For weeks, a young Tod Peavy had tinkered and toiled and thought of nothing but this car. But his foster mother resented the red roadster. She hadn’t given it to him. Instead, a holiday well-wisher purchased the present for an anonymous foster child, and caseworkers put the toy in the boy’s hands for Christmas.
“This model car was my everything,” said Peavy, now 46 and living in Gainesville. “It was the only thing in my life that let me be a kid.”
He worked on it when he could — finding time between the beatings and labor-intensive chores inflicted by his foster mother.
“And then, I finished it, and I got to put it on the shelf and look at what I had done,” he said.
The car provided the only pleasant part of the boy’s surroundings. His foster parents forced him to sleep in the basement, bathe in the sink and use the outdoors as his restroom. His clothes frayed and his shoes split. But he focused on what he had, and what he had was that car.
Then, one day, he returned home to find it dashed across the floor, where his foster mother had left it.
“Her goal was to break me, emotionally and physically, and this toy represented a battle between me and this woman,” Peavy said.
For the next two months, Peavy fought back, working to piece together the model car, and while the outcome was distorted, it sent a clear message to his foster mother.
“It was me saying what I couldn’t say verbally, which was ‘You can’t defeat me; I can rebuild,’” Peavy said.
Days later, he returned to the same scene — a mutilated model car.
“I didn’t even cry this time,” he said. “I just got back to work.”
From broken shards and despite missing pieces, Peavy put the car back together — again — and displayed it once more.
“Then I came home, and it was gone, just disappeared,” he said.
He saw this as a victory.
“It signaled to me that I had won the battle,” said Peavy, who has become a successful businessman, public speaker and philanthropist. “She knew she could crush me, but she knew I would keep coming back from the ruins.”
In the system
Almost 10,000 children are in foster care in Georgia. Some wait to be reunited with their families. Some wait to be adopted.
Others, like Peavy, wait for it to end.
The children in the system already have suffered, enduring either abuse or neglect from their parents or guardians. Some children will enter foster homes that offer no better, or, in extreme cases like Peavy’s, even worse.
Once they’re in the system, the wait begins. On average, children entered into foster care in Hall County spend nearly 15 months there, compared to the national average of two or more years.
Some never reunite with their families or find new ones to call their own.
And once those children age out of the system, they face staggering obstacles.
According to a Health and Human Services report, 1 in 5 encounter homelessness. Only half find employment. They face higher pregnancy and incarceration rates. A quarter will have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, twice the rate of United States war veterans.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that many children rise above.
“Everybody deals with obstacles,” said Peavy, whose story proves the possibility of success. “And those obstacles are either going to define you in a positive or negative way. Whatever struggle you’re dealing with, you either crumble, or you learn to get stronger.”
A short childhood
Peavy remembers his biological mother as a vibrant, beautiful woman.
Then she was in a car accident that left her scarred and feeling inadequate.
“When she came out of that, she went from being truly independent to truly dependent, and I think that was unbearably hard for her,” Peavy said.
She turned to partying, and when that failed to cure her depression, she attempted suicide.
“That’s when foster care got involved,” Peavy said.
He first went to live with family, an uncle with three daughters of his own, while the state searched for Peavy’s father. When the state located his father, who was divorced from Peavy’s mother, officials encountered a surprise. He wanted nothing to do with Peavy or his younger brother and quickly surrendered his sons for adoption.
“I don’t know what to say to that other than that people do it,” Peavy said. “It’s insanity.”
Peavy was in fifth grade at the time, and more than anything, he just wanted to be a normal kid. He rotated through a series of five caring foster homes where he was allowed to play on sports teams, attend birthday parties, enjoy family outings and otherwise be a carefree child. Then, in sixth grade, he and his brother got transferred.
Growing up with abuse
When asked how to describe the last six of the seven years he spent in foster care, Peavy doesn’t hesitate.
His foster parents degraded him, made him sleep on concrete floors, fed him little and forced him to work late hours at the family’s sawmill after already attending a full day of school.
“I view the time in this home as a complete lack of a childhood,” he said.
Peavy knew it was wrong. So did neighbors, co-workers, teachers, sawmill customers and caseworkers.The state repeatedly received complaints of abuse from neighbors, school officials and more, but Peavy and his brother suffered through disappointment after disappointment.
“It was one of those deals where you thought you had someone’s ear this time, that this time they would understand what was happening, and they’d get us out,” he said.
Instead, state officials interviewed Peavy and his brother with the foster parents sitting in, glaring at the kids as they tried to share their story. And back to the home they’d go, the torture only increasing as a result.
Peavy relied on his faith to carry him through the pain.
“We were deeply involved in church (before foster care), so I had a good investment in faith as a child,” he said. “And my faith told me that I had to believe in myself. But that can be really hard when you’re being told that your only purpose in life is to scrub the floors, to work at the sawmill, to be there for someone to belittle ...”
The stigma of foster care
As many as 1 in 4 foster children are abused in their homes, according to the New York University School of Social Work. Anecdotes like Peavy’s sometimes play a large role in forming public opinion about foster care, and public opinion is pretty poor, said Peavy.
“The system is overworked, overburdened,” he said. “Too many kids, not enough homes, too little money.”
But it’s not just the system that has a bad name. The stigma of foster care sticks to the kids, as well.
“People see foster care kids as dirty, abused and carrying baggage,” Peavy said.
He kept his status a secret from everyone but his closest friends, and as he grew up, he began to realize that the prospects for a kid like him were less than optimistic. But he knew he had to press on. So, at 17, he walked up to a caseworker, said, “I’m not going back to that home,” and he didn’t. He chose to age out of the system, instead living with a family friend for the remaining months until he went to college.
In doing so, Peavy defied one of the greatest odds facing foster children. According to David Meyers, a public service assistant at the University of Georgia, less than 10 percent of foster care children earn college degrees, a statistic he is working to change.
Meyers runs the Embark project at UGA, which seeks to improve access to college for young adults who have either gone through foster care or experienced homelessness, all while offering them emotional and practical support. According to Meyers, many of these students come to college without an adult role model to help them with such basic things as finding car insurance and filing taxes.
“When (these) students land on a college campus, they don’t have somebody to help them navigate,” he said. “In lieu of a parent, they need a trusted adult.”
Becoming a success story
Now 46, Peavy runs a successful disc jockey business. He is married, has two stepchildren and has earned his pilot’s license, which he has used to transport veterans and fly supplies during Hurricane Katrina. He has a home, a job and a perspective on life that uplifts those around him. He travels the region speaking about his time in foster care, serving as a role model to those looking to overcome.
“Hardship can go one of two ways,” he said. “It can either make you or break you. The struggle you are in today is developing you for the strength you need for tomorrow. That’s how I view my childhood. Am I grateful for that childhood? No. But I’m grateful I overcame it.”