< Growing Up in The System


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Radio Rookie Shirley Diaz is on the brink of aging out of the foster care system when she turns 21 this fall. Many young people face huge challenges when they leave the system. And a disproportionate number of New York City's 17,000 kids in foster care struggle with homelessness at some point in their lives. Braced for adulthood, Shirley, whose nickname is "Star," looks to herself for support.

REPORTER: Whenever my parents come up in a conversation, I want to lie. I want to say all of us live together in one big house. My mother sings while she's folding clothes. My father watches TV. And my brothers and sisters are always in my room, taking my things.

But the truth is, when I was 13 years old, my father murdered my mother at the Jets Motor Inn on Queens Boulevard. I have eight brothers and sisters. But the six youngest were adopted, and I don't know where they are. The last time I saw them was when we buried my mom.

REPORTER: What do you remember of her?

JEANETTE: Everything.

REPORTER: Jeanette is my oldest sister. We grew up in different foster homes, but we're close now.

JEANETTE: Our mother loved the musics from way back, she always used to sing: ugi-ugi-ugi

REPORTER: ugi-ugi-get down!

JEANETTE: So I definitely remember that.

REPORTER: Jeanette knows how to move on. She works. She makes sure her kids look nice for school. And she keeps herself busy. But me - I'm stuck in the past, while my future's flying towards me. I'm about to age out of foster care.

TAKIMA: The first thing is obviously meeting, we have a liason with housing.

REPORTER: Takima Osborn is my caseworker. She tells me what I need to do so I can get my own place. But to me it sounds like blah-blah and blah.

TAKIMA: Also, making sure: are you working, Star?

REPORTER: No, I'm not. I don't know how to explain it. But I just can't get myself to care. I look around me and most people are on public assistance. I don't even know where to start.


REPORTER: My foster home is in the projects, in Astoria Queens. This is my sixth home I've been in. Hopefully my last.

REPORTER: See this is what I hate, you gotta wait for somebody to open the door and half of the time they don't even open it.

REPORTER: It's not a given to have a key when you're in a foster home. If I have to go to the bathroom - sometimes I have to go pee in the staircase.


REPORTER: We call our foster mother Nana. She considers herself a very nurturing person.

NANA: Some of the kids are very stubborn and hard-headed and lazy and they get the attitude. But you know what, they can't beat my attitude.

REPORTER: I've shared a bedroom with Sheena and Vicky for a year.

REPORTER: Get that plate off the bed before the roaches start coming!

REPORTER: Sheena's a drama queen and she loves to dance.

SHEENA: [singing]

REPORTER: Vicky's 16, and she's pregnant.

VICKY: My belly's itching.

REPORTER: So what you about to do?

VICKY: Put cocoa butter! It stops the itch.

REPORTER: I've had so many foster sisters and brothers - sometimes for a year, sometimes for a week or two. You'd think I'd close down to people. But I don't.

Like my boyfriend Flow.

REPORTER: Yo, for the mic, what's your name?

FLOW: Flow, F-L-O-W

REPORTER: He lives right across the hall. He wants to be a rapper.

FLOW: I'm like the most versatile MC you heard in a long time.

REPORTER: People are always telling me "Flow don't love you. He's a player." But I don't care.

JEANETTE: The guy you're with, I don't really support that decision of you being with him.

REPORTER: Tsss - yeah, my sister Jeanette does not like him.

JEANETTE: You know like he has 2 kids and baby-mamma drama. He's still living at his mom's crib, he doesn't have a job. How does he support himself? Knowing what we went through, you know what I'm saying, with our father - he was an alcoholic, he had no job. It's like a flashback.

REPORTER: Sometimes I feel like my life is a flashback. Jeanette's always looking forward, but my head is turned around.

REPORTER: I'm sittin here in the crib!

REPORTER: Recently I decided to write my father in prison.

REPORTER: I really don't know what to say. I don't know if I should write the letter starting with: "How are you? It's your daughter, Shirley, also known as Star. Do you remember me? I do miss you a lot!"

REPORTER: To me, it meant something to belong to somebody, even if my parents weren't perfect. My mother and father drank a lot. My father was a boxer in Puerto Rico and turned his fists on my mother and on us.

REPORTER: "You killed my mother, something I never forgot and I'm sure you didn't either!"

REPORTER: But sometimes I feel like if I could forgive my father, I could have him in my life, some kind of way. I try to explain that to Jeanette.

REPORTER: I feel like it was an accident. He probably didn't mean to kill her. Maybe he was drunk, and he blanked out and he just hit her the wrong way and he regrets it.

