Editor’s Note: This article was based on interviews with only Shay Chantel. This is Shay’s story to tell but we recognize other perspectives may not be represented. This piece was originally published in June 2019, but was taken down and edited to reflect this. Since the original publication, Shay spent the summer living with Steven Dellinger-Pate and is now enrolled at Champlain College.
As of this writing, (June 15, 2019) Shay Chantel is essentially homeless, staying with some friends until she can find something more permanent. She left her foster home the day after prom.
Because she is not eighteen, Shay had to put her boyfriend Ogden’s name on her banking, insurance, and car registration. She has all of her belongings from her foster home at Ogden’s house, but she is not staying there. She will have to throw a lot of it away so it can fit in her car.
At Shay’s last foster home, she lived in a makeshift apartment in the basement. There, at the bottom of the stairs, the hallway walls were covered top to bottom. Tacked on the walls were handwritten quotes, her artwork, a receipt from Lenny’s Shoe and Apparel, and an eighth grade report card showing straight A’s. Framed family photographs featured school portraits of a young girl and two children smiling side-by-side in tubes on a lake. At the end of the hallway was a piano keyboard. A quote hung above: “Bloom where you’re planted.”
Her bedroom was box-shaped, with four concrete walls painted white. A bed, with black and white patterned covers, filled half the room. Her space was tidy, her desk organized with her folders and gardening textbook in one pile.
She kept a puzzle under her bed. In a bright green frame, an image of turtles swimming in an ocean reef. The glued puzzle is one of the only belongings DCF has given her from her old home with her father.
In the corner where the walls come together, Shay had placed seven pictures on the wall with scotch-tape.
A couple of the pictures are selfies of Shay and her boyfriend and others show Shay with her sisters. One picture is different. It is photoshopped, showing hands holding a ball with a woman’s face in it. In the background the same face is blurred. This is one of the few photos Shay has managed to recover since entering foster care. It’s a picture of her mother, Nicole. She’s the one who gave Shay her original first name, Chantel.
Shay remembers visiting her mother in the hospital when she was just six-years-old. Nicole, who had a heart condition, had corrective surgery at Fletcher Allen Health Care. She suffered serious post-surgery complications that affected her brain and heart for six months after the surgery.
Shay’s parents were split at the time. A few years prior to her illness, Nicole had found out Shay’s father was having an affair. The two had even appeared on The Jerry Springer Show, a series where guests are welcomed to publicly confront each other, usually ending up in a fight or brawl. Shay is still embarrassed by the clip where her parents’ confrontation ends when Nicole breaks her arm.
During Nicole’s hospital stay, Shay and her two sisters, Makayla and Leanna, lived with their father in Barre, Vermont. He brought the girls regularly to Dartmouth to see their mother.
“She always talked about coming home eventually. As children, no one ever told us what was really going on,” Shay remembers. “It was worse than we thought it was.”
On June 29, 2007, Nicole passed away. Her heart had never healed properly but Shay suspects blood clots in her brain contributed more to her death.
Before Nicole’s funeral, Shay and her sisters had to decide what they wanted their mother to wear for the burial. While they went through her clothes, looking for the perfect outfit, her father sorted through the rest of Nicole’s belongings.
He kept what he believed his daughters would want someday: Nicole’s keys, some clothes, a baby blanket. He painted a large trunk, brown with faded silver and gold colors, placing these possessions inside for safe keeping.
“Other than that, I don’t actually know what else was in it,” Shay said. “All of my childhood it was locked.”
Shay’s father and his new wife moved several times with the girls into various apartments in Barre. Her father would paint on glass, often creating realistic-looking animals. The family enjoyed working on puzzles at the table. When they completed a puzzle, Shay’s stepmother often glued the pieces together so the puzzle could be framed and hung on the wall for decoration.
Money was a struggle. They were supported mostly by welfare. Shay’s father, interested in cars, picked up mechanical jobs when he could find them. When he had enough money, he would splurge on gas, taking the girls out for a drive and picnic.
Shay’s father, who had grown up with an abusive father, told Shay he wanted to be different. He wished Shay and her sisters could someday look over his grave and feel that they had really loved him. He could also lose his temper.
“It was rocky and unpredictable,” Shay said. “I would go out to church on Sunday and come home to a new hole in the wall because someone got angry.”
Shay remembers one night sitting in her living room, watching a show on the television. It was quiet in the apartment– her father was in the kitchen making dinner, her older sister Makayla was reading Harry Potter and Leanna was in her bedroom. The next thing Shay knew, a DCF worker was knocking on the door, gesturing for her father to step out of the apartment.
Shay and Leanna watched from the window as Makayla joined the two adults outside, and began to argue with her father. Shay has never been able to confirm what did or did not happen. What she does know is that Makayla had confided in a school employee about an incident with her father.
