Lara B. Sharp | Longreads | May 2018 | 12 minutes (2,955 words)
“That must have hurt. How many stitches did you get?’
“I don’t know.”
“How did it happen? Did you fall?”
“I’m not sure. Possibly. Probably.”
“How old were you when it happened?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t know anything about it?”
“I remember having a large bandage on my knee.”
“It’s probably from learning to ride a bike, when you were a little kid.”
“No, I never had a bike when I was a child.”
“Who took you to the hospital?”
“I have no idea.”
“That is a pretty big scar. It looks like it was pretty bad. You got a lot of stitches.”
“It’s just a tiny scar, from falling.”
I paid the premium postage for express shipping when I mailed off the 10 documents required by the Department of Families and Children, to obtain my foster care records.
It took me weeks to compile the package, which contained copies of my strangely uninformative birth certificate, my 20-year-old legal name change forms, my 8-year-old marriage license, my pre-marriage social security card, my post-marriage social security card, my old and new passports, my old and new state IDs, and my mother’s death certificate.
I carefully typed out a two-page, bullet-pointed letter, listing the names and dates of everything I was able to recall – the names of all of my relatives, including my mother’s many married names, as many birth dates I could recall, the address of the first home I was removed from, the vague list of group homes and shelters, known as “residential placements,” that I could remember, and the approximate years I was in care, which began in 1979. I diligently included the extremely specific language that “Sara from Records” advised me to use: “Please provide me with my Foster Care Summary, including a list of my Placements, my Medical Records, Court Documents, the date I officially became a legal Ward of the State, the Docket Number for the court case pertaining to the ‘Termination of Parental Rights,’ and/or as much information as is Legally Possible Related to my time in the Foster Care System.” I signed and dated my letter, exactly as instructed by “Sara from Records,” and I nervously resigned myself to the weeks-long wait, confident that an equally thick packet would eventually be returned to me.
Finally, at the age of 48, I was strong enough, brave enough, and curious enough — and ready to know the truth about my childhood. I wasn’t expecting it to be pretty, but I was stable and happy enough in my life that I realized it was time. Mentally and emotionally, I was fully prepared for anything that came back.
A week later, I made a follow-up call to Sara, who politely confirmed the receipt of my thick packet of extremely detailed information. “This is great. We have all of the information we need. You might want to see if any of the group homes that you were in are still around. You can ask them if they have any of your records or files. I’ll get your foster care summary out to you as soon as we have completed it.”
I find the website of one of the girls’ group homes I stayed in — a leading, accredited nonprofit. The site says it updated its dining room in 2012, but there’s no photo of the upgraded dining room. I try to remember the wallpaper of that room as I dial their main office number.
I can only remember the many fights, and the many more chores. The receptionist transfers me, and I leave a message: “I’m a former resident, from the early ‘80s, and I’d like to have any and all information available about my time in your facility. Anything you can provide me with would be very helpful, and very much appreciated. Even if it is just a photo — especially if it is a photo, because I don’t have any photos of myself from the entire period that I was in foster care. Please return my call. Thank you.” Maybe they can tell me what happened to my knee. I repeat that call every few days, for weeks, but nobody calls me back.
I paid the premium postage for express shipping when I mailed off the 10 documents required by the Department of Families and Children, to obtain my foster care records.
One day, the receptionist is out sick, and I get the chatty office manager. She tells me that I’m sweet for reaching out. When she asks if I’m calling because I have fond memories of my time with them, I lie and tell her, “Yes, of course.” “How lovely! You were with us in the early ‘80s? That’s over 30 years ago… We don’t have any records for you anymore. We destroy all of the kids’ records 10 years after they’re gone. Protection laws! A photo of you? No, we didn’t take any photos of any of the kids. There were never any photos taken of any of those kids. Protection laws! No, there isn’t anyone who has been with the agency for that long, so there wouldn’t be anyone who remembers you, and even if someone did, they really couldn’t say much, not even to you, because of protection laws! No, sorry but for obvious reasons, we do not share old photos of the home.”
“Right, because of protection laws,” I echo.
“No, because it has been fully remodeled! You know, it’s closing. The home is closing this week. Due to a lack of funds.”
“No, I didn’t know that it is closing. I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“Yes, it is terrible. Budget cuts. We do everything we can to raise funds, but we just don’t get enough money from the government. I guess they might end up selling that house, but I don’t know. It’s worth over three million dollars, because of its size and location! We still have the other homes… We still have our private adoption agency… That’s for when the foster girls get pregnant. Did you get pregnant?”
