Photo by Charlie Neuman, UT San Diego
Rosalina Burton wasn’t given much of a chance, so she made her own.
She is called Rosie by her friends, but I’m going to stay with Rosalina. She’s a young woman trying to climb the rickety ladder of respect. For such a serious undertaking, Rosalina sounds more appropriate.
“Respectability,” if we mean acceptance by the community, is a birthright for some and freely given to others. But to Rosalina, the pursuit has been a hard slog through a bog of despair, struggling to free her feet from the drag of dysfunction — troubled parents, uncaring foster parents and a society that from habit and experience never counts on such as her for much of anything.
Today, she is a 23-year-old woman who serves as a mental health worker at San Pasqual Academy, the small high school in Escondido for teenage foster kids. It is the school from which she graduated.
She also is a frequent speaker for Voices for Children, the nonprofit group that advocates for foster children and which interceded for her during troubling times.
Those who know Rosalina find her achievements easy to believe. She doesn’t. To her, when she’s tired or in a tight spot, she again is a little girl in the grip of fear and abandonment.
Rosalina was 3 when the walls of her life collapsed inward. Because of a chaotic home life, Child Protective Services intervened. She was taken out of her parents’ home and “consigned” to foster care. For the next 16 years, she went from foster home, back to family home, to group home, and then the cycle would repeat itself. Altogether, she had 23 moves.
The experiences left scars on her mind like the stripes of a whip. She was one of eight children, in the middle. She says the family home they all shared was a bedlam of drug use by both parents, and her father’s abuse of her mother.
All eight siblings were sent to foster homes. Today, she is in contact with the others, but they’re not close. She says most of them are getting by. She is proud of a brother who has earned a college degree.
“Some (siblings) seem to think I’m rich because I have a full-time job. That’s funny. My car is falling apart, and I earn above minimum wage.”
Rosalina is also a student at Palomar College. She eventually wants to earn a master’s degree and continue a career helping foster children, either clinically or as a public speaker.
It will come as no surprise that Rosalina has residual anger toward both of her parents, especially her mother. The parents are now divorced.
Rosalina, I say, let’s role-play. Talk to me as though I’m your mother. First question: Rosalina, why are you angry at me?
“I’m angry at you because you made me feel like I couldn’t trust anyone but you. Because of that, I didn’t believe there were people that I could depend on. You’re not dependable, and I didn’t have anyone else.”
What did I do to you?
“You didn’t love me enough. You were selfish.”
Did I mistreat you?
“Not intentionally, I think. You played mind games. You used drugs to escape. When I was about 7, I walked into the bathroom. You and my dad were smoking crack out of a pipe.
“I remember feeling all alone in the world. I still struggle with those feelings no matter how many good things I do. There’s always that person in the back of my head that says I’m not worthy.”
Rosalina leans back and sighs. Saying those things was tough. She wants to add something: “My mother loved me in her own way. All the bad things they say about foster care, they happened to her when she was in it. She never wanted what happened to her to happen to us. Unfortunately, the drugs that she turned to in her own anguish controlled our lives, too.”
Despite numerous attempts and messages, her mother could not be reached. But the drug usage was confirmed by two children and the ex-husband.
OK, Rosalina, now talk to me as your father.
“I don’t think I have a lot of feelings toward you because you weren’t present at all. I would cook you breakfast, and I would iron your clothes; I thought that made me special. But you were always a stranger.”
Did I ever abuse you?
“Yes and no. You were abusive to my mother. I was never the person that you physically abused. You were really mean to my sister. You were always hitting her because she spoke up against you. You hit my brother. You were really abusive to him. I could hear you hitting my mother in the next room.”
Her father is a 50-year-old janitor in San Diego. He admits to drug usage when the children were young but denies heavy alcohol use, contrary to what two of his children say. He also says physical contact came in the form of disciplinary spankings. He says what might have seemed like abuse of his wife was only restraining her. Both siblings say otherwise.
