, wondering at the commotion.
‘The damn police are here, Mom! Light a cigarette, would you? Hide some of this shit?’ Trent’s Mom pleaded with his grandma. But his Mom-mom simply looked from his Mom to barefoot Leonard to Trent, and without a word she turned and went right back upstairs. From the top of the steps she growled, ‘I’m gitt’n ready to work at the Diner, you figure it out.’
When the CYF agents came in they went through the house starting with the kids’ rooms. Trent and Travis shared one room, Celi and Michelle shared another. Their Mom slept in the basement with Leonard. He stayed over all the time now that their Dad was gone. In her room, Trent’s Mom-mom didn’t come out to witness the commotion caused by the agents, but he wished she would. She could have at least tried to put the agents at ease for the sake of the family.
‘Another fuckin’ report, huh? When you gonna stop believing every crock of shit put on you?’ Trent’s Mom followed the agents as they inspected the house, laughing and taunting, sticking it to them real good from what he could see. ‘You wanna fuckin’ have these four brats? Huh? Take them! Ya’ll be bringing these bastards back in a week! They are no fuckin’ good just like their father – wouldn’t wish them on anyone.’
Trent didn’t understand the full extent of what she was saying but he knew she was defending the family and working hard to keep them together. The agents talked to each of the kids alone in their rooms and then talked to Mom and Leonard. There were video cameras in the girls’ room and the agents were concerned about that, especially since they linked to Leonard’s phone and the oldest of them, Michelle, was fourteen. But whatever was told to them, they begrudgingly handed the cameras back over to Leonard and left, stopping every few feet as if forgetting something.
When their car pulled away, all hell broke loose in the house. Trent’s Mom was hell-bent on finding the snitch and she was on a warpath. First, she beat Travis, hard. Then she grabbed Michelle by the hair and punched her in the face. Seeing this, Celi launched forward in anger and started to hit their Mom on her back. That’s when Leonard stepped in. He calmly walked across the room and picked up the board. The board was just a 2×4, light colored, rough piece of wood about a foot long that he kept as a paddle. But it was more than just a board, Trent knew. It was the final say.
Like a man on a mission, he grabbed the board in one hand, hitched his baggy jeans over his underwear with the other, and made a beeline for Celi. He snatched her by her ponytail off of their mom’s back. Celi screamed, both startled and scared at the same time. Trent knew it was serious at this point, he knew it was bad, and so he hid. His hiding would haunt him for months after this and he felt so ashamed of it. Especially knowing what Leonard did to his little sister, he knew his hiding was the act of a coward. But in the moment, in his fear, his little fingers worked into the folding doors of the coat closet behind him, and Trent backed right in. With the rack of heavy coats hanging around his head, he could see nothing but the faint light between the cracks on the floor. Even without seeing it, he knew what was going on out there. It had happened too many times for Trent to think otherwise. Five-year-old Celi was beat until the skin on her back hung in shards, mingling indistinguishable from the shreds of her t-shirt.
When Trent next saw her, the skin on Celi’s back was stuck to her clothes. Michelle couldn’t get her out of the shirt because whenever she tried it would start to rip off Celi’s tender, broken skin. They all felt bad for Celi, but at the same time they were all a little relieved that it hadn’t been them under the board. When it came to the board, Leonard showed no mercy. Trent wondered sometimes if he was taking out his hatred of their father and his hatred for their mother’s constant bitching, on all of them. Regardless of why or how he used it, Leonard didn’t know when to stop once he got started and it always took Trent’s mom screaming and pleading with him in moans and gasps to stop.
After the incident, all four siblings stayed in their rooms the whole weekend. It was best that way, and no one seemed to notice or care. Michelle snuck downstairs to steal some sodas from their grandparent’s kitchen, but that was the only time any of them ventured out. There were some leftovers from the diner where Trent’s Mom-mom worked in the fridge, but they were forbidden to eat any of her food. Their Mom was on welfare and she was supposed to have enough to feed all of them but as far as Trent could see welfare must not have been much because there was never any food. There were cigarettes, lots of weed and booze, but not much food beyond what the school gave them and the neighborhood ministry fed them.
By Monday morning Michelle was frantic with worry about Celi’s back. She still hadn’t gotten the shirt off. At Michelle’s insistence, their Mom made an appearance early in the morning with red, swollen eyes and a sore attitude.
‘Go to school but don’t take your coat off, I guess. And keep your damn mouth shut! If you hadn’t been beating your motha in the back Leonard wouldnae have beaten you! You kids do this shit to yo’selfs!’ After that she retreated to the basement and left them to figure it out.
