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‘I kept a closed heart’ — my life in Massachusetts foster care

“In the system, I knew I couldn’t trust any of these people.”

Iliana Joaquin, age 11 or 12, at a DCF-organized holiday party. Of the event, Joaquin recalls: "There was a Santa Claus and donated toys, and we sat awkwardly with other children making crafts and trying to forget that this was not a typical Christmas."
Iliana Joaquin, age 11 or 12, at a DCF-organized holiday party. Of the event, Joaquin recalls: "There was a Santa Claus and donated toys, and we sat awkwardly with other children making crafts and trying to forget that this was not a typical Christmas."Iliana Joaquin

Iliana Joaquin sums up the eight years she spent in the Massachusetts foster care system this way: “Instability. Lack of trust. Sometimes, abuse.” She had just turned 11 when she and her two brothers, ages 5 and 13, were placed in their first foster home in the state, in 2002. Until then, theirs had been an itinerant existence in and out of shelters in New York City, where Joaquin and her siblings were born. “We were homeless from my birth,” Joaquin says. “At times, my mother would just pack us up in the middle of the night and take us to another shelter. This was just a regular thing for us.” Joaquin missed so much school, she fell two grades behind.

When she aged out of the foster care system in 2010, at 18, Joaquin wanted answers. “No one would ever really tell me the truth,” she says, “so I did a lot of digging. I grilled my social workers. I went back and said, ‘Hey, you. Listen. I have questions.’”

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The portrait that emerged from the fragments in her Department of Children and Families (DCF) file is one of powerlessness and vulnerability — being at the mercy of others. Joaquin’s mother took her children from New York to Florida to Massachusetts. “I learned that the whole reason we were constantly moving,” Joaquin says, “is that my mother is schizophrenic. She was always struggling with paranoia. The whole time, she thought she was keeping us safe.” Joaquin’s father, who, like her mother, is from the Dominican Republic, lost track of his daughter. She was 9 when she last saw him.

Now 29, Joaquin, who works in marketing in the health care industry, lives in Chelsea in an apartment she’s had for three years. “This is the most stable I have been emotionally, physically, and financially,” she says. “I’m grateful, and sometimes I question it all. Stability makes me uneasy.”

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Nearly 10,000 youths are currently in foster care in Massachusetts. Ideas spoke with Joaquin about her experience and why she volunteers as a mentor to young people still in the system. “One of the things that sticks with you in foster care,” she says, “is the idea that these people don’t care about you, they are paid to do this. My mentees have never heard of someone not getting money to be with them. I keep showing up, and that way, they know I really care.”

Iliana’s story

We were at the DCF office in Lowell. We had spent the previous night at the police station and then a shelter. Someone gave us each a backpack with coloring books, a toy, a teddy bear, a hygiene packet, a toothbrush. Nothing was making sense. Somebody explained that we would spend the night somewhere else, but without our mother. We were confused. At the same time, we were kind of going where the adults were leading us. My little brother was hysterical.

Our first placement was unlike anything I could have imagined. It was meant to be temporary — for the night or the week, but my little brother and I were there for three years. Because my older brother is intellectually disabled, he was removed fairly early on and sent to a group home.

It was a two-family house owned by an elderly woman whose adult son and family lived downstairs. There were rooms for girls and boys, each with two sets of bunk beds. There were three or four other kids there at any given time.

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I didn’t understand the household rules. We were allowed only a five-minute shower once a week. Even while homeless, we bathed every day, even if just a sponge bath. We couldn’t play or move around the house. We could use only the back stairs, not the front. We would go to school, come home, and sit at a kitchen table where we would do our homework and eat dinner and wait until bedtime. We had to ask to go to the bathroom. This was all really hard to understand as a kid. If we didn’t finish what was on our plate, we had to sit and stare at it. We couldn’t grab food or snacks. At night, the cabinets and the fridge had locks on them.

I remember when they would order Chinese food for the family downstairs — I knew what it smelled like. On those nights, I would have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for all the kids’ dinners.

Pretty early on, separated from my older brother and feeling like I needed to protect my little brother, any time I saw a social worker or anyone with power, I would say, “Please don’t take him.” I always tried to keep us calm as a unit, so that we would not be separated. I tried hard not to act out. It hurt me trying to protect my brother. He was picky. He hated onions, and there was an incident. He ate something with onions in it, threw it up on his plate, and [the elderly woman] made him eat it again. I yelled.

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At night I would sneak into the kitchen to find anything that might have been left out — a Ritz cracker, anything. I would sneak into where my brother slept and feed him and then hide the wrappers and the crumbs. I did this every night. He was hungry. He was 5 years old.

The instability, the lack of trust, that people could be so evil — I struggled. The elderly woman used to have me brush the bathroom tile once a week with a toothbrush. I was old enough to know that none of that was OK.

The turning point in that house came when a pair of siblings, maybe 2 or 3 and 5 years old, arrived. The little one had tantrums. I felt for her. Once, when she would not stop crying and pulling out her hair, the woman locked her in the mudroom. It was winter and there was no heat and she was there crying for hours. I didn’t know what to do.

In the system you have a social worker you see maybe every month and an assigned lawyer you see probably every few months. The problem is a lot of the social workers will meet with you in front of your foster parents. But the lawyer would take us out for ice cream and dig and dig and dig. She felt that something was off in that house. I told her about the incident with the little girl. They removed us and the other children shortly thereafter.

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During that period, my father passed away and I missed his funeral by a couple of months because I hadn’t known. I later learned that he’d been trying to get custody of me. He’d come to Massachusetts against doctor’s orders to find me — he had a heart condition, I found out, and was not supposed to travel. He went to DCF and they wouldn’t pull me out of school because it wasn’t a planned visit. I had been very close to my father when I was young, and I was heartbroken about this for years.

I was in three homes total, which is low — the average is six to eight. My first sexual experiences were in the form of abuse in foster care, though not at the hands of my foster parents. I do think the foster parents in the other homes cared — the family in our second placement adopted my little brother and became my older brother’s guardians. But I didn’t trust anyone. I had to survive and protect my little brother. My agenda was: Get through and get out. I excelled in school and sports and saved money working two jobs, and I kept a closed heart.

I made a best friend in high school, and her family is who I consider my family now. They show up for anything that is important to me. They bought me an old car so that I could get to and from work. In an emergency, they are the people I call. I once gave them a glass postcard that says “Thank you for always being there for me. You didn’t have to get paid to do so.”

I think of that as I mentor two teen mothers in foster care. They say, “What, you volunteer?’ I say, ‘Yes, I want to be here for you. I want to be present.’” And that’s odd for them to hear, but it gives them a little more of a reason to trust me.

Iliana Joaquin mentors young people in foster care through Silver Lining Mentoring, where she is also a board member.