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Finally, a home

There were many houses, but never one to call her own. A girl who has bounced around the foster care system for 11 of her 14 years finds a haven at last.

By ALINE MENDELSOHN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


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[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
After living most of her 14 years in foster homes, Carrie has found a mother in LeAnn Brian. They sit for a picture in Carrie’s room.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Carrie could pack up for a move in five minutes. Each time a family gave up on her and the social workers came, she stuffed her belongings in garbage sacks, or in the blue duffel bags provided by the Department of Children and Families.

Some things she left behind: a bicycle, in-line skates, new friends. Some she kept: an imitation Barbie doll, a photo album, a wooden box filled with letters and cards.

Twenty times she did this, packed and moved and unpacked.

Every time she arrived at a new home, she hoped that this time it would be different. That she would like the family and they would like her and if she was lucky, they would keep her. She wanted to be a daughter, not a foster child.

Then she found the Sunday school teacher and the bank manager, the people she now calls Mom and Dad. For the first time in her 14 years, Carrie doesn't plan on packing up anytime soon. This time, she's staying.

"They couldn't find me a home," she says, "so I had to find my own."

Children of the system

In Florida, 12,280 children live in state-supervised foster homes, 2,329 of them in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Some will eventually be reunited with their parents, but many will not. In St. Petersburg alone, 157 children are eligible for adoption because their parents' rights have been terminated. Babies and toddlers have a good chance of finding a family, but people considering adoption are much less likely to take in an older child. Most want a rosy toddler or a playful grade-schooler, not an angry teenager. Thirty-five percent of Florida's foster children are teenagers, some of whom will turn 18 without ever having a permanent home.

For a long time it seemed that would happen to Carrie, who did not want her last name published. After social workers removed her from her mother's care when she was 3, she went on a journey through 20 homes, countless elementary schools and seven junior highs. The shortest time she spent in a home was three weeks, the longest 21/2 years.

Carrie remembers the kind people, such as the guidance counselor who gave her a smiley face sticker every time she came to his office, and the family who bought her a school yearbook, and the family who scrambled to find her a costume when she arrived two days before Halloween.

But just as vividly she remembers the family who treated her as a Cinderella stepchild, forcing her to do all the chores. And the family who left her behind when they went on vacation. And the foster father who hit her and told her, "It's okay for us to do that."

Sometimes she tried to run away, but she would get to the corner and remember that she wasn't allowed to cross the street.

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The only baby picture Carrie has of herself.
The only source of permanency in her life was the system itself. She played on the steps of the Department of Children and Families building in Largo when she was 7 and attended a caseworker's wedding when she was 13. She learned about family life not from mother and father and aunts and uncles but from caseworkers she called "Mom." These were the people who took her out to lunch and bought her new outfits for the first day of school.

Through this experience she came to speak for a thousand other Carries, kids who might not have bounced around as much as she did, but who are out there looking for a family. At Junior League dinners and social services events, Carrie now talks about all the things she learned in foster care: how to wait, how to blend in, how to make trouble if she needed to, but mostly how to say goodbye.

Some things you never forget

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[Family photo ]
Carrie, then 3, and biological brother Terry.
At times, Carrie wishes her mom had put her up for adoption when she was a baby. It would have spared her a lot of moving around.

She remembers a few things about living with her mother and stepfather.

She remembers being hungry. She remembers being hit. And she remembers the afternoon the social workers came for her, her brother Terry and her sister Tina. They don't know who called the authorities, but somebody was looking out for them. Somebody noticed their bruises, or their ratty clothes, or the filth they lived in.

Along with their few clothes, they took their only toys: Tina's pigtailed baby, Terry's An American Tail Fievel, Carrie's cheap, yellow-haired Barbie. Carrie thought she was going on a trip, and in a way she was.

At the age of 6, she and her siblings were split up and placed with families across the Tampa Bay area. That was when Carrie started getting shuffled around. It got so she would leave for school in the morning not knowing whether she would return to the same house in the afternoon.

The first weeks of living in a new home were the "honeymoon stage," Carrie says, the stiffly polite time when she and her new parents were getting to know each other. But tensions inevitably began to rise. Carrie's attitude often determined if she would stay in a home; sometimes, she would talk back to her parents or start arguments just so they would get rid of her.

Through the many moves, she forged a philosophy about dealing with foster families:

"If you like me, great. If not, go ahead and get rid of me now so I don't get attached."