Celi could barely move yet somehow Michelle managed to get her coat on and get her out to the bus. Trent carried Celi’s book bag but when they got to school, he had no choice but to hand it over. He watched her drag it on the ground behind her rather than place it on her raw wounds. Looking on, a teacher stopped Celi and told her to pick up her bag and put it on, ‘the right way.’ When she tried to pull it over her shoulders, she screamed so loud that other adults rushed over in a panic. Celi continued to cry and writhe in pain as Trent watched the principal and a whole group of teachers usher her into the office.
‘Remember what Mom said, Celi! Keep your mouth shut!’ He called after her, doubting his sister would know better.
At the end of the day Trent was told to go to the office and not get on the bus. He pushed open the heavy fire-safe door in front of him, using his shoulder and weight as leverage. He took a deep breath and looked about the office. Laughter drifted across the big octagonal reception desk in the center of the room and he recognized it as belonging to his sisters and brother. He kept his eyes peeled to the floor in front of him as he made his way around the big desk to avoid eye contact with the nosy secretary. In the doorway of the principal’s office he let his backpack fall down behind him and shrugged into the nearest chair. The room went quiet as the principal looked up from behind her mahogany desk to address all the siblings together.
‘You won’t be going home today,’ She said. ‘Someone is on the way for you and we are instructed to keep you here until then. The person is a caseworker, and he will be taking you somewhere else for the night.’
Trent’s siblings reacted nonchalantly to this and quickly resumed their play and laughter, giggling and occupying themselves with some sort of finger game. They didn’t seem to realize what was about to happen. Trent knew though, it was what his mom had fought to stop from happening to them. He knew what foster care meant and it sounded a lot like foster care was what they were heading for. He continued to stare at the ground in spite of the principal’s many efforts to divert his attention or talk about his feelings. She tried her hardest, and even when the secretary came in with crayons, papers, and candy, Trent kept to himself and refused to speak to anyone.
When the caseworker finally came it was the fat man with the baggy jacket again.
He wasted no time with explanations. It was after hours and he was in as much of a rush as anyone to get on with his evening. He divided the four kids into two groups: girls and boys, shoving the girls towards another caseworker and telling them that they would all see each other in school the next day. The boys were ushered quickly out of the school, into the parking lot. The caseworker drove an old, tiny, red Toyota. The paint was chipped and it looked like it belonged to someone other than the man standing before them; perhaps someone much smaller and younger. When the door was unlocked Trent noted the sour scent of spilled milk, fast food, and car cleaner that almost made him gag. Where were they going? What were they going to do?
It was well after 8:30 pm by the time they pulled into the short driveway of what the caseworker told them was their new foster home. They had been taken to the office for processing and then the driven over an hour and a half to the foster home. During the drive Trent was exhausted yet too afraid to close his eyes even for a second along the way. He tried to pay attention to the direction they drove, but after the road curved and turned for the hundredth time he lost his way and let the familiar feeling of hopelessness settle in. Frustrated, he itched his head and slapped at something that crawled under his shirt. If he had been at home, he would have gotten naked so none of the damn bugs could get at him. But Trent wasn’t at home, and he wasn’t going home anytime soon.
When the caseworker parked the car, the boys got out and looked at the small house before them. Smiling in the doorway was a man and a woman. The woman was petite and the man had a strange smile. They were smiling and seemed excited to meet them. This didn’t set right with Trent. His whole life had just flipped upside down in a few hours’ time, how could these people be happy? And this was supposed to be their new foster mom and dad?
The caseworker did a tour of the smoke-free house, let the man and the woman know that both boys had lice and other ‘bugs’, and prepared to leave. He directed the woman to have both boys at school in the morning. At this, the smile left the woman’s face. She argued with the caseworker, but he didn’t budge, even when she explained it was over an hour and a half from their house and she would have to drive the boys both ways until bus arrangements were made. She argued that it was 9:30 at night and said the boys wouldn’t have any real rest before going to school. She felt a day off would be best for the boys to settle in. The caseworker shook his head, not caring, and left. Trent felt already that he wasn’t wanted in this new place. He thought he was a burden and a problem to this woman just like he was to his own mother. A problem to get to school, problem to pick up from school, and he just got there! After the caseworker left, Trent kept his head down and didn’t meet the eyes of either adult. The last thing he wanted was to provoke any anger towards him or Travis.
But Travis, unlike Trent, jumped right into the situation without an ounce of fear. ‘I’m going to call you Mom and Dad! That’s what you are, right? You are my new mom and dad!” Trent felt disgusted by the way his brother so easily cast their real mom to the side. He took a vow not to call this couple anything other than what they were, “foster mom” and “foster dad”. Trent had a mom already and wanted to get back home as soon as possible without getting too close to these strange people.