“No, I don’t have any children,” I explain. “I mean I’ve never had any children. I have two cats, and a husband.”
“Well, that’s a shame. I’m so terribly sorry.”
“No, it’s fine, I chose not to have children. I had a bit of a late start in life, so I got my GED in my 30s. I’m a Smith College graduate. Thank you for speaking with me today, I was really just hoping that maybe your organization still had some of my old records, because I was wondering about my scar…”
“You’re a college graduate? Smith College? Well, that doesn’t happen often with foster kids! Pregnancy happens a lot, but not college, and certainly never that kind of college! Well, our teen mother program, that’s very profitable, because of all of those pregnancies. That keeps us afloat! But, there can never be too much money, especially in this business! We really do keep the focus on our fundraising. Oh, I have an awesome idea! You must speak to Rose, our senior vice president of program development! We can take your picture now, for our promotional purposes! I’ve worked here for over 20 years, and I can tell you that we don’t normally have any former residents contacting us, so this would make a great publicity story, especially with your degree! We can put you on our website for the corporate sponsors and the private donors to see! You can be the face of our success! They’ll love you because you’re a Smith College graduate! We can take a photo of you in another of our homes! Wouldn’t that be fabulous for both of us? We can use you, a former resident and a Smith College graduate, for all of our fundraising! We wanted to use one of our babies, but we couldn’t because of the protection laws… But, we can totally use you! We can even put you on our posters! Rose is here now, and she’s not busy at all. She’s just online shopping, and I’m sure that she’ll love this idea, so just hold on for a second and I’ll connect you!”
Suddenly, I remember the anti-abortion lectures at the dinner table. I remember the pregnant teenage residents unceremoniously disappearing for several months and eventually returning, without a baby, as if nothing had happened. I remember the rumors that the older girls told us about the staff being paid by the state to do illegal drug testing on all of the mentally disabled foster kids. I quickly press the red circle on my iPhone, right after she presses her transfer button.
I call several friends and tell them about my opportunity of a lifetime. “I can be their Smithie Poster-Foster Child, if I want to! Don’t hate me when I’m a celebrity!” None of them laugh. But I laugh about it, nonstop, for the next three days.
On a rainy Monday morning my wonky doorbell screeches. “You have a certified letter so you have to sign for it.” I race down the stairs of my tenement building. It is a small, thin envelope from the Department of Children and Families. I sigh, assuming they are writing to me because they need more information. I’ve already given them a huge pile of paper — everything I could find, everything I know — and have nothing more to provide.. My hands shake with fear as I open the envelope.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Inside are two typed pages.
The first page is a form letter telling me that “there may be gaps in the timeline” and that “they have given me all they can find,” which consists of a summary “up until the time you were placed in residential facilities.” Below this, it says they cannot release my medical records to me, because they pertain to “abuse/neglect.” My medical records are confidential.
Slumped down on the steps by my mailbox, I read it again, and again, and again. I know that I was abused and neglected. That isn’t a secret. Why would that information be considered confidential? It makes no sense. I remember all of it. Nobody ever forgets that.
Over and over, I read the words, “up until the time you were placed in residential facilities.” They only kept records for me until I went to facilities? Are they saying that they didn’t keep records for me when I was not in a foster “home”? The foster homes don’t want older kids. I wasn’t in many foster “homes” after the age of about 9, because age 9 is already “too old.” Except for that one foster home I was in for a very short time. The one that I will never, ever forget, even though I can’t remember how old I was. Was I 11, or 12, or even 13 when I was living with that woman, Mrs. Lloyd, who insisted on calling me by her runaway, possibly dead daughter’s name?
On a rainy Monday morning my wonky doorbell screeches. ‘You have a certified letter so you have to sign for it.’ I race down the stairs of my tenement building. It is a small, thin envelope from the Department of Children and Families.
The second page is a sparsely written, one-page summary of totally incorrect information. My mother’s married and maiden names are both spelled wrong. One of my many abusive stepfathers is listed as my “biological father,” and nobody would have ever reported that as a fact. Not him, not me, not my mother. A total of five family members are listed, all with incorrect birthdays, and three more names are misspelled. An uncle is listed as a cousin.
Cuba, which is a country, is listed under the category of race.
The next line says that I “attended summer school in 1986” at a posh and private Catholic high school that I’ve never heard of. Foster kids aren’t placed into private Catholic schools.
It gets weirder. Beneath that, it says: “Dates of Placements,” and it lists five sets of dates, some of them a few weeks in length, and some of them a few months in length, all between April 1986 and April 1987.
There are no other placement dates listed.
