Justin Smith Shaw, a former YCS client, will graduate in May from Kean University with a degree in psychology. He recently reached out to YCS to share his experience and insights into thriving, despite the adversities he faced as a child.
Justin Smith Shaw was adopted by Evelyn and Murray Shaw on October 10, 2010. Justin, then 15, recalls his elation. “All my life, all I ever really wanted was to have loving relationships with friends and family.”
To celebrate his adoption, the Shaws took Justin down south to meet his extended family. There was a big party with over 60 relatives. At the request of his mom, everyone wrote Justin a short note with their personal wishes for his happiness. It was a joyous occasion and the start of a new beginning.
Justin does not remember much of his earliest years. His father died of an overdose before he was born and his mom struggled with addiction. “I was always around my mom, but we never talked. I figured out she had a problem.”
Justin was only 5 years old when he and his older brother escaped through the window of his family’s apartment af-ter his brother was assaulted by their mother. When the police found the boys, they were taken to their grand-mother’s home. However, she could not care properly for them and they were placed in foster care.
The last time Justin saw his mother he was 7. They met at a Department of Children and Families protective services office. They hugged and cried, then she was gone. It was the start of his long journey to find his “Forever Family.”
Justin clearly remembers the night terrors and hallucinations that haunted him for years. “I barely slept and wet the bed.” After the first foster placement was terminated, Justin was taken to Trinitas Hospital for an evaluation and treatment. “They put me on a lot of meds,” said Justin. But, the sleepless nights and nightmares continued.
For the next seven years, Justin was in and out of at least four more foster homes and another hospitalization at Trin-itas. He could not trust anyone and his anger was often destructive.
At one point, Justin was transitioned to Davis House. Here he met Ms. Valerie, a counselor at the home “For the first time I had someone who I could talk to about stuff,” said Justin. It was the first step in many other small steps that led to his recovery.
Knowing how much Justin wanted a family, he was again placed into a foster home.
Justin has fond memories of the Johnson Family. “The Johnson’s were great people. They treated me very well but I didn’t know how to receive or accept affection. I couldn’t trust anyone because so many people gave up on me.”
After that placement was disrupted, he transitioned to the Holley Center. He called the Johnsons many times hoping they would take him back, but they declined.
It is hard to imagine the pain he must have felt. However, at Holley he would meet a nurse who became his emotional anchor.
“Ms. Deanna was amazing. She was like a mom to me. I learned from her how to build a relationship with another person. She genuinely cared about me. I got in touch with feelings I never felt before.” Ms. Deanna also knew that music was Justin’s sanctuary and she would bring him CDs and encourage him to sing.
It was at Holley and George Washington School that he found ways to express his love of music. He has happy memories of performing on stage at GW and organizing a music group at Holley. “I would write songs and choreograph dances for the other kids.”
After 2 ½ years at Holley, Justin moved into the YCS specialized foster home of Evelyn and Murray Shaw. Although he was eager to move into their home, he was sad to say goodbye to Ms. Deanna.
“We called him a gentle giant,” said Ms. Shaw because the tall, husky teen was so shy and quiet. To Evelyn’s shock, one of Justin’s first requests was that she promise to adopt him if he was still in their home after one year. She agreed.
In the beginning, Mr. Shaw and Justin locked heads. The family had house rules that Justin found hard to adjust to. According to Justin, a break-through in their relationship came when Mr. Shaw took a different approach to their arguments. “My dad stopped yelling at me and asked him to sit down and talk to him about the situation…I have respect for my dad, because he took the time to see the person that I really am.”
That first year at the Shaws, Justin was also selected to participate with a team of young athletes from YCS in the H’Olympics, “I felt proud, like I was a real athlete,” recalled Justin. The experience boosted Justin’s confidence in himself.
At home, Justin found solace in the church services he attended with the Shaws, and he became very active in its youth and theater groups, choir and basketball league.
“My parents could see my potential. They saw that I had the drive to be successful,” said Justin.
The Shaws always believed in Justin and championed his strengths. “I could see that Justin really wanted to be successful, and I always told him that it was there for him to take. No one could stop him but himself,” said Mr. Shaw.
“In my opinion, Justin was no different from any other child,” said Ms. Shaw. ‘I saw a little boy who was finding his way through life.”
Ms. Shaw knew that Justin did not like the way the medications made him feel. After his adoption, when she had more of a say in matters of his health, she spoke with Justin’s physician. Although he was hesitant, he agreed to grad-ually reducing his medications on a trial basis. Once Justin completely stopped taking the medications, he was much happier and no longer had a problem with incontinence at night.
“This really showed my mom’s trust in me,” said Justin.
“Justin had the wisdom to discern that the Shaw family genuinely cared for him and would always support him” said William Waller, YCS Treatment Homes, VP. “It is the gift I wish all the youth possessed.”
After completing two years at Berkeley College, Justin received an associate’s degree in business management. When he transferred to Kean, he lived on campus – another indication of the faith his family had in him.
At Kean, Justin made a point of not registering with the university’s office of disability. “I wanted to challenge myself.” I didn’t want to be labeled as the foster kid. I wanted to be identified as a college student… I knew I had the drive to succeed on my own, and I could handle my emotions and channel my feeling through my music.”
Justin will graduate from Kean this spring. He is now looking into graduate schools and is applying to internships where he can work with at-risk children.