When Shay’s father reentered the house, he grabbed a trash bag and began throwing his clothes and belongings inside. When he finished, he walked out the door and didn’t return for three months.
Makayla decided to go and live with their grandmother. Shay’s father moved to a trailer park. A few days after he left, his wife began leaving the two younger sisters alone in the apartment at night to go visit him. She explained to a thirteen-year-old Shay that she was old enough to take care of Leanna, ten-years-old, while she was gone.
A night turned into a few days, and soon Shay had to prepare meals and perform tasks around the apartment. She learned how to use the stove, keep up with dishes, clean the house and do the laundry.
Shay’s stepmother would return, bringing food and money to hold the two girls over until she would come back again.
At one point she didn’t pay the power bill, and when the power went out in the apartment, Shay had to decide how to keep the food in the house from spoiling. It was cold outside and started to snow. Shay and Leanna emptied the fridge, moving the food outside onto the porch so it wouldn’t spoil.
The neighbors expressed no concern for the girls to be living alone, but allowed them to use their microwave and stove while the power remained off. At night, knowing Leanna was afraid, Shay dragged a mattress down the stairs and into their living room. She let Leanna use the playstation to play games, knowing it would make her more comfortable to sleep.
Shay actually preferred being on her own with Leanna compared to the conflict in the house before. Their father and stepmother returned, announcing they were moving to Florida.
The four piled in a van, living in it for a week and a half, sleeping in Walmart parking lots. After the initial excitement of being in Florida wore off, Shay grew worried, wondering where they would live and where her and Leanna would go to school. They stayed at a hotel one night so they could shower.
Shay asked their dad to bring them home. He was upset at first but finally agreed.
Her father and stepmother drove back to Vermont with Leanna and Shay, dropping Shay’s father off at the trailer park.
“It’s weird, because it didn’t feel like the last time,” Shay remembers. “Then a year later that moment of him getting out of the van was all I had left of him.”
Shay’s stepmother brought her and Leanna to the police station. It took six months to terminate her father’s parental rights. He never showed up at the hearings.
“It was hard to fathom that I wouldn’t see them for the next five years,” Shay said. “There was no closure.”
The girls were taken from the police station to DCF offices in Barre. She worried about her mother’s trunk. It was uncertain when or if they would ever get their belongings. Shay and Leanna were given bags of clothing to go through and pick out anything that fit them because it could be all they had for a while. Nothing fit Shay besides a couple t-shirts and a pair of leggings she found at the bottom of the bag. The only personal belongings she had with her was an iPad and a Stephen King novel.
Shay’s new foster home was a ten bedroom house. Reginald and Alice, an elderly couple, met them at the front door. DCF told the girl’s they would just be there for the weekend. The weekend turned into eight months.
Alice became a grandmother figure in their lives. She kept the girls busy, taking part in the hide-and-seek games in the house and gathering the girls in the living room to watch old VHS tapes.
“She’s this great great human who has been doing foster care forever,” Shay said. “She had never had kids as long as she had us so she started calling us ‘her girls.’”
Shay and Leanna were included in Alice’s family thanksgiving only a week after they arrived. Her grandchildren spent the night with the two girls. Shay, whose family had always ordered pizza in celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas, felt out-of-place.
¨It was strange for Leanna and I to make a big deal out of something that had never been a big deal,” Shay said. “They weren’t really our family but we were playing family which was a new alien feeling.”
While Shay and Leanna were living at Alice’s, a couple began to express to DCF their interest in adoption. When Shay had the opportunity to meet with them privately, they told her that they were actually only interested in adopting her and not Leanna.
“I wasn’t going anywhere without Leanna,” Shay said. “For some reason they thought that was something that could be a reality.”
They eventually agreed to adopt Leanna. Shay and Leanna left Alice’s house gradually, moving their belongings to their new home and getting comfortable in their new environment.
After the six months, Shay and Leanna went to court to become officially adopted. Shay dressed for her adoption in a black dress with a gold necklace.
The courtroom was full. Her adopted parents family and her mother’s side of the family were behind Shay in the gallery. Balloons and stuffed animals for the girls were set on the table in front of the judge.
Shay had recently read an article encouraging children in the foster care system to change their name as a way of letting go. With her adoption, she got to choose what she wanted her new name to be. Shay had to sign papers confirming her adoption. The clerk changed her name on the birth certificate, from Chantel Marie Hough to Shay Chantel Copping.
When the paperwork was finished, Shay had her photo taken with her new family at the front of the room. A family friend owned a restaurant down the road. They reserved the entire restaurant for their party, celebrating with a large dinner.
Shay viewed the opportunity to decorate her new room as a fresh start. While Leanna looked to recreate her old home, Shay focused on things that she needed: a bookshelf, a desk and a chair. Her family ate dinner together at the table and listened to her adopted mother read her and Leanna a book.
