All my life I have been invisible. People glanced around me and over me, but never saw me. I have been in foster care since early childhood. My four siblings and I lived with our single-parent mother, but we were taken away from her by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services because of her alcohol problems. You may have read about this agency in the newspapers whenever a child died while in foster care.

One of my goals is to publish my poetry book to spread awareness about foster care. Foster care is supposed to be a safe haven for children who are abused or neglected, but the average person is not aware of the almost Dickensian conditions that some of these children are forced to endure. It is not uncommon to hear of children who are not properly fed, improperly clothed, denied medical care and physically, emotionally and even sexually abused. Children like me have learned to stay silent to survive. We do not show up on the radar. We are invisible.

I have been in four foster homes and three different high schools in the past two years alone. In the first home, the foster mother didn’t speak English and couldn’t help me when I had a medical problem. In the second home, I had to share a small room with an 18-year-old girl who had an infant son who cried all night. I couldn’t study for my midterm exams. The foster mother’s son made sexual advances toward me, and the woman refused to feed me. I was transferred to a third home where the foster mother threw away my school books and told me that I was spending too much time on school work, and that I should hang out in the street.

The transfers were mandated by the judge in New York City Family Court because I was a frequent victim of abuse. I missed days of school and missed assignments because the foster care agency moved me around so much. Some of my grades suffered. My lifeline was my cellphone. I did all my homework and research papers on my cellphone because I had no access to a computer. I learned to type my research papers and submit them on my cellphone. This past term, I have had regular access to a laptop, and I am amazed at how my research, and subsequently my grades, improved.

The foster care system in New York City doesn’t work. It has become a cottage industry. Many people seem to become foster parents simply to get the money. Too many foster children like me grow up without love, fearing for their personal safety, abused and denied a proper education. Many are defeated before they even begin, and all of this is done with the taxpayer’s money. Two of my siblings dropped out of school before the age of 16, and one was repeatedly beaten and suffered broken bones several times by the staff of a “respected” social agency.

While in middle school, I was taken under the wing of a teacher when she learned that I had been selling homemade cupcakes in the Bronx to raise money to go to a private school. She has become my mentor and daily guide. She counseled me to win the district spelling bee and to be chosen as the valedictorian at our graduation. She helped me transfer to a better school and bought the clothing, supplies and food that the agency charged with my care has refused to provide. I believe that my GPA (97.2, honors) in my senior year truly reflects my capabilities as a student. This past term has been the most stable time in my life. Through her I have learned that what I thought was normal was really abnormal. Every day she has exposed me to new ideas, people and experiences. I realize that the world can be beautiful, and life can be whatever a determined person truly wants it to be.

Because I realize what it means to be alone and in need of help, I volunteered many times to work with the victims of Hurricane Sandy in Far Rockaway, Queens and tutored many students in and outside of school in math. The feeling that I have when the students finally “get it” is very rewarding. One of my long-term goals is to become an engineer because I love math. I also try to spend as much of my free time as possible with my elderly grandma, who is a double amputee, having lost both legs to diabetes.

During my sophomore and junior years in high school, I tried to reconnect with my father, who told me that he never wanted to see or hear from me again. I am not going to end up like my parents. I see many of the foster children I have met make bad choices—drug abuse, alcoholism, dropping out of school. My escape from my situation has been through reading. Books opened a new and thrilling world that challenges my mind and spirit. My mentor taught me a proverb attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” I don’t think about failing. The human mind is so powerful that a person can literally change the future. My goal is to open up a home for young women who would have the proper technology and tutoring so that they can do their best.

Growing up in the system has taught me to take a lemon and make lemonade. I’ve become independent and strong, and I budget my money. I’ve advocated for change in the foster care system by speaking to public groups and by writing letters to federal and local officials and to the United Nations. I know that to remain silent is to be part of the problem. Nothing has ever been solved by remaining silent. Now I am certain that I will be a part of the 3 percent of foster children who graduate from college. I am no longer invisible. I refuse to remain a victim of the system. I am a survivor.

Brieahanna R. Johnson lives in foster care and wrote to the Amsterdam News, as she says, in the “hope that you will publish my story in order to raise awareness about foster care. We are the invisible kids who fall through the cracks. I chose not to be invisible anymore and to tell my story. I wrote several letters to public officials and spoke about my experiences in front of various groups. I was recently a grand prize winner for Youth Communications based on my essay about my experiences in foster care.”