Mom and dad are gone. At 22, she’s head of the household, with 4 siblings to care for
Jasmine Santana cuddled on a living room sofa with her four younger siblings, the glow of their Christmas tree shining on their sweet faces, as she shared their heartbreaking, yet heartwarming story.
She explained why, at age 22, she is head of a household of five, the sole caregiver for three sisters and one brother ranging in age from 6 to 18.
Santana was 17 years old the last time she saw or heard from their mother. She was getting ready for her senior year at Miami Edison High School when their mother walked out on them.
The relationship between Jasmine and her mother had been tumultuous. Their father was mostly absent. Their maternal grandmother, abuela Caridad, did most of the child rearing.
Despite the family troubles, being abandoned by their mother is something none of them was prepared for. Suddenly, instead of worrying about college applications and dreaming of prom and graduation, Santana was forced to figure out how to help take care of her siblings — Janelly, Jaseline, Janabella and Janthony, who was just 2 at the time.
She got a job working security, sometimes having to do the late-night shift and then go to school in the morning.
Their grandmother, a native of Cuba, helped a lot. She showered them with love, taught the older girls how to cook, read stories to the younger grandchildren, told them jokes and encouraged all of them to get good grades. She loved to watch beauty pageant reality show “Nuestra Belleza Latina” with her granddaughters.
No legal authority
But in August 2020, during the pandemic, the devoted abuela died of heart failure, leaving the five siblings with no supervision. Jasmine reached out to their father, who lives in Orlando, and asked if he could take them in. He initially helped a little bit, Santana said, but said he couldn’t care for them full time. She had no legal authority over her siblings, so she ran into roadblocks because she could not sign school or medical forms on their behalf.
“I was fed up,” she said. “My Daddy was making it hard. My Mom was nowhere to be found. I had to do something to get these kids right.”
Feeling desperate, she called the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Although she was only 20 at the time, she told DCF officials that she wanted to become the legal guardian for her four siblings. She did not want them in foster care. She did not want them separated. Before her grandmother died, Jasmine promised her she would not let the children be split apart.
“I couldn’t separate them, they don’t deserve it. We’ve already been through a lot,” Jasmine said.
She got her brothers and sisters into the state’s Juvenile Dependency Court System, which hears cases involving children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned.
Jasmine spent more than a year navigating the system with support from Voices for Children Foundation, which raises funds to ensure that abused and neglected children in Miami-Dade County have a court-appointed guardian ad litem and that financial assistance and other resources are available for health, educational, and social needs.
Finally, in May 2022, the dependency court granted her permanent guardianship of her siblings.
“You see a lot with our cases, the older child always has to step into the parenting role, and it starts way too young and happens way too often,” said Tania Rodriguez, COO of Voices for Children, which nominated Santana for the Wishbook program. “It’s common that you’ve got a sixth grader who knows how to make dinner and get the siblings into bed because there’s no adult around. This is true for Jasmine, but then the initiative that she took and how quickly she took legal action to ensure these kids would all stay together is incredibly impressive to me because the foster care system is complex and she navigated it and advocated for herself and her family, was successful ... she really stood out.”
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Santana felt she had no choice.
“After my grandmother died, I had to put my big girl pants on and do what I had to do,” Santana said. “It was real hard for all of us. Still is. She raised us. She was always there. When my mother left, that’s who was taking care of us. Even when my mother was around, it was our grandma who took care of us. She never left our side. But then she got sick, and I had to start working to help out.
“I thought after my grandma passed away that would make my mom want to be there for us, but…”
She couldn’t finish the sentence. Santana gets emotional when she talks about her mother, and she tries to shield her younger siblings from those conversations.
“It’s important for me to be here for them, showing them love, doing everything a mother should do,” Santana said. “I try to make sure they don’t worry. They’re kids. I want them to be kids and have a normal childhood. I try to show them love so they won’t go out there and do bad stuff trying to look for love or attention. I try to be my best, be a role model and fill that absence of our mother.”
Becoming a full-time caretaker for her siblings made Jasmine grow up in a hurry, but it robbed her of her senior year and potential college experience.
“My senior year was hard for me, and I wasn’t focusing on school the way I was supposed to,” she said. “The family situation did affect me. I didn’t get to walk the stage for graduation, but I did graduate after summer school. I wanted to make my grandma proud. That was a big accomplishment because my parents didn’t get to graduate, so I was the first.”
Jasmine has a job as a customer service representative for a pharmaceutical company. She works remotely from the North Miami home she rents, which gives her flexibility to be around to cook, clean and care for her siblings. Between her and her 18-year-old sister Janelly, and help from her boyfriend’s family, they try to give their younger sisters and brother as normal a childhood as possible.
Janelly sets her alarm for 5 a.m., gets herself ready for school, then wakes up the siblings at 6 a.m. They are out the door around 6:50 a.m., and she walks them to elementary school before heading to her high school. The kids stay in after-care until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.
When they come home, they team up to make dinner. The go-to dishes are tacos, rice with ground beef, barbeque wings, baked or fried chicken with mashed potatoes and pasta Alfredo.
Janelly is a good student, and Jasmine is urging her to focus on her studies and go to college. Janelly took her SAT, ACT and is working on her college applications. She wants to study psychology. She is applying at FIU, FAU, Florida Memorial, Nova Southeastern, FSU, and Florida Southern.
“I don’t want her to feel she has to stay here with us or worry that I will be overwhelmed,” Jasmine said. “I don’t want her to stop her life the way I did. I want her to chase her dreams. I told her, `I got the kids, you go to college, live in the dorms, have the whole experience.’’’
‘I didn’t know I was this strong’
Janelly appreciates her older sister’s love.
“She’s very caring and very dedicated to us,” Janelly said. “She told me to pay attention in school so she could see me walk the stage because she wasn’t able to. She helps me with my homework, and is always there for us, no matter what we need.”
Jasmine concedes that sometime she gets sad and cries alone in her room at night. But she wipes her tears and carries on. “I had to learn to be independent, had to learn to cook because I have a lot of kids to feed,” she said. “I didn’t know I was this strong.”
Jasmine and Janelly dream of starting a baking and party planning company called “Sisters Sweet Creations.” Janelly loves to make cake pops and candied apples. Jasmine likes to decorate. They have learned, through necessity, to plan birthday parties on a tight budget and want to provide budget options for other parents.
This will be their first Christmas since Jasmine gained custody. She wants it to be special. Janelly has their Christmas dinner menu planned: pork chops, yellow rice, baked chicken, corn, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, honey biscuits and apple pie.
They put up a white and blue artificial tree. They would enjoy presents to put beneath the tree. Janabella and Jaseline asked for nail polish, dress-up kits, and dolls. They also need a bedroom set. Janthony loves Spiderman, baseball, and video games. He also needs a new bed. Janelly could use a printer and air pods. Jasmine would like a Cricut Explore Air to help her design projects.
Janelly has another gift idea for her sister.
“Jasmine could use a spa day,” Janelly said. “She could use a massage and face mask and all that stuff. She has so much stress, and it would be nice for her to be able to relax for at least one day.”
How to help
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