Shaq is not the kind of kid who expects honors in his life. After all, most of his life has been trauma and chaos. But this year, he graduated on the honor roll from Woodward High School and, as a child in the foster care system, was recognized in the 2014 Celebration of Dreams by Hamilton County Job and Family Services. On Sept. 11, he was recognized statewide by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio for its Rising Up Moving On Award. Foster children like Shaq, 18, usually do not graduate from high school; in fact, only 58 percent do each year. And abused and neglected children like Shaq are more likely to be homeless and in trouble with the law than starting college. But Shaq is living proof of how the human spirit can triumph, especially when compassionate people step forward to support a young person in trauma.
By the time 15-year-old Shaq was left on the porch of his adoptive motherâ€™s home standing next to his garbage bag of possessions, he had already been through unimaginable horrors. In his mom’s care, 10 years earlier, he and his five brothers were physically and sexually abused. They were split into three placements. A ProKids Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA volunteer) stood by the brothers with CASA Manager Kathy King, advocating for their best interests.
Knowing that children do best with their siblings and in forever families, ProKids considered the case a success when four of the brothers were adopted into one family.
Shaq thought things were better too. “I had been really sad when we were taken from our mom. I was 4 or 5,” Shaq said. “And I was happy at first when we were adopted, especially since I was with my brothers.”
But as the boys grew into adolescence, their adoptive mother gave up on the brothers one-by-one. Before Shaq was thrown out, his older brother had already been moved to a group home. Because he was back in the foster care system, a new ProKids CASA volunteer and Kathy were back in his life.
Because Kathy had known Shaq since 2001 — when he was a little boy — she understood his history. She was heartbroken when his adoptive mother made the decision she did. And she wanted to make sure he could achieve his dreams.
Kathy said the smart, smiling Shaq did not want to go to a group home as his older brother had. But after all the rejection in his life, he had a hard time in foster families, moving three times in two years. “He kept saying to me, ‘I’m a good kid,” Kathy recalled.
Shaq found support at his church and found loving people who cared about him. One family in particular was willing to offer him a home, but not as a foster family.
King, with Hamilton County Job and Family Services, advocated in court for an unusual approach: an independent host home with the family from his church. They would help Shaq as he continued high school and launched into adulthood.
Of his new family Shaq said simply: “I love them people.”
A football player, Shaq finished on time at Woodward High School this past spring, graduating on the honor roll. He is close to his host family, joining them on a vacation this summer. He remains active in his church and started at UC Blue Ash this fall.
“I always knew I would graduate from high school,” Shaq said. “That was my main goal. Now I want to finish college to be a social worker and help foster kids because I know what they go through.”
His ProKids CASA volunteer, Galen, says Shaq’s success is mostly because of Shaq. “His motivation comes from himself,” he says. “I ask him ‘what is it I can do to make your situation better?’ and it’s things like his expired bus pass and a new medical card.”
Galen knows that he has a different perspective on Shaq’s life than his county caseworker or even his host family. “I learn things about Shaq because of my unique relationship with him and his brothers,” he said. “I can have a different attitude than other official people. I’m about what is best for Shaq – not necessarily what he wants, but what’s in his best interest.”
Shaq and his brothers grew up with trauma, Kathy says. “Like many abused children, they suffer from PTSD and have to face their fears every day. But Shaq, thanks to many adults in his life life and his own internal drive, has overcome many of the obstacles that stood in his way.”
Of ProKids, Shaq says “My CASA volunteer is really caring. It’s all about me. And Miss Kathy? I just love Miss Kathy. She’s always got my back.”