Gabrielle entered foster care at age five with her three siblings after growing up in an abusive home. Today she advocates for change within the foster care system by speaking for a youth-driven program called elevate with the Children and Families of Iowa adoption agency.
To this day I still consider myself blessed that I grew up in a foster family.
Whenever I look back to when I was little, I find it extremely difficult to pinpoint any happy memories. My past was never filled with loving hugs and kisses. In fact, until the age of five I had never heard the words “I love you” in any way directed towards me.
Growing up in an abusive home
Most people would agree that the first five years of your life are the most critical in your development. Unfortunately, these happened to be the worst five years of my life. During these years my parents were at the prime of their drug and alcohol addictions.
My father would come home drunk practically every night and I would be forced to witness my mother being beaten and abused. I would lay awake most nights with my brother and sister and cry as we listened and watched her scream as the combination of blood and tears ran down her face.
What hurt the most was not what he did, but the fact that there was nothing that we could do to prevent it from happening. My mother was too scared of my father, and what could mere children do against a monster such as that?
When I got older, my mother and I seemed to get closer. She quickly became my best friend. She would tell me all the time that one day she would take me away from our nightmare and we could finally be a real family. The closer I got to my mom, the more I would be abused.
When my dad would come home drunk in the afternoon and my other siblings were at school, I tried to help my mom. I knew that a five-year-old couldn’t protect her, but I could distract to my dad and draw the attention away from her. It worked almost all the time.
Most nights he would get too exhausted to abuse her after giving me simple cuts and bruises. I didn’t care what happened to me: As long as my mother was okay, it didn’t matter.
When I had just turned five, my mom finally had the strength and courage to leave my dad. She went to a shelter and hid from him. My dad was charged with domestic violence and was told that if he ever did anything rash towards us or took us out of the state we'd be taken away. My dad didn’t want to cooperate with the state, and definitely not the government. In late August of 1995, he kidnapped my three siblings and me and took us to our grandma’s house in Missouri.
Entering foster care
We stayed at our grandma's about two and a half weeks before the state found us and took us away. I remember that day clearly. They came into my classroom and took me away at school. I cried so much and started screaming. I didn't want to leave again. I liked it in Missouri. It was far away from the life I had before.
After I got into the car, they picked up my brothers and sister. We stopped at my grandma’s house for about five minutes. I couldn’t even grab my clothes or belongings. I only had enough time to grab one stuffed animal and a small blanket. I was so scared. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I didn’t feel safe. I was in a car with complete strangers for hours. It was almost complete silence the whole way back to Iowa.
That night, my siblings and I were split up for the first time. My older sister and I went to one foster home, my brother Sean to another, and my oldest brother Bobby was placed in a group home. Many foster parents aren’t willing to take in teenagers. He was 16 and it's very hard to place children that old.
I remember getting to my foster home very late. We were greeted warmly and welcomed with open arms. It was way too much to take in at once. I was scared, tired and angry. I wanted to wake up and have it all be a dream. If only life were so easy, huh? I knew I wasn’t alone with my feelings of uneasiness. As I lay awake in my bed I could hear soft sobs and restless tossing and turning from my sister just a couple feet away.
As the months and years progressed, we began to fit in with the family and I was able talk with my mom on the phone. Life, it seemed, was getting better at last.
My mom moved out of the shelter and got her own apartment. My brother turned 18 and moved in with my mom. After living in a few foster homes, Sean came to live with my sister and me at our foster home. This meant everything to us because family has always been the most important thing in life. We were almost all together again.
We would have visits with my mom weekly and I would get hugged and kissed. My mom would frequently tell me that she loved me. Being loved is the best feeling in the world when you have been abused or neglected for so long. I started to believe that maybe it would be a happy ending after all.
Then, at age seven, our family took a devastating turn. My mother, whom I'd loved most in the entire world, died. After this happened I was severely depressed. I was so scared that I would forget her hugs and kisses, how she looked and how much we had loved each other.
I was angry with the world and God. The anger, with time, turned to sadness and then finally, to acceptance. I knew that I would always love her and I realized that not even death could obscure the love we once had.
Before she died, my birth mother made good friends with my foster mom. I know now that this is rare in the foster care system. When my foster mom talks about my birth mom, she talks as if they were the best of friends. My foster mom promised to take good care of us and love us as if we were her own kids. So when my mom died, my foster mom knew that she would adopt us as a last promise to my mom.
My dad’s rights were terminated when I was nine and shortly afterward I was adopted along with my brother Sean. My sister chose not to be adopted because she was 16 and more scholarships and college aid were available for teens that age out of the system.
I have been with my adoptive family 12 years now, and I wouldn't have chosen any other family to have in my life. Their love and care has meant so much to me, and although I will never have my birth mom again, every time I hug my adoptive mom it takes me back to her. It reminds me of how family has never given up on me. It reminds me of our love. It makes me realized that her promise never broke. I finally have a real family.
AdoptUSKids is a service of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and has been in operation since 2002 by the Adoption Exchange Association under a cooperative agreement (grant #90CQ0003). The mission of AdoptUSKids is two-fold: to raise public awareness about the need for foster and adoptive families for children in the public child welfare system; and to assist U.S. States, Territories, and Tribes to recruit and retain foster and adoptive families and connect them with children.