FCYU099 cover image See all stories from issue #99, Winter, 2010

Keeping My Cool
Why a phone call is more powerful than a meltdown

I sat in the conference room of my foster care agency, filled with apprehension. My caseworker, her supervisor, and my foster mother sat around the table with me. I had a feeling that what I was about to hear would make my life plummet.

My caseworker had recently told me that she wouldn’t be my caseworker much longer, which somehow meant I might have to switch homes. The idea of changing homes was absurd to me. I’d put a lot of effort into making things go smoothly in my current foster home, and I’d decided I would rebel if they tried to make me move. But I didn’t really have a plan for how I would do that.


In the conference room, my caseworker’s supervisor said something about switching homes. Even though I knew this might be coming, my breath tightened, my mouth parted in disbelief, and I quickly snapped my head around to look at my caseworker next to me.

“Wait…” I said. “I have to switch homes?”

My caseworker looked like it was painful for her to reply, but she nodded and in a soft tone answered, “Yes.”

I tried to object but it was so difficult for me to speak. I choked up, on the verge of tears. My voice trembled when I tried to say, “This is unfair.” In that moment I felt weak, like there was nothing that I could do about it.

My caseworker’s supervisor explained that my mother hadn’t done anything she was supposed to do to get me back home, so the agency didn’t have any documents in my folder to show that my case was progressing. Right now, the supervisor said, my case was in a certain unit of the agency, but because my mother wasn’t doing her part, they were thinking of moving me to a different unit.

Then she made a big mistake.

“This unit is not receiving funds for your case. If we were to move your case to another unit, that unit would receive funding for you.”

OOPS, My Bad

She was not supposed to say that. I later found out that not even my caseworker had known why I was being moved. It was all about money, not at all about what was best for me. To describe me as livid would be an understatement.

“So you’re basically moving me to do yourselves a favor?” I angrily asked. Giggles floated around the room.

“She’s smart,” my caseworker commented.

I sat at the big brown conference table thinking over what the change of homes would do to my life. I was so enraged. I never knew that my thoughts could stutter until that moment. When my thoughts finally came together, they were racing.

“Your school isn’t in Brooklyn, it’s in Queens,” I told myself. “They’re gonna force you to live in a totally different borough, with total strangers all over again. You’re gonna have to wake up earlier to go to school—you’re gonna drop out.

“But you can’t drop out because that’s just doing harm to yourself. But you’re gonna drop out and have a horrible life. All of your friends are in Queens so you can’t even hang out with them anymore. Your mom is in Queens. It’s gonna be more difficult for you to see your mother....”

That’s when I flipped out.

The Rage

Even though my mother and I have a very distant relationship, I felt that moving farther away from her would make me lose her completely. That, on top of all the other things I’d lost by coming into foster care, sent me over the edge.

My mind went blank. Then I screamed. It was a horrid scream that could have punctured the heart of every person within earshot. It spoke for all of the disturbing thoughts that were going on in my mind, the things I had no control over.

I was overwhelmed. I felt helpless, I felt pity for myself, and at that moment, I hated my mother and my sister, because they were the reason why I was in this situation in the first place.

Then came the tears. I was full of so much loathing and rage that my body shook involuntarily. The anger swelled inside me and must have given me superhuman strength because suddenly I picked up a big sturdy chair and I threw it across the table. Then I grabbed and threw another one and it broke on the wall.

I stared at the broken piece and thought about picking it up and smashing the windows with it. My fist pounded into the wall over and over again as I screamed and cried the woeful words, “I’m tired of people f-ckin up my life! I’m tired of people f-ckin up my life! I’m tired”—those were the only words that my mind could form.

Tearing Me Down

image by Daniela Castillo

A flashback stopped me from picking up the piece of furniture and breaking the agency’s windows. Suddenly, the whole sequence of events that led to me entering foster care replayed in my mind: my mother brutally abusing me after hearing me talk negatively about her as a reaction to her physical and verbal abuse. Me trashing her home by breaking up her furniture and punching in the walls. The fact was, I had damaged her home as a way to prevent myself from damaging her.

After that, I’d been arrested. I had practically no one. My older sister abandoned me. I cried about it constantly. Soon after that, I was put into care.

Now, sitting in that room with the broken chair as shocked faces looked on, the memory caused me so much pain that all I could do was cry. I thought my life was over.

