All Angel Smith ever wanted as a child was to smile.
It’s a habit she picked up from her older sister who served as a surrogate mother as she grew older. But as Smith moved through the foster care system, in and out of the hands of other family members who abused her and foster families that ostracized her, it was hard to smile.
Smith, 23, speaks with conviction now and has a joking nature as she talks about some of her experiences. She’s a student at Miami Dade College studying criminal justice and is close to earning her associate’s degree. She has her own apartment, which she had help finding through the Voices for Children foundation after being homeless for about four months.
But she is still overcoming her early struggles and needs a helping hand to get her life fully on track.
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Smith was born into foster care at infancy and lived in a foster home until she was about 3 years old. After that, she was sent to live with her aunt.
The time with her aunt is among the worst of her memories as, Smith says, she was forced to eat until she would vomit and she was abused physically to the point where she lost teeth and had visible bruises. After years of abuse, she developed a habit of running away from the hostile home. She eventually settled in to live with her big sister, Olivia, and her sister’s boyfriend.
“Whenever I said I wanted to see my family, I wanted to see my sister. I was able to be myself around her,” Smith said.
Eventually, her mother came back into the picture and Smith was made to live with her until an argument ended in a trip to the hospital. Smith’s older sister was living their mother’s home; Smith wanted to go with her and began to cry. Smith’s mother greeted her tears by striking her. But Smith saw that the family’s door was unlocked: She ran out to pursue her big sister and was hit by a car. After that incident, her mother lost custody of her and she was sent back into the foster care system.
Shortly after that experience, Smith was detained under the state’s Baker Act, under which people can be committed involuntarily if they’re believed to cause a threat to themselves or someone else. She said this was another misdiagnosis of her behavior.
“People weren’t asking me what was wrong with me. They were asking everybody else except me,” Smith said.
A few years later, Smith would receive word that her mother died. Although the two didn’t have an ideal relationship, Smith wishes should could have spoken with her one more time. Smith got the news from her aunt about two weeks after her mother actually passed.
“I could’ve had closure at that point if not for [my aunt’s] selfishness,” Smith said. “She tried to have a heart-to-heart on the phone, but I had already put the phone down.”
After that, Smith would have a few brushes with the law. She spent a month in the juvenile detention center after an incident with a foster parent who attempted to restrain her when she tried to leave the house. Later, she was placed in the Statewide Inpatient Psychiatric Program (SIPP) for a year.
The early struggles affected Smith’s personality and led to her being diagnosed with depression and being placed in special education and anger management classes in school. Smith often avoided school altogether at a young age. She admits she wasn’t a “perfect angel,” but she often felt that she was being misunderstood.
“If I could’ve just gotten that half-hour visit with my sister every week, it would’ve been great,” Smith said.
After all those years of attempting to run from her problems and dealing with wave after wave of abuses, Smith found stability in the form of foster mother Nettie Herring.
“She didn’t mind me being me, and that basically sealed the deal for us,” Smith said.
And by “me,” Smith is talking about her past in the foster care system, and also the fact that she’s a lesbian. Smith said she grew up always preferring to wear men’s clothing and thinks a major part of her issues with foster parents came from them not understanding her identity.
“I grew up feeling sort of weird and outcast because of my sexual preference,” Smith said. “I had some foster families that wouldn’t let them eat in the kitchen with them.”
Herring, a former bus driver who has raised about 30 foster children over the years, said that Smith was a “different child,” but she accepted her into her family without any issue.
“Other people were trying to force her to wear dresses, and she said I was the first person who let her be her,” Herring said.
The two had their share of arguments in the first year and half together, but it was mostly over typical family issues, like Smith keeping her room clean or helping out with chores. Even though Smith has been out of foster care for years now, the two still keep in touch.
“She tells me that it’s because of me that she became who she is,” Herring said. “Out of all the kids I’ve taken in, she’s the only one who really turned out really well.”
Now Smith works for Children’s Legal Services as an administrative assistant and with the local chapter of Florida Youth Shine, a foster youth advocacy group. She hopes to one day open foster homes for disadvantaged children and LGBT youth.
But with all the strides she’s made, Smith still yearns for something more — things to call her own and to help her get to the next level.
“When will I be able to say ‘this is mine?’” Smith said. “I only have a teddy bear from when I was a kid.”
Her wish is for a new wardrobe for work because she only has a few business casual clothes, and her shoes are often worn because she mostly gets around on a skateboard. She would also like a new television and entertainment center because she enjoys playing video games and to entertain her 6-year-old nephew Darian.
And as she continues to educate herself in advocacy work and moving past her early struggles, Smith finds much more time to smile and to dream big.
“I’m going to be the CEO of something. I’m going to change the world — even if the world is just Florida,” Smith said.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.
▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444.
▪ For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com.
▪ Most requested items: Laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.
Read more at Miami Herald.com/wishbook.