Hear My Voice is a series of first-person testimonies from people with lived experience in the foster care system, created from in-depth interviews. This is Monica’s story, as told to Abe Louise Young and Emma Ledford.

Monica*, age 27, tells her story of surviving both child abuse and the foster care system. She shares how she found healing, purpose and family on her own terms. Monica now works for a local CASA program.

Be aware that this story discusses child abuse, sex trafficking and substance abuse. If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out to a free, confidential hotline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255; RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network): 1-800-656-4673; or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357.

How My Whole Life Started

Back in the day, you didn’t need to have a man sign the birth certificate. A woman just said, “That’s the daddy,” and so that’s how my whole life started. I went home and my grandpa said, “Oh it’s a brown hair, brown eyes, brown skin baby. We are white with blue eyes, so what’s the odds of that?” So they got a paternity test and determined that I wasn’t my dad’s child.

My mom was heavily on drugs, and at this time of my life she was a functioning addict. As kids, you don’t see the truth of what your parents are, because they are your everything—the person that feeds you, that protects you, that clothes you. But they got divorced, so I went with my mom and my brother went with my dad.

I remember when I was young, she would just leave me somewhere, be gone for days. One time my grandpa says he remembers when I was an infant, she had me in a car seat. He went by the house and there were ants all over my body. And so he took me. It was always a constant battle with her. She wouldn’t let me go with anyone but she didn’t take care of me either. She’s more of a benefits type of person. She keeps the kids for benefits. How else do you explain that? I could never imagine my kid sitting in a car seat all day just on her back, propping up her bottle and ants being all over her.

My dad remarried and he went on to live with his wife. He checked in, but he wasn’t there for me like a father should’ve been. Mimi and Papa are like my saving grace. My grandparents took me under their wing, more so my grandfather. He didn’t want to be a dad, he wanted to be a grandpa. I was at his house every other weekend whether I lived in Childress, Oklahoma, Louisiana — my grandpa made it happen.

My mom and I finally got down to Louisiana because she kept hiding. A lot of this is kind of shadowed because of trauma. In between all of this, my mom was remarried to a man that was in the military, but while he was at work, she was a prostitute.

One day I come home from school and there’s police everywhere. I already knew what that meant—I’m about to go somewhere…Again. So my mom’s just acting like a freaking idiot. I think she was going to kill herself and her husband was on leave somewhere and he called in saying , “Hey, she’s got a daughter.” And that’s when everything came out. Her rights were never terminated or anything, but my dad came and picked me up. Well, once the case dismissed, what do you think he did? Gave me back to her. So then, I’m back in her care. And now we’re in Oklahoma.

I got taken away again because my mom wanted me to massage her legs, and then go up a little bit more, and I’m like, “I’m not touching you right there. That’s nasty. Everybody else is in there.” I shouldn’t know these things as a kid. What do you think she does? Well, she beats the hell out of me. My aunt calls it in, and then they come investigate. Somehow, someway it was dismissed. I went back to her, she beat the hell out of me again. So do you think I’m going to talk anymore after that? Nope. I was told by these people with these badges that I could trust them. But here I was, back in her possession, getting dragged by my ponytail, starving and being locked in my room.

Without My Permission

I’ve been raped since I was five. I remember the first time. It was one of her boyfriends. I told her about it, and she’s like, “You’re lying, you know, you’re just being a hoe.” When we were in Louisiana, my mom’s clients would come in, she’s doped out. So on their way out, what do you think they did? Got the cherry on top. My husband has said, “Monica, she was selling you.” Oh my god. Yes. That’s exactly what she was doing. How do you go to sleep knowing that a man is shoving his penis in your little girl’s mouth when he leaves your room? How?

I was taken away again, but my dad kept me this time. But then my mom grabbed me and my brother and we were on the run. She ended up giving my brother back but she kept me out of school for about three months. When I was 10 or 11, she would go to work and leave me at this lady’s house and her nephew came in there. And mind you, I’m thinking that I’m supposed to be having sex with men at this point; thinking I will never be worth anything other than laying on my back—that came from my mom at a young age. I ended up saying that to a friend, and her mom called it in to CPS. So I went back with my dad. But by this time, I was broken, I mean, shattered. I had been robbed of my innocence without my permission because of my mom failing to protect me.

But I had this counselor named Julie. She was the softest, gentlest person, and I needed her. I would go in her office raging. She never said, “She’s hopeless. Send her away.” She’s like, “See you next week.” So that’s when my healing really began. I was 11 or 12.

