Her first memories are, in fact, of living with her grandma in a housing project. Her grandma wasn’t home much. When she was, she was often unconscious, sleeping off the effects of another alcohol binge.
Her grandma’s boyfriend lived with them. When there was food in the house, he monitored everything Jada ate. Sometimes he would shove his fingers down her throat to make her vomit, even if she hadn’t eaten anything.
Jada recalls thinking her childhood was normal, that all children grew up this way. Back then, she rarely thought about tomorrow. She merely focused on surviving the day.
She tried to be a good kid, but she struggled in school. Her performance worsened when in third grade her grandma’s boyfriend began sexually abusing her, routinely assaulting her over an 18-month period.
By fifth grade, Jada was withdrawn. She didn’t talk to anyone at school and attended only because she had to. She didn’t take care of herself, even refusing to shower. Even more troubling, she began punishing herself in every way she could imagine—from abusing drugs and alcohol to cutting, bruising and even strangling herself.
Authorities intervened when Jada was 13 and placed her in residential treatment and eventually foster care. But Jada didn’t recognize the opportunity that presented until she returned to residential treatment with Family & Children’s Center two years later. That, she said, was the turning point.
“I knew then what I had to do. I knew what I had to change. I wasn’t happy about being there, but I knew it was the best thing for me.”
While in residential treatment, Jada worked with a Family & Children’s Center outpatient therapist. “I remember my first few times meeting with him I would just scream or cry, but I soon learned I could trust him,” said Jada. “He was instrumental. He helped me get through things I never thought I could get through. He really made me a better person.”
Also during that time, Jada attended Family & Children’s Center’s alternative school, which reinforced the structure, discipline and expectations of residential treatment; and she participated in day treatment so her therapy could continue throughout the school day.
Jada viewed that period as her time to change. With a new sense of empowerment, she began making goals, including finding a new, permanent family, and spent the next nine months preparing herself for a new life.
A Right Turn
That’s when Jada met Mark and Beth Simpson*, treatment foster care parents with Family & Children’s Center.
“The first time I met them they gave me a hug right away. I thought this time would be different, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. No one had ever hugged me like that,” she said.
With the love and structure of the Simpsons, Jada flourished. She went from being a girl who wouldn’t speak to one who earned As in school, sang for public audiences and tried out for school plays.
Those outward actions spoke to Jada’s inner change. “I changed a lot. I gained more confidence. It wasn’t just that I realized I could do simple things. I could do extraordinary things.”
And now she’s planning an extraordinary future for herself. Jada will soon graduate from high school with honors and is planning to join the Peace Corps after earning her bachelor’s degree. “I just like helping people, doing good things. I want to be able to open other people’s futures like people have opened mine.”
Even more extraordinary, the Simpsons, who have parented more than 100 foster children over the last 30 years, have decided to adopt Jada, a first for them.
“Jada is very special,” said Beth. “When she came to our family, she not only fit in, she contributed to it. She worried about our needs and our other foster children’s needs. She was immediately so much a part of our family, we thought ‘why not just adopt her.’ Then we realized we couldn’t not adopt her.”
The decision means Jada will finally get what every child needs and deserves. “I wanted a family, a real family. I saw others with that, and I wanted it, too—something permanent, stable, loving,” she said. “And now I know what family means: to care for others and have them care for you, too.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.