I wasn’t in any foster placements between 1986 and 1987. I was in Manhattan.
I call the supervisor of the records inquiry program.
“I’m calling because I sent you 10 pages of detailed information, and you sent me two pages back. I sent you more information about me than you sent to me! And, on top of that, the information you sent me is wrong.”
I explain that I had run away to New York City, long before 1986, and I calmly ask him about the 1986–87 series of dates. He says, “Those were possibly just holding placements in your files.” He explains that, perhaps, it was where I should have been, if they could find me during those dates. He explains that he has no way of knowing if I was in the placement, or if those were holding placements. I ask, “Are the placements actual foster homes, or residential facilities?”
“I have no idea because it doesn’t say, and anyway, based on protection laws, that information is confidential.”
Based on protection laws, my own would-be addresses are confidential.
I ask about the school. “Probably just a clerical error… It was just a handwritten note, saying you were in that summer school, which does seem strange. There is no actual documentation of any kind included with the note.”
I ask him for the specific date of when I became a ward of the state. “We didn’t find anything related to the termination of parental rights in our records.”
“But, it was a court case,” I say. “I remember standing in the courtroom, confused. There must be court records. How is that not in my file? It was a court case about me, and it was literally a court case about me being in foster care.”
“We just don’t have anything about that,” he says. “The case would obviously be about you, but you aren’t legally entitled to those court records. Only the defendants are legally entitled to the court documents about the case. Anyway, there was no mention of it, at all, in your folder, or in our computer system.”
“I cannot have access to the records of my own court case?” I ask. “Let me guess… It’s confidential?”
“You can file a formal motion and ask a judge to release the records to you, but I can pretty much tell you that you’ll be wasting your time, because based on the protection laws, your motion won’t be granted by the judge.”
“But, I’m being protected from having access to my own history.”
“No, not exactly. At this stage, it is really the defendants that are being protected. It’s their right to privacy, because it is an abuse case. Only the defendants can access the case records.”
The defendant being protected is my alcoholic, drug addicted, mentally ill mother, now dead. The other defendant is a psychotic former stepfather.
“My mother died, and I’ve sent you her death certificate.”
“That doesn’t negate the laws.”
“Why would anyone who was found guilty of abusing a child have the right to privacy related to the crimes? That doesn’t happen with other crimes.”
“All I can tell you is that we don’t even have that information in the file.”
I take a deep breath. I ask, “All I have is a year of dates during a time when I literally wasn’t in care, so what about my records from the time that I actually was in care, during the ‘70s and the early ‘80s?”
“We didn’t find any records for you for that time period. It was a very long time ago, and we just couldn’t find anything else. Records were much better kept for cases of adoptions than they were for foster youth and wards of the state. You weren’t adopted. The adoption records are kept for 100 years. We can’t give you records that were quite possibly never even created.”
“So, there’s nothing else? Not even any medical records?”
“We aren’t keeping any medical records from you. There simply isn’t anything in the file.”
“But… I must have medical records. I got stitches. I have a huge scar, on my knee. I have a scar. What about my scar?”
“That information does not exist. Nothing exists.”
My childhood information does not exist.
Nobody who remembers me.
I press the red button on my iPhone, and I feel something that I haven’t felt in a very long time: the distantly familiar sensation of floating and slowly falling.
Why would anyone who was found guilty of abusing a child have the right to privacy related to the crimes? That doesn’t happen with other crimes.
It’s that floating and slowly falling feeling that I felt when the social worker first put me in the back of the car, and I knew I was never going back home.
It’s that floating and slowly falling feeling that I felt every time I was handed a black trash bag, told I was being moved to a new placement, and monitored by a stranger while I hurriedly gathered my things.
It’s that floating and slowly falling feeling that I felt the first time I saw the stacks of thick, gray files, all tagged with my name and labeled “Legal Ward of the State,” on the desks of social workers.
“It’s feeling like less of a human. And knowing that some things should exist, but do not.”
It never occurred to me that my files and records, the majority of my childhood, simply wouldn’t exist. I was ready for Anything, when what I really needed to be prepared for was Nothing.
So, nothing exists. But, I still exist. I’m not going to fall down or float away. And, I’ve got this photo. This is me, before not existing in the foster care system.
And I’ve got my mysterious scar.
It’s really just a tiny scar.
It’ll never be enough, but this photo and my scar will have to do.
Because Anything is better than Nothing.
* * *
Lara B. Sharp Lara B. Sharp’s writing has appeared in various print and online publications. She lives in Philadelphia and is writing a memoir about her childhood in Manhattan and within the foster care system.
Editor: Sari Botton