I ask if he is in contact with his children.
“I keep up with all my kids,” he says, “even the ones who don’t talk to me.”
Rosalina did have some positive foster care experiences, but when foster parents would reach out to her, she tended to rebuff them out of a sense of loyalty to her mother and the dread of growing close to someone who would soon be gone from her life.
However, the overriding emotional impact was one of inconsequence and belittlement. She tells of one home where she figured out her presence there was only so the $725 monthly fee the county paid the foster parents would pay for their home remodel.
She says that foster-care woman enjoyed shoveling scorn on her, which is devastating to a self-conscious teenage girl. One day before leaving for school, Rosalina was checking herself in the mirror. “The woman came up, and said, ‘You know, Rosie, you’re not that pretty.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa. What do you mean? I never said I was pretty.’ She said, ‘Well, I could pick any girl on this street right here that’s prettier than you. I’m just saying so you know you’re not all that.’ ”
To a 16-year-old girl, that’s a stake through the heart.
Rosalina was given $40 per month for all her incidentals, including clothes, snacks, hair supplies and entertainment.
She attended Morse High School, which she says she loved and that she was an “A” student. But she had to leave that school when she changed homes.
She learned anew a basic foster-care truism: Be wary of caring or getting close, because it will leave you or hurt you.
Rosalina gives a sense of what it’s like to be dropped into a thrown-together household or group home in the midst of other troubled kids who may resent you, fight with you, steal from you and won’t be with you long enough to befriend you.
Rosalina says she started acting up when she entered her teen years. “I was going through puberty, and no one told me what was happening to my body. It wasn’t that I was a bad kid; I was overwhelmed and I was mad. I didn’t know how to process those feelings. In foster care, that’s called ‘behavior issues.’ ”
At age 13, Voices for Children arranged for a court-appointed advocate, Dawna Marshall, to be her friend and adviser. Dawna became the one person Rosalina trusted totally.
Dawna says, “Rosie’s lack of trust may have been the hardest thing for her to overcome. Rosie has learned how to love and accept love from others. She doesn’t let her harsh past define her, and she is not a ‘victim.’ ”
When Rosalina was 15, with Dawna’s help, she went to court to “divorce” her parents — in effect, to terminate their parental rights. Not that they ever exercised those rights, but she felt the need to take a stand for independence.
“I realized my parents weren’t one day going to wake up and be the parents of my dreams. I knew that if I was going to be successful, I had to be the parent for myself.”
About that time, she decided anger was not her friend and would not lift her out of the pit that her young life had been thrown into. She resolved to make something of herself.
Today, she can look at the San Pasqual students and read their minds and feel the twitch fibers of their dread. There’s nothing about a crappy home life that she doesn’t know. There’s nothing about abandonment that she doesn’t know. There’s nothing about a strange bed in the dark that she doesn’t know.
But she has a secret to share: She knows those thing can be defeated, so long as you don’t fool yourself into thinking your enemy is dead.
Rosalina is a wistful voice for discarded kids. She has a vision. In this vision that springs from her own life, she is every child who has been left out in the cold. She recites from her heart. She is them. …
“Every day I’m climbing up a mountain that’s too steep, and I don’t have the right shoes. Sometimes I want to escape the feelings that I have inside of me so bad. I don’t want to face what I wake up to. I feel horrible. I have no motivation for life. Then I have to say — No! That’s not OK, Rosie. We need to fight this. You are going to be successful. There is a reason why you went through the things that you went through. Because of that, you’re able to better connect with hurting people. You’re going to be able to reach someone who’s feeling that same way. You can get over this. You can overcome. You can do good things.”
Given her upbringing, Rosalina will defy the expectations of some. And by reaching out to give an upward lift to children with little hope, she will fulfill her own.
We can’t go deeply enough to know what thrown-away kids go through. They don’t speak their pain. It’s in their eyes.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org