ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

For young people in foster care, one of the biggest hurdles they face is the day they age out. That means they're no longer supported by the system.

Shirley Diaz, whose nickname is Star, grew up in foster care, and she'll age out this fall when she turns 21. As she prepares to strike out on her own, Diaz looks ahead to an uncertain future and back to the violent tragedy that shaped her teenage years. She told her story as part of Radio Rookies, a radio training program at member station WNYC.

SHIRLEY DIAZ: Whenever my parents come up in a conversation, I want to lie. I want to say, all of us live together in one big house. My mother sings while she's folding clothes. My father watches TV and my brothers and sisters are always in my room taking my things.

But the truth is, when I was 13 years old, my father murdered my mother at the Jets Motor Inn on Queens Boulevard. I have eight brothers and sisters, but the six youngest were adopted and I don't know where they are. The last time I saw them was when we buried my mom.

Would do you remember of her?

JEANETTE(ph) (Shirley Diaz's Sister): Everything.

DIAZ: Jeanette is my oldest sister. We grew up in different foster homes, but we're close now.

JEANETTE: Our mother loved the music from way back. She was always singing…

(Singing) Ooh gee, ooh gee, ooh gee…

DIAZ and JEANETTE: (Singing) Get down. Ooh gee, ooh gee, ooh gee, get down.

JEANETTE: I definitely remember that.

DIAZ: Jeanette knows how to move on. She works. She makes sure her kids look nice for school, and she keeps herself busy. But me, I'm stuck in the past while my future is flying towards me. I'm about to age out of foster care.

Ms. TAKEEMA OSBORN(ph): The first thing is obviously meeting with - you have a liaison with housing.

DIAZ: Takeema Osborn is my case worker.

Ms. OSBORN: …appointment with that.

DIAZ: She tells me what I need to do so I can get my own place. But to me it sounds like blah, blah and blah.

Ms. OSBORN: Also, making sure - are you working, Star?

DIAZ: No, I'm not. I don't know how to explain it, but I just can't get myself to care. I look around me and most people are on public assistance. I don't even know where to start.

(Soundbite of knock on door)

DIAZ: My foster home is in the projects in Astoria, Queens. This is my sixth home I've been in — hopefully my last.

See, this is what I hate. You have to wait for somebody to open the door and half the time they don't even open it.

It's not a given to have a key when you're in a foster home. If I have to go to the bathroom, sometimes I have to go pee on the staircase.

(Soundbite of door opening)

DIAZ: Hi, Nana(ph).

We call our foster mother, Nana. She considers herself a very nurturing person.

NANA (Foster Mother): Some of the kids are very stubborn and hardheaded and lazy, and they get an attitude. But you know what? They can't beat my attitude.

DIAZ: I've shared a bedroom with Sheena(ph) and Becky(ph) for a year.

NANA: Get that plate off your bed before the roaches start coming.

DIAZ: Sheena is a drama queen and she loves to dance.

(Soundbite of song)

SHEENA (Foster Child): (Singing) When I get you…

DIAZ: Becky's 16 and she's pregnant.

BECKY (Foster Child): My belly is itching.

DIAZ: So what you about to do?

BECKY: I put coco butter, it stops the itch.

DIAZ: I've had so many foster sisters and brothers — sometimes for a year, sometimes for a week or two. You think I close down to people, but I don't. Like my boyfriend, Flo(ph). You also have the mic, what's in there?

FLOW: (Shirley Diaz's Boyfriend): Flow. F-L-O-W.

DIAZ: He lives right across the hall. He wants to be a rapper.

FLOW: I'm like the most versatile emcee you've heard in a long time.

DIAZ: People are always telling me, Flow don't love you, he's a player. But I don't care.

(Soundbite of kids talking)

JEANETTE: The guy you're with right now, I don't really support that decision of you being with him.

DIAZ: Yeah. My sister Jeanette does not like him.

JEANETTE: You know, like he has two kids and they're mama-drama. He's still living in his mom's crib, he doesn't have a job. How does he support himself? Knowing what we went through, you know what I'm saying, with our father? And, you know, he was an alcoholic. He had no job. And there you go, flashback.

DIAZ: Sometimes I feel like my life is a flashback. Jeanette's always looking forward, but my head is turned around.

(Soundbite of wind blowing)

DIAZ: I'm sitting here in the crib.

Recently, I've decided to write my father in prison.

I really don't know what to say. I don't know if I should write the letter starting with how are you, it's your daughter Shirley, also known as Star. Do you remember me? I do miss you.

To me, it meant something to belong to somebody even if my parents weren't perfect. My mother and my father drank a lot. My father was a boxer in Puerto Rico. He turned his fist on my mother and on us.

JEANETTE: The way he killed my mother is something I never forgot, and I'm sure you either.

DIAZ: But sometimes, I feel like…

JEANETTE: Yeah, right.

DIAZ: If I could forgive my father, I could have him in my life in some kind of way. I tried to explain it to Jeanette.

