In the summer of 1940, my grandmother met a tall, handsome lifeguard at Santa Monica Beach. She fell head over heels for this black-haired, blue-eyed Irishman who won every dance contest he ever entered. Within a few weeks they were married, and almost immediately the fairy tale began to fade.
That tall, handsome man had a violent temper. He had been left homeless by his mother at the age of 12, responsible for his little brother and sister. He raised his siblings by stealing clothes off clothes lines and vegetables out of gardens. There were scars on his head and back where he’d been beaten and burned. The details of those stories were the influence for the ever-present anger that flared for any reason or no reason at all.
Within two years my grandmother had two babies and a husband who, because of his violent outbursts, depression, and lack of ambition, had a hard time holding a job. For a time they lived in a post WWII government work program housing project. For several years that family of four lived in a 16-foot travel trailer in a campground. Finally, they moved into my grandmother’s parents’ home, where they lived out the rest of their volatile relationship. Both of their children were eager to get away from the chaos and abuse. Their son signed up for the Navy on his 18th birthday, and their daughter, my mother, exited the abuse by running away with the first boy who would marry her. She was 17.
My mother wasn’t married long before the excitement of it all wore off. Her friends were going to dances and parties, and she was home taking care of a baby who kept her from having fun. So she packed her clothes, loaded her car, left me with a neighbor on the pretext of going shopping, and moved away with a young man she had only recently met. He made her feel wanted and promised her a new life — the life she’d longed to have. She didn’t know if that opportunity would ever happen again, so she seized it.
In the 1960’s, if the child welfare people could find a family member to take a child, their work was done. So I was left in the care of my mentally ill grandfather and my alcoholic grandmother in a dilapidated shack the size of a garage. The plumbing didn’t work, the electricity was off half the time, and we frequently had nothing to eat.
I think my grandparents did the best they knew how to do, but their best was dismal. The fact that they took me in somehow satisfied their sense of obligation, but they made it clear that they didn’t want me and hadn’t planned for taking on the responsibility of raising another child.
I have a fairly good idea of how they felt and what they thought because they screamed it out daily. Normal conversations didn’t take place in that shack. There was either screaming or cowering or both. There was sarcasm and flying objects hurled in rage in the general vicinity of one’s opponent. And then there were the rage-inspired beatings.
A social worker rarely showed up. So with no oversight or concern of being caught, I was burned with cigarettes, stripped naked and beaten, and suffered second- and third-degree burns after my grandmother threw a skillet of hot oil on me. On one occasion, a social worker did come to the door to find that I had two black eyes. One could be explained away, but two…not so easily. So, I wound up in the care of a wonderful foster family for a brief period of time. It was brief because those people did the dastardly deed of taking me to church, which was frowned upon in the years just after the Supreme Court decision to remove prayer from schools.
My grandfather filed a complaint against the county, and I was removed from that clean, safe foster home and placed back into that filthy shack with the people who made it clear that they wished I’d never been born. You might wonder why in the world they’d go to such lengths if they didn’t want me. The answer is because I was accompanied by a monthly welfare check, a $60 per month child support check from my biological father, food stamps, and free “government” cheese and powdered milk.
Having told this story, I have to interject that there are wonderful people raising their grandchildren throughout the United States. There are people who, when they thought they were all through raising children, took on the heavy responsibility of raising another. Many wonder if they have what it takes — the stamina, the patience, the money, and all the rest of what’s needed to raise good people in a world that has normalized what used to be wrong and that uses words like “dope” and “bad” to mean “terrific.” I applaud all grandparents who have stepped up to raise their children’s children.
The point I want to make here is that in some cases the people who neglect, abuse, or abandon their children were victims of abuse themselves, so placing their children back into that dysfunctional or abusive environment is only going to serve to perpetuate the generational cycle of abuse.