Hearing Travis, the woman explained some things and recommended that they be called by their real names. Travis didn’t want to hear any of that, so the woman sighed and asked the boys to follow her. She took them down to the basement and explained she was going to have to cut their hair to stop the lice. Travis jumped right into the seat she prepared but Trent argued. He didn’t want his hair cut, he just wanted to go to sleep and pretend none of this was happening. He fought back, ran away, screamed, and cursed, all to no avail. The woman and man insisted until he finally succumbed under the condition that the man be the one to cut it. Trent knew better than to give in all the way so early in the game.
Next, they were shown into the bathroom for a shower. The caseworker must have told the couple what size clothes they were, because there were two brand-new pairs of pajamas, underwear, socks, undershirts, and toothbrushes folded neatly for them in piles. The clothes felt soft and smelled fresh. Trent couldn’t remember the last time he had felt clean clothes, and was sure he never had anything brand new all for himself. The whole night was a whirlwind, really, and when the boys were finally put to bed in the room they shared, they drifted off to sleep immediately.
Trent was told the next day that his mom and Leonard were in jail for what they did to Celi. Just as he suspected, Celi was the culprit for their demise. He was exhausted and not looking forward to going back to the strange foster house. Travis might want to kiss their ass and call them mom and dad, Trent thought, but he was no traitor.
Days went by quickly in the foster home. There was a revolving door of doctor visits, new clothes, new toys, a quiet house, and more. The only real solace Trent found was when Travis would curl into his bed late at night, naked, and touch him. It was what Leonard had made them do as he would watch. At first Trent had despised the whole thing, feeling dirty, but after a while the sensations and soothing helped him calm down when he was upset. After all, everyone needed touch and love in some way. His family just showed it differently.
Their foster mom drove them the hour and a half to school every day and picked them up, and Trent was so sick of being in the car. Even flicking people off and dancing to music in the backseat didn’t seem to help pass the time any faster. His foster mom was strict and disciplined the boys for flicking off other cars or for kicking the seats of her new car. It made the rides seem that much more boring.
Trent was also shocked at how much food was in the new home. At his old house, when food would make its rare appearance each of the kids would be assigned a number and then sent to their rooms. They would be called one by one as their mom saw fit, to eat a little bit before returning to their room. In this new house everyone ate together at a table, at the same time. There was a lot of fresh food like grapes, strawberries, salad, oranges, broccoli, and carrots. There was very little canned food like Trent brought home from the school on the weekends. And while all this new food tasted good to Trent, he found himself missing the comfort of his mom’s green beans eaten right out of the can. Trent’s foster mom wouldn’t let them do that. She also made them use spoons and forks – foreign objects to Trent even though he’d seen them on school lunch trays nearly every day. Nothing felt familiar in the new house. While Travis seemed to gloat in all the attention and shoved loads of food in his face, Trent just grew sadder each day.
On Friday, a full four days after being put into foster care, all four siblings were picked up from school and taken to the courthouse where they were told they could see their mom. It was so hard, so scary, and so confusing. It was nice being safe in a new home but Trent missed his sisters and his mom. Trent and Travis’s foster mom and dad met them at the courthouse, but Celi and Michelle said their foster parents couldn’t be there. As the proceedings began, Trent struggled to make sense of what was happening. It sounded like the agents were looking for his father, his real father.
Trent’s dad was a big man, very tall and broad, very fit. One day when Trent was sleeping on his father’s chest his mother woke them both up. She yelled and screamed about something. Trent’s dad had stood up, placed Trent in his mother’s arms, and walked out. None of them saw his dad again, and that was two years ago. Their Mom ended up making Leonard, their dad’s best friend, her boyfriend and they caught rumors that their dad had a new family somewhere else and was hiding from the cops. Now Trent listened as the judge told the agency they needed to find his father with urgency. Trent hoped with all his heart that they didn’t find him because if they did, he would have to go to jail too. The thought of his father caring enough to return for him, Travis, Celi, and Michelle, never even crossed his mind.
As Trent sat in the courtroom with his siblings, he tried to understand what was going to happen to him. He looked over his shoulder and saw his new foster mom sitting in the back, head down and quiet. Again, he felt so torn. It was nice to be in a home that was safe. But then, he really missed his mom too. Would his mom think him a traitor? The judge determined that Trent and his siblings would see their mom weekly in the prison where she was being held. Suddenly, Trent was terrified. She was going to be so mad at all of them for what they did and for getting themselves taken away from her. She would beat all of them, and that wasn’t even mentioning what Leonard would do to them. Trent’s thoughts drifted to the board and Celi’s bloody backside.