JEANETTE: He don't deserve a second chance to me. There's nine children left abandoned. You feel like you want to forgive him. You feel like you want to give him a second chance, and it's ok by me. But like to me, all bonds is cut. You got it?

REPORTER: Yeah, when you gonna do my hair?

JEANETTE: Not right now, son, I'm tired.

REPORTER: Growing up without your mother and father, you have to ask yourself all the time: Where do I belong? Who loves me? Who don't love me? You can never stop asking yourself those questions. The truth is: I would forgive anyone if it meant they would just come through for me.

REPORTER: Well right now I'm in my comfort zone by the river. And basically, I just received the letter from my father. And it's crazy he don't even know how to spell my name. He wrote "Sherley."

REPORTER: [in Spanish]

REPORTER: My father told me to believe in God, send him some pictures, and write him in Spanish next time. But I wanted him to tell me why. I wanted him to say anything that would make it ok for me to love him.

REPORTER: I felt like I needed to forgive him, but now I don't even know what to do.

[baby crying]

REPORTER: My foster sister Vicky had her baby. Now, we share a room: the baby, her and me.

REPORTER: I don't know sometimes I think like, maybe if I was to have a baby maybe it would make me a stronger person, and maybe it would like, push me to do what I gotta do, give me that extra force. Does that give you?

VICKY: Yeah, it actually yeah it do. It actually makes you think quicker and more mature. And I think if you was to have one, I think you'd get your GED diploma fast, your apartment fast. You'd get a job.

[baby noises]

VICKY: She gets mad if she don't get the teta.

REPORTER: Breastfeeding!


REPORTER: It hurts?

VICKY: Yeah, a little bit.

REPORTER: Wow, I think I want one.

VICKY: You'd be a nice mother.

REPORTER: You think so? You think the baby would love me?

VICKY: Of course, you the mother. She's gonna feel that you love, and she's gonna love you back. Y'all gonna have each other.

REPORTER: That's what I need: each other.

VICKY: Yeah.


REPORTER: I didn't know it at the time, but I was pregnant too. And here's the truth: I was trying to get pregnant. When I saw the heartbeat on the screen, I was happy. I felt like I didn't have to face the world alone anymore. I was hoping my sister Jeanette would be excited for me.

REPORTER: Like you know how you want that somebody that is you, you understand? Like you could take care of, you could love and they gonna love you back…

JEANETTE: Yeah, that's the same thing most people say, but that baby can't love you back when it's small. They don't know about that. You understand what I mean? He needs you to take care of him, you know. It's not a doll. I know what you mean by saying that, it's like to you, you feel right now that you really don't have too many people in your family. So it's like you feel like you want to make your own family, you know, and be loved. But that's not the solution.

REPORTER: I believe God wouldn't just put this here just to put it there, you understand? Cause I do pray a lot, and I was just looking for a way out. And he blessed me. This is a blessing.

JEANETTE: God - I believe in God too - but you also did it to yourself.

REPORTER: Where do you think I'm going to end up, like, now?

JEANETTE: Well, if you don't use your mind, the way you know you should use it, you won't end up really far.


REPORTER: When I'm going through things, I sing to myself, like my mom used to.

REPORTER: I didn't get to have the baby. When I was two months pregnant, I lost it, and my heart broke. But in a way, it was a relief. I was scared of raising a child. Now, I just gotta raise me.

[paper rustling]

REPORTER: Dear Applicant, we wish to inform you if you do not submit this information by the date indicated -

REPORTER: The housing authority is telling me if I don't have an income, they won't give me an apartment. I won't have anywhere to live when I turn 21.

REPORTER: And wow, I guess the only thing I didn't send them was the employment certificate that has to be signed. And it's not signed because I don't have a job.

REPORTER: The time is ticking. Why can't I just get my act together? My caseworker told me a lot of foster kids end up in the shelter. And if she was trying to scare me - I'm feeling it.

[sound of rain]

REPORTER: Wow, I'm over here in front of a shelter -

REPORTER: After I left Jeanette's house one night, I walked by the Lincoln Inn, a hotel for homeless people where I stayed with my mother once before she died.

REPORTER: I can't live in here. I can't go through that. I could, but I'm not.

REPORTER: The thing is, when I try to imagine me having a home - with comfy leather sofas, a fluffy bed, and lots of food in my fridge - it's like a fantasy. It doesn't seem real. Not to me, anyway.

For WNYC, I'm Rookie Reporter Shirley Diaz, aka, Star.


Shirley "Star" Diaz