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MARIA'S CHOICE

Teenage dreams, adult decisions

As her time in foster care nears its end, an 18-year-old recognizes her limited options

Second of two parts

CHELSEA -- Sitting on her canopy bed in her foster home, Maria Medina stole some moments to herself before a weekend of 'round-the-clock babysitting for her sister's two children.

Her sister Aida, 19, had been scrambling to find a place in a homeless shelter. Maria also was worried about her younger sister, who is 16 and on the run again.

She tried to put these anxieties out of her mind. Alone in her bedroom on this early August evening, she straightened her bedspread and organized the picture frames on her dresser.

Then the phone rang.

It was Jessica Marrero, her best friend, speaking in a breathless voice, her words tumbling over each other, Maria recalled. After a long wait, Marrero had secured a subsidized two-bedroom apartment on Geneva Avenue in Dorchester, a way for the two of them to achieve their childhood dream of having their own place. The apartment was in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods and needed work, Jessica told her, but they could fix the place up. They would split the $200 a month in rent.

''Now you can live with me!" her 21-year-old friend exclaimed over the phone.

Jessica's offer came just as Maria, exhausted by the demands of her family, knew she had to make a decision about her future. In less than two weeks Maria would turn 18, the age when the state was no longer obligated to care for foster children. She is among the 25,000 foster children across the country who lose the unconditional support of the government simply because they are no longer minors.

Maria can ask to stay longer in foster care, but the support can be revoked if she fails to stay in school, get a part-time job, meet regularly with her social workers, and follow the rules of her foster home.

In many ways, Jessica's offer was perfect. It was affordable, and living with her best friend was what she had long wanted to do. There was also something liberating about cutting off ties with the state Department of Social Services, ending the constant monitoring of her life by a succession of social workers.

Maria also knew the honeymoon period in her Chelsea foster home had ended. Her foster mother would be on her back every day about improving her grades.

But something told Maria that Jessica's offer wasn't ideal, either. Moving to Dorchester from Chelsea meant switching high schools. Although Maria's foster mother nagged her about studies, she had a spacious, well-run house with a big bedroom for Maria. And while Maria wanted a break from babysitting demands, Jessica's apartment would probably include some child care: Jessica has a 1-year-old daughter.

Maria's state social worker was scheduled to come to her home soon, bringing a contract she would need to sign to extend her time in foster care. Maria wished she had the power to put off her 18th birthday by a year or more.

''I didn't think this day would come so soon," she said.

A heavy task

When Maria needed a release from her pressured life, she found it during her weekly visits to the Quincy office of Ana Margarita Cebollero, a therapist she began seeing at her foster mother's initiative. Maria instantly took to this petite, 70-year-old, relaxing in the black sofa chair and talking as freely to her in Spanish as in English. Cebollero, who earned her doctorate in psychology while raising four children, has decades of experience counseling Latino teenagers.

During the visits, Cebollero urged Maria to stay focused on her personal dreams -- and Maria was increasingly wondering if that meant she should remain longer in foster care.

When Cebollero first met Maria, she could see her struggling to rescue her family, yet feeling it was an ''incredible responsibility and a heavy task." Cebollero noticed that Maria felt particularly attached to the 18-month-old daughter of her older sister Aida, because, in that girl, ''she sees herself." She sees her niece as a vulnerable child at risk of being neglected by an overwhelmed mother -- and Maria cannot bear to turn her back on this girl.

''That, for me, is the big challenge," Cebollero said in describing her sessions with Maria. ''How can she learn to be responsible to her family without sacrificing herself? Using the energy for herself and her own development. It's not an easy task."

Cebollero said her goal was to help Maria focus on school and to see that ''the only way to do something different is to have an education." And for that, Maria cannot simply wish to be a hard-working student.

''One thing is wanting to be," Cebollero said. ''The other thing is the push for it."

Six more months

It was a blistering August morning as a small meeting convened in the living room of Maria's foster mother, Julie Muse. Fans blew air around the room. Beverages and snacks sat on the coffee table. It was Aug. 8, a week before Maria's 18th birthday, and social workers had arranged a meeting for her to sign a six-month contract to extend her care.

Sitting on one couch was Bevin Williams, Maria's 26-year-old social worker, holding documents with a pen in hand. On another couch was Maria's sister Aida, still in her nightgown after staying there for the weekend with her two children. Aida held her 4-month-old baby boy, while Maria's foster mother offered toys to Aida's daughter.

