Excerpts from chapters 5. Gimme Shelter
I entered foster care at 13 years old after a huge fight with my mom. A police officer took me to a children’s shelter in Decatur, Ga, promising me that I would get a foster home in a couple of days. The woman who did my intake at the shelter laughed when I repeated this. She then told me the only place I’d be going was Jail, A Mental Hospital, or a group home if I am lucky. She was right. So I thought I’d share what these facilities were actually like, starting with the Shelter.
Okay, so, the intake procedures at every institutional placement are pretty standard with just slight deviations. I’m gonna walk you through it here and in any future places where it’s different, I’ll state the differences in context.
When you come to a new facility, the first thing they do is document the belongings you brought with you. Anything valuable they take. I of course had no valuables cause the cop took the only thing I had of value, my bike. I know I keep bringing up that the cop took my bike.. but he took my bike. It was a 10-speed Huffy Mountain Bike! You have no idea how many years I asked for one of those at Christmas. Dekalb County PD, you owe me a bike!
Anyway, after charting your valuables, they walk you on a tour of the facility (unless it’s jail) as they explain to you pertinent rules and how the place functions day to day. Wake up is at this time, dinner is that time, school is at this time, etc etc. In this case, there wasn’t a full tour because it was so late when I arrived.
When we left the office the intake coordinator took me straight to the bathroom of the girl’s dorm across the hall, stopping to point out the day room/cafeteria next to the staff desk and stopping again when I asked what was at the other end of a long corridor. It was the mythical children’s unit.
After tours, you’re then taken somewhere to be strip-searched like a criminal (including a squat and cough). Usually, it’s your room, but at the shelter, that place was the girl’s bathroom. Have you ever been to the shower area at a pool or gym? That’s what the bathroom at this place was like. Two or three stalls—at least one broken door and another with a broken lock—and two walk-in tiled showers next to them.
It wasn’t necessarily the cleanest restroom in history, but when I was put in the Fulton shelter about 4 years later, I learned the true nature of a filthy bathroom. Everything in that place was filthy. Again, ahead of myself.
While you’re still naked they chart any scars or markings you have. It’s a blessing when you encounter a staff member who isn’t necessarily thorough. There is nothing more awkward and embarrassing than having someone new or that still cares about their job make you stand there in your panties and bra (or worse completely naked) as they chart every single mole, freckle, and acne scar.
Then you’re handed a Bob Barker toothbrush, Bob Barker toothpaste, a bar of those little hotel soaps (probably bob barker), and some delousing shampoo. You’re then told to take a shower as some total stranger stands waiting by the shower door. The intake woman didn’t tell me what the shampoo was for. She just told me twice that I needed to wash my hair and private parts with it. I kind of freaked out when it started burning through all 10 if the pubes that I had at the time (think old school Nair but worse). Then, you’re taken to your room/place you’re gonna sleep and told what your next activity is.
My next activity was to go to bed. I was given an oversized white T-shirt because I didn’t come with my own pajamas. This shelter didn’t issue clothes…some do and to be honest that’s way worse (imagine being forced to share underwear with a group of strangers). I was given my bed set which consisted of those plastic mats that kindergartners sleep on at nap time, a pillow, some thin sheets, and one of those prison “blankets” that feel like they are made of a mix of cardboard and 1970s shag carpet.
She then walked me to the back area of the girl’s dorm, stopping to yell at the girls who were up and chattering. FYI, those shows that make “the walk” into group homes and children’s shelters look like prison walks, you know where the other residents yell at the new kid trying to intimidate newbies and establish dominance… that’s bullshit.
The kids at these places are so used to other kids coming and going, they don’t give a flying rats ass about new people. You’re more likely to be ignored by everyone for weeks than to have some random street-hood come up to you to tell you they “run dis place.” Nobody cares.
Literally, nobody cares about you in these places, not the staff, not the caseworkers, and definitely not the kids… well at least till you’ve been around long enough for the other kids get to know you enough to even want to bully or befriend you. Well, actually, for boys, it’s a little different. I’ll get to that.
It would be really easy for me to just say that the shelter was nasty, the staff were mean, and the kids were all bad and then move on with my story painting myself as some sort of diamond in the rough. But.. as much as this is my story, it’s not just about me. Hundreds of kids went in and out of that shelter every year.
