Siblings in the Lives of Youth Experiencing Homelessness
Many children and youth go through the experience of homelessness with siblings. Depending on birth order and family dynamics, siblings can be a source of support and strength, pain and trauma, or both. Two SchoolHouse Connection Scholars, Aseret and Danny, recently wrote about living with siblings while experiencing homelessness. While their sibling relationships have some similarities, there are also stark differences, including that Danny was one of the youngest in his family, while Aseret was the oldest. When working with children or youth who are experiencing homelessness, it is important to remember that even if the child or youth is currently unaccompanied, there are often siblings in their lives who play important roles, and who also may need assistance.
Written by Aseret, SchoolHouse Connection Scholar
I have two younger half-siblings, a sister four years younger than I and a brother thirteen years younger than I. You could tell early on in my childhood that my mother had never truly wanted to be anything other than young and carefree, while many parenting responsibilities fell onto me with full accountability. This meant that, while some kids got cared for by loving parents, I was raised early on to be self-reliant, and when the time came, I was taught to be a caretaker for my sister too. I was never woken up for school in the morning, nor had help picking out my outfit for the day, or had breakfast made for me, and I never had someone checking to make sure I got to the bus on time. Instead, these were tasks I had to fulfill for my sister, among many others. This forced maturity onto me that I was not ready for and that I certainly never asked for. Unfortunately, this had lasting negative effects on my relationship with my sister. If you think about it, what child wouldn’t be resentful towards the child they are solely responsible for caring for, especially under such harsh circumstances?
In my pre-teen years, though, the adults in my life began to feel I was mature enough for “adult” conversations and I began to realize the inappropriate and irresponsible lifestyle carried on by adults in my life. This led to exposure to many topics and situations that were far too toxic for me, or anyone really. In these years I experienced sexual assault and sexual misconduct inflicted by trusted family, and my young heart turned quite cold and turbulent. I was trying to continue to be a caretaker for my sister, but in these years I was so fearful of my personal situation that, looking back, I was blind to similar injustices that were happening to my younger sister.
Eventually, my sister opened up about what she was experiencing and my world stopped. I saw every moment that I hadn’t seen before. I saw every red flag and every similarity in our stories. I desperately wanted to reach out to her and apologize for ever being hateful and resentful. Our relationship was destined for failure from the moment I was held responsible for caring for her, but I had always hoped we would maintain good relations. Unfortunately, there were many actors complicating the situation. When my mother could no longer care for us, my sister was entrusted to her father and paternal grandmother, and I was placed with a foster parent. This foster parent had little patience to continue facilitating a relationship between my sister and I. When I spoke about wanting to be friends with my sister, I was told that I would just have to wait until we were both adults. Complicating the situation further was my sister’s father. In many ways, he saw me as a contributor to my sister’s abuse and negative experiences in my mother’s household. This left me feeling even more guilty, even though I did everything I could to balance the weight of both of our survival in a chaotic and traumatic environment.
I was never woken up for school in the morning, nor had help picking out my outfit for the day, or had breakfast made for me, and I never had someone checking to make sure I got to the bus on time. Instead, these were tasks I had to fulfill for my sister, among many others.
During these early teen years too, my baby brother came along and was placed solely with his father. Because of the chaos in my family, once again I was pushed away by my family who compared me to the abusive women who neglected and abandoned us. I knew that my siblings needed me as we navigated court and family feuds, especially my sister. But ultimately, I had no choice but to back away. I made the painful decision to withdraw apathetically from attempts to be in my siblings’ lives, because family would always prevent me from connecting with them, and I chose to focus on my life and professional development.
I used to think that walking away from family meant walking away from them permanently and never coming back, and for some people this is true. But for me, what I’ve come to realize is that I was walking away from the situations I was forced to endure, not the relationships burdened by those traumatic experiences. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my childhood now. I am now in college and balancing my life to the best of my ability. I look back on younger me and I remember that I was a traumatized child who was struggling to escape domestic abuse, depression, and suicide. I was barely surviving myself. I did the best I could with the circumstances that were handed to me and ultimately, I survived and I continue healing everyday.
In many ways, I had always seen school as an opportunity to increase my self-worth, my self-esteem, and better my chances of uplifting myself in life, but I eventually came to see school as an exit plan. Through education, I have created a better life for myself and I am now in a position to help my siblings do the same. Though our relationships are, to this day, virtually nonexistent, I now have the ability to mend these relationships. In this too, I have learned that uplifting yourself and bettering yourself does not make you a selfish person. I know that eventually, I can help both myself and my siblings break these generational chains, but I have learned that in order to do that, I have to focus on my own journey and build a foundation of a better life for myself to one day be able to have the resources to help them; this taught me the importance of timing.
Without connecting with a Guardian Ad Litem or McKinney-Vento Liaison, I had no one standing up for my side of the story, I had no one to facilitate visitations between my sister and I, no one to help make sure I could afford school and food, and no one to make sure I got to finish high school as a kid.
If my story resonated with any part of yours, I want you to know that you are not alone. It is so easy to stay silent and shut off from others when you are forced to grow up too fast. I felt like an adult and felt I had to act as one. As a child caretaker, I felt pressure to be more mature all the time and to focus on maintaining appearances rather than my own wellbeing. Children deserve to be cared for, yet parental mindsets like “I have kids to take care of my kids” seem far too frequent and young children are plagued by parenting duties. If I could go back to tell myself don’t be silent, don’t protect them, I don’t know what world I would be in now.
I had been under governmental supervision and in foster care for years before any school social worker found me, not sure how, but I know I made it hard for anyone to know the truth. I lied with a smile all too often, for fear of being separated from my sister or worse still, no one standing up for me when I did tell the truth. My silence made these fears a reality. My sister and I were indeed separated and given little opportunity to associate. Without connecting with a Guardian Ad Litem or McKinney-Vento Liaison, I had no one standing up for my side of the story, I had no one to facilitate visitations between my sister and I, no one to help make sure I could afford school and food, and no one to make sure I got to finish high school as a kid. With this too, there was no one who ever explained to me that not every adult was on my parents’ side. I could have reached out at any point during my abuse, been honest, and it would not have resulted in me getting in trouble by my parents.
This reflection is not just something I wish I could go back and tell myself, but a list of things that I wish someone had told me. There is a bubble we exist in, where the status quo lives and everything is light hearted, and this is the presentation we take with us always. Whether you are younger me, or you are one of those liaisons that didn’t see me, I want you to know that you need to pop your bubble. Your bubble doesn’t protect you, it is just a translucent rainbow to hide your truths from the world. Whether those truths be advice and help to struggling young people or those truths be about your life and wellbeing, it matters that they be seen, it matters that they are heard.