[It wasn’t easy, living with my Dad.] I mean, I’ve seen trap houses, I’ve seen tricks, I’ve been tricked on, I’ve seen cocaine, I know how to cut it up, weight it out, I know how to press pills. And then you put me in this beautiful home with four bedrooms, lights that work and actually have a glisten to them. There’s no roaches, there’s actually grass in the lawn and you want me to be normal? Kids would look down on me. How do you start a conversation with people who you can’t relate to, “Were you raped last week?” That definitely wouldn’t have helped me maintain friendships. I was in fights almost every day. I was put in a town to go to school where they were predominantly all white and not Mexican and, you know, I got called a beaner and a wetback. And so I don’t talk, I just fight. I ran away, and I did my own thing.

They found me and put me in a shelter in Amarillo…I flipped my bag out the window and then I walked out the front door. I was on the run for three to four months. Then I was in Childress living with a boy and he was no good. At this time I was 14. I played wife to that man, that boy. The man’s house that we were staying at always had people in and out. But I was always the one that was cleaning up everything, I cooked for everybody and I just waited for my “man” to get there so I could just lay on my back, because it’s all I was good for. No one ever lifted me up. And if they did, they either wanted me to open my mouth or my legs. So what do you do with that?

Then my uncle found out about me using drugs, so he roughed me up a little bit and then I skipped town again. So now I’m in Wichita Falls, and I’m staying with some friends, going to Walmart during the daytime and I take little rinse offs in the bathrooms and I buy or steal new clothes. Smoke weed, pop pills, party, just to numb the pain. Well, my friend’s brother had a girlfriend and that was the first assault charge that I ever got caught with. And she pressed charges on me. Now I’m seriously scared because I’m on the run and I knew I was about to go to jail. So I went to my grandparents’ house. When I woke up the next day, the sheriff and the CPS worker were there. I was taken to Red River, a psychiatric hospital. I was there for 24 hours and an officer came and cuffed me, took me into juvenile for about two weeks, and then back to Red River.

That Facility Was My Home

When I returned to Red River, I was required to participate in group, express my feelings, the whole nine. However, at this point in my life, what the hell was the point? Talking in the past never helped, and I trusted no one to this point. Everyone that entered my life before always said the same thing, “It’s okay, just tell us the truth and we will keep you safe.” WRONG! The exact opposite occurred actually, and now I was even more screwed up, because at this point of my life I didn’t even care to live. But then, I found out that I had miscarried a child and that hit me deep. How was I even capable of becoming pregnant? If that’s truly what happened then maybe I could try getting help one more time. At this point I was in CPS care and was told I would be going to a girls’ home. But instead, we drive up to a barbed-wired facility where I wasn’t even allowed to wear shoelaces. Game on! I was about to get in fights and get all of my anger out.

I was a part of one girls’ home, and took advantage of every opportunity that I could. I ran away, smoked weed, engaged in sexual activities. I mean, I tried to “participate in group,” but I was numb. There was nothing else that could hurt me, so why not enjoy my life? It wasn’t long before I was removed and put into another facility, San Marcos Treatment Center. This unit was intense. Lockdowns on the unit almost every day. Fights every hour, and not much time to get schoolwork done. I met my match at this place. At San Marcos Treatment Center, I had the second-best-in-the-whole-wide-world therapist, after Julie. Her name was Barbara. We worked through some of it, the pain, that is. We had supervised visits with my mom and supervised visits with my dad. It was always, always bad after every visit with them.

But I never acted out on the unit because I knew if I stayed out of trouble I could possibly go to a foster home. I didn’t want to get any more assault charges. I needed to make something of my life­–because who the hell else was going to do it for me?

I had to face some demons that I didn’t even know were there.

Then I was moved to another facility, New Life Children’s Treatment Center. I learned who I was, just a little bit, while I was there. And the greatest part was that Miss Barbara showed up not too long after too, she switched places of employment. Talk about God is real! With Miss Barbara, I could go in her office and just say, “I think my mom is this, this, this, and my dad is this, this, this.” She’d say, “I think you’re right, Monica. I think that you have a right to feel that way. And so in your future, how are you going to handle this?” We did role-plays, because I needed that. It was brutal. And I would think to myself…I’m too tired to be that way anymore. It just takes a lot of energy to be angry all the time. All I want is peace.

One day, I just decided not to be as angry anymore, and I just started crying. And since then I’ve been crying. Crying is not okay to do all the time, but it is okay to do because it’s needed for healing, to cleanse your soul.

