Sunday, February 25, 2018
News Roundup

Romano: St. Petersburg council member Amy Foster makes a family for struggling teen (w/video)

Her life had been mostly stark, and so her story would be too. Just a series of 61 index cards, held up one after another, to tell the unadorned tale of a child in search of a family to love.

Mariah Boyd steadied the camera, turned on some inspirational music, and began recording her version of a 21st century life. "Hello,'' the first card read. "I would like to tell you a story.''

By the seventh card, you already know Mariah was removed from her parents' home for the first time at age 2. By card No. 15, her eyes flutter and her pace slows. "Seeing your mom snort pills up her nose …''

• • •

Amy Foster can't say for sure what it was, but there was something about the photo, or maybe it was the accompanying text, that immediately drew her in.

This was months before Mariah had dreamed up the index cards, and before Foster, 38, knew the details of a girl who had been bouncing from home to home.

Inspired by the story of St. Petersburg teen Davion Only, and mindful of the struggles older kids in the juvenile welfare system face, Foster was looking through pictures of children available for adoption on the Heart Gallery last fall when she first saw Mariah.

The girl was beautiful, yes. But she would be a challenge, too. Sassy was the word that came to mind.

Foster, who was then in her first year as a member of the St. Petersburg City Council and had just been named executive director of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation for the 6th Circuit Court, was intrigued by the bio that said Mariah wanted someone who could help her achieve her goals.

That night, Foster forwarded the picture to her brother and told him this girl was going to be her daughter.

• • •

For the longest time, she hardly knew what she was missing. Mariah had memories of the police banging on the door, and of watching her parents being led away. But children are resilient, and Mariah was fortunate to be taken in by an aunt and uncle.

It wasn't until her mother returned years later that Mariah's world began to unravel. The index cards tell of a harrowing life. Of being left alone at night or being dragged to drug deals. Of break-ins and falsified urine tests.

Eventually, Mariah arrived at a decision: She had to put her own needs ahead of her mother's. She told a Department of Children and Families worker the entire story and was soon being shuttled between relatives and group homes. She was 14.

• • •

They began with text messages and phone calls this year. An odd sort of courtship between a could-be mom and a would-be daughter.

Mariah, by then 17 and struggling to finish her senior year at Ridgewood High in New Port Richey, was caught between hope and cynicism. She had been through enough foster homes and had cycled through enough caseworkers that she knew the odds of being adopted were never going to be in her favor.

And yet it was Mariah who introduced herself to Foster with a tight embrace when they met for the first time at a Red Lobster in January.

"I remember thinking that as nervous as she was, she was so open and willing to have yet one more person come into her life,'' Foster said. "And even as open as she was, she was also aware that I could just be someone else who let her down.

"She was a complete dichotomy of a mature young woman who had it all together, and a young child who needed nurturing.''

They ended up at a bookstore that night, picking out the manuals that would help Mariah bring up her ACT score. More dinners and outings would follow, and a bond began to form. Even so, there were hiccups along the way. Keeping people at arm's length had become a way of life for Mariah, and she wasn't always receptive to well-meaning intrusions.

Yet, somewhere along the line, Mariah told Miss Amy that she was giving her a promotion:

She would now call her god-mommy.

• • •

The girl with the index cards in the Facebook video is living the life she always imagined.

She graduated 10 days ago, getting the high school diploma her parents never had. She has a summer job working with children and plans on beginning junior college in the fall. She moved in with Foster in March, and they are beginning the adoption process even though Mariah is now 18 and, technically, an adult.

So what motivated her to close her bedroom door and begin writing out the index cards that would lay bare the greatest heartaches of her life? The answer is near the end of her nine-minute video when she is finished telling her story, and directs her words to all the children living broken lives.

"As long as you have hope and stay strong …,'' the cards say, "your time will come.'' And with that, she wipes a final tear.

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