I need people to know what it was like. To know what we were made to live like. Most importantly, I need people to read this and everything I describe to remind themselves…that we were all children. Not runaways, not street kids, not gangsters (even the ones who were forced into gangs), not prostitutes (though a lot of girls and guys got sex trafficked), not at-risk youth or “inner city” teens. We were children.
To be frankly honest, the whole warehoused kids in cages issue that liberals love to reference when talking about how our country treats immigrant kids (because it’s effing horrible), that’s not new. The US has been treating “our own kids” like this for pretty much ever. So yea, please keep that in mind as you read through this.
Anyway, I’m gonna describe the shelter, the kids there, the staff, what the facility was like, and then get back to my personal story. It’ll make sense in the end. The shelter was officially the DeKalb County Emergency Children’s Shelter, but we called it “4th Street Academy” cause that’s what the old faded out sign in the front said. It was a revamped elementary school. Main office/intake area when you walk in, kids unit down the hallway past the classroom area (we had one classroom).
There was a typical cafeteria/day room where we spent 80% of our time just camped out watching TV, listening to music, reading, and playing spades. Well, the other girls didn’t let me play till much later once I had been there a while. As I said, they didn’t really bother getting to know new kids, especially the younger ones.
The boy’s hall was across from the girl’s hall. Pretty sure it had the same setup. Two rows of 12 cubicles (maybe 6 ft by 4 feet), each cubicle separated by blue or grey cinder block walls. In the cubicles were small beds, I swear they were smaller than twin. Some girls had plastic bins to hold their stuff. The walls of the cubicles were decorated with pictures of musicians and pop stars ripped out of magazines and “glued” on with toothpaste. Master P was really big back then…and a whole lotta posters of shirtless Usher Raymond.
In the back of the dorm was a room that was supposed to be a day area, there was a plastic card table and some rickety chairs and an old ugly orange love seat. It was SUPPOSED to be a day area, but due to overcrowding it was converted to a group sleeping area. At this point, there were just 5 or 6 girls in that back room. Every month I was at the shelter and every time I would return in the future this back area got more and more full to the point that the cots had to be layed out next to each other with no room in between and then the overflow girls had to sleep in the cafeteria.
At the end of every night we’d grab a mat, put our bed stuff on it, and sleep in rows then every morning we’d stack the mats, put our stuff in a plastic bag and stack them up on the couch. You’d sleep in the day area till a cubicle became available. That wasn’t something you wanted. A cubicle meant that you were there, maybe not a lifer, but at least a month-er. Some of those girls were there for years and were just waiting to age out to 18 or if they got lucky get into one of the very very few Independent Living programs available.
Sixteen was the magic number. Under 16, you at least had a chance at a good placement. Over 16, you were going to be there for a while, a good while. That’s one of the reasons why the girls didn’t really bother making friends with new girls, especially the younger ones, it was partly cause who knows how long they were gonna be there and partly because… jealousy.
Every 13-year-old that popped in was competition for the few spots for teenagers at group homes and more likely to get that spot over a 16-year-old who had been in the system for a while collecting write-ups, criminal records, and history of being “removed” or running away from bad placements that the system refused to recognize were bad placements (I’ll get to that).
The kids were kids. It was mostly black kids, with maybe one white boy and three or four white girls… though I don’t think the white girls were all there at this stint. This is mostly because of the area, Dekalb county was mostly black and poor in parts like Decatur and Stone mountain. That’s where the black kids came from. Very few came from places like Lithonia (black areas that had wealth). Since the white parts of Dekalb (Dunwoody, Chamblee, etc) were rich their kids didn’t get cycled through the system.
That said, Georgia was one of the rare states where the number of white kids in foster care exceeded the number of Black, Latinx, Hispanic, and Native American kids. Most of my placements (all 3 of them) would be like at least 70%, white kids. This is because a lot of rural Georgia is just full of poverty and that’s where most of the white kids I met over the years came from, rural ga. Which is fucked up in its own right.