I didn’t want to try anymore. Why should I? I had worked hard not to be derailed by this terrible ordeal. Now the big bad foster care agency comes and tears it all right down by moving me to freakin’ Brooklyn? Why should they demolish what took me so long to build?

I had come into care as an A-plus student, but stress and depression made me drop to a C average. I managed to pull my life together and get my grades back up, I sought a paid internship all on my own, I joined activities, and I took care of myself. This required painstaking effort and persistence. I forced myself to be strong and independent despite sleepless nights filled with sob-drenched memories.

I couldn’t understand why the agency was doing this to me. Their decision had no logic to it. I don’t like it when things don’t make sense.

My caseworker held me and tried to soothe me. Somehow, I pulled myself together and sat back down at the table. After about five minutes I was calm again—and ready to take a different kind of action. As the meeting continued, I quietly brainstormed about who could help me through this situation.

My lawyer! Without even getting up from the table, I whipped out my phone and called her. I told her what was going on, and she spoke to my caseworker and my caseworker’s supervisor. My lawyer then assured me I would not be moved. She told me all I needed to do was maintain my composure and come to court with her.

A Different Kind of Action

“Here goes,” I thought as I trotted toward the courtroom door, excited to advocate for myself. My caseworker, her supervisor, and my lawyer all walked into the courtroom in unison. I walked in behind them. I was nervous, but ready and confident because my lawyer had already assured me that we were going to win the case.

Once I entered the courtroom, my lawyer whispered to me a heads-up to state my name and age when the judge asked for it and to raise my right hand and promise to state the truth. You know, all that court stuff. All the judge said to me was “Hello,” “How is school?” and “Good luck with everything.” It went smoothly.

Once that was over with, I left as quickly as I’d sat down. I was confused. They’d said nothing about what I thought we were going to court for, but instead spoke about the classes they wanted my mom to take to better herself as a person and as a parent. It was over in a matter of literally five minutes.

My lawyer told me afterward that the reason nothing was said about me is because before the case, once she threatened my agency with court, they’d decided to drop the issue and not move me. Instead, they focused on what the court hearing had originally been intended for: talking about my mother not complying with services. Everything was done.

The Right Tools

The decision I made to call my lawyer might seem simple, but it taught me a major life lesson. It taught me to have enough tools in my toolbox because when the time comes to stand up for yourself, you never know when you will need that specific tool.

Some of the best tools in my toolbox are the people on my team. This experience showed me how important it is to communicate with those people and develop good relationships with them so that they will be willing to help me.

In this case, an important tool was my lawyer. But she wouldn’t have been able to help me if I hadn’t reached for my own tools: my communication skills, inner strength, and the confidence it took to make that phone call and fight for what I know is right.

Communication was crucial because without it my voice wouldn’t have been heard; this wouldn’t be my success story. But strength and confidence were just as crucial because without them I wouldn’t be able to communicate at all.

Looking Back

Now that I’m out of such a horrid situation, reflecting on my actions makes it easier to see things more clearly. I’ve thought a lot about which was more important in getting me what I needed: the outburst, or calling my lawyer.

In the end, I’ve decided that my outburst was very self-destructive. It did nothing but startle everyone and make me feel worse about everything that was going on. It made me disappointed in myself because I saw that I still needed to work on my temper.

On the other hand, the phone call to my lawyer immediately got me what I needed. If I had only communicated through my outburst, I probably would’ve been moved to a new home—or maybe moved to a more restrictive placement.

Calling my lawyer displayed wits, poise, and knowledge. This just goes to show that going about things in an appropriate manner (advocating for oneself with a confident, professional demeanor) is much more likely to lead to a successful outcome.

It doesn’t stop there. Learning a lesson means using it again. I will be going to college next year, and I am going to have to rely on the agency to help me pay my way through. I’ve got to be able to communicate with the staff in a constructive way, even when I get frustrated.

If, for example, I have problems with my financial aid, and the agency is not giving me what I am entitled to for college, I’ll be aggravated, but I won’t throw a fit. I’ll use the lesson I learned from this situation. I will research what I am entitled to, print out the information, and lay it out to the agency to show them that they aren’t providing me with what I deserve. At the same time, I’ll go straight to my lawyer to make sure things get handled.

In the end, outbursts are a major don’t. Advocating for yourself professionally is definitely a do.