Just then, the door opened in the front of the courtroom and someone entered pushing his mom in a wheelchair. She was cuffed to the wheelchair by the legs and arms and Trent remembered his foster mom had been instructed to tell him about a prison fight. Of course, his foster mom didn’t say it was a fight. She had called it something else, a scuffle, he thought. Now, his real mom looked weak and worn down. Lost in thought, Trent missed an announcement but found himself being ushered out of the bench with his siblings into the center aisle where a man in uniform pushed all four of them towards the front of the room.
When they got near the front the judge instructed, ‘Go on. Hug your Mother.’
Celi, being only six and not understanding the consequences of her actions, lunged forward into their mother’s arms, but Trent knew better. As fight or flight kicked in Trent turned and ran past the man in the uniform towards the back door as fast as he could. The man was faster and bigger than Trent and managed to grab him by the arm; Trent still fought. He punched with his free arm and used every ounce of his weight to pull himself from the man’s grasp. As much of a fight as he put up, though, Trent was no match for two of them. The second officer came forward and held him firmly by locking her arms around his to keep him from flailing. Trent rocked, screamed, and begged for them to let him go as the judge beckoned to the officers without sentiment. They carried him forward and placed him directly in his mother’s lap. Trent closed his eyes and flinched, bracing himself for the inevitable. Instead, his mom hugged and kissed him. Trent felt surprised at this uncommon affection he was receiving in front of the judge. It took a moment for him to process it before concluding that he knew better than to believe he was off the hook.
And if that was bad, visiting her in prison the next week was a true disaster. Trent was supposed to get in the car and his foster mom was going to drive him to a parking lot where another strange woman would take him to his mom’s prison. Remembering that he was in big trouble with his mom he absolutely refused to get in the car. His foster mom pleaded, begged, and reframed the situation in every way possible. She told him that his mom wouldn’t hurt him in prison, she told him that seeing his mom was good for him, she told him that he was safe, but Trent didn’t buy any of it. Finally, defeated, she called the caseworker as Trent sat on the floor rocking back and forth with his head in his knees.
‘No, I’m sorry, I will NOT bribe this child to go see his mother in prison. […] I don’t care if they drag him in, if you want him, come here and drag him yourself. […] No way, I’m not putting my hands on him and making him get in the car! […] No, a Happy Meal is not something I am comfortable offering in order to make this kid go somewhere he is clearly terrified to go. […] No, it’s not the prison he is afraid of, it’s his mother.’
Trent listened carefully, not understanding the way in which his foster mom was not only allowing him to do something he didn’t want to do but was not forcing him or beating him because of it. He sat trembling and when she finally returned to him after hanging up the phone, she sat down on the floor and held him. They rocked together, and she hummed a tune he heard one time in Sunday school. Eventually he fell asleep for what felt like ages until there was a loud pounding on the door.
Gracefully, his foster mom stood and answered it, only to find the caseworker on the other side. The caseworker came into the room like a man on a mission, baggy jacket and all. Trent stared at him with hatred as he squatted over top of him. The caseworker told Trent he had to go and that there were two options: get in the car himself or be forced. He told Trent that the judge had ordered this visit and that not he, nor Trent, nor anyone else had any choice in the matter. Trent stared at the floor, not moving, not speaking, not responding. Finally, with the fight bled out of him, the caseworker picked Trent up and put him in the car. At the prison he was dragged again, kicking, screaming, fighting, into the room to see his mother behind the glass. Trent lost all further memory of that day. The next thing he remembered after that was when he woke up the next morning in his new foster bed, breathing clean air and staring at a crisp white ceiling. He noticed then, for the first time ever, he woke up not feeling hungry.
A month later Travis was taken out of their foster home and sent to a different one. Trent wasn’t surprised at this really. Travis kept attacking the foster mom and trying to hurt her or touch her inappropriately. She was a woman of small stature, and Travis was almost as tall as her. She had been warning both of them that the behavior had to stop, so when the day came that they moved Travis, Trent was ready. He gave his brother a hug as he felt the crack in his heart split a little deeper. Trent had lost his dad, his mom, his sisters, and now Travis. He loved his new foster home and could see the adults here were trying hard to make him feel at home, but it wasn’t home. All the food, warmth, and baths in the world wouldn’t make this place home. He would even opt to put up with the lice and bugs if it meant he could be with his family again.
