When Kenya was 22, she faced a tough choice.
Her two youngest brothers, ages 6 and 1 years old, were living with their great-grandmother, who loved the boys fiercely but couldn’t take care of them. She was 86 at the time and hadn’t enrolled the oldest, Elijah,* in school or taken him to a doctor in two years.
Kenya was away at college and didn’t know how tenuous things were until she came home for the summer. That’s when, with seemingly no warning, Elijah and his brother Isaiah were removed from her great-grandmother’s care and placed with a foster family.
The situation seemed all too familiar.
When Kenya was 9, a tip came into DC’s child abuse hotline that she and her siblings were being neglected by her mother, who struggled with addiction and mental illness. That’s when Kenya went to live with her grandmother.
“It was hard,” she says now. “I knew I was safe at grandma’s house but I missed mom.”
“Back then they didn’t do family visits. My mom wanted to see us and my grandma was conflicted because the social worker told her she couldn’t. So mom would come by school and snatch us,” she remembers. “The family really struggled.”
Then, many years later, Kenya saw her brothers being taken away from the family.
“Being a child in foster care myself, I understood the importance of keeping family together,” she says. “I remember my grandma telling me, take care of everyone.”
Kenya faced a choice: focus on her own future and return to school or step in to raise her brothers? No one else in the family could take them in, so she picked her brothers. “I wanted everyone to understand there was a person in the family who could step up to the plate,” she says.
She made her case to her family, to DC’s child welfare agency (CFSA) and to the Family Court judge. While Kenya was sure that she was up to the task, no one else seemed to agree with her. She had just left foster care herself and despite everything she had been through, had made it to college with only one year left until graduation. They saw her as putting her own future in jeopardy.
That’s when the judge referred Kenya to Children’s Law Center.
“I had to fight two systems. CFSA and also my own family who didn’t want me to take the boys,” she said. “But Children’s Law Center was a listening ear.”
She developed a rapport with Nancy Drane, now the director of Children’s Law Center’s Pro Bono program, who eventually became Kenya’s attorney and helped her fight to raise her brothers.
“Nancy was very strategic,” Kenya says. “She helped me focus on picking the battle that was in the best interest of the boys.”
The admiration is mutual. “Kenya is a true force,” Nancy says. “In just a few months, she did everything that was asked of her to prove she was ready to raise her brothers. She found a job, signed a lease on an apartment, began parenting classes, and started the process of becoming a licensed foster parent – none of which was easy.”
“They weren’t just my attorneys,” Kenya says. “I remember Children’s Law Center helping me find an apartment, helping me shop for furniture on the weekends. There were hearings and meetings almost every day. I remember there were so many meetings that I lost my job. Then Judith [Sandalow] sent out an e-mail saying I have a young lady who needs a job and she got me an interview through her networks.”
“I got her the interview but she got herself the job,” Judith says, laughing. “We pulled out all the stops for Kenya and her boys, and it really paid off.”
Eventually, Kenya was given the all clear to take in Elijah and Isaiah.
“The boys and I moved into our place in 2003, just before Christmas,” Kenya says. “It was an adjustment for me. I was getting the boys ready every morning. Getting them home from school. Juggling everything. I remember it was eye opening.”
Two years later, after a lot of hearings and meetings, Kenya finally was able to adopt Elijah and Isaiah – who she now calls her sons – with her Children’s Law Center attorney at her side.
The judge who handled Elijah and Isaiah’s case spoke emotionally at the conclusion of the adoption hearing. “Kenya didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” he said. “Instead, she has made proactive, sustained and unrelenting efforts to provide the boys with stability. She is a tenacious advocate.”
Children’s Law Center recognized Kenya for her extraordinary determination by honoring her in 2007 as the Distinguished Child Advocate at our annual Helping Children Soar benefit at the Kennedy Center. And we have stayed in touch over the years.
Flash forward to today.
Kenya and the boys are doing great. In fact, you wouldn’t know life has been such a struggle if you met them now. Elijah is now 18 and Isaiah is 13, and think of Kenya as their mom.
“They call me mom now but that didn’t happen right away. For the oldest one, he was six when he moved in with me and just wasn’t sure who I was. First he was with our mom, then with his great-grandma. It was hard for him,” Kenya says.
Elijah is a senior in high school and is applying to go to college – “fingers crossed,” Kenya says. Isaiah is on the middle school honor roll. And Kenya now has a 2 year old, who looks up to his big brothers.
And though Kenya had to put her dreams on hold, she eventually returned to them and now works for a local non-profit, helping people who are in crisis get on their feet. “I have a passion for helping people,” she says.
The future looks bright for Kenya's family.
“I won’t say that it was easy,” Kenya says. "But for me, carrying a picture of my boys has been my motivation. That is where I find my ability to understand: all things aren’t perfect, all things aren’t always going to be perfect, but I got this.”
*We work hard to protect the confidentiality of our clients. That’s why the boys’ names have been changed. All other details are true.