Maria came downstairs and took a seat next to her social worker. Maria wore a new ring, adorned with the letters spelling ''Hiram," which her boyfriend had given her the week before. She wore a hot-pink tank top and blue jeans, with her hair was combed back perfectly.

After chatting about the summer, the social worker got down to business with questions about the contract Maria had been given.

''Did you get a chance to look over it?" asked Williams. ''Any questions?"

''No," Maria replied.

According to the document, for Maria to obtain support for the next six months, she would have to attend school daily, complete her homework, attend weekly therapy, maintain a part-time job, and follow the ''rules of the home and accept appropriate consequences." She would also have to meet monthly with her social worker.

Maria quietly nodded.

At her foster mother's urging, Maria told her social worker about the recent offer to split an apartment with Jessica.

''What did you say?" Williams asked.

Maria paused.

''I told her not yet," Maria said looking directly at Williams. ''I need to finish school first."

''Good! That's awesome," Williams said. ''That's an unusual decision to make."

Williams said she knows so many teenagers who desperately want independence.

''I always said I was going to move in with her," Maria said with a small smile.

Her foster mother said she knew this wasn't an easy decision for Maria.

''I don't think I would have been that smart at her age," Muse said, as she handed Aida's daughter some blocks.

The social worker returned to the paperwork.

''This voluntary is good for six months, until February of next year," Williams told Maria. ''Then it can be extended."

Maria took the documents, her leg shaking as she read over them. She craved freedom but knew she had no good place to go. She didn't have her family to fall back on, Jessica's place was not practical, and her boyfriend's family's home just didn't make sense. The best option, it seemed, was to stay put.

''You can also tell me if you decide that you don't want to be anymore in the department," Williams said.

Maria sighed. Without expression, she signed her name to the document.

''I hope I'm doing the right thing," she said.

Turning 18

Aug. 16 was Maria's 18th birthday, but she treated it as just another day. For many teens, turning 18 is time to celebrate new adult legal rights: to vote, to sign contracts, to approve medical care, even to buy cigarettes. But Maria wanted this day to come as late as possible, so she decided she would celebrate her birthday on Aug. 17, a day late, as her family had done since she was born. In one of the many mistakes her parents made, they remembered her birth date wrong.

Earlier that week, as an early birthday present, her boyfriend had given Maria a pair of black Adidas sneakers. Her foster mother said she would buy her a massage, which Maria had never had before, and make a lasagna dinner with an ice-cream birthday cake. They planned it for Aug. 17.

Though Maria felt she ought to be starting her required summer reading, she spent much of the day babysitting her niece. She also nursed an eye infection with an antibiotic cream. A couple of days earlier, Hiram had driven her to a Boston medical clinic, where they examined her irritated eyes.

By early evening, when Maria went back to her foster home, her face lit up in surprise when she heard one of the voice-mail messages.

''Happy Birthday Maria! I hope you have a wonderful day," said Cebollero, her therapist.

After spending that evening with Hiram, Maria received a message from Aida, who was staying temporarily at an old boyfriend's house. ''Mommy wants to speak to you," she said.

Later Maria went to Hiram's car, where she retrieved a white paper napkin on which she had once scribbled her mother's cellphone number. On previous birthdays Maria had barely spoken when her mother called, or had not returned a message. But this year Maria dialed her mother's phone.

''Hi," Maria said flatly.

Then she paused to listen to her mother.

''A cell? Well, thank you."

On the other end of the line, her mother -- the woman Maria had once declared to be ''nothing to me" -- asked when she could come to pick up the birthday gift.

A reunion

The next day, Maria slowly approached the driveway of a Brockton house where she and her mother had arranged to meet for the gift-giving. She straightened her clothes. She saw her mother standing there with a large gift bag adorned with Minnie Mouse pictures.

''Do you still like Minnie Mouse?" her mother asked with a smile, handing her the bag with the gift and two cards inside.

Maria returned the smile politely.

Maria Boria, now 37, wore a black strapless top, colorful army pants, and black boots. Her boyfriend, who is from the Dominican Republic and speaks little English, waited nearby.

Maria's mother beamed like a parent at Christmas. With a raspy voice, she eagerly asked her daughter to open the bag, which contained a Nokia cell phone that accepted prepaid cards. Her mother noted that the phone automatically included 100 minutes. She couldn't wait to show Maria the manual explaining all the options. Soon Maria's oldest sister, Rayline, whom Maria had not seen in a long time, approached along the driveway.

