Sea Change:

a seemingly magical change, as brought about by the action of the sea.

(This was written for a Media for Social Change Symposium at USC in May 2013.)

Growing up, my mother, as the oldest girl, was frequently left in charge of her siblings when their mother disappeared for days, leaving no food in the house. She has very clear memories of crunching on uncooked rice by the handful from a cardboard box. When my mother was 11, in 1968, she finally told somebody about the abuse she suffered from the latest of many step-fathers, and, dysfunctional though it was, the only family she’d known was destroyed, scattered like wheat chaff across the plains of Kansas, and everyone blamed her.

She has memories of stuffing her clothes into trash bags in the middle of the night and being carted around the county in a stranger’s car. She remembers trying to make herself small in the wide back seat of a Buick until she was off-loaded into another stranger’s house. She remembers being unwanted and feeling ashamed because her siblings were who-knows-where, because of her, and she couldn’t do anything about it.
My mom on her wedding day.

When she was 17 she started dating my father. She didn’t know how to trust anyone but, like most abused or unwanted kids, she recognized love when she saw it and grabbed on tight.

During her senior year of high school, my mother won a scholarship to a small college a hundred miles away, but she didn’t go because she couldn’t imagine how she’d get there, how to register for classes, find a place to live, or buy groceries.

On my mother’s 18th birthday, my parents were married because, as my mother said, where else was she going to go? So she settled down to live life on the farm and had me instead, at age 19. Marriage was her lifeboat, until it became the sea and she realized she had no idea how to swim. She had my brother a few years later and was divorced soon thereafter.

In foster care, my mother learned that people were expendable, because she had been expendable, and to this day finds it impossible to trust anyone.  Even me.

Before taking the Media for Social Change class this semester, my vision of child welfare was like a memory of movie whose plot I’d forgotten but for a few standout characters: a bee-hived social worker with dangly earrings; disheveled, ruddy-faced kids; chain-smoking, ill-equipped parents; and my mom. I saw child welfare as a system of overtaxed good-hearted people who’d been let down by life or funding, and who were left to do their best on their own.

In this class I learned that their best as a parent might be leaving the kids home alone when they go out into the gritty streets to earn a buck, catch a buzz or track down a bag of diapers. Doing their best as a social worker might be leaving little kids in a dingy apartment with a shell-shocked mom and helping her file a restraining order against their dad, because at least there they can be together. The carpet might be threadbare and speckled with broken Cheerios, and maybe there are bars on the windows to keep the bad man out. But at least there the bad man has a face they can all recognize.

In this class we heard from well-heeled experts about far-reaching theories, about neighborhoods devoid of children, and prospective child-centered laws as black and white as the ink they’re written in. We learned about commitment and complexity from seasoned practitioners in Watts and Compton, why defining home for a child is not a matter of choosing one address over another, but more like reviewing all the evidence and then making your best guess as to what might be least damaging to the butterfly wings of a child’s heart.

We learned about love from a former foster youth who spoke a torrent of poetry, her words like raindrops soaking our skin, puddling beneath our desks, and mingling with our tears. We heard from a young man how it feels to be lied to by a foster parent, what it’s like to be kicked out with no explanation. We saw first-hand why trusting people never gets easier, how that feeling of being alone in a crowded room never goes away.

We learned that being in foster care is like living in a hurricane and all you can do is hold on. We heard from parents in recovery who bear a burden of guilt we can’t even imagine; we heard from children what it was like to watch their mother destroy herself, and how they all carry that destruction with them, even now.

We heard from the agents of change, mostly women who smart and driven, women who know that change is the gradual wearing away of old beliefs. They said if you have an idea about how to change something, commit to it. Be the relentless wave and rise up. Be willing to collaborate but unwilling to give in. Be willing to speak loudly for yourself and for those who can’t speak at all. Be eager to solve the problems you see. Be creative in your solutions. Try, and then try harder.

But within the din of so many voices and opinions, so much advice and tears, we felt the powerful force of foster youth roll over us again and again, moving the air around us, reshaping the ground beneath our feet. We heard their voices rise above the white noise and grow clearer, until they all hit the same note. Their message is definitive: Listen to us.


  1. I read this earlier, and it upset me enough that stepping away to ponder my thoughts was my only reaction.
    It’s now a few hours later and hopefully, I have gathered my thoughts enough to make a point.

    Your Grandmother was but a child herself. Not yet out of high school when she had her first baby boy in 1956, and the last, from what I can recall, was in 1968, another boy. In between those years, there were 6 girls. So 8 babies, in 12 years.

    Imagine if you can at 17 years old starting your family. She had babies every year, 1956, 57, 58, 60, 61, 64, 66, 68. There was no birth control, and no abortions.

    Imagine now, you have all these babies to take care of, and your husband runs off with the baby sitter.

    Imagine again, you find a man you love and accepts your children, as his own.

    Shortly after the last baby, you’re now living a nightmare. The man you love, you trusted, raped your daughter.

    Ponder what reaction you would have. 8 babies and your only 28. Would you trust your judgment again?

    Yes your mother was removed from the home. The rest of us still lived there. None of us blamed her for anything.

    I mourned the loss of my sister, her companionship, she was my idol. I blamed myself for that horrible night. I should have done something, but what was an 8 year old child going to do? He yelled he would kill us, or her, don’t remember that part, if anyone got out of bed. I will never, ever, ever, forget.

    Just like the earlier time. The details in my head are as clear today, as they were in 1963, at my ripe old age of 6. Only, that time, I had no idea what was happening. Could not even in my wildest imagination, figure it out. Did not learn the whys of what happened next, until years and years later, but when details emerged, so did the memories of that day, down to every last sordid detail. Again, to myself, I think, how could I not know, why did I not react?

    So yeah, twice, I let my Sister down. Maybe that is why she wants nothing to do with me to this day? Maybe that is why she trusts no one to this day.

    Months later, when the trial was over, your Grandmother did what she felt was best for all of us. She signed away her Parental Rights. And then is when the Family unit dissolved. I am not sure that at that time, any of us were old enough to relate the end result, to what happened with your Mother. We just knew she was gone.

    I had begged and fought and everything a child of 11 could do, to be placed with our paternal Grandparents, because that’s where my Idol was placed. No, living with the Grandparents, did not work out and we were then placed into a foster home, but, at least we were together. But, that filthy assed rich old lady thought she got herself a couple of slaves and it was more than I could bare and I left.

    I left my sister there. She would not come with me. Since that time, I have grieved her loss. Today is still like a death sentence to our relationship. I mourn for the way she lives in isolation. Like none of us exist.

    Yep, our Family suffered. We had Parents, that had no idea what being a Parent involved. Still to this day, they don’t get it. But, so what.

    My past does not define me today.

    One of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard.

    Joel Osteen. Get Over It.

    1. RS - There's no judgment here. Sometimes life is just f*cking hard.


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