I’m ADHD, but I wasn’t diagnosed until I was halfway through my college career. But I mean, they put ODD [Oppositional Defiant Disorder] on me, they put PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] with lack of impulse control on me. I mean, they just slap you with stuff, names of problems, when you’re in foster care. But we figured out why I was so “woo-hoo.” Triggers. So Miss Barbara goes, “Yes, you need to defend yourself. But you need to evaluate, is this a rape situation? Or is this a, ‘Let me walk away, because I’m better than this,’ type of situation?” She was the only person in the world that could talk to me like that. I had respect for her, because when I pushed her away, she pulled me in closer. She taught me the importance of having and maintaining healthy boundaries.

Around this time too I had a CASA worker who was CASA staff, a supervisor, and she wasn’t bad. She was another one that I pushed away, and she pulled me in harder. I mean, she didn’t care. “Oh, you’re mad. Okay. Well, let’s go anyway, I don’t care about you being mad. Hey everybody, Monica’s mad!” And I’m like “Dang, she’s for real.”

I was in that facility for about a year. Once I really started talking more and I became a model peer, then they didn’t have any reason to keep me. But that was my home. I couldn’t go to my grandparents. I wanted to just stay there. That’s where I felt at home. And now that I finally have a place to call my own, here I was packing my bags again.

“You’re Not Gonna Make It”

I successfully completed my “treatment.” I was now a functioning teenager of the world. The state made changes to my case. I dropped down to a different level of care, from Intense to Specialized, then from Specialized to Moderate, so I had to discharge. So my aunt came and picked me up; she got PMC [Permanent Managing Conservatorship] of me around October—[she had custody of me without adopting me.] While I lived with her, I fed myself, I walked myself to school every day, I walked home. I had patches on my clothes. And she was getting all this money. She never bought me one pair of shoes, no clothes. I just got everything second-hand from a cousin while my cousin got brand new stuff. I know she got that check about January, February, because she bolted after that, on a “business trip.” She left me with my uncle who worked at the factory from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

So I called the caseworker and said, “I’m not staying here. I’m 17 and I know in Texas law I have a right to choose where I want to live.” I said, “You haven’t even been out here to see me once since I’ve been here.” And the caseworker said, “If you run away, you’re going to go to jail,” because I was on probation for truancy. So I had to deal with that. That was fine. Where was I going to go anyway? I was just trying to graduate.

I did a trial of independence, and I self-placed with my grandparents. They told me to come on in, they were open-arms. They said, “You don’t need to be over there crying! You don’t have to go back. You’re allowed to stay here if you want.” So I did.

I did a credit recovery class and I got caught up in school, and I graduated with my class on time! I’m the first person on my mom’s side who graduated from high school in over 20 years. For me it was a really personal success: I’m already a foster kid, I’m already Mexican, I already come from an addict of a mom, I don’t know my biological father. I mean, I had statistics on me telling me, you’re not gonna make it.

Someone can take your innocence. Someone can take your last name, someone can take your freedom, someone can dictate what medicine you take, someone can do all these things, but what someone can’t take from you is your education.

No one could ever tell me, you didn’t graduate from high school, because I did. I was always told, “Oh, you think you’re better than me?” Yes, I am better than you because I made it out with no excuses. There’s no question about that. So, I ended up walking across that stage. My grandparents were there but my mom wasn’t, and neither was my dad. My mom was in prison for murder at this time and my dad was in Hawaii.

I turned 18. I got the Education and Training Voucher (ETV). I accessed Preparation for Adult Living (PAL), I got my laptop, I got the tuition fee waiver. I did all the applications for myself. I started college at Vernon College in 2012, and transferred to Midwestern State University in 2014 to study social work.

Having Olivia

Then I met this guy. And, you know, we were going to go get married, and I ended up being pregnant. And I was like, no, no, no, like, there’s no way in heck I can take care of a baby! Like, I’m so screwed up in the head. He was all excited about it. And I’m like, “You’re a loser too.” You know, we both can’t be losers raising a kid, then our kid’s gonna be on welfare. But I stuck it out because that’s all I had.

When I gave birth to Olivia, she was three pounds, 12 ounces. 32 weeks. I almost died because I lost so much blood, my placenta erupted. So she saved my life because she was in the womb and I saved hers because I kept her in the womb. I had an emergency C-section then she was out and then life was rough. That man cheated on me. He gave me STD after STD. He’d steal all of our money, pawn all of our stuff in the house, leave me with nothing. I mean, the exact spitting image of my mother. Oh, no wonder I fell in love with him: he felt like home.

