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Dominique Tarkenton and her foster mom, Tammy Otto, at Tammy's house earlier this month. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Dominique Tarkenton and her foster mom, Tammy Otto, at Tammy's house earlier this month. Photo: Zach Hirsch

"I call her Mom": a foster family in Macomb

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Tens of thousands of kids end up in foster care each year in New York State. And a lot of the time, it's because they were abused or neglected at home. Foster care is supposed to be a short-term arrangement. Child Protective Services gets kids out, and a foster care agency gives them a safe place to stay. The idea is, they'll go home when things stabilize.

But it's not a simple process. When the caseworker first arrives to pick a child up, a moment they call the "removal," it can be terrifying. Many children put up a fight. But Dominique Tarkenton didn't resist. At 11, she knew it was time to go. "I decided I just wanted to leave, to get out. And not come back."

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Reported by

Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

Right after she was born, Dominique's mom went to prison. So her grandmother raised her, along with her two sisters and brother. They lived in a tough neighborhood in Utica, which she says "was a very scary place. I mean, every single night, I woke up to gunshots going off, or sirens going by."

Dominique, or Nique (pronounced "Nikki") for short, says it was like a war zone, and she didn't have a safe place to take cover. She says there was abuse, heavy drinking, and drugs at home. As a kid, Nique did some drinking and smoking herself. She says she was on edge all the time.

"I don't know what got to my grandmother, but she just kept hitting me daily, and I was getting sick of it," she says. "So I told my grandmother that I wanted to get out."

Nique's journey into foster care began in 2007. That year, she got her grandmother to take her to see a judge, and he agreed to send her to the same foster home where her older sister was living, in Macomb, just outside Gouverneur. Nique says life in Utica was hard and scary, but leaving made her feel like a traitor. "I just up and left," she says.       

"It took a lot of courage for Nique to walk away," says Tammy Otto, Nique's foster mom. Tammy was a foster kid herself. Over the last 10 years, she has had more than 50 children come and go in her home. She says she'll never forget the day when she first met Nique. "She had this tattered little pink dress. A little lunch bag. She was very tall for her age. And she just didn't talk much."

Nique was just an 11-year-old kid, and when she first met Tammy, she felt overwhelmed. "She was just this jolly, happy person," Nique says. "And I was like, weirded out by her. How could you be so happy, when you just took in a total stranger?"

Coming from a place that was urban and violent, to one that was quiet, rural, and safe — it was strange for Nique. "I mean, you can ask my foster mom. I'd just go around stomping my feet, or slamming things. Breaking things. For no apparent reason, I'd just do it," Nique says.

In 2007, there were 87* foster children in St. Lawrence County. That number has nearly doubled since that year. There are now 157 foster kids in the county.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the number of foster children in St. Lawrence County in 2007 as 66. NCPR regrets the error. *

Nique says she felt weird, sad, and angry, all at the same time. And those feelings lasted for years. As a comfort, she was allowed to go visit her grandma. But Nique says going back to Utica was getting her in trouble again. "Every time I went home, I was either smoking or drinking. That's probably not good for an eleven, twelve-year-old to be doing."

Tammy convinced her to stop the visits. She says going back to Utica was putting Nique on a bad path. "It's kind of hard to grow if you're still in that mesh. And it took a lot for her to say, 'I don't want this.' Nique wanted more. She wanted better," Tammy says.

Unlike a lot of foster kids, Nique stopped going back. She stopped talking to her grandma on the phone. "I'll always love my grandmother no matter what, but I will never have contact with her ever again. Because I know she'll be the reason I slip and I fall down," Nique says. She even stopped hanging out with her older sister, who she says she was a reminder of her old life.

As the years went by, she started doing better in school, and made some new friends. Nique says she was afraid of losing her identity in her foster home. But slowly, the way she and Tammy thought about each other began to change.

"My mom was helping me out," Nique says, referring to Tammy. "And that's when I realized: 'Oh, this is why I did it. To better myself.'" Nique says at first, it didn't feel natural calling Tammy "mom." But now, the thought of how normal they are together makes them both laugh.

The Ottos finalizing Dominique's adoption at the St. Lawrence County Courthouse in Canton. Photo: Zach Hirsch
The Ottos finalizing Dominique's adoption at the St. Lawrence County Courthouse in Canton. Photo: Zach Hirsch
"When I'm mad at her I'll call her 'mother'," Nique says playfully. "Yeah, we get along pretty good," Tammy says.

Foster care is supposed to be temporary. If parents make the right changes, they often get their child back. In fact, that's usually the goal.

But Nique says her old life is just too broken, and she wants to make it official with her new mom. So they decided that Tammy would adopt her.

Nique's 18 now. She's tall, and she has a warm, generous smile. On a warm, spring afternoon, they take a trip into Canton. When they arrive at the courthouse, some of the people who worked with Nique over the years are there to cheer her on.

Dominique with her family, Leo, Michael, Nique and Tammy Otto. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Dominique with her family, Leo, Michael, Nique and Tammy Otto. Photo: Zach Hirsch
The adoption procedure is a lot like a marriage ceremony. The judge gives them the papers to sign, and slowly, deliberately asks the family if they really want to adopt Nique.

"Of course we all said yes!" Nique says. "I just feel relieved, now that it's done and over with. This process has started for a few years now. I was just nervous, I kept changing my mind, now and again. I'm just happy that it's done and final."

Nique is in total celebration mode. She has a brand new, hyphenated last name, Tarkenton-Otto, and with it a new, permanent family.

Prom is coming up. She already has her dress, and a date. She just got into Jefferson Community College. In the fall, she'll go there to study law enforcement.

"I think my past really helped shape that," she says. "Looking back, looking on the news and seeing everybody getting shot, or a little kid getting hurt — I want to be that person to bring justice for them. I want to be that person to help, to do something about it."

Nique says one day, she'll return the favor to some troubled kid, just like Tammy did for her.

This story is part of a three-part series. Find our other stories on foster care in the North Country here.

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