Then the “honeymoon phase” ended.
They started family counseling. Her adopted mother was frustrated by Shay and Leanna’s failure to meet certain expectations. She would not allow Leanna to wear an article of clothing twice in two weeks. She would refuse to talk to Leanna for days when Leanna forgot to make her bed. She grew angry with Shay if she found out she had an A- in a class. She’d be irritated if a particular set of counter chairs in the kitchen were not pushed in correctly so that the two front legs were touching the wall.
“Eventually she got so mad that she threw them into the garage,” Shay said. “Most of the time when she was really pissed she would just not talk to you, for like three of four days.¨
Shay began finding excuses to get out of the house. She would go to a friend’s or her boyfriend Ogden’s house. The counselor had told Shay she needed to remove herself from the position of acting as Leanna’s parent. Leaving was her version of letting that responsibility go. The tension grew.
One night Shay made a chicken curry dinner in an attempt to make amends.
“I had four plates out. I had served the third and was grabbing the fourth,” Shay remembers. “She stops in the kitchen and was like ‘Don’t ever cook for me again.’”
“That was the last thing she said to me, and she hadn’t spoken to me all week.”
Two days later, Shay was getting ready for school and could hear her adopted mother and Leanna fighting. Shay was late getting to her bus stop, so she left without interjecting.
As Shay was almost to the bottom of her driveway, she saw Leanna running down towards her, their adopted mother following in her car. Shay remembers watching as her sister jumped out of the way at the last moment. Their adopted mother drove past both of the girls and left, not stopping to make sure Leanna was okay.
Shay told Leanna that she had to tell a school official what had happened. Then Shay got on her bus for school.
Shay was shaking when she got on the bus. She remembers telling her friends: “I don’t think I’m going to be here tomorrow because something really bad just happened.”
The girls were removed from the home the next day. Steven Dellinger-Pate, U-32’s principal, offered to take them in temporarily until they could find a more permanent home.
Soon after, Shay moved into a new foster home. She held on to a duffle bag of her belongings. Shay did not want to be adopted by her foster family. After a disagreement with her foster mother, she moved out. This happened the day after prom.
In spite of all of this stress, Shay’s classmates wouldn’t notice that something was wrong. She achieves good grades and is well-respected by her teachers and peers. When she’s not at school, she works at the Wayside or hangs out with her boyfriend Ogden.
And while many of her classmates know that Shay has been in foster care, they don’t know the trauma she faces each day.
“My body remembers things,” Shay said. “We were walking through a field the other day and I had my crocs and socks on and my feet got wet. I just freaked out.”
“When springtime comes back around my brain is like ‘Remember this smell? Remember this bad thing that happened?’”
Sometime after Shay entered the foster care system, she became lactose intolerant. She suffers from a severe protein and calcium deficiency– she can’t eat as much food as she used to. When she was removed from her adopted home, she became nauseous, reminded of the first time she entered the system.
She has many triggers: when someone points out that she does not have a home or that her situation is temporary; or on Mother’s day, her mother’s birthday and other holidays.
Shay has many decisions to make as her eighteenth birthday approaches.
One choice was to get back in contact with her adopted family.
“I have a lot of empathy for them and what they have been through,” Shay said. “I think that being able to forgive them and move on in a way has helped me let go of a lot of stuff and has helped me be more functional.”
Shay faced another choice when she learned that her father was back in town and she would be allowed to see him. Her father has been living all over the country and is not planning on staying here in Vermont for long.
For the last five years, Shay has believed that her possessions from her home in Barre had been thrown away. It turns out that her father had kept all of Shay’s belongings from her bedroom along with her mother’s trunk and a box of photos in the attic of his brother’s house.
Shay went to that house to see her father.
“It was like seeing a ghost,” Shay said. “Your friends are growing up and changing, but adults to me never really seem to change. He was very much the way I remember him.”
She talked with her father and stepmother for a long time. At this point, she isn’t sure how often she wants to see her father, but knows that she wants him to be in her own children’s life somewhere down the road.
On Friday, May 31st, the senior class sat in chairs facing the rest of the student body in the gym. It was Decision Day– a day where the graduating class shares their plans for the following year.
Many students wore t-shirts with their college written on the front. One by one, each student stepped up to the podium, saying their name and decision.
Most people didn’t know, but Shay announced more than one decision.
When Shay turns eighteen she will get to choose what she wants her legal name to be. She has had two different legal names: Chantel Marie Hough and Shay Chantel Copping. Now she is taking the first name that her mom gave her and making it her last name.
When it was Shay’s turn, she spoke into the microphone, introducing herself with the name she has chosen.
“I’m Shay Chantel and I’m going to Champlain College.”