Wednesday, January 24, 2007

23 year old sister raises her younger brother, to spare him from being in foster care

Brave sister saves her youngest sibling from foster care
A teen fights for custody of her brother so that he does not share the same fate as the rest of their family

Staten Island Advance, Jan. 23, 2007.

Sometimes I come across another single parent whose life is far more interesting than mine . . .
At 18, Heather Hazen had everything to look forward to. She was a freshman at University of California, Santa Cruz, had a devoted boyfriend and pondered a career making documentaries. The future was bright, with endless possibilities. It was a far cry from the dark childhood she had left behind.

Heather's mother was an alcoholic and drug addict on welfare who abused and neglected her five children, all from different fathers. Heather was just 3 when she was first removed from her home. For the next 15 years, she bounced in and out of foster care and endured the heartbreak of three failed adoptions.

"It's very grueling," she says of the state's overstretched foster care system. The Los Angeles Times reports that of the 75,000-plus children under the state's foster care program, one-quarter will become homeless, one-quarter will go to prison and one-third will be on welfare within four years of exiting at 18. Three of Heather's siblings, who became "very violent people," are now in prison.

What saved Heather was the deep bond she shared with Justin, her youngest brother by eight years, who lived with their abusive mother. The neglect she observed was appalling. "I came up once when it was snowing," she recalls. "He didn't have a coat and his shoes were two sizes too small."

Just a child herself, she felt helpless to do anything.

One weekend, years later, everything changed. "I went from seeing the light in his eyes when he was turning 10 . . . to seeing the life disappear out of him three months later." She knew the abuse was killing him.

The final straw? Her mother put a lock on the refrigerator, preventing Justin from eating for 30 hours. Her baby brother was days away from being placed in foster care, the very system that had swallowed up her other siblings. It was unthinkable and Heather had to act quickly.
With only $2,000 -- an untold fortune to a college student -- Heather fought for legal guardianship. The courts would never award custody of a minor to an 18-year-old, social workers warned.

But in the end, Heather did win. This carefree college freshman, still a teen-ager, became a single mother . . . and her life changed forever. The real work was yet to come. Although 10, Justin was 3, emotionally. "He was very abused. I had to teach him how to be sociable, to trust, to love, to conquer his fears."

The four years they lived together in Santa Cruz were difficult. Golden collegiate moments like football games and fraternity parties were replaced by parent/teacher conferences and counseling. But all her sacrifices paid off. "There's almost no trace of where he came from," says Heather proudly. She believes that without her love and guidance, "he wouldn't be far from where my other siblings are."

Heather, now 23, and Justin, 15, moved to Orange County so "Little J" could attend high school with his cousins. Justin is growing into the well-adjusted young man his sister always knew he could be. He's developed a passion for Japanese culture and talks about a future in animation.

As a young woman, Heather has her own path to forge. "We still struggle with how do I be 23 and raise a 15-year-old." But that's unimportant, really. "My goal is that he grows up to be a happy, healthy young man." A smile spreads across her face. "He's my life. There is no me without him anymore."

Lynn Armitage's column appears on Tuesdays in the Relationships section of the Staten Island Advance. Lynn Armitage is a syndicated columnist who lives in Orange County, Calif.

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