Trent felt so confused and torn between his loyalty to his family and everything this foster home stood for. Everything in this house was good. It was everything Trent dreamed about when living with his mom and plagued with hunger, cold, lice, and violence. But now that the good things were here, happening to him, he despised them and felt guilty for enjoying them. This wasn’t his home and it wasn’t familiar. This wasn’t his family. He didn’t belong here and he knew his foster mom would toss him aside just like she did Travis. His mother might have her flaws, Trent thought, but she would never turn away one of her kids like this foster family did. It only served to remind him why he refused to call these people anything but their roles, to use their names or even call them something like mom or dad would be only to trick himself in the end.
Upset that night, his emotions spilled over the brims of his eyes and ran down his cheeks. Trent cried into his foster mom’s arms, telling her he was really angry at her for sending Travis away. She held him and didn’t say a word, letting him get it all out. After a while his foster dad came over to sit next to where Trent was resting in his foster mom’s arms and took him by the hand. He explained that Travis was getting treatment in a new place, not only for being violent and hurting his foster mom but also for hurting Trent.
Trent sat up, wide eyed and defensive. ‘I can take care of myself!’ He vowed. Trent wasn’t about to let them blame the fact that Travis was gone on him.
‘I know you can, buddy.’ His foster dad sat back. ‘But the thing is, no one is supposed to touch you in certain places.’
Trent looked up into the eyes of his foster mother and she nodded an affirmation. ‘Yes, Trent,’ she said, ‘Do you remember the other day when you took my hand and placed it on a private area of your body and asked me to touch you there?’ Trent nodded. ‘It is ok to need love, but we show love in a hug, not like that. Travis and you both need a safe place to learn how to have feelings of love in a healthy way. So now, Travis is getting help where he is at, and you will have help here.’
Trent was befuddled. He knew it was wrong to touch his brother like that. He knew it was wrong when he watched his brother and sister touch their privates together. But he didn’t know how he knew this was wrong. Trent’s mother was ok with it. Leonard was ok with it. No one ever told him it was wrong. But he felt it somehow, and felt ashamed that his foster parents knew his secret. He put his head down into this foster mother’s lap and stopped responding altogether, embarrassed.
Thankfully, they didn’t push the issue and let him sit in the quiet, being held as they hoped he would process some of what they said. Trent didn’t understand, instead, he was becoming angry. Who were they to tell him and his family how to live? Who were they with all their words and no actions of fists or hands or touch to say the right way to live? His mom wouldn’t have let them all touch each other if it was bad, would she?
Pushing himself to his feet all of a sudden Trent looked at both his foster parents. ‘I hate you. I would kill you if I could.’ With a swift kick to his foster mother’s side, he stomped up the stairs and threw himself down on the bed where Travis had stayed just the night before. He never felt more alone than he did in that moment.
Over the next few weeks Trent felt the rage inside of him building. He found himself lashing out and trying to hurt his foster mom. Any little thing she did would set him off. When she would ask him to take a shower, he would cuss her out and go hide. He would request certain foods and then he would throw it on the floor and refuse to eat. Every time she would try to read to him, he would grab a pencil and try to stab her. If she would come upstairs to wake him up in the morning he would hide around the corner and try to push her down the steps.
They went to counseling and Trent readily admitted that he was doing those bad things. But what Trent didn’t know was why he was doing them. Everyone kept asking him: the counselors, his foster parents, his teachers, the caseworker. Trent didn’t have the words to explain what was going through his mind because it wasn’t in his mind! It was a feeling. He didn’t know how to promise to stop because the truth was, he didn’t really want to stop. It was easier to hate this nice foster mom because then he felt faithful to his real mom. Even when the counselors and his foster mom gave him alternative actions- a punching bag, using a stick to hit a tree, screaming rather than hurting someone, running hard around the house, having a two-minute window to cuss as much as he wanted – Trent didn’t even pretend that he would try.
In spite of all this, his foster parents were still very good to him. They took him on a road trip for two weeks and they went everywhere. They went to the Grand Canyon, all through Utah, up into Colorado and through the Rocky Mountains. They stayed in the best of hotels for half the trip and the other half they camped in a tent. Trent loved it, he loved to eat out and explore new things. The hiking made him tired and he slept better than he had in a long time. The trip helped him get his mind off his life and for just the small time of that trip he was able to imagine himself as a normal kid with a mom and dad. A kid that didn’t know counseling or foster care, violence or hunger. And he almost believed his new dream could come true. Almost.
When they got home from the trip Trent found out that his real mom had been released from jail. Everything he had built inside of his head about being in a new family and having a new life came crashing down. All of Trent’s emotions were so intense but he had no skills for processing them. He felt foolish for tricking himself into believing he would stay with these nice people forever. He felt disloyal for forgetting that his family was his first priority. So now he had a new hope, a new dream: His mom would come back for him and he would be with his family again. Boy was he glad he never called these people anything other than “foster mom and dad”. His excitement grew as he thought about how much he missed His sisters and Travis! Soon they would be together again and watch movies, dance and joke and sing like old times.