It’s been demonstrated time and again that abuse is generational. In these cases, placing a child who’s been abused into a completely unrelated foster home can be the best thing that could happen in the life of that child. It certainly was with me. The foster family whom I stayed with for that brief time showed me in their living that there were people who didn’t raise their voices to one another and didn’t hit each other. They showed me that there were people who lived in a clean house and had enough to eat. They seemed to enjoy one another. And they had faith, hope, and love — three things I had never seen before. Prior to being exposed to those people, I had no idea that there was a different way to live. Without exposure to them, I could easily have gone the way of my mother, my grandfather, and unnamed generations before them.
Instead of someone delighting in my grandfather and gently teaching him right from wrong, his mother showed clearly that she valued her new boyfriend more than she did her children. Leaving them homeless and hungry showed indisputably that she considered my grandfather and his siblings worthless. Consequently, my grandfather went through life feeling worthless. He made choices that a person who felt hopeless and worthless would make. His hurt, anger, and depression influenced the way he treated his wife and children, and the result was that he raised up another generation of abusers. My mother abandoned me, and her brother was accused of molesting his children.
Here’s my point: If a social worker had taken a closer look at my grandparents and the way they lived, he or she would have seen that they were not fit to raise a child. He or she would have seen that the shack was uninhabitable. Had the social worker checked up on me regularly, he or she would have seen the obvious signs of abuse that many of my grammar school teachers saw. Unfortunately, they were not mandatory reporters in those days. And the school system, as well as our culture, didn’t support “interfering” in what was considered the private family affairs of others. Additionally, knowing that a social worker could show up at any time may have prevented some of the abuse.
Thankfully, things are much different today. Biological family members are not automatically considered qualified to parent because of some bloodline connection. And counseling and therapy is available to the child and family. Social workers remain involved for support and oversight. And strong efforts are made to reunify parents with their children. Given my circumstances, I always wonder, though, about the efficacy of trying to reunify parents with children they cannot care for or simply do not want.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a few words about the positives of kinship placement. Living with my maternal grandparents, I had access to pictures of family. My mother sent pictures to her mother of her and the children she kept and the life she lived. So, although I didn’t see my mother or hear from her, I felt connected to her through the pictures she sent. I knew what she looked like. I heard stories about her — not all good, but they helped create a sense of connection nonetheless. Although it may sound odd, there was comfort in knowing what she looked like and seeing the pictures of where she lived. Because of those pictures, she seemed real to me. I knew my great-grandmother (yes, the one who left her children). She wasn’t a nice old lady, but there was a sense of roots and stability in knowing her. Being connected, even loosely, to these “vertical generations” gave me a slight sense of belonging to a family. I say “slight” because I looked different and my name was different. The family was not a solid, supportive family, but I suppose there was some value in that connection.
An indirect benefit of my placement with grandparents was that, as a result of not moving around a lot, I was able to finish high school in the same school district where I started kindergarten. Having consistent education contributed to a sense of stability that I desperately needed. I found solace in education. I was safe at school, so I threw myself into school work.
In conclusion, I want to thank the family members who take a deep breath, up their vitamin intake, and step up to the responsibility of raising another generation. I know you feel like you didn’t sign up for this, yet you do it anyway. I thank the social workers, psychologists, and teachers who invest in the lives of children who experience the pain of abandonment long after the placement is settled. I thank the volunteer mentors, coaches, and CASAs who stay involved and help provide a sense of stability, consistency, worth, and value to children who have been abandoned and abused. And I thank the churches and ministries that provide respite care and support to kids and families who so desperately need it.
Rhonda Sciortino overcame abandonment, abuse, poverty, filth, and hunger, and built a life of affluence, order, fulfillment, and excellent relationships. Her desire is to help others mine the lessons out of their pain and apply them to their future to create their own success. She has written several books, including Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through and the first in the Emerge Successfully series of gift books, The Prayer That Covers It All. Sciortino is the host of Rhonda’s Radio Show on am590 The Answer in Southern California, where she interviews people who have overcome adversity as well as those who help others overcome.
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