Christina's new life*

Catholic Charities of Baltimore

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By Julie Rattey


How do you tell your mother you don’t want to see her anymore? That was the question Christina was facing 12 months ago at age 10. She had already discussed it with her therapist at St. Vincent’s Center, located in her hometown of Baltimore, many times. She had written her mother an unsent letter, as an exercise. And she knew, too, that it wasn’t her decision alone: The courts had already decided to end her mother’s custodial rights because of what she had done. But still, the idea of seeing her mother again, and saying goodbye to her, was difficult to face.

Until recently, Christina had never known what it was to live without fear. Her mother, who was addicted to drugs, had physically abused her since she was a little girl. When Christina wasn’t subject to her mother’s abuse, she was oft en subject to her neglect — forced to wait outside the bar her mother was patronizing, or left alone in their rented apartment to fend for herself.

When Christina was 9, it seemed like things might finally start to change for the better. Neighbors took notice of her mother’s actions and reported her to the state authorities. When her mother was arrested, Christina went to live with her father. It was a chance for a new start. But a new start never quite came. Although he was kind to Christina, her father, like her mother, had his own addictions, and Christina found herself cast in the role of caregiver until her father died not long after from liver failure related to alcohol abuse. Christina was once again alone. Where would she go?

***

The answer came when Christina’s half-brother, Bryan, offered to take her into his home. He and his fiancée Beth wanted to adopt Christina. In their home, they hoped, she would be happy and safe. But despite everyone’s efforts, the adjustment

did not go smoothly. Night after night, refusing the onset of sleep, Christina would scream and sob. And night after night, no matter how they tried, Bryan and Beth could not figure out what was wrong or calm Christina down. Sometimes, in these moments of anguish, Christina would even talk about killing herself. Clearly, Bryan and Beth realized, they were in over their heads.

Since the couple didn’t yet have full custody, Christina’s fate rested with the Department of Social Services. Christina needed a place where she could work through her experiences with a therapist, where she would be with other children who knew what she was going through. She needed a place where she could learn to be a kid again. They knew of such a place, they determined, where she might get the help she needed.

St. Vincent’s Center is a residential diagnostic and treatment facility for children who have experienced profound abuse, trauma, and neglect. The Center is part of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and had been caring for children since 1856. It was there, for the next seven months, that Christina discovered a new routine. Instead of waking up to the knowledge that she might be beaten that day, she awoke to the sounds of laughing and talking, as the boys and girls at the center made their beds, brushed their hair, and got ready to leave for school. In the evening, instead of huddling outside a smoky bar or in some corner of her mother’s apartment, she was riding a bike, singing in the center’s choir, or making up dance moves with her friend Kia. About once a week, she and the others would be taken out by the staff to a restaurant or the movies, or to a sporting event. On weekends, she stayed with Bryan and Beth.

 

***

 

All of this was new for Christina. All her life, most of her energy had been focused on her parents: how to avoid her mother’s anger, how to please her father, and how, in short, to take care of the very people who should have been taking care of her. Now, suddenly, the roles were reversed. People were asking about her day, they were asking how she felt — and they did it without expecting anything in return. They simply wanted her to be healthy. They simply wanted her to be happy. They simply wanted her to be herself.

During the months at St. Vincent’s, Christina was able to open up to the staff , and to Bryan and Beth, about some of what she had been feeling. She had screamed and sobbed at their house, she explained, because she had been afraid her mother would come take her away. She had also been afraid Bryan and Beth would leave her. Now, she was learning to feel safe.

Christina had already faced more challenges than some people face in a lifetime. But there was another challenge — and a tremendous one, at that — directly ahead. The day came when, in a meeting with her mother, Christina’s social worker, her therapist at St. Vincent’s, and some of the staff , Christina told her mother goodbye. It hadn’t been easy. It had been emotional and difficult. But in the end, they were able to talk, and Christina was able to say goodbye.

When it was all over, Christina felt sad, but also relieved. She hadn’t left her mother because she hated her. In spite of everything, she loved her mother. But Christina had started a new life, and her mother’s anger was not a part of it.

Only a year ago, Christina thought it was her job to take care of the adults in her life. ow, at last, she was looking forward to her childhood.  CD

* All names have been changed for privacy. Research for this story was conducted with the assistance of Mary Rode, administrator of Catholic Charities of Baltimore’s St. Vincent’s
Center.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.