Before I go back in time, let me start by saying that I am super grateful for all the people who helped me grow up the way I did. I am proud to be a foster care success story.
When I “aged out” of the system I was extremely lucky that I had a foster family I trusted and that helped me understand the importance of education and financial independence. On top of having great friendships and my little sister Tanisha in my life, I also had tons of positivity coming from the adults and peers I met through nonprofit groups like Treehouse, a Seattle nonprofit dedicated to foster youth and families, and College Success Foundation. I really credit those organizations for bringing foster youth together, whether they meant to or not, so that we could develop a collective consciousness.
I eventually graduated from the University of Washington (Politics and American Ethnic Studies) and have worked full-time since then. I’m now the Program Manager for Seattle Theater Group’s "Nights at the Neptune" series. This summer I helped launch an STG project called Ward Of State, which aims to help the foster care system. In August, we threw a hip hop and soul concert featuring inspirational tunes from and for foster youth. The work was made possible by generous support from STG, Treehouse and veteran producer Bubba Jones and his label, Critical Sun Recordings.
Looking back on my life in foster care, despite all the struggles, I know I was comfortable compared to other foster youths around the state and country, and compared to orphanage situations around the world.
I was abandoned at the age of two at a lake near Ellensburg, Washington, and taken into custody by the state’s Child Protective Services. My name is Martin Sepulveda now. I was born Martin Douglas Penado, the name given me by my 15- and 16-year-old parents. When my birth sister and I went into our first foster home, I was four. At the time, people thought I was suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. I was described as a child with “animal behaviors,” a “hoarder.” I had cigarette burns on my scalp, like my parents had used me as an ash tray.
Until I was four I had sisters and cousins and grandparents who took care of me when my parents couldn't. But I finally went into the foster care system, where I lived with about five different families over the course of growing up.
I say “about five” because my memory is a little blurry, which has to do, at least in part I think, with some kind of weird psychology that I am afraid to understand. This fuzziness seems common among my foster care peers. I am not a licensed social worker or mental health practitioner but many foster kids I speak to seem unable to describe their specific trauma.
Most of my own history is contained in a file, and I recall that history, not from personal memory, but from hearing people repeat, over and over, the story in that file: I was adopted when I was six, the same year I was separated from my birth sister, who was a little older. At age 7 I was hospitalized to remove a cancerous tumor in my spine. (The operation was successful and I’ve had no trouble since.) My adoptive mother was also taking care of two other foster children, who became my brother and sister. When I was about 13, it was clear she was battling mental illnesses and alcoholism which were making her unfit to parent me any longer.
I was about to be kicked out of my adoptive home and separated from my brother and sister when the family moved to the Midwest. After they left, I moved in with a white family I had met at church.
I won't lie. Everything about this was way too hard for me. I remember nightmares and hellish loneliness that made less and less sense as time went on. I remember how hard it was to figure out who was good and who was bad. I really wanted to be able to simplify things that way. Other people (my foster parents, therapists, caseworkers, etc.) wanted to be able to simplify things too. But nobody could tell me anything that I could hear as truth. Not that I didn't listen. But without any experience of an intact family hierarchy, elders just seemed like older kids.
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