Trent immediately got to work packing his bags. He had come with only a torn book bag but now he had a whole lot more. He couldn’t wait to share some of his stuff with his siblings. He had acquired several Lego sets, a remote-control car, a bow with arrows, some games, and sports items like gloves and bats and soccer balls. When he told his foster mom what he was doing she said that it was too early for him to start packing, but Trent shrugged her off. He wasn’t about to be deterred by someone living in a fantasy world of pretend parenting. He persisted in packing until she left silently and returned with large Rubbermaid containers. She told him that he could use those instead of the trash bags he had scattered about the room. Trent felt a little twinge of guilt seeing how sad his foster mom was as she watched him. But he had a mom already, this woman wasn’t his mother and she should have known that. After all, Trent had been telling her for months that his mom would come back for him. What Trent didn’t realize was that her sadness wasn’t for herself, but for him.
A week went by with no word from his mom. Then another. And another. He asked to call his caseworker almost daily to ask when his mom was coming for him. He grew impatient and wasn’t sure what to think. Someone was clearly preventing his mother from getting him. Maybe she didn’t know where he was? Maybe something bad happened to her? No one would tell him anything.
When the caseworker finally did call, Trent positioned himself in front of his foster mom and waited for the good news. This is it, he thought. She’s coming for him finally! He danced back and forth on his feet waiting for some indication from his foster mom about what was happening. A few minutes into the conversation she still hadn’t even given him a thumbs up. Her eyes stayed blank and sad, trained towards the floor. She responded to the caseworker barely audibly, then clipped the conversation short. She put the phone down and let out a long sigh. Trent could contain himself no longer.
‘I’m going home?’ He asked excitedly. She shook her head slowly from side to side in response.
‘No. That was the caseworker, Trent. He asked me to give you some new information.’ She paused for what seemed like forever and by the time she spoke again Trent’s stomach had a heavy feeling in it, one that felt like a premonition of sorts. ‘Your mom has decided that she can’t be a good mom to you or your siblings. She has decided to sign off her rights as your mother and allow you to have a new mother that can take better care of you, feed you, and be kind to you.’
Trent didn’t understand. He heard the words, he knew what they meant, but he didn’t quite get it. He didn’t want to get it. ‘Wait. So, my mom isn’t coming for me today?’
His foster mom shook her head again, slowly. ‘No, Trent, she is not coming for you. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. I’m so sorry.’
Trent’s little mind struggled to grasp the weight of the reality settling into his world. ‘She doesn’t want to be my mom anymore?’
‘I really don’t think it has anything to do with what your mom wants or doesn’t want. I think she knows that she can’t provide for you – give you a house, a bed, food, and healthcare. She wants you to have those things and feels that she would rather put you with a family that can take good care of you.’
‘You’re lying! We did have a house! We lived with my grandparents in their basement! We didn’t starve, we were all alive!’
The weight seemed to settle on her shoulders. ‘Trent, your grandparents determined when your mom was released from jail that she couldn’t come live there anymore. She doesn’t have a house right now. All four of you have been diagnosed with extreme malnutrition and other problems due to lack of nutrition. I’m sorry to say this, but your Mom is thinking of the best thing for you to have a good life.’
Trent bargained with this information, ‘Well, when she does get things straight, she will come back for me. You’ll see!’
Deep down Trent knew better. He knew what his mother was thinking, she had only said it about a thousand times. She had talked about walking out the door like their father and never coming back. She had talked about how much of a pain in the ass they were for her and how she couldn’t get a real man to love her with all her kids running around. He knew she didn’t want him. He knew that his world, his identity as a son had just been flipped onto its head. After all, who was Trent without a mother? Who was Trent without a father? Who was Trent without his siblings?
Things escalated quickly at the house where Trent was staying after that. Counseling was increased by the court from one day a week to three days a week. Each session was more than an hour and a half from the house and he spent so much time in the car he was fed up. His foster dad worked at night so it was only Trent and his foster mom on those long rides. She tried to make it fun for him by taking him to the park on picnics, stopping for sweet treats, going deer spotting, or stopping to visit his foster dad at work. But the stress made him tired and angrier. There wasn’t anything that could relieve the inner crisis Trent was in.
