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Foster Club

Natasha asked that her photo not be published.

Natasha Santos, 21, was sponsored by National CASA to serve as one of 12 FosterClub All-Stars traveling the country to raise awareness of the issues of youth in care. To learn more, visit fosterclub.com. Natasha is a freelance writer in her third year of college. Her writing has appeared in Represent, City Limits, the New York Daily News and New Youth Connections.

Foster Club
Photo Courtesy of FosterClub; 2009 FosterClub All-Stars, Copyright 2009, photo by Daniel Knapp

Youth Editorial

On Telling Secrets

Natasha Santos

It was our secret. He and I were bound together by confidential caresses made with his furtive fingers. The summers I spent with him and my aunt weren’t all that unpleasant. They didn’t have children, so every summer they gathered me and my meager things to spend the hot and sunny school-less months on their couch in Virginia. A part of me enjoyed the remoteness and isolation. Quiet moments alone in the grass—and the endless attention lavished on me for being the lone child—weren’t things I got during the school year, when I was living with my biological mother and my 10 brothers and sisters in the projects. A part of me enjoyed having something that couldn’t be shared or told to anyone else. Just a secret for two. And another part of me felt dirty.

It never occurred to me to tell anyone what was going on. It wasn’t due to some childhood naïveté. Growing up on the streets of New York City in the crack-addled apartments of Queens, I was far from naïve. I knew that a lot of bad things could happen if I ever told anyone, but that’s not why I kept it a secret. He made me promise, and “a promise,” he told me, “is a very serious thing.” We shook on it, and he kissed me on the forehead and told me how “special” I was.

But one night my aunt crept into the living room and quietly roused me, handing me the beer she had in her hand and letting me take a sip. I knew the drill; she had done this last summer. “What did he do to you?” she asked in earnest—fear, worry and guilt clouding her face. “I don’t know,” I said. Because I had promised, and even if I hadn’t I didn’t have the words to express how my “uncle’s” hands had been exploring my body. “It’s okay,” she said in a voice that was meant to convey calm and command but cracked a little as she spoke, which only alarmed me more. “Just tell me, what did he do to you?” “I don’t know,” I said in confusion, anger and guilt. I was kind of lying and you’re not supposed to lie, my dad had told me once. But what did he know? He was away in jail for the next six years and could do nothing to help me. She eventually gave up her questioning, after making me promise that I would never be alone with him again.

That was the last summer I spent in Virginia. My mother moved me and five of my siblings to another decaying housing project in Coney Island, Brooklyn. We were taken into foster care about 10 months later. Physical exams and psychological profiles revealed what had been taking place for quite some time during my summers in Virginia. But I wouldn’t admit to anything because I had made a promise to one of the only people who had ever made me feel special.

The entire experience was ultimately filed away into my subconscious, repressed until I was about 16 and began having nightmares and flashbacks. I’d find myself sitting stoically in therapists’ offices and doctors’ examination rooms, looking into searching eyes and confused expressions, just refusing to answer their knowing questions.

At that point, I had the words and understanding that come with age, but I didn’t have confidence or trust in the people deemed worthy to “protect” me. Experiences within the judicial, mental health and foster care systems made me cynical about these people. But my story has come out. In bits and pieces with people I trust, with people I find who have gone through similar experiences and with great editors who have let me write down a piece of my soul on the page to be reprinted and shared.

I was adopted when I was 16, by an amazing family. They took a chance on this quirky “American Girl” (they’re Jamaican) and have loved me fiercely, through all the craziness—and trust me, there has been a lot of craziness. I’ve been one of the few thousand teens a year lucky enough to find permanency through adoption. Having that stability has made me feel more secure and brave.

I think that now it’s time for me to tell my secret, in its entirety. I’m not expecting retribution or a feeling of completion. Just the knowledge that the secret is out there—and that the little girl I was knows that she is special to so many other people in so many other ways.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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