Foster child's mixed feelings on Christmas

Section: Perspective,  Page: C1

Date: Sunday, December 25, 2005

Today marks my 10th Christmas without my biological family. I am one of 40,000 children in the state of New York who are in the foster care system, a figure that makes up 15 percent of the nation's foster care population.

The Web site of the Albany County Department of Social Services, which oversees the system in that county, notes that its mission is to improve the "quality of life" by "helping people to help themselves."

The department offers training services, child support and case management to those who need aid from the state because of their financial or social situation. The site also states that the department is "responsible for addressing the social service needs of the poor and the near-poor, as well as those who are unable to care for and protect themselves, while at the same time upholding the laws that govern the Department." Parental neglect and physical or mental abuse are the usual reasons why children may be removed from their homes. The children are then placed with completely new families, ones that have no prior relationships with them. As wards of the state, these children receive a check each month of about $300 that goes to their providers.

The money, which is supposed to pay for food, clothing and entertainment for the children, comes to approximately $10 a day, barely covering the cost of a full day's meals.

Nick Patrick, 17, is still in the system, and remembers his first meeting with his foster family.

"You feel like you have to change everything about you to be like your new family and your new lifestyle," he says. "I had gone from being dirt poor to middle class in a matter of hours. It was definitely a culture shock."

I felt the same thing when I was in third grade. I was taken away from my mother by the Department of Social Services when I was 8 years old because of her alcohol and drug addiction.

In one day, I went from living in Albany with my mother in a basement that flooded with each rainstorm, to being placed with a middle-class family in their two-story house in Clifton Park.

I had been with my new family for almost two months when, a week before Christmas, I remember feeling too depressed to go to school.

When Christmas Day finally arrived, I celebrated it at the Department of Social Services, in the same cold white empty room that I had been to six previous times to visit my mother, who had shown up once.

I hated being in that building.

It was always freezing inside. The visiting room was empty except for two small wooden chairs, and the adults ignored me, as if my being there was a waste of their time.

But it was all worth it since it was a chance to see my mother.

I was picked up by a social worker at 8 a.m. and driven to DSS, so I could spend an hour with my mother and we could exchange gifts.

I was excited for the first time since I had been taken away.

The only Christmas gift I had asked for was to see my mother on Christmas morning, and now I was only an hour away from seeing her.

I sat in the cold, empty room, now decorated with a tiny dead tree in the corner that looked like the one in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." It sagged on one side, and almost all of its needles, which had fallen off, covered the floor around it.

It was 9:10 a.m., which meant my mother was 10 minutes late.

I continued to sit in the little wooden chair. Two hours later, I was driven back to my foster family. My mother had neglected to show up. Thousands of other children have had similar experiences.

An 18-year-old I spoke with from Clifton Park, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the last time he had seen his mother was 11 years ago, the same day he was taken away and placed into the foster care system.

People like Nick, me and that senior in high school who last saw his mother when he was 7, well, we have mixed feelings about Christmas.

Now that we are older, we are able to appreciate and be thankful for what we do have and are able to enjoy the holidays.

Over the years, we've learned how to cope with continued conflicting feelings of loss and betrayal, guilt and anger, and emotions that even we don't understand sometimes.

But we know that out there somewhere is a little kid who is going through his first Christmas alone.

For him and so many like him, the holidays can't be over soon enough.

Jason Corrigan is a senior at Shenendehowa High School. This article is adapted from one he wrote for The Legacy, a newspaper written and edited by students in the New Visions Public Communications Class of 2006.