Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
“My life sucks.” She says it in such a matter-of-fact way you might think she’s talking about breaking a nail, but Tanya Cochran really means it. A perfect storm of homophobia, poverty, substance abuse, a failing mental health system, a deeply flawed child protective services system and the privatization of public services placed Tanya directly into the path of poverty, with no way out.
The problems started when Tanya was 15 and landed in foster care due to her mother’s drug use. Tanya was placed in the Cleveland County children’s shelter, then moved to a foster home three months later.
“The shelter was pretty awful and I figured a real home would be better.” But it quickly became clear that there would be problems. “I told the social worker I’m a lesbian and I guess she told the foster lady.” LGBT youth are overrepresented in foster care and in juvenile detention, but the foster mother was not okay with it. She left notes with prayers and Bible verses where Tanya could see them, talked about sinfulness, and pressured Tanya to go to church. One day Tanya came home from school and found her case worker waiting to take her away. She moved to a group home, where two older girls immediately started bullying her. Tanya told a staff member and she was moved to a different bedroom, but the threats and slurs continued.
Tanya made contact with an older cousin who lived with her boyfriend. One day, instead of boarding the school bus to return to the group home, Tanya went to her cousin’s home. She didn’t go to school for fear of being returned to foster care, and she was afraid to get a job because she thought the police were looking for her. (They weren’t. Often, little is done to find teens who run away from foster care).
One evening, while her cousin was at work, the cousin’s boyfriend told her that she wasn’t paying rent and she had to give him something in return for housing and feeding her. He demanded sex. This happened repeatedly, but Tanya was afraid to tell her cousin. Two months later she realized she was pregnant. When she admitted that the father of her child was her cousin’s boyfriend, Tanya found herself homeless.
Tanya panhandled for money. Sometimes she went home with people, trading sex for food and a place to sleep. At a homeless shelter in Oklahoma City, staff noticed she was pregnant and coaxed her history out of her. Tanya reentered the foster care system and was placed in a private group home – due to the Pinnacle Plan, state-run shelters have been closed, and children in state custody are placed in a foster home or group setting, which are often run by religious groups. “They were nice but they were all real religious and I knew they wouldn’t like it if I said I liked girls, so I had to pretend not to be gay. I guess the whole pregnant thing made them think I like boys or something. I didn’t lie. I just didn’t tell them.” It bothered her that the staff often made negative comments about gay people and warned the girls not to “fall into that sin.”
While she was living in the group home, Tanya gave birth and relinquished her daughter for adoption. “It was really hard. She was so beautiful. I love her so much but I want her to have a better life.” When she turned 18, Tanya left the group home and hasn’t been back. DHS helped her get an apartment but that didn’t last. She slept on a friend’s couch for a while, moved in with a guy briefly, and even slept outdoors.
“My luck changed when I met Carol,” Tanya said. Carol is a beautician in her late twenties. They met when Tanya came into her shop looking for odd jobs. They started dating and got an apartment together. Tanya got a job at a fast food restaurant. “Carol helped me a lot. She knows things that I don’t know, like how to cook, keep house, pay bills. In the group home they talk about things like that but it’s like a class in school – not real. I didn’t figure it out until I had somebody to show me.”
Even with two incomes, they are barely making ends meet, and Tanya is concerned that they might be evicted if they can’t make rent. As a former foster child, she knows she can go to college for free, but she didn’t graduate high school or get a GED. Now that she’s 18, she can legally return to her mother’s home, but her mom is in a sober living facility that will not allow Tanya to move in. “They took me away from my family. Nobody was hurting me. We were okay. Now my brothers are gone forever and my family is broken up. Both my brothers got adopted by strangers. I don’t even know where my littlest brother is. I’ll probably never see him again. My life sucks.”