In 2014, I took Olivia to my cousin’s. We were all hanging out at the house and her husband comes and says, “You want to go see the horses?” He takes me out there. Olivia’s in her car seat and he’s feeling on my legs and stuff. I said, “You can take her back to the house and then do whatever, but you cannot do this in front of my kid.”

So he just took me back [to the house], and when I told my cousin, she confronted him. A week later, he shot her dead in the front yard and then went inside and shot himself in front of the kids.

Olivia got older. I started working two and three jobs while going to school full-time. There was domestic violence with me and Olivia’s dad. I stuck it out with him for six years because I didn’t want a broken home. And finally, Olivia was taken away from me by CPS in 2016, 2017. I thought I was broken before, but let me tell you, when I lost my kid…

Once she was taken, I left her father. That was the last straw, protective order and all that. He was later arrested and remained in jail for three years of Olivia’s life.

A Nameplate-On-My-Desk Job

But I got Olivia back, and I stayed on course. I had to graduate and I struggled. There were days that I wouldn’t eat but Olivia would. I stopped selling drugs. I stopped hanging out with people. I didn’t party, I didn’t drink. I went to work, went to school, got my daughter, I came home, we did homework, we did dinner, we did bedtime routine, we went to bed. I have something finally that loves me just as much as I love them.

In 2019, I was going to get some tacos from the taco truck and I saw Tyler, who is my husband now. We first met in junior high. I was a loser nerd and he was like, the Chris Brown that all the girls wanted to be with. When I saw him at the taco truck, he messaged me and invited me to go to Austin to South by Southwest. Since that time, we’ve been together.

Olivia’s dad got out of prison. I do know that he’s probably going to try to reach out, but he’s never been there for her. She says things like, “I wish that Tyler was my dad and my last name was Smith.” And I’m like, “Well, you know, things happen for a reason. You’re going to have a story one day to tell and help others, just like momma.”

When I was 24 or 25, I got a job at a domestic violence shelter. They only had availability on Fridays, and I said, “I just need to be there.” I felt like God was calling me to that place. Maybe three months later I was asked to do a training at the admin office, because we had to do hotline calls. I guess I was the best one because the executive director told me they had another opening. And I said, “Oh, I’m not gonna qualify for that, like, I’m hood. You don’t want me in here with high heels and a blazer!” But she gave me an opportunity. I worked as a program coordinator and volunteer coordinator. I went from making nothing to making $27,650 a year. I bought my first “mommy car.” I was in a house. We had a backyard. And every paycheck, I went and bought a little something for Olivia.

Then I moved to be a case manager. By that time I was already with my husband, and after a while I got pregnant again. He said, “I’ll cover all the expenses. There’s no need for you to stress, just focus on finishing school.” But being a stay-at-home mom is not for me. I was extremely grateful to be able to focus on school and graduate, but it was time to get back to work.

I finally graduated college in December of 2020. Then I was looking around, and what do you know, a job at CASA was on Indeed.com. My CASA Supervisor [the one who was my advocate] was actually still employed there at the time, so she put in a good word for me. And they interviewed me and they’re being all professional. I’m like, “I promise you, I will not let you down.” They give me the job. And I was like, “Is this a joke? I get a real job, like a nameplate-on-my-desk job, for real?”

January 4, 2022 was my one-year mark for being at CASA. I’ve learned a lot, but I feel like I have so much more to learn.

These Children Are Human Beings

It is frustrating because I know how these kids feel, and I can’t do anything about so many things, like issues with CPS and attorneys. Now, on the flip side, I know what it’s like to have so many cases and not be able to devote so much time to each one. Then you have to shut it off because you have to go home to your family. So I’m understanding why things may have been perceived by me a certain way as a child, when the reality was that I didn’t know the entire circumstance.

I think that if I could change anything about the system, I would start with first reminding people that these children are human beings. They’re not case files. We’ve got to be reminded that we were once a child who was clueless, scared, nervous, anxious, overwhelmed. And then you want to throw CPS on top of it and then you want to say, “Oh, your mom’s done these bad things.” “Oh, you’re not gonna make it if you don’t do this.” I think we need to remind these kids that it’s not their fault they were ripped from their comfort place and everything they ever knew. (But we’ll still feel like it’s our fault.)

There are laws that protect kids, but there are also laws that protect parents. That is frustrating because we have instances, like, for me – they could never prove I was being trafficked, but I knew it was happening. I still think my mom and dad deserve to be put in jail. Kids deserve justice because they’re going to deal with this [trauma] lifelong as they are older adults.

