Shiri's story

When Shiri was in first grade, her mother was committed to a mental institution for six months for a severe form of depression. Her father couldn't work, care for her mother and handle the kids, so Shiri and her five siblings were placed in foster homes. "At the beginning they thought she had post-partum depression, but then they realized it was much more serious," says Shiri, now 18. Two years later, her mother was back at home and recuperating, and the family's social worker decided the children could return home one by one. But by the time Shiri was reunited with her family, her mother was institutionalized again, and the children were sent back to their foster homes. A few months later, the social worker brought Shiri home for the second time, but when she entered fifth grade, her parents divorced. Though the children assumed they would live with their father, their mother had other plans. "My mother's friends made up horrible stories about my father and told them to the social worker," says Shiri. "And my mother got a letter from a rabbi saying she could take care of us." Shiri's father tried to get custody of the children, but because the social worker only visited the family twice a year, her mother was able to convince her she could care for the children on her own. "Right before each visit," Shiri recalls, "my mother would clean the entire house and be the perfect mother, and since we were little, by the time the social worker came to visit, we had already forgotten the way my mother was before." After the divorce, Shiri's older brothers went off to yeshiva, and she was left alone in the house with her mother and younger siblings. "She had weeks when she was fine and would cook and clean and do everything for us, and then suddenly there would be three weeks when she would just lie in bed all day every day and just sleep," Shiri recalls. "During those times, there was no one to take care of us." Though as a 10-year-old it was very difficult for Shiri to be responsible for all the laundry, cleaning and grocery shopping, the worst part for her was the way her mother treated her. "We were always in competition," she says. "If she would see my legs, she would say, 'When I was young I had such nice, thin legs. I don't know how you got such chubby legs, Shiri.' "Every time I did something good, she would get angry at me, and it got to the point that I started acting out before parent-teacher conferences so that the teachers would say bad things about me and that way my mother would come home happy and I wouldn't get yelled at." Her father continued to visit and provide her with money for food and clothing, and consoled Shiri with the reassurance that the rift between her and her mother wasn't her fault, but the result of her mother's illness. But when Shiri finished eighth grade, her mother decided she couldn't stand living with her anymore and sent her on a "vacation" to live with her father for a month. "It was very hard for me," relates Shiri. "What mother needs a vacation from her daughter?" While living at her father's house, his washing machine broke, and Shiri asked permission from her mother to do their laundry at her house. "She said, 'No, Shiri, I'm on vacation from you and I don't want to see you,'" Shiri recounts. "One day I was back in the neighborhood visiting friends and I saw my mother on the street and she refused to say hi. She pretended she didn't even know me." Hurt and confused, Shiri decided to extend her vacation and stayed with her father till the end of the summer, and though she wanted to stay with him permanently, she missed her friends and switching schools proved to be too frustrating. So she went back home - and soon regretted it. "She was so mean to me then, she would yell at me and not speak to me for an entire day if I left a light on too long," says Shiri, "and everything I did she told me I did wrong. She would hit me sometimes, but it didn't bother me as much as when she told me how bad I was. She made me feel horrible, like I wasn't good for anything." Shiri tried moving back to her father's house, but he had started a job working the night shift at a marketing company and was never awake when Shiri was home. "It was like I was living all by myself and I was so depressed," she says. She went to stay with a friend for a couple of weeks, but eventually her social worker demanded that she return home. Shiri refused, and was instead transferred back to her original foster family. "They were awful, the whole time they acted like they didn't want me around," she says. "They used to tell me all the time what a big favor they were doing me, and I couldn't take it anymore." She turned to her principal at school, who had always been understanding and who found her a temporary home for the remainder of the school year. But when that family moved away at the year's end, Shiri was left homeless yet again. In the meantime, all the municipality's social work cases had been moved to Summit, and for bureaucratic reasons the organization had difficulty finding Shiri an immediate placement. With the new school year approaching and desperate for a place to live, Shiri started asking her friends if they knew anyone who would take her in. Finally, one of her friends found a family willing to take a foster child, and even though Shiri is now 18 and no longer under the government's sponsorship, she still lives with that family. "They are amazing," she says. "They really care for me and treat me like a daughter. They even saved up all the money the government gave them for being a foster family to give to me when I get married." Now studying social work herself, Shiri credits her foster parents for teaching her the family values she'll need to start her own family someday. "All the suffering I went through was worth it to get this family," she says. "I learned what a real family is - that you have to give in order to get. Without this family, I'd probably be on the street today." Her mother still refuses to speak to her, and prohibits her younger siblings from calling her; they meet secretly outside her school. At her sister's recent bat mitzva, her mother didn't even let her partake in family photos. "There's some people who learn from their mom what to be, and some who learn what not to be," says Shiri. "I learned what not to be from my mother, but I learned from my foster mother what a mother is supposed to be. "I'm not angry anymore. If my mother agrees to talk to me, I'll talk to her. I know it's not her fault and I hope that one day she decides she wants to get better. One day, maybe... and if not, we'll live."