She defined a good family this way: "They didn't hit me, they brought me everything I needed."

Her mother was given chances to show she could care for Carrie, but each time Carrie visited for the weekend she would return to her foster home hungry and dirty. When she was seven, the state terminated her mother's parental rights, citing abuse and neglect.

That meant Carrie would never again go home with her birth family. For a final goodbye, she and her brother and sister met their mother for a picnic in a park in Clearwater. Tina and Terry clung to their mother, but Carrie refused to hug her. At the end of the visit, her mother gave her a clown music box.

She hurled it against the wall when she returned to her foster home.

"I hated her so much," Carrie said. "I despised her."

She also loved her. Even as a first-grader, she squirreled away money so she could send it to her mother. She fantasized that her mother would rescue her and give her a home.

It didn't happen. With each move, Carrie learned not to let herself get too close to any of her foster families. Often, she rejected her families before they could reject her. She built a barrier around herself, refusing to trust anyone. What if she became attached to a family? What if they didn't want her?

She was tired of being hurt. The barrier ensured her survival and eliminated her chance at having a family. Behavior problems -- performing poorly in school, shouting at her parents, attempting to run away -- led to still more moves. Three adoptions fell through, partially because of her fear of rejection.

Carrie didn't understand. Why didn't the families like her? Why didn't they want her? And why had her mother neglected her in the first place? After the third adoption failed, Carrie managed to get hold of her mother's phone number. She was 12 at the time. One day she dialed the number.

"Hello?" answered a woman's voice.

Carrie said nothing.

"Hello?" the woman repeated.

"Hi," she said softly, "this is Carrie."

For the next four hours, Carrie learned about herself. She learned her first word was "cheese," that she was easy to potty train, that she was weaned off the bottle when her mom replaced the milk with pickle juice.

Several days later, Carrie skipped school and took a city bus to meet her mother at a pier. During the next year, she saw her regularly, and with each visit her idealized image of the woman crumbled.

"She was lying to me," Carrie says. "She said there was always food in the house (when I was a baby), and that we were never hit. I remember being hit. You don't forget that. She blamed everything on the system. I thought my mom was going to get me out of foster care and I wouldn't have to switch homes anymore. It just wasn't going to happen."

Shelter is the storm

When Carrie was 12, she was placed in a children's shelter because of a shortage of foster homes. The shelter, which is in an undisclosed location in St. Petersburg, is a last resort for two kinds of teenage foster kids: those who can't find a home and those who have behavior problems. Carrie fit both descriptions. The shelter is designed to house girls for a month at most. Carrie lived there for a year.

As much as she disliked some of her foster homes, nothing was as bad as the shelter, where she felt like a prison inmate. She constantly had to watch her belongings so nobody would take them. Fights broke out every night.

How could she invite friends over when she didn't even have her own room?

Whenever she could, Carrie got away from the shelter. She often sought refuge in the DCF building in Largo, where everyone knew her and always gave her a hug when she came in. She volunteered to answer phones or help with office work.

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[Family photo ]
Carrie, her biological sister Tina and Tina’s daughter Katelyn.
She also read the five thick files that chronicled her life. The fairy tale image she had of her mother was replaced by hard facts documented in paperwork. Carrie learned that she spent her early years living in a filthy apartment, eating and bathing irregularly. Her mother believed in corporal punishment and exploded into unpredictable screaming and throwing fits. When Carrie was taken away, they found bruises on her 3-year-old body.

Her mother had surrendered her voluntarily to the state.

"The anger disappeared and she finally opened up," says Laurallyn Segur, a DCF program administrator who has known Carrie since she came into care. "We saw a magnificent change, like a light bulb went off, click, click. She became responsible for herself and decided she was going to do something with herself."

Considering her future aspirations, Carrie thought about becoming a journalist. From the shelter in January 1999, she submitted an essay entitled "My Life in Foster Care" to the St. Petersburg Times. She ended on a wistful note:

I moved to foster home after foster home, never finding the one for me. Now, two years later, I live in a shelter, patiently waiting for a place to live.

On the envelope's return address, Carrie dotted the "i" in her name with a heart.

'I did not want to be a foster parent'

To get away from the shelter, Carrie often visited Cady, her best friend from school. On Sundays the two girls attended Cady's church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in St. Petersburg. There, Carrie got to know a couple named LeAnn Brian and Rob Cahoon.

Cady regularly spent weekends with LeAnn and Rob, and often Carrie tagged along. On these visits, LeAnn and Rob would shower them with attention, taking them to movies and the beach and dinners.

