Surviving Trauma: Separating Siblings in Foster Care Can Be Cruel

BY IJEOMA OKERE
URBAN HEALTH MEDIA PROJECT

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Growing up in the city’s foster care system, Lisa Cohen bounced between 13 different families over 19 years.

Now 52 and a former boxing champion and motivational speaker in northwest Washington, D.C., Cohen never had a birthday party as a child, and has almost no family photos. She and her four brothers were placed in foster care when her mother was deemed abusive and unfit to care for them.

Through all the changes, there was only one thing that made Cohen feel she had any kind of permanence: She was able to be with two of her younger brothers most of the time when she  was in the  custody of child welfare services. Cohen is the youngest of five children; she has four brothers. When she lived in her first foster home, she lived there with her four brothers. After moving to the second foster home, Cohen’s two oldest brothers were removed, and she stayed there with the two youngest ones. Later on, as her  younger brothers were placed in different homes, or after the two older ones ran away to live with their birth mother and later she lost a connection with them, her sense of “home” evaporated. 

“It got hard when Jeff turned 13, and I turned 12, because he’s all I had,” she recalled about a turning point in her childhood. “We had travelled all around, and we were very very tight. … It was the sixth move, he was moved out and they separated us, and that was when I  really had to switch on the coping mechanism.”

She said she became depressed and angry, and felt like decisions such as when and why she had to move out of a home, particularly after she became comfortable and felt welcomed and loved, were unnecessary and cruel.

“The way I dealt with it, when I was able to join things in school, I’d join the band, and ran track, or softball, “ she said, also noting that she participated in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) among other activities. “I hated track, but I ran track because I just didn’t want to go home.”

With each move, she learned not “to get attached to things.”

Lisa Cohen, a Rotarian, a former boxing champion and motivational speaker, devotes a lot of time trying to encourage youth who currently live in the foster care system. Credit: Courtesy of Sierra Lewter

“I understand that any and every thing that you have is short term,” she said. “Only thing you’d want to keep is people.”

She said, growing up though, she didn’t want to make friends because “I’d make friends and move and you didn’t see them again.”

Foster care can be tough on children

“Children placed in foster care or adopted from foster care, compared to their counterparts, were more likely to experience parental divorce or separation, parental death, parental incarceration, parental abuse, violence exposure, household member mental illness, and household member substance abuse,” according to a 2017 research article published in ScienceDirect. “These children were also more likely to experience ACEs than children across different thresholds of socioeconomic disadvantage (e.g., children in households with incomes below the poverty line) and across different family structures (e.g., children in single-mother families).”

When Cohen was born at Freedmen’s Hospital (nowHoward University Hospital), as an infant, she was placed in St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home (now known as St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families in Hyattsville, Md.). At the time, her mother was being treated at now-closed St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility in southeast Washington, D.C., and her brothers lived at now-closed Junior Village, an orphanage in the city’s southwest area. Many children moved there when they were removed from their families because of the conditions of their households.

Once she realized there was more to life and that the only way she would be able to accept the hand she was dealt was by finding help elsewhere, Cohen was able to find two incredibly helpful psychologists who both treated her.  “They were a godsend,” she said, adding that “they really helped me keep a realistic perspective on things even though everything I’ve been through seemed unreal.”

Cohen makes up for some of her losses by celebrating milestones and family moments with her husband, Neil, and two adult children from a previous marriage – a son who serves as a captain in the Army, a pilot in the National Guard, and a contractor for the State Department; and a daughter who’s a social worker. She’s finishing up a master’s at American University, and enjoys being civically engaged through her Rotary Club.

Lisa Cohen, a Rotarian, a former boxing champion and motivational speaker, devotes a lot of time trying to encourage youth who currently live in the foster care system. Credit: Courtesy of Sierra Lewter

In 2015, she also published a book about her experiences,“Being Too Fierce,” as a way to tell her story of trauma and how she has dealt with it. The book title comes from her boxing name when she fought professionally from 1996 through 2003 – Lisa “Too Fierce” Foster.  During her career, she won the Intern

ational Female Boxing Association Junior Featherweight World Title. The book title also speaks to her athleticism, a persistent cautiousness and protectiveness she had to adopt as growing up. She endured physical, sexual and mental abuse, a detachment from her birth mother and constant uncertainties that something small that happened in a foster home would result in an abrupt reassignment.

“There were times I even had to stop writing and turn away because it was too much,” she said about the book that features excerpts from her foster care files and painful recollections of her childhood.

The coronavirus pandemic has renewed her passion for advocating for foster youth.

“My heart hurts for them right now. You already feel like you’re in a prison during regular times,” she noted the exception if they have supportive caregivers or encounter compassionate adults such as counselors and a judge who routinely heard her cases. “I truthfully know that all these (foster) homes that look pretty on the outside are really not like that.”

Editor’s note: Ijeoma Okere is a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. She was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s fall 2020 workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma, which was sponsored by The National Council for Behavioral Health (www.thenationalcouncil.org).

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