A lucky foster child, she finds a committed, loving family for life
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Carletta Nichols kissed her foster grandmother goodbye, gave her a teddy bear and some flowers and watched as she boarded a plane to New Jersey where she planned to live with her daughter, Nichols' foster mother, 500 miles away.
Then Nichols cried. She sobbed with the fear of being alone. She had no one in Pittsburgh now, no one to pick her up when she was down, no one to simmer chicken noodle soup when she got sick.
"I felt lost after they left. I felt abandoned," Nichols says.
That was Oct. 6, 1996. She was an accomplished and independent adult, 31 years old. She'd worked her way through college, served in the military, held a secure job and had just been named Allegheny County Juvenile Probation Officer of the Year.
She had an apartment and some savings. And she knew her foster family still loved her. She'd been among the luckiest of all foster children, living with the same family nearly her entire life and knowing, as an adult, they would help her any time she needed them.
Despite all that, she wept. Despite all that, she felt vulnerable and insecure.
She can't imagine the fears of foster children who don't have the enduring relationship with a family that she does.
Each year, the child welfare system cuts off funding for foster children who turn 18 without being returned to their parents or adopted. Last year, that was about 20,000 children.
Some of these teens immediately move in with one or both of their birth parents. Some remain with foster parents. But most are on their own. Their parents, who abused or neglected them, are long gone. Their foster parents or group home, no longer paid to keep them, turn them out.
And for many, it doesn't turn out well. Studies show they have disproportionately high rates of unwed teen-age pregnancy, school failure, homelessness, imprisonment, unemployment and welfare dependency.
New federal legislation, passed in November, may increase the number of children placed in this situation. States will be required to petition judges to terminate parental rights to children in foster care for 15 months. The law gives parents less time to rehabilitate themselves and does not allow agencies to delay termination just because no adoptive parents are available for the children.
In Pennsylvania, and many other states, 12-year-olds may refuse to be adopted, and they frequently do. By that age, they're not very adoptable anyway. Most couples are looking for babies before they've turned 2, not foster children already in their terrible teens.
Nichols was an infant when she entered foster care. Police found the 6-month-old alone in a house. Her parents never tried to get her back from Allegheny County Children and Youth Services.
CYS sent Nichols to a foster home where it had already placed her older brother Dwayne. The foster parents, Joan Deanna Nickerson and Charles Williams, had three sons of their own. They would become Nichols' foster brothers.
Nickerson transformed Nichols. A caseworker wrote a year after the baby girl was placed: "This child has certainly responded to the loving attention she has gotten in the foster home and has gone from a child who appeared to be completely lethargic and withdrawn to one who appears to be extremely well-adjusted and happy."
The following year, the foster parents divorced. Nichols and her brother and the three Williams boys went to live with Nickerson's parents, John and Mattie Dixon, in Elizabeth. Nickerson moved to New Jersey to attend college, and her sons eventually joined her there. But CYS would not allow the Nichols children to leave Allegheny County. So the Dixons became their foster parents.
They loved the Nichols children as dearly as their daughter did. Mattie was the disciplinarian. John was the buddy. Mattie required Carletta Nichols to sit on the steps until she tied her own shoes. John slipped by and tied them for her so they could go play.
One day in 1971, Nichols spent most of a morning sitting on the steps. John never came. The retired coal miner, who had been sick for a long time, had died of a heart attack.
CYS didn't want to leave the children with Mattie, then a widow at 63, but it was unable to find an adoptive couple. So the children stayed with the woman they called grandma.
Dixon continued caring for Dwayne, who is mildly mentally retarded, after he turned 18. Carletta also remained there through high school. Nickerson and her boys returned home frequently to visit her mother and the two youngsters she still considered her foster children.
Studies have shown children who grow up like Nichols in long-term, stable, loving foster homes turn out almost as well as those who are adopted.
More common, however, is a child bouncing from one foster home to another. They often end up in group homes, and later, in a program called "independent living," where they're set up in an apartment and given instruction on balancing a checking account, paying bills and washing clothes.
Then, at age 18, they're on their own. No more help. No more subsidies. If they get laid off and lose the apartment, there's no family to return to. There's no one to call on Mother's Day, no family to share turkey with on Thanksgiving.
Nichols calls two women on Mother's Day, both Nickerson and Dixon. Still, there were times when she wasn't sure she could go home.
Once, while in college, after a dispute with roommates, Nichols lost the lease to her apartment. She had no money for a security deposit or a dorm room. She knew she'd annoyed Dixon by joining the Army Reserves the previous spring without permission.
She figured she had no place to go, a common problem for former foster children in college.
Nichols mustered the nerve to call Dixon. "I said, Grandma, I don't have any more money. Can I come home?' "
Grandma' assured her she could, and that the door would always be open as long as she kissed her on the cheek and hugged her goodbye before leaving.
As time passed, roles reversed and Nichols began caring for Dixon. In the summer of 1996, when Dixon was 88, she fell ill and needed constant care. Nickerson decided her mother and Dwayne should live with her in New Jersey.
Nichols frequently drives to Newark to see her. One time, Nichols sat at Dixon's bedside with the wife of one of her foster brothers, a foster sister-in-law. The woman could see Nichols was scared and offered her reassurance.
"I know what you're thinking," she told Nichols, "You're thinking, What will I do when grandma dies?' Don't worry. You will not be an orphan all over again. You are a part of this family."
That's something most of her fellow graduates from the foster system can't claim.
For Nichols, the security of her enduring relationship with her foster family means everything. "I am not adopted. But I am a Dixon."