His new school also was dragging him down. He had an IEP plan set up for him for him, whatever that meant. As far as he could see it meant that he was really far behind the other kids in his reading and math and so he had to be pulled out of class several times a day. All he wanted to do was blend in with the other kids, but the extra attention made him the brunt of many jokes. He fought with kids and refused to be pushed around which only created more havoc and got him into even more trouble. The adoption placement people started coming to his foster house in between counseling appointments and doing things with him like artwork, taking pictures, asking him questions, and more. They wouldn’t tell him anything about where he was going or what they were doing. When he would ask about his future they would just smile, pat his shoulder sympathetically, and spout off some bullshit about forever homes.
After the two-week vacation with his foster parents Trent had determined he would try to be good and do better. But now, knowing his mom didn’t want him, he had nothing to lose. He was going to be put up for adoption and would have no control over where he was going or what family he would be with. In his mind it was like the damn adults could do whatever they wanted to mess up his life. He hadn’t seen his siblings in over six months at this point and the judge decided visitations wouldn’t resume anytime soon – something about the touching stuff. (Apparently another foster mom caught Travis and Michelle having sex when they were supposed to be visiting.) Trent resolved himself to the fact that he would probably never see his brother or sisters again. He really was all alone in this world.
If Trent had been able to put his emotions into words, he would have expressed his confusion, his loneliness, his depression. If Trent had been given the tools to cope with this tragedy, he would have turned to his foster parents for support and allowed them to help him process his grief. But Trent didn’t have any of those skills to help him. All the words and advice of counselors were humdrum in his ears. Support? Grief? Emotions? Trent didn’t even know what any of those words meant, let alone how to perform them. So, he did what he knew how to do, he spoke the language he was taught to speak, he was violent.
He started biting his foster mom’s breasts when she would hug him. He found things of hers around the house that she had told him meant something to her, and he broke them. He would try to push her down the stairs. He tried stabbing her with forks, pencils, knives, scissors. After waking up to him standing over her one morning with a knife she started to lock her bedroom door at night. He punched holes in the walls and when none of this seemed to satisfy him or push her away enough, he turned the violence on himself. He beat his head into the walls, tried to cut himself, refused to eat for days on end, and did whatever he could think of to express the anger within himself.
This escalated through the processes of crisis intervention until he was finally placed on suicide watch in the hospital for five days. He was now eight years old, and one of the youngest for this type of intervention. As the local hospital sought a place for Trent to receive treatment, he was stuck in the emergency room on suicide watch. His foster mother, to her credit, stayed with him the entire five days. Even though the state agency told her to go home and told her that he would be fine under the hospital’s surveillance, she refused to leave him. Trent was glad he wasn’t alone but at the same time felt a deep resentment for the kindness that was shown to him. He didn’t deserve this, why didn’t she give up? After the fifth day a bed came available and transportation was arranged for him to go alone.
His foster mom met him at the van with the Rubbermaid containers he had so carefully packed in hopes of going home. The facility he was going to was two states away, an eleven-hour drive. As the van left, Trent put his hand to the glass to wave to his foster mom just as he had waved to his own mother behind the glass in prison. He felt the reality settle in and the knew in his heart that he had blown it. He wouldn’t be able to come back there ever again. He always thought even if his foster mom didn’t want him it was ok because his real mom would. But now, she didn’t want him either. Where was the state going to send him and what would they do with him? Trent settled in for another long, long, ride to nowhere.
The mental health facility was one of the scariest places that Trent had ever been to. It was dark and there were bars on all the windows. It looked like a big school, really, and all the people that were there were juveniles, like him. He had heard about juvie, a prison for kids, and wondered if this was what it was like. They stayed inside all the time and never went outside. It was December, and he was going to be there for at least six weeks, all alone. At night Trent heard the kids screaming and fighting and he heard some kids crying for their parents. Every day there was violence happening all around him. Kids fighting kids. Kids fighting the nurses. Kids throwing things and fighting themselves. Trent realized he didn’t belong here, either. A year in foster care had shown him what it felt like to be safe, and violence happening around him no longer felt safe.
While it was the worst Christmas that Trent ever had, his foster mom and dad called him two or three times a week to lift his spirits. Sometimes he wasn’t allowed to talk to them if he hadn’t been good during the day, so on the days they were going to call he always tried to be good. They always were happy and sounded cheerful, trying to make him hopeful. But Trent didn’t feel hopeful, he was angry that they were carrying on in their life as if he never even existed. Trent felt he may as well have never even met them. One day he told the woman at the facility that he didn’t wan to talk to them anymore. To his surprise, they agreed, and even those glimpses into normalcy and relationships stopped for him.
One morning, a nurse showed up in his room and woke him. She started to pack his belongings into a box. ‘Where are my Rubbermaid containers?’ he asked.