I just feel like that was an accident. He probably didn't mean to kill her. Maybe he was just drunk and he blanked out, and he just hit her the wrong way, and he regrets it.

JEANETTE: He don't deserve a second chance to me. There's nine children left abandoned. If you feel like you want to forgive him, if you feel like you want to give him a second chance, that's okay by me. But, like, to me, all bonds is cut. Got it?

DIAZ: Yeah. When are you going to do my hair?

JEANETTE: Girl, not right now. I'm tired. Probably tomorrow, yeah.

DIAZ: Growing up without your mother and your father, you have to ask yourself all the time, where do I belong? Who loves me? Who don't love me? You can never stop ask yourself those questions. The truth is I will forgive anyone if it meant they would just come through for me.

Well, right now, I'm in my comfort zone by the river. And basically, I just received a letter from my father. And it's crazy, and he don't even know how to spell my name. He wrote Sherily(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

DIAZ: (Speaking in foreign language)

My father told me to believe in God, send him some pictures and write something in Spanish next time.

But I wanted him to tell me why. I want him to say anything that will make it okay for me to love him, because I felt like I needed to forgive him - like, not only when I know what to do.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

DIAZ: My foster sister Becky had her baby. Now, we share a room — the baby, her and me.

I don't know, sometimes I think, like, maybe if I was to have a baby, maybe it will make me a stronger person, and maybe it would, like, push me to do what I got to do, give me the extra force. You know, does that give you?

BECKY: Yes. Actually, yeah, it do. And actually, it makes you think quicker and more mature. And I think, if you was to have one, I think you'd get your GED diploma fast, your apartment fast, you'd get a job.

She has managed, she don't get the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

DIAZ: Breastfeeding. Aww(ph).

Did it hurt?

BECKY: Yeah, a little bit.

DIAZ: Wow. I think I want one.

BECKY: You'd be a nice mother.

DIAZ: Do you think so? Do you think the baby will love me?

BECKY: Of course, you're the mother. She's going to feel that you love her and she's going to love you back, you know? You're going to have each other.

DIAZ: That's all I need, each other.

BECKY: Yeah.

DIAZ: Yeah.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was pregnant, too. And here's the truth: I was trying to get pregnant. When I saw the heartbeat on the screen, I was happy. I felt like I didn't have to face the world alone anymore. I was hoping my sister Jeanette would be excited for me.

So, you know how you're going to want somebody that is you, you understand? Like you could take care of, and like love…

JEANETTE: Yeah, that was the same thing most people say, but that baby can't love you back when they're small, they don't know about that. You understand what I mean?

DIAZ: Yeah.

JEANETTE: He needs you to take care of him. You know, he's not a doll.

DIAZ: I know.

JEANETTE: You know? And I know how you - what you mean by saying that. It was like to you, you feel right now that you really don't have too many people in your family. I mean, it's like you feel like you want to make your own family, you know, and be loved. But that's not the solution.

DIAZ: I believe God wouldn't just put this here just to put it there, do you understand? Because I do pray a lot, and I was just looking for a way out and, like, keep blessing me. This is a blessing.

JEANETTE: God? I believe in God, too, but you also did it to yourself.

DIAZ: Where do you think I'm going to end up, like, now?

JEANETTE: Well, if you don't use your mind, the way, you know, you should use it, you won't end up very far.

(Soundbite of humming)

DIAZ: When I'm going through things, I sing to myself like my mom used to.

(Soundbite of humming)

DIAZ: I didn't get to have the baby. When I was two months pregnant, I lost it and my heart broke. But in a way, it was a relief. I was scared of raising a child. Now, I just got to raise me.

(Reading) Dear applicant, we wish to inform you that if you do not submit this information…

The Housing Authority is telling me if I don't have an income, they won't give me an apartment. I won't have anywhere to live when I turn 21.

And - wow. I guess, the only thing I didn't send them was the employment certificate that has to be signed, and it's not signed because I don't have a job.

The time is ticking. Why can't I just get my act together? My case worker told me a lot of foster kids end up in a shelter. And if she was trying to scare me, I'm feeling it.

(Soundbite of cars passing)

DIAZ: Wow, I'm moving here in front of a shelter.

After I left Jeanette's house one night, I walked by the Lincoln Inn, a hotel for homeless people, where I stayed with my mother once before she died.

I can't live in here. I can't go through that. I could, but I'm not.

The thing is, when I try to imagine me having a home with comfy leather sofas, a fluffy bed and lots of food in my fridge, it's like a fantasy that doesn't seem real — not to me anyway.

For NPR News, I'm Shirley "Star" Diaz in New York.

(Soundbite of song)

DIAZ: (Singing) I keep moving through the same direction, doing the same damn things in my past. It's right in front of me.

SIEGEL: Shirley "Star" Diaz' story was produced by Melissa Robbins and edited by Marianne McCune of WNYC's Radio Rookies.

(Soundbite of song)

DIAZ: (Singing) It's right in front of me. I - taken away from me, right in front of me. Taken away from me. Now, this is how we went down. I was born in Puerto Rico…

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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