By Fred Dickey
Jaymie Gonzaga has taught himself to gentle his mind, but there will always be steel bands causing pain from the past.
is a 55-year-old who confronts his past by helping others recover from
theirs as a college academic counselor for students who come out of
foster homes, as he did. He serves at Miramar, Palomar and MiraCosta
colleges. He lives with his wife, Ann, in Mira Mesa. He has two grown
Jaymie is a small, wiry man with a mellow manner when he’s discussing his students. But when the conversation turns to the mistreatment he personally endured in foster care, his face tightens, his voice rises and his fists harden. Anguish not forgotten pushes to the surface.
As I probe for details, he’s compelled to dig up a grave in his memory. He does not wield the shovel with a light heart.
The only good thing that came out of his experience is that today, college students fresh out of foster care have someone who understands the trauma they often are trying to leave behind, someone willing to give the guidance and support he knows they need.
Jaymie was born into a dysfunctional family, and as often happens, that led to foster care. From bad to worse. His mother disappeared, leaving him and his year-younger sister in the hands of his father.
“When I was 2, my father came home one day to find my mother gone — for good. My father apparently didn’t want to take responsibility for raising his kids, so we ended up in the foster care system.”
Because he couldn't take care of you?
“Or he didn’t want to.”
The effect was to spend 11 years — from age 2 — in a San Francisco foster home under the control of a woman who repaid a monthly check from taxpayers by abusing a helpless boy and his sister. In the language of farming, they became a cash crop.
“My sister and I spent an eternity in that foster home.”
The foster mother and father had four older kids. Jaymie’s sister was put in a second-floor bedroom, and he was lodged in the basement. The two were deliberately kept apart to the extent the foster mother could manage.
He never knew when the hammer would fall, even at breakfast.
“In the winter months, she’d always serve oatmeal. For her own kids, she would put chocolate, milk and butter in; my sister and I, we just had plain oatmeal.
“I always had a hard time trying to eat it that way. She would sit next to me and yell, ‘Eat it! Eat it!’ I’m trying to force feed myself and I’m shaking, I’m so scared.”
We can see the small boy staring into the loathsome bowl. The ominous woman is looming in his side vision. Her older children are watching, smirking, knowing something’s coming. And it does, a heavy flat hand on the side of his head. He lifts a spoonful and forces it down, salted by his tears.
“One time, I was 5 or 6, I ended up vomiting into the bowl of oatmeal. She actually — literally — forced me to eat my own vomit with the remaining oatmeal. To this day, I can taste that bile.” His voice wanders a moment. “I can still taste it.”
Another time of many, in fourth or fifth grade, he says, his school lunch would consist of a half-rotten banana and a bologna sandwich on white bread slathered with mayonnaise. It was given to him each morning in a brown paper sack with his name written on the outside.
One day he threw the detested sandwich in
the school trash in its paper bag. One of his foster brothers saw the
name and took the bag with its uneaten sandwich home to mother.
When Jaymie got home, he was confronted with his “crime” and confessed. “She went to the closet and got the belt. For some reason, when she beat me, she made me strip completely naked. I don’t know the purpose of that. She grabbed my wrist and started. All I could do was scream at the pain.
“Days later, when I was just about to take a bath, I looked at my back in the mirror and I almost fainted. I saw these long, black welts on my back and my rear end. Black and blue welts. I just started crying uncontrollably. I remember saying, ‘Why? Why am I going through this? Where’s my dad? Where’s my mom?’"
How did your foster father react to all that?
“He stayed out of it. It was her responsibility. Every once in a while, when she’s beating hell out of me or my sister, he’d say, ‘OK, that’s enough, babe. That’s enough.’ But nothing changed.”
At school, were you marked as a foster care kid?
“I’d hear, ‘Hey, Jaymie, how come your dad’s black?’ I’d have to say, that’s my foster dad. I felt so uncomfortable saying it, and then they see my big foster mother. Some kids would ask, ‘What’s foster? What’s that?’ It was awkward and uncomfortable, just trying to explain what a foster child is.”
When you’re a kid, being “different” makes you fair game for every insecure bully trolling for prey. Jaymie was trapped between a prison at home and one at school; the first he feared, the other he dreaded.
When the social worker would come to inspect, the foster mother would have Jaymie and his sister dress in their best clothes and sit on the couch under her watchful eye. The social worker might take them out of the house for a hamburger, but they dared say nothing because they knew that after she left, they’d have to go back to that home.
With the wariness of a vulnerable victim, Jaymie was never convinced the social worker was really interested in their welfare, only in checking off the boxes and going on to the next appointment.
Kept apart from his sister, his only friend was a dog.
