WASHINGTON – Born in a crack house, Dominique Freeman tested positive for drugs at one day old. To this day, she is unsure of her birth date. But now, at age 25, she is working on Capitol Hill.
Freeman entered the foster care system in Los Angeles the day after she was born. During the time of her birth, her mother was getting high in a crack house. She said because of her mother and the foster care system’s negligence, her birth went undocumented.
“For 18 years I grew up in the foster care system without a birth certificate or a Social Security number,” Freeman said.
The foster care system’s failure to obtain documents of Freeman’s existence 25 years ago, reflects the work of officials today. The Senate Finance Committee is working to restructure the foster care system’s funding and create more oversight.
A child abused
At age 7, Freeman was sent to live with her aunt, who she thought was her mother until she was 18. She grew up with her brother who is nine months younger than she is.
“At that moment, I thought I was saved,” she said. “I thought the foster care system had saved me because I was with my family.”
But her aunt struggled with her own addiction to alcohol. Freeman said her aunt was physically and mentally abusive throughout her and her brother’s childhood. Her aunt hid them from other family members because of the abuse.
Freeman said she and her brother were always hungry. After school her aunt was usually tipsy. Freeman often distracted her aunt so her brother could steal snacks her aunt hid from them.
Nicole Bell, Freeman’s childhood friend’s mother, noticed little things. Freeman said she would scarf down food every time she was at Bell’s house. Freeman told Bell it was because she did not like her mother’s cooking. Bell then started sneaking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into her overnight bag.
“My aunt kind of banned me from seeing her for a while,” she said. “She took us to water parks on weekends and my aunt, she just didn’t like it. If you had a little bit of happiness, she did not like that.”
Jamie Hinsz, policy specialist for FosterClub, said foster children struggle with reporting abuse because most of the time that is why they are in the system. Although she has no connection to Freeman, Hinsz said children and teens associate reporting abuse with being punishment.
Freeman wanted out of the life she had. In her senior year at Crenshaw High School she started to apply for college. Her adviser told her she needed her Social Security number and birth certificate.
Freeman’s aunt was on her death bed with cirrhosis of the liver. Her aunt begged for forgiveness for the abuse and neglect. Freeman told her she would forgive her if she gave her the Social Security number.
“That’s when she just told me, ‘Um, you don’t have one,’” she said.
The lies started to unfold. Freeman said that’s when she found out the woman she assumed was her mother was her aunt. There was no documentation of her existence. She did not even know if the birthday she had been celebrating for 18 years was her birthday.
On Oct., 27, 2008, Freeman aged out of the foster care system and her case was closed.
Freeman’s aunt died on Christmas Eve that year. She said she became homeless and had none of the necessary documents to go to school or get a job.
She spent the next month calling lawyers to find help, only to be turned down repeatedly. Finally, the Alliance for Children’s Rights, a nonprofit law firm that helps foster children, took her case and helped her formulate a plan.
Stephanie Lopez of the Alliance for Children’s Rights worked with Freeman. She said this kind of situation can happen for various reasons.
“Why it was not caught sooner in her situation, I could not speak to that,” she said. “There’s so many people that are a part of that youth’s case when they’re in the system, and I could not point blame to one, you know, particular entity or person or someone’s mistake, but she definitely slipped through the cracks.”
Freeman was still homeless and low on money.
“My friends started to go off to college, so there was no more sleeping on their couch because they were moving into dorms and so at that time I had just hit a depression,” Freeman said.
Instead, she got sucked back into a life of abuse by relying on a man she was dating. He gave her a place to stay.
“I was really dependent on him, and I didn’t have anyone else and I think he knew that so he took advantage of the situation,” she said. “He himself was abusive both physically and mentally.”
Hinsz said young adults who have aged out often end up in these situations because they are promised stability, something they go their whole lives without.
Freeman said she always thought life after foster care would lead to so many opportunities.
“I just kept saying once I’m out of this house, once I’m out of this area, there’s going to be this big, bright world out there full of love, full of people I can meet. … And then when I got out into that world and that did not happen, it had crushed me,” she said. “Sometimes it just felt like I was being punished for surviving it, as if I was not supposed to make it out.”
Friends eventually helped her out of the abusive relationship.
A number changes everything
Six months into a year-long court case, things finally started to turn around. The Alliance for Children’s Rights started a scholarship foundation for former foster children. Freeman got the scholarship.
“Once I got the Social Security number and my lawyer just kind of looked at me and she was just like ‘What does this mean?’ and I was like ‘I’m going to live my dream, I’m going to Howard,’” Freeman said.
Freeman is now in her last semester at Howard studying psychology. She is a paid intern for Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. She said her office is full of bright, cheerful people who make her laugh every day.
After school, she said wants to move back to LA and start a charter school for young women in foster care to show them that the system does not define who they are.
“Not having a mother, there was a lot of things I didn’t learn just about growing into a woman. I would want the school to target that,” she said. “We would teach you things. You would get educated, but you would also understand yourself.”
When Freeman gained access to her foster care records, she found even more secrets. She has four biological siblings.
The brother she grew up with ran away when he was 16. She said she still tries to see him when she is in LA.
“We kind of fell apart because he just didn’t understand why I would stay,” she said. “Now he’s actually struggling with his own addictions, and our relationship just hasn’t got back to that place.
Freeman’s older brother and sister grew up with their father.
Her sister was around Freeman most of her life, but Freeman did not know they were sisters.
“Sometimes she would like comb my hair for me because my hair just kind of always went uncombed, so I always thought she was this cool girl,” she said.
Her older brother is incarcerated. She said they exchange letters and talk on the phone and will meet in two years when he is out.
Freeman said her mother was clean for all her pregnancies except for hers and her youngest brother’s. He struggles with disabilities because of it. However, he was adopted into a loving family. They have not met and he does not know about his biological mother or siblings.
She said she talks to her biological mother sometimes, but it is hard to forgive someone who has no remorse.
Reach reporter Tia Rinehart at tia.Rinehart@scripps.com or 202-408-1490. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
Download photos: Dominique.zip