Tall, handsome and well-dressed, Charneil walks into the restaurant for his interview and smiles as he sits down across the table from me. He is very open and engaging from the first sentence he utters. Even before we order our lunch, Charneil eagerly begins to tell me his story – a story with a beginning all too familiar for children in foster care.
Charneil first remembers social workers visiting his family when he was 6 or 7 years old. Although he did not understand at the time, his mom was on drugs. Charneil thinks his older brother and sister tried to protect him so they kept that information from him, encouraging him to believe that their mom was okay. Charneil says, “She used to lock herself in the bathroom for long periods of time. I thought it was like that in everyone’s home. I mean, I used to get mad at her because I could not get into the bathroom but I had no idea that she was shooting up!” Life continued along these lines for 3 or 4 years until August 3, 2000, a day Charneil, then age 10, says he will never forget.
“That day,” Charneil says, “My mom left at 10 in the morning. She said she was going to the store.” Charneil’s eyes look off into the distance as he says this and his smile is sad. He confesses that he now realizes that his mom was probably out looking for a fix. She left him with her friend that morning – someone he knew well and trusted. Soon his mom’s friend “fell asleep” on the sofa but Charneil, too young and innocent to be afraid, was used to adults who “fell asleep.” A little later the DCF worker, Shelly, showed up unexpectedly. It was a weekend but she cared a lot for Charneil and she often went the extra mile for him. Charneil let her in. She asked him about the woman “asleep” on the sofa – and she tried to awaken her. At the time Charneil did not comprehend all that was happening but as he tells it now the worker figured out that the woman had OD’ed so she summoned help and removed Charneil from his home. The worker tried to explain what she was doing and why but 10 year old Charneil did not believe her. Not his mother, he thought. She was NOT doing drugs. Charneil’s brother and sister assured him that the DCF worker was telling the truth – their mom was a drug addict – and they had known all along but had protected him from the harsh, painful truth.
Charneil remembers that his sister was brought to the foster home also. At first the two siblings lived with cousins who acted as their foster parents. One week later a confused Charneil was moved to a Safe Home where he stayed until October. Asked why he left his cousins’ home, Charneil responded that they did not want him because they felt he would be a more difficult child to care for. They had asked for his removal. It wasn’t until age 15 that this brave young man before me found the courage to ask his cousins why he had to leave their home. Up until that time this had simply been another mystery in his life. His shock and feelings of betrayal are still evident all these years later. “They took me away from my sister,” he declares, his eyebrows cocked and a look of pained disbelief crowding his features. “How could they do that?” It would be two years before the siblings would live together again.
Charneil lived with his grandmother after leaving the Safe Home. He felt happy and safe with his grandmother although she struggled with diabetes and related health issues. Two years later his sister would join him there. Charneil describes the two years he lived apart from his sister as “forever.” Eventually his grandmother’s poor health would force Charneil to move once again to his aunt’s house. By then his sister, over 18, had moved back home with their mom.
Shelly, Charneil’s social worker, helped Charneil to keep in contact with his mom. “Once,” he says, “Shelly took me to see my mom. I ran out of the car and into the house before she could stop me. It was still my house so I felt I didn’t have to knock – I could just walk in. The house was horrible. My cat was dead and I found my mom locked in the bathroom – again – and it was then I figured that she must not love me as much as she loved the drugs.” Soon after, Charneil’s mom was sent to prison for 18 months and family visits entailed trips on the “Buddy Bus” twice a month. This was hard on Charneil who loved his mom very much but did not feel he could trust her. He was often confused about how she felt about him. It was hard to feel loved when her words and actions did not match. Eventually her parental rights were terminated and his aunt assumed guardianship. He would still see his mom from time to time under the watchful eye of family members and she continued to call sporadically until her death in 2007.
Two years ago Charneil graduated from high school and was accepted into a local college. He was the very first winner of the Kay Wyrick Scholarship for African American students. Today he continues to attend a CT state college and is majoring in Criminal Justice. He aspires to be a defense attorney. I would not be surprised if he became the next Thurgood Marshall!
What makes this young man special? He possesses a strong moral compass and a maturity rarely seen in young people his age. He has genuine warmth that makes you feel immediately at home with him. He is truly appreciative of the good in his life and he knows how to love. He speaks about his family with obvious affection, especially his little cousins whom he babysits for often. When Charneil’s mother died, he did not hesitate. Knowing that she was penniless he immediately removed the necessary funds from his college savings account to pay for her funeral. He speaks with great affection and respect for his social worker, Shelly. Many times during our interview he stated that she was a source of comfort and constancy for him through the years. He is grateful for the mentor he has had since 1999, an attorney through the Pathways Program who has been a role model and an inspiration to him. Charneil states, “Once I had a therapist who quoted all of these awful statistics to me. I remember thinking you don’t even know me. Why are you quoting me all of these horrible statistics – like how many foster kids try to kill themselves. It upset me so I told my mentor. He said that for every negative statistic there is a positive one too. He said he believed in me and knew I would be a part of the good statistics. This motivated me. I didn’t want to be one of those statistics the therapist talked about.”
Recently Charneil’s grandmother passed away. Her passing has been really hard for him. He said that they placed his mom’s ashes in the coffin with his grandmother so they could be buried together. He felt that now his mom would finally be at peace.
When I left Charneil I told him it had been a pleasure to interview him. And it truly had. Charneil appears to have beaten the odds. He had family to help him and a sense of purpose that pushed him to succeed. And he had caring adults who consistently and over many years believed in him. Youth in foster care are far less likely to graduate from high school than their peers. Less than 5% attend and graduate from college. They are at higher risk of homelessness, joblessness and incarceration over their lifetimes. Consistent caring adults can make all the difference for these kids. Just ask Charneil.
written by Deb Kelleher for Annie C Courtney Foundation. All rights reserved.