She smiled at him and answered in a broken English accent, ‘The things you hab when you come here? Be at new place.’
Trent didn’t ask any more questions, he simply helped her place his stuffed animals and the three sets of clothes he had with him in the box. When they were finished, she marched him down the hall to the elevator.
From inside she smiled and wiped his eyes telling him to, ‘Get the sleepy out.’ Trent rubbed at his eyes. He wasn’t sure what time it was but he was pretty sure it was still nighttime because everything was so quiet, his friends were still asleep, and it was dark out. It wasn’t until they reached the building’s lobby that the truth dawned on him about what was happening.
‘Wait! I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friends!’
A tall woman waiting for him in the lobby shook her head. ‘Sorry, bud, you are leaving now. You can send them a card maybe, yeah?’
Trent tightened his fists and shook his head. ‘No. I want to say goodbye NOW.’
The woman tightened her lips and ignored him. She picked up his box and grabbed his hand firmly, yanking him forward with a slight jolt. By now, Trent knew how this would go. He would resist and he would lose. By now he knew to just follow along because what he wanted wouldn’t matter anyway. This was an adult’s world. It felt like the adults just told themselves they were doing what was best for the kid in order to pat themselves on the back. They didn’t really care about what was best for him. That much seemed obvious to Trent.
Thirteen hours later it was after suppertime and he was back in his home state, the tall woman told him. She had been driving them since they left in the dark, stopping only for gas, food, and restrooms. As they drove Trent thought back to the trip he took with his foster mom and dad. This was nothing like that happy, light, fun, and cheerful drive six months before. This trip had no music, no travel games, no stretch stops, not even any smiles. It was dreary and the grey skies and sad rain matched the way he felt in his heart: hopeless.
In a small city the tall woman pulled the van up in front of a row home, put the van into park and let out a sigh. ‘Well, bud, we’re here.’
Trent didn’t ask where ‘here’ was. He nodded and braced himself, wondering what the next part of his life in foster care would be like. When he looked out the window of the van he saw his old caseworker, the fat man in another baggy jacket, approaching with a big smile. He opened the door and reached in, giving Trent a hug that wasn’t returned. Even though Trent couldn’t show it, he felt somewhat relieved to see a familiar face. It had been a long time since he had seen a face he knew. Trent unbuckled and slid down onto the floor of the van and then down onto the sidewalk.
The caseworker explained the situation, telling him that he would not be returning to his old foster home but was now going to be at a new one. According to the caseworker, the good news was they were already there! Trent looked up at the townhouse in front of him. The gutter was coming loose and sagging on one end, there was an old refrigerator on the front porch and what looked like the remains of an old recliner stuffed behind that. The yard was littered and the steps had a brand-new railing but the concrete was crumbling along the edges. The brick front of the house was contrasted by chipped white paint around frosty windows, and the front door was an uncharacteristically bright, almost neon, purple.
‘This is where I’m going to live now?’ Trent asked.
The caseworker nodded. ‘Yes, Trent. You now will only have one foster parent. It is a dad, but he is transitioning to be a woman. You will have to ask him or her what to call them, ok? I know this is a far cry from the 3 acres with a mom and dad, woods, chickens, and dogs at your other foster home but you will get used to it, you’ll see. This is the best we could do right now for you.’
Trent nodded, wondering what the word transition meant. Right then, the bright purple front door opened and a man stepped out onto the porch with a big smile. He had short hair and a beard, but he was wearing lipstick, a skirt, and high heels. His sweater hung loosely over his skirt and Trent’s first instinct was to point and giggle.
The man didn’t appreciate the gesture, put his hands on his hips, and stomped a foot in reply. ‘Hello young man, I’m Bern. Don’t point at me, it’s rude! I’ll be your foster parent. I’m not a man or a woman, so you can just call me Bern. I’m sure we will get along just fine here!’ Bern extended a fresh manicured hand with bright purple fingernails towards Trent. From behind, the caseworker pushed him forward, urging him to take it. It was then that he knew, once again, that he was on another long, long road to nowhere.
2 thoughts on “Fostering the Road to Nowhere (A Short Story)”
Beautifully well written. Everything else is SO true and SO sad. The failure of an autonomous, uncaring system of the dismissal of anything the child understands and loves because it is wrong or perverse. So many REAL names I could substitute in…Much love to you and Rick. You made a difference.
Kandi, Thank you so much for your heartfelt words. I’m so sorry to know that you also could substitute REAL names into this story. I can only hope my short piece can help to bring awareness to this social issue. Thank you for taking the time to read my story, to respond, and to let me know of your support. Much love to you as well! Ashly