Kids, you know, they’ve got to be pulled closer when they push. Like, with my CASA kids, I get on the ground the same way my therapist would get on the floor with me and cry with me. A lot of these kids are just surviving, because that’s all they know how to do. But they can make something out of themselves. We need to help the kids in foster care learn who they are, how to please themselves and remain confident in who they are. Because when you turn 18, you know what they do? They just give you a bag and send you out the door.

If I could say anything to the little girl I was, first I would give her a big hug. I would tell her she is so strong. I would tell her it’s not her fault. And there’s a purpose for her pain. I really felt like I went through what I went through because I had to break the cycle for Olivia. I think that little girl is still there sometimes. I still walk around, like, I’m okay, and I’m tough and everything. But that little girl… I wouldn’t even know how to look her in her eyes. I would tell her that I loved her, because I didn’t love myself for a really long time.

How Good It Feels to Just Breathe

I look at some friends that I’ve had and they’ll be in the mirror fixing themselves up and I’m like, “How did you learn how to do that?” It’s something your mom is supposed to teach you. All I’ve done is survived. I wish I knew how to tell my daughter, “This is how you put on blush or mascara, or these colors complement each other, and then you throw on this scarf.” I don’t know those things. My daughter tells me all the time, “You’re so beautiful, mom.” If she only knew, behind my skin, I have so many scars. So many scars, and I’m not beautiful. But she thinks I am, and so that’s all that matters.

I have kids at CASA all the time who say, “Miss Monica, I just want to kill myself. My own parents don’t love me.” And sometimes I just cry because I’m like, “Just keep going. You have to keep pushing. You may be a broken crayon, but you can still color with it. And instead of drawing fire with your red crayon, draw a heart to symbolize love; instead of drawing tears with your blue, draw raindrops that fall on flowers.”

I’m a firm believer that when God said, I will never give you more than you can handle, he didn’t. I have a long journey to keep going. But the fact that I have a high school diploma and a college degree, and I’m working in an office where I’m helping other kids, it’s a start.

I want to have a youth center; a safe haven for kids to come and be kids. Indoor playgrounds with mats and a gym, too. I would have an arts and crafts room, I would have a musical room, a kitchen…I would try to orchestrate a scholarship fund, because let’s be honest, half of the kids that are going to be there can’t afford to be there. I would have a therapist who would specialize in substance abuse, family trauma, sexual abuse. Because there are going to be kids that are coming in there who have that going on in their home, and they’re going to need to be somewhere where they can drop that off.

You know, in these small little towns, you have “Ruth’s, best burgers in town.” I want my center to be the place to send your kid.

I’ve learned that people are quick to give up on something when it’s hard. But they’re really, really accustomed to sticking around when it’s easy. I’ve learned that expectations of people are bad to have. And I’ve learned that all that anger I had inside of me was just a wall protecting myself from being hurt again. It didn’t help, it didn’t do any good.

Now I’m not looking over my shoulder, I’m not rushing around, like, “Oh my God, I gotta do this, or I’m gonna die.” I think that life is what you make it. You can have so many negative perceptions, negative opinions and hard truths. Yes, my mom is an addict. Yes, all these things. However, if there hadn’t been so many no’s in my life, I wouldn’t have created so many yeses.

And then this man came, you know, my husband – he’s not perfect, but he’s perfect for me, and vice versa. Now that I have my own family, my own home, do you know how good it feels to just breathe?

*All names changed for privacy.

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Hear My Voice: Monica’s Story

Hear My Voice is a series of first-person testimonies from people with lived experience in the foster care system, created from in-depth interviews. This is Monica’s story, as told to Abe Louise Young and Emma Ledford. Monica*, age 27, tells her story of surviving both child abuse and the foster care system. She shares how she found healing, purpose and … Read More

Hear My Voice: Jackson’s Story

Hear My Voice is a series of first-person testimonies from people with lived experience with the foster care system, created from in-depth interviews. This is Jackson’s story, as told to Abe Louise Young.  Jackson, age 23, aged out of foster care and lives now in Mt. Pleasant, TX. Be aware that this story discusses substance use and a suicide attempt. … Read More

Hear My Voice: Kalynda’s Story

Hear My Voice is a series of first-person testimonies from people with lived experience with the foster care system, created from in-depth interviews. This is Kalynda’s story, as told to Emma Ledford. Kalynda adopted her three children, siblings Ryan, Raeleigh and Raychel, over the course of 10 years. The three share the same birth mother. Raeleigh, Ryan and Kalynda’s great … Read More