''Hi, Maria!" she said as the two sisters hugged.

As Rayline looked at the cellphone and gift bag, her mother explained that this was Maria's 18th birthday.

''It is?! Happy Birthday!" said Rayline, 20, who is known among the sisters as the most streetwise and has stayed close with her mother. At one point, Rayline wanted to use Maria's new cellphone to call for pizza delivery. Maria's mother objected, saying it would gobble up Maria's precious minutes. Rayline accused her mother of always treating Maria special.

By the end of the one-hour visit, Maria said her foster mother was planning a lasagna dinner that night.

''Do you want to come?" Maria asked tentatively.

Her mother thought for a moment, then said her car was acting up and she couldn't make the trip to Chelsea. Maria nodded.

When Maria said she had to leave to help her foster mother prepare dinner, Maria's mother urged her to stay in touch.

''Remember I do have the number. . . . I wrote it in my notebook," her mother giggled as if she had mischievously stolen information. ''But I won't be calling you unless you call me."

As the two hugged and kissed goodbye, Maria's mother told her, ''I love you."

Maria did not say anything back.

An uphill climb

A week later, Maria eagerly approached the medical building in Quincy where her therapist has her practice. There, sitting in the black sofa chair, she told Cebollero about her mother's gifts and cards, Maria recalled. A phrase in one of her mother's cards echoed in her mind.

''I hope someday you forgive me for not being with you when you needed me most," it read in part. ''But I want you to know you are always in my mind and in my heart. . . . I wish on a star that you come to me someday and tell me that you forgive me. That will be the happiest day of my life."

Maria told her therapist she wasn't sure she was ready, genuinely, to forgive her mother. But she did feel her hostility diminish that day. She talked about seeing her mother, for the first time, as someone who will never be the woman Maria wishes she could be.

After all these years, Maria said, she still clung to some hope that she could change her mother. She realized she spent a lot of energy defining herself in relation to her mother, trying to be the opposite of her image of her mother. Maria also tried to prevent Aida from repeating her mother's mistakes. But on that day in Brockton, Maria knew she had to stop dwelling on painful disappointments and look to her own future.

''In the past if I was upset or crying, about anything, I'd say it was all her fault," Maria said. ''But now I realize that she is the way she is."

Even with a better understanding of her past, Maria said she knows life will continue to be a struggle. She is one wrong decision away from being on her own -- and faces an uphill climb to be the first in her family to earn a high school diploma. But she refuses to be ashamed of having fallen behind in school. At the very least, she said, she is an honest and caring person. She strives to be a role model for her youngest siblings, four of whom have been adopted by families in the Boston area and regularly stay in touch with her.

''Nobody knows what I've been through," she said. ''At least I'm nothing like my parents. I don't drink, do drugs, or get into trouble. And I don't have kids that I can't take care of."

On the first day of school at Chelsea High, a light drizzle fell as hundreds of students spilled out of the brick building. They carried backpacks, umbrellas, and cellphones. Maria left the school with her new green binder and cellphone, which she promptly used to call Hiram at his job at the car-rental agency.

''I'm exhausted!" she told him.

Maria had tossed and turned all night before school started. She was too nervous to eat breakfast and could drink only a cup of juice and eat a bag of chips at lunch. Facing seven new classes was so overwhelming that she almost wished she didn't have to show up.

But wearing a new pair of jeans and a new black top that she bought the week before, she appeared at her homeroom to receive her new class schedule. It included American history and geometry, the two classes she has to repeat this year. Although she worried that failing both of those classes last year would keep her stuck at sophomore status, Maria was delighted to see that her schedule listed her as being in 11th grade.

'This is my life'

Maria sees Aida and her children far less often lately. Several weeks ago they moved to a homeless shelter in Worcester, 50 miles from Chelsea. Maria has decided the distance is a good thing to give her more ''space" to focus on school. For Maria's birthday, Aida gave her $20, which Maria had put toward a new backpack for school.

Since the start of classes, Maria has talked to her math and chemistry teacher about getting extra help on homework assignments.

Her boyfriend, Hiram, encouraged her to ask for extra tutoring to make sure she will one day triumphantly wave her high school diploma. He dropped out of Chelsea High as a junior and doesn't want her to repeat that mistake.

Maria now has 57 credits at Chelsea High and needs 120 to graduate.

''I know this isn't going to be easy," she said. ''But this is my life."

End of series

Patricia Wen can be reached at Wen@globe.com

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