“My room was in the basement, and they would keep their dog, a chow-chow, in the basement also. I became very close to that dog. That was the only good memory I ever had.” He pauses, then says, “When I retire, I’m going to get a chow-chow.”
As you read of Jaymie’s horrible experiences, don’t blanket-blame the many foster care parents who undertake their job out of love and a sense of social mission. Many of the kids they take into their homes are angry, rebellious and will steal a dollar lying overlooked on a table. That’s the reality, and it’s also them reacting to their personal reality: They are in foster care for a reason, almost always because of some form of mistreatment they endured.
However, it’s undeniable that some foster parents are in it for the bucks. The children become warehouse entries on a P&L ledger. Discipline becomes almost a police action, and love is something the kids understand only by watching make-believe love on TV.
When Jaymie and his sister became teenagers, they were separated and transferred to group homes. Consequently, the two have never formed a tight brother-sister bond.
Twenty years ago, he finally connected with his mother, but the relationship never became rooted. Contrary to the old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder, just as likely, the heart moves on.
Jaymie says his sister was only able to form one enduring relationship, and that was with drugs.
It would be nice to tell you that Jaymie found the caring warmth in that San Francisco group home that had been denied him in adolescence.
Unfortunately, he was put into a repository for fragile teenagers: a four-bedroom house for nine boys and staff. The workers were untrained and had no interest in how the boys were doing in school, or even if they attended, he says.
“They were a joke, only there for a paycheck,” he says without anger. “I went to four different high schools. Nobody required us to do homework. I don’t remember doing any. I dropped out. Most of us (in the home) did. They just wanted to make sure that we were out of the house by 7:30. We ended up just hanging out in downtown and in the arcades, committing crimes, breaking into cars, shoplifting.”
Were your crimes only against property or also violent?
“The most violent was when we’d see elderly women walking. We would sneak up behind them, grab their purse and run.”
The most common crime the teens from the group home engaged in was shoplifting, which they developed into a system with game plans that would make an NFL coach proud.
“We would break into cars. There was a way to use a screwdriver to pop the window. We’d reach in and grab. We were really good at what we did.”
He was arrested at 16 and ended up in juvenile hall. The one person who showed up was the social worker who was technically still his case manager. He recalls thinking, “Man, am I ever going to get away from this woman?”
When he reached 18, it was time to go out on his own — or, rather, kicked out. Foster care paid for two weeks in a hotel to transition him out, and abruptly lost interest.
He was OK for a while because he had an arcade job on Fisherman’s Wharf in which he stole more then enough to support himself. But he was eventually found out, got fired and was soon broke and evicted. Out in the cold — literally — and still a teenager.
For some fortuitous reason, he never got into drugs, though they were everywhere.
stayed in one of these $7 a night flop houses, cockroach infested, lots
of druggies. It was horrible. Then the money ran out. I’m on my own. I
have no job, can’t find work, no education, nothing, and here I am,
homeless, sleeping on the ground.
“I survived on those streets for about a month, eating out of trash cans, whatever I could do to survive. It was at that point when I just wanted to just end my life. I was sick and tired of living.
“I was just walking down the street, and all of a sudden, I saw this poster of a Marine in full battle uniform. I heard these footsteps coming out and I saw this long, tall, lean Marine and he looks at me and he goes, ‘You want to join the Marine Corps?’"
That changed his life. Overnight, he found a home and usefulness. He remembers with amusement the severe adjustment crises other recruits had with the strident discipline and being away from home. To him, it was a vacation compared to foster care and living on the streets.
Jaymie went on to serve his full 20 years between active duty and the reserves and retired as a sergeant first class.
During all those years, something more important, more dramatic, happened: He discovered learning, and he became a man.
Using the G.I. Bill and student loans, he dove into college. First thing, he had to play catch-up and learn what a complete sentence was. He had to learn basic addition and multiplication. And he did. And he kept going, getting stronger as the semesters piled up until one day he walked away from the University of San Diego with a master’s degree in college counseling.
For the past 18 years, he has taught and counseled young people like his former self — realizing that, though they leave foster care at age 18, foster care does not leave them.
When they talk, he listens. And because they know he is one of them, they don’t have to explain.
People cope in different ways as they strive for emotional health. Jaymie says, “One day I told my wife — she’s very family oriented — ‘I just heard my father died.’ She said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’”
Jaymie says he was busy with some task and didn’t stop what he was doing. “It’s fine,” he told her.
Jaymie Gonzaga chose to confront injustice not with hate, which feeds wrongdoing and makes it stronger, but with kindness and guidance, which send injustice fleeing into the darkness.
Next Monday: It’s all about the kids — the foster kids.
Fred Dickey's homepage is www.freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org