BERKELEY (KPIX 5) – Shanita Talton did a graceful twirl as she walked across the stage at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley to receive her college diploma, a bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare. But that accomplishment may be secondary to what Shanita accomplished at home, raising her four younger brothers and sisters in student housing, while working on her degree.
More than half of all foster children do not even graduate from high school and if they do, they have a 1-3% chance of finishing college.
When we first profiled her two years ago as a junior, she already had full legal custody of all four of her siblings.
Growing up in East Oakland, she was only six years old when her mother started leaving the children in her care, leaving for days at a time tending to her drug habit.
“I was abandoned,” says Shanita. “I felt I didn’t serve no other purpose but to take up the slack for my parents.”
Shanita had a different dad than the others but their fathers weren’t in their lives much. They lived in a desperate poverty, with no parental supervision, in and out of foster care. Shanita described life with her mother saying, “she would steal our food in exchange for drugs. She would steal Christmas presents. Bikes…mine and my brothers and sisters.” The money went to drugs.
The kids grew up depending on Shanita. “I grew up bathing them,” she says. “I taught them how to walk. I taught them how to talk. They look to me for a lot of things, and I look to them knowing that someone appreciates me for the work I’ve put into their lives. That’s family.”
Although many of the Students Rising Above are raising siblings, what Shanita did was on a whole different level. She ran a well organized, clean apartment in student housing.
“We’re an army,” she told us. “Everyone is working together. Don’t walk over something you see on the floor. I don’t care if it’s not yours. Pick it up”.
The kids all had jobs: 10-year-old Donald took out the garbage, 8-year-old David did the recycling; 14-year-old Shaunice did the bathrooms, and 16- year-old Stacy did the kitchen. Shanita enforced family dinner.
“If she cooked dinner and we wanted to go in our room and watch TV, she’s ‘like NO!’ We’re going to sit here as a family,” says Shaunice, laughing.
The girls say Shanita is like a superhero, “the only one in their world who truly cared about us.” For example says Shaunice, “she cooked for my birthday. And we ate, but she didn’t because it was such a low supply of food. She didn’t eat.” They remember life before in East Oakland where it is too dangerous to play outside.
That kind of sacrifice doesn’t come without a price. Shanita used to carry a lot of anger about the way her mother treated her. Sometimes she would run away and stay with a friend but she would always come back for brothers and sisters. She tried drugs and alcohol but then decided she didn’t want to live like that. In Middle school, she even considered suicide.
“I would be in the closet; I would have a razor; I would write my last to everybody, but I could never do it. Something in my heart kept telling me ‘tomorrow’s a new day.’ That helped me heal.” Her religion has helped as well. She begins each day with a prayer.
When Shanita got into UC Berkeley as a Student Rising Above and a Gates Millenium Scholar, the kids went into foster care. Shanita would visit them, troubled by what she saw: “hair wasn’t done, dirty clothes, dirty mattresses, empty refrigerators.. cavities”. It made it impossible for her to concentrate on her studies.
Though one out of every five children in the U.S. now lives in poverty, foster children suffer particular burdens as their parents for one reason or another were incapable of caring for then.
“They’re grieving,” points out Prudence Carter, professor and author with the Stanford Graduate School of Education. “All foster care kids for the most part come with trauma because you’re taken away from your biological family.”
A new California state study calls them “invisible”, as their teachers may not know they are wards of the court. Because these kids move a lot, and are most often in our poorer schools, they are at a particular educational disadvantage. “It’s hard to concentrate and focus on school when you’re trying to deal with just living!” says Carter.
That certainly surfaced in Shanita’s family, as one of the boys started having difficulty in class and another broke out with psoriasis. “Shanita was the one who was getting calls from school when things were going on with the kids,” said her counselor with the Cal Independent Scholars Network, Deborah Martinez. “If they were sick, she was the one that would drop whatever she was doing, she’ll go pick them up. She was distracted academically edit it was a lot of pressure on her and a lot of worries. And I just knew after getting to know her better, that these children were really the main priority in her life. And until that part of her life was settled, academia was going to take a back seat.”
This is the reality for so many low income kids who carry major responsibilities at home, and the reason Students Rising Above (SRA) hires advisers to work with it’s students. Says Shanita’s SRA advisor Lorna Velasco, “many low-income students lack the consistency and stability needed to be successful in college matriculation and graduation. Most of these students have had to parent themselves because of the lack of support and resources. Shanita, not only had to parent herself, but was also the mother and father to her siblings, this is an incredibly admirable feat.”
Deborah Martinez wasn’t really surprised when Shanita told her she was going to seek full guardianship, even though she was only 19. She put her in touch with AdvoKids, a non-profit that works with foster kids. From there, Shanita went to work. “I think the thing that makes her so extraordinary is that this is a girl a very young woman, who was never afraid to access resources. She’s got to be one of the most resourceful people that I have ever met”.
With a pro bono attorney, Shanita Talton went to court to file for full legal guardianship of all four younger siblings. She had to prove that she could care for them, and pay for student housing with her scholarship. The Oakland Judge in the case told us she had never seen anything quite like it.
Getting custody wasn’t a matter of whether she wanted to do it, Shanita told me. It was a matter of how she was going to do it.
“I don’t want my brothers and sisters to feel like because they don’t have parents they can’t love or be loved,” said Shanita.
I asked Donald, how he felt in his home.
“Safe, loved and cared for,” was his answer. The youngest David told me, “I feel thankful for everything I have.” Clearly there was some serious parenting going on in the home and a deep understanding of what it will take. Even Shanita wasn’t able to tell me where all that inner wisdom and strength comes from, but the depth of it was evident. “Someone once told me, you run a recovery home, you run a recovery home. Not drug recovery, but you know, hurt children, “ explained Shanita. “Someone told me that hurt children hurt people. I am teaching and raising my brothers and sisters to be emotionally well. What’s in the past is in the past. Don’t sweep it under the rug, clean it up, get it over with. And we’re gonna make it.”
But Shanita’s own healing truly began in Highland Hospital in Oakland, when her mother was dying. “During that whole year when she was in the hospital and I was in my last year of high school I learned to love her… I couldn’t let her feel that, you know because she wasn’t the mother I expected her to be, she was still my mother,” she said.
A week before her mother died.. shanita spoke at her graduation at Castlemont High in East Oakland. “I said, ‘be grateful and be thankful for the people you have in your life. No matter what they’ve done to you, love them.’”
She had somehow found the grace to forgive her mother and begin to move past the anger that she had felt for so many years.
Right after graduation, Shanita accepted a new job in New York City as a family interventionist, with the New York Foundling Hospital. She works with foster kids and families at risk of losing their children to the system. The perfect job, she says. She packed up her car, with the two boys- she’s already found a good school for them. The two older sisters are remaining in California; one has finished high school and is working, the other will graduate in 2014.
She says, “when you are emotionally well, the world is your canvas. You can do whatever you want.” Shanita is busy doing what she wants.
Read more on “The invisible Achievement Gap”
Learn about foster children and graduation rates