As Carrie spent more time with them, she became attached, despite herself. She asked LeAnn and Rob if they would take her as a foster child. They declined. Their son had just left for college and LeAnn was looking forward to finally writing a children's novel. (She has done so but hasn't published it.)

On Easter Sunday 1999, Carrie sat with them in the church pews. In the middle of the service, she turned to gaze at LeAnn and Rob.

"She just had had loving look on her face," LeAnn says. "I fell in love with her."

After the service ended, they asked Carrie: "Do you want to come home with us?"

"I did not want to be a foster parent," says LeAnn, who did become a registered foster parent to comply with Florida law. "I wanted her. I wanted her to have a home. I knew we could give her a peaceful, happy life."

Peaceful was not the word to describe the next month, however. A month after Carrie moved in, LeAnn and Rob divorced. Both say the divorce was unexpected.

Still, in the next months, Carrie lowered the barrier and let herself love and be loved. LeAnn distinctly remembers the first time Carrie called her "Mom." Early in the morning, while Carrie was next door feeding the neighbor's cat, the neighbor's security alarm went off. Carrie ran to LeAnn's room, yelling, "Mom! Moooom! I can't turn the alarm off!" Half-asleep, LeAnn smiled.

"Sometimes I have to remind myself she's not biologically attached to me," LeAnn says.

At times, Carrie and LeAnn resemble sisters, not mother and daughter. For Halloween last year, Carrie dressed as a witch in LeAnn's old prom dress. They share make-up and jewelry. Carrie helps prep her mom for dates and doesn't hesitate to tell her if her hair isn't just right.

At the grocery store, LeAnn nudges Carrie. "That guy is so checking you out, Carrie."

"He is not, Mom."

Rob welcomes Carrie's dates in typical fatherly fashion: "I scare them away," he says.

Carrie visits Rob on weekends.They share a passion for hockey and attend Tampa Bay Lightning games together.

Of course, Carrie and her parents have typical teenager spats. The way she dresses has been a point of contention: LeAnn prefers fuzzy pink sweaters to Carrie's style of tube dresses, spaghetti strap tank tops and blue toenail polish. After one disastrous trip to Clearwater Mall they vowed never to shop together again.

"At first she thought she would dress me up in bows and ribbons," Carrie says.

"I always wanted a girl," LeAnn explains.

Carrie introduces LeAnn and Rob as Mom and Dad; they introduce her as their daughter. But LeAnn hasn't adopted her because Carrie doesn't want her to. If LeAnn adopted her, Carrie would relinquish benefits such as free in-state college tuition.

And Carrie admits, "I'm probably afraid of it still. I'm tired of getting my hopes broken down."

For the first time in her life, Carrie has stability and consistency. In June, she completed her freshman year at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg -- the only year she has stayed in the same school. Her brother and sister live in the area and she sees them regularly.

In a few years, she hopes to attend Florida State University and major in social work. For now she talks about foster care issues whenever she is asked to. Most recently she told her story at a Junior League lunch and brought the audience to tears.

"I'm really grateful to be in foster care, because I know there are a lot of kids out there who have nowhere to go," Carrie says. "I could have been dead if they hadn't found out about my situation."

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[Family photo ]
For the first time in her life, Carrie -- shown here, center, with friends -- has stability and consistency. In June, she completed her freshman year at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. It’s the only year she has stayed in the same school.

A room of her own

Carrie's bedroom is spacious, bigger than she could have ever imagined, with a double bed, a love seat, a dressing table hooked to a circular mirror, a closet wide enough to store the clothes she loves to buy. For sleepovers, she can pack as many as eight girls on the floor.

When she moved in, she immediately replaced the framed Disney pictures with posters of Ricky Martin and the film Titanic, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer calendar and a magazine photo of Blink-182. She filled the wooden cabinet with statues and butterflies and the Titanic music box LeAnn bought her for Christmas. She splashed the floor with a zodiac sun rug bought with babysitting money and surrounded the dressing table with stickers and body spray and Skin So Soft lotion.

She doesn't plan to pack again until she leaves for college.

For information about becoming a foster parent or the adoptive parent of a foster child, please call the Department of Children and Families in your area.

PINELLAS: (727) 893-2810 HILLSBOROUGH: (813) 272-2346 PASCO: (727) 841-4342 CITRUS: (352) 860-5063 HERNANDO: (877) 822-1995

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