It’s a prime example of how these agencies take kids away from their communities, throw them in a system that would abuse the hell out of them, and then after they get to be 16, 17, or 18, throw them out on their asses to find their own way back to their long lost communities and families and figure out how to get by. Only now they have the added glory of Ritalin addiction and criminal records.
What’s also fucked up about it is the fact that given there were so few minority kids in care by comparison, why the shelters and jails that housed us were full to capacity. Am I saying the system is racist? Yes. White kids pretty much got first dibs on placements, especially foster homes..not that it did most of them any good. Not a single one of my white friends who grew up in the system got to their teen years without some sort of story about horrific abuse at the hands of their foster parents. This again is a level of added suck because so many of them were in care because their families were super poor or their parents were on drugs.
Before anyone makes the mental leap to equate poverty and child abuse, please don’t. I know way too many rich and upper-middle-class kids with severely alcoholic and abusive fathers and narcissistic borderline moms that grew up in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs mansions to ever believe that.
Those communities are just not targeted the same. Teachers aren’t calling social workers on rich kids whose moms spank them (or force them to wear diapers or refuse to feed them for days for mouthing off as some of my rich friends’ stories go). They damn sure aren’t having little Timmy come to them saying that he couldn’t do his homework because the electricity was out. Which, I just want to again point out, the “mommy’s too poor so we got evicted” portion of kids I met in care far exceeded the “mommy was shooting up heroin, daddy touched my no-no parts” kids. Sorry. Ranting. Back to the shelter.
With the kids at this particular shelter, you had the “lifers,” the older ones who had been there a while and accepted their fate. They were a little “harder” than the youngsters. The older girls were the Queen Bees and unless there was something special about you, you were a wannabe that either was an underling to the popular older girls or a scrub they picked on. The politics of the girl’s dorm was very simple and the same as any time you got a group of girls together. Arguing about boys, making fun of each other’s weight and hair ‘til one of the girls developed an eating disorder or something. There wasn’t the “family” dynamic like in women’s prisons with mamas and her group. It was just kids and every now and then an older girl would give some guidance to a younger girl who needed it…with as much wisdom as a 16-18-year-old girl can give a 13-15-year-old.
The way the boys interacted was a lot different, a lot more like a prison, because so many of them were cycled through the juvenile justice system. You come in a bright-eyed innocent kid with some bad stuff that happened to you (or in a lot of cases just freaked out about being there cause nothing bad had happened to you and you didn’t understand why you were taken from your parents in the first place).
You tell yourself you are not like those older boys, there’s something wrong with those dudes. And then you’re cycled into YDC (Youth Detention Center) aka Juvie or RYDC (Regional Youth Detention center) aka boot camp, and morph into the older boys you thought you would never be like. If you were a boy and there for more than a month or two, it was almost guaranteed you’d end up shipped to one of these places. If you were a girl, there was like a 50% -60% chance. I’ll get to that.
Once you were cycled into RYDC or YDC you were exposed to jail gangs and get the shit beat out of you till you eventually joined the gang. In Georgia, we had Crips, exclusively Crips, and maybe a few FOLK. This was a good thing cause Crip and Folk were “cousins.” Because Katrina hadn’t happened yet, which would send a bunch of Bloods to our state and cause gang warfare; joining a gang in jail just meant they would stop beating your ass and stealing your food.
Because it was essentially a closed system, you were guaranteed that even when you left the jail you would end up in a group home or shelter with another member of that gang. This meant that even after jail, boys had to “represent” cause if you tried dropping your gang affiliation after jail and someone knew you were affiliated, you could end up on the wrong side of a beatdown. Gangs, for boys, was safety.
What this meant for the boy’s dorm is the older boys bullying younger not yet gang-affiliated boys. There were rarely physical attacks or jumping, but there was teasing and knocking each other around and not letting people get in on basketball games. Well, they did do that prison thing where they put soap in socks and beat the crap out of kids who pissed them off. But that only happened like once when I was there, and that kid was really fucking obnoxious. Because most of the boys were in the same gang and because boys stayed in the shelter longer, they had a closer kinship than the girls. They were more likely to take on caregiver roles to each other. Even when doing so risked them going back to jail…like bathing a boy who had severe cerebral palsy that would be left to stew in his own filth.