After being taken away from her abusive mother in middle school and growing up in foster care, Vernice Georges made one simple promise to her three kids: to stay together. Under one roof.
But for the young mother, whose boyfriend died suddenly this year after they learned she was pregnant, keeping that vow is turning out to be hard.
“I leave my stuff in the car. I keep it in the trunk,” said Georges, who has been living with friends while she looks for work and whose oldest son, now 12, has changed school four times in the last year. “Sometimes he asks me, ‘Why do we always have to move? Why do I have to change schools?’”
When she aged out of foster care, Georges, now 30, was one of thousands who enter the world ill-equipped and unprepared. Nationally, more than 40 percent of foster kids wind up homeless. About 45 percent never earn a high school degree and 50 percent are unemployed. Georges hit the trifecta, leaving high school without a home, without a degree and without a job. One thing she did have was determination.
Things happen. You can’t forget about it, but I have to move on. At the end of the day, I can’t sit around and mope.
New mom Vernice Georges
“Things happen. You can’t forget about it, but I have to move on,” she said. “At the end of the day, I can’t sit around and mope.”
Georges said she was removed from her mother’s care because she was physically abused. One day, child welfare workers showed up at North Miami Middle School and told her they were moving her to a safe place. What followed, she said, was a series of homes, some good, some bad. At one house, a lock was kept on the refrigerator. In others, she said, foster parents were just as abusive as her mother. Georges moved about 10 times, switching schools repeatedly, before finally being placed with a foster mom in Miami Gardens when she was about 15, who gave her the stability she craved.
In high school, Georges became pregnant with her oldest son, Davonte, and was sent to the Miami-Dade County School District’s continuing education program for pregnant teens, which allows students to attend school while providing childcare. Georges said she stayed just two months after Davonte was born, too overwhelmed by being a young mom. That didn’t mean she quit trying.
After leaving foster care, Georges said she eventually found work, first as a dishwasher, then as a prep cook and finally as a chef at a Carrabba’s Italian Grill. She said she was doing well, caring for her baby and succeeding. After living alone for so long, Georges was happy when she learned she was again pregnant with her son Jeremiah. Having two kids made balancing life and work, with jobs as a house cleaner and in customer service, tough. But she managed.
Then she met Alexis Perez six years ago. He stepped in as Jeremiah’s dad, happy to add to his brood that included two daughters from another relationship. Last winter, when she found out she was pregnant, Perez was thrilled, she said. That happiness would not last. Just after they got the news, Georges said she woke up in the middle of the night and found Perez unconscious. She called 911, but it was too late.
“They took him to the hospital and pronounced him dead,” she said. His family told her his death was related to heart disease.
Georges said she grieved in private and tried to put on a brave face for her boys. But the death was taking its toll on the pregnancy. Her doctor said her blood pressure was chronically high. Jeremiah was also getting hard to handle. Teachers said getting him to sit still was a challenge. Listening was harder.
Five months into the pregnancy her obstetrician referred her to the Jasmine Project, a joint effort between the Healthy Start Coalition of Miami-Dade and the University of Miami, which focuses on prenatal care and provides parenting classes and breastfeeding assistance. One of the first people she met was Valerie Jackson.
African-American babies are two times more likely to die than others, so our focus is to educate moms on these disparities in order to close that gap.
Valerie Jackson, University of Miami’s Healthy Start Program
“African-American babies are two times more likely to die than others, so our focus is to educate moms on these disparities in order to close that gap,” Jackson said.
The two women hit it off, and even though Georges lived outside Jackson’s service territory, Jackson kept tabs on her.
“My son’s name is Jeremiah. So I was drawn to them,” Jackson said. “She didn’t know at the time he had [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] but he was all over the place, so I just got him and hugged him and she just seemed overwhelmed.”
Georges had trouble finding a permanent place to stay and moved from one friend’s house to another. She stopped going to the Jasmine Project classes and lost touch with Jackson. Once the baby was born, Georges, finally overwhelmed, reached out to Jackson. She told the counselor she was desperate to find a breast pump. Jackson showed up not just with the pump, but diapers as well.
“This girl has been bounced around from place to place, but her willingness to participate in services, even though she was going through so much, that’s what drew me to her,” Jackson said.
Georges just completed training to become certified as a security guard and is applying for her license. She is having Jeremiah evaluated to obtain treatment and services in school. She said her willingness is driven by a single goal: to provide a stable home for her boys. If there were one single thing she could have in life, she said, that would be it.
“I’m just trying to work now and take care of my kids and not be everywhere like I’m still in foster care,” she said. “I don’t want to move from house to house. That’s my only wish right now.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
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