Esme Schmidt is among the fortunate. And she knows it. Had it not been for her adoptive parents, where would she be now? In jail and drug-addicted like her biological mother? Involved in toxic relationships? Chronically depressed? Suicidal?
Esme is a 20-year-old honors student at the University of Tennessee. Despite being abused as a foster kid, she prevailed and now wants to help children born, like her, into dysfunctional families and then thrown into a system beset by too few social workers handling far too many cases.
“Don’t interview me,” her adoptive mom, Shana, told me when we met at a local boutique, of all places. “Interview Esme. Now she has a story to tell.” That she does.
With her off-the-charts IQ, Esme is determined to make a difference as a social worker and then an attorney. Her story is a testament to the power of love and the indominable human spirit.
She is truly among the fortunate.
Not an Indictment
Esme’s heart-wrenching experiences began in toddlerhood. That’s when her grandmother decided she couldn’t care for her daughter’s children. She took two and sent another pair—Esme and an older sister—back to their mother, who subsequently got pregnant with Esme’s little brother.
The courts had no choice. Unable to find Esme’s biological father, the Department of Child Services (DCS) placed Esme and her unwanted sister in foster care. Ultimately, her baby brother joined them at their first home.
Esme’s story isn’t an indictment against all foster parents. Hundreds of thousands of kind-hearted people provide loving and safe sanctuaries for children who’ve been abandoned, neglected, and abused by their biological families. Nor is it an indictment against all social workers.
Esme simply drew a rotten hand.
“I know from experience what the foster-care system is like,” Esme says, describing her life before being adopted at age eight. She, her sister, and brother had lived in seven foster homes in the span of five years. “I know what happens when social workers don’t do their jobs.”
Bad and Downright Ugly
At one of her first longer-term placements, Esme, then a kindergartener, was sexually abused by a neighbor girl. “I never told anybody what was going on until I left the home. That’s how a lot of trauma disclosure works,” Esme says. “It’s rarely shared in time to stop the abuse because children are afraid of what could happen if they do tell.”
Even if she had, the abuse would have continued.
Neither she nor her sister were permitted to leave their bedroom unless specifically allowed. They could use the bathroom only once a day. If they needed to relieve themselves, they defecated and urinated on the bedroom floor, an infraction that resulted in beatings.
If that weren’t bad enough, Esme recalls another humiliating moment when her foster mother forced her to eat onions, which she detested, off the kitchen floor. ‘“If you’re going to act like an animal, you’ll eat like an animal,”’ Esme remembers her saying.
The Abuse Continues
It got worse.
“Once she told me she had medicine for defiance. A pill,” Esme says. “She told me to take it. I tried, but it wouldn’t go down. (My foster mother) lost it. She put her hand down my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I was crying. It hurt so much. When she pulled her hand out, blood was up to her wrist.”
Her time with this family ended soon thereafter. Apparently, a teacher noticed the bruises and alerted DCS, which dispatched a social worker to the school. By week’s end, she and her sister had moved to a temporary foster home, and her baby brother to another.
“It was the first time I’d seen him in months,” Esme says. While she and her sister slept in one bedroom, her brother stayed in a crib in the master bedroom. He never left the room.
She encountered similar emotional abuse at another longer-term placement. There, her foster parents forced Esme to wear the same dress day after day, resulting in ridicule by her classmates. And if she misbehaved at home, punishment included holding heavy dictionaries for hours and laying her face against a wall doused in bug spray.
“I’ll give them credits for creativity,” Esme says.
Adoption, At Last
The result? Esme—already at risk because of exposure to drugs in utero—couldn’t read by the third grade. In addition to attention-deficit issues, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She didn’t trust anyone.
But Esme is among the fortunate. Unlike many foster kids whose parents have surrendered custody, she and her siblings were adopted by two people who understood their challenges, provided years of therapy, protection, and most importantly, love.
“My mom is a saint. My dad and I are best friends,” Esme says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, including my academic success. I can’t overstate how much they’ve supported and sacrificed for me. A lot of other foster kids aren’t as lucky.”
Esme’s older sister, who suffers from an assortment of psychological issues due to sexual abuse and other trauma, wasn’t among the fortunate. She moved out three years ago and continues to struggle. “I don’t know what made me different, but I’m grateful,” Esme says. Her brother? Too soon to say.
While ugly, her early childhood experiences have given her purpose, she says. Once she earns her master’s degree, Esme plans to go into social work, pursue a law degree, and then serve as a guardian ad litem protecting the rights of children.
Above all, she wants to advocate for systemic changes in the system.
Abuse goes undetected because most social workers schedule home visits, she says. They don’t make surprise visits or bother seeing children at school—precisely the reason she was able to escape one abusive home. These planned meetings give foster parents time to conceal evidence of mistreatment.
“Someone has to break the cycle,” Esme says. “Only three percent of foster kids get a bachelor’s degree. More likely, they’ll end up in jail or pregnant. That’s sad. I’m one of the few who got out and is doing well. I can’t waste the opportunity. That’s why I push myself.”
Esme is among the fortunate.
Can you relate to Esme’s story? Have the trials in your life motivated you to do something that might change the system? If so, use the comment section to share.