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Regina Calcaterra’s story is one she almost didn’t tell. Rising from homelessness, poverty, abuse and neglect, and foster care to become a successful lawyer, Calcaterra wanted to leave the past behind. “I did everything in my career to move away from child welfare,” she said. “I made sure it wasn’t a path I was going to go down.”
Standing before a room of attorneys, judges, and other professionals at the ABA Center on Children and the Law’s 2015 Summer Conference in July, she told her story—one she has memorialized in the bestselling book, Etched in Sand.
Calcaterra’s involvement with the nonprofit You Gotta Believe, which helps older youth transition from foster care, helped her see her story had power. “I realized it was time to start telling my story so I could show them there’s another path and there are enough resources here in the U.S. to pull themselves up and out,” she said.
She also wanted to remind the advocates sitting in the room of the role they play in the life of a child. “You may never know how these kids turn out. If you don’t continue what you’re doing, there are many who will fall through the cracks, who are going to hurt,” she said. “I hope that by sharing my story that you’re reminded.”
Surviving On the Fringe
The middle of five children, Calcaterra and her siblings grew up in Suffolk County, Long Island. They moved with their mother from apartments to shelters, sometimes living out of cars, behind schools, or on the streets. “My mother would find places for us to live,” she said. “Sometimes these places would be in an apartment or house, but we were never there long because we ultimately got evicted.”
Mentally ill and addicted to drugs and alcohol, Calcaterra’s mother would leave her and her siblings for days while going on binges. They fended for themselves, shoplifting at local supermarkets and foraging food at local farms.
Days were spent at beaches gathering mussels and clams. Beyond a place for food, the beach was a refuge for Calcaterra and her siblings. They easily made friends and played with other children -- coming close to experiencing normal childhoods. “At the beach, we looked like every other child there, we blended in,” said Calcaterra. “It was one place where we felt comfortable in our own skin.”
Planting Seeds for the Future
Hours were also spent at the public library, a transformative place for Calcaterra. There she read books about famous American women – Pocahontas, Besty Ross, Dolly Madison, and Amelia Earhart. The books exposed her to strong women who’d broken stereotypes of what women should be and set their own life courses. “I kept thinking about what everyone was going to tell me my future was going to be... just like my mother—drug and alcohol addicted, promiscuous, pregnant teenager, incarcerated, homeless, and an abuser. Because that’s the cycle I grew up in and that’s what people expected. So I started reading about Amelia Earhart and thought I don’t have to listen to what other people are saying.”
The Devil We Knew
Cycling in and out of foster care became routine. “Some foster homes were wonderful and we should have never been removed from them,” said Calcaterra. “And there were foster homes that were horrible because in the 60s and 70s they didn’t do background checks on foster homes and you can imagine the kinds of things that happened to four little girls and a boy when separated and put into different foster homes.”
Horrific physical abuse by their mother was one reason for removal. Despite this, Calcaterra and her siblings made a pact never to tell anyone how they were living. They made up stories to cover for their mother at every moment because they didn’t want to be removed and separated. “We realized it was better to deal with the devil we knew, my mother, than the devil we didn’t know, the foster care system.”
When Calcaterra’s two older sisters became teens, they left. At age 11, Calcaterra raised her younger siblings alone. Food was harder to secure so she sacrificed so her younger siblings could eat, becoming malnourished and taking her mother’s drugs for energy and to handle the stress.
Protective of her siblings, Calcaterra fought back when her mother became abusive. “By this time, Rosie is no longer my younger sister, she’s my child because I had raised her for so many years on my own and she’s going to beat up my baby.” Calcaterra knew the consequences. “I knew what was coming … if you go to defend someone else, the beating you’re going to get is worse than the beating the other child was going to get.”
The beating she received was one she could not hide and child welfare authorities intervened. When a caseworker asked about scars and bruising on her back, she revealed what her mother had done. “In a point of weakness, I broke our pact,” she said. She and her two younger siblings were separated and placed in foster homes.
During the investigation of her mother’s abuse, her social worker told her she could emancipate at age 14 in New York. After she emancipated, her social worker told her they needed to plan for her to live independently when she turned 18 so she wouldn’t end up homeless. “I remember asking about being adopted now that I was emancipated,” she recalled. “The social worker said people don’t adopt children who are emancipated, and they especially don’t adopt older children. She had decided my path would be independent living.”
Calcaterra remained in a foster home while her mother regained custody of her two younger siblings. While in care, she attended the same school for four years. Her English teacher connected her with the school guidance counselor for help pursuing college. Her guidance counselor told her that getting a college degree was the ticket to pulling herself up and out. While her social worker taught her independent living, she set her sights on college.
Calcaterra attended a small New York state university where she thrived. The world opened. An international politics class challenged her to think about how people lived in countries that lacked resources like a health care system and basic needs like water and electricity, exposed her to the conflicts in the middle east, and uncovered how women were treated in some countries.
“I started learning what life was like outside the U.S.,” said Calcaterra. “I remember a lightbulb going off… I realized for the first time in my life how lucky I was because I grew up as a homeless foster kid. Here I was at age 19 sitting in a college class.” She knew then she could control her life.
Up and Out
Calcaterra completed college and then got a law degree. After working as a partner in a law firm for eight years, she bought a home in Suffolk County. A political science class had taught her that people in power control the resources, a lesson that shaped her desire to be in a leadership position. “I wanted to be able to make decisions because I knew what it was like to suffer,” she said.
When invited by the county executive of Suffolk County to serve as his chief executive, at first she questioned his choice. “Really, you want me to help you run the county where I was raised as a homeless kid,” she asked. When he told her he couldn’t think of anyone better, it dawned on her, “Guess who’s got the resources now?”
Two weeks into the job, she read an article about a semifinalist in a high school academic competition. The student was living in a homeless shelter with her parents and siblings. Calcaterra called the county commissioners, asking what they could do. A subsidized home was renovated for them and a scholarship was created to help the student attend college. The story drew media attention and a visit with President Obama.
Ten months later, Hurricane Sandy devastated many homes in Suffolk County, leaving many families homeless. Calcaterra found homes for the displaced families, a monumental task but one she found meaningful.
Through Calcaterra’s journey, many people touched her life. In one foster home she’d been given two baby Jesus figurines, which she held onto for years. “I knew whoever it was who gave them to me loved me and I was loved once,” she said. The figurines went into a bag of personal items she took from foster home to foster home. Another item in the bag was a fifth grade autograph book, which a favorite teacher who believed in her had signed. Many parents took her home, along the way teaching her what a healthy home environment looked like.
She referred to these interactions as “good touches” that shaped her future. “I came to a point in my life when I had to choose what path to go down,” she said. The good touches showed her the way out and up.
“That is what you do on a daily basis,” she told the audience of lawyers, judges, child welfare agency professionals and other advocates. “If you don’t keep doing what you’re doing, these kids are not going to keep accumulating these good touches. They’re accumulated by strangers all throughout their lives and it is making a difference.”
Claire Chiamulera, Editor, ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC.
Regina Calcaterra spoke at the opening plenary of the 15th ABA National Conference on Children and the Law, held in Washington, DC, July 24, 2015. Her memoir, Etched in Sand, is at bookstores.