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Sister Mom

Amy Waldroop of Anaheim might have been a UCLA graduate by now. But the 23-year-old gave up a college scholarship to raise her three brothers--13, 11 and 8.


Almost five years ago, Amy Waldroop came as close as she ever has to realizing her dream of having a carefree, normal life.

She was about to graduate from Villa Park High School and had been offered a scholarship to UCLA, thanks to her stellar performance in the classroom and on the track team.

Then Waldroop was called into the school administrator's office. She was told social workers were planning to remove her younger siblings from their grandmother's house and put them in foster care.

Waldroop found herself flooded with memories of her chaotic childhood--a world of living out of cars and motels, of being shuttled from foster family to foster family or, when nobody wanted the children, to a juvenile detention center.

It was a world that revolved around her mother, who lost her battle against drugs again and again, stumbling in and out of prison, in and out of their lives.

Waldroop had dreamed of escaping that world many times.

But on that day in 1993, toward the end of her senior year, Waldroop made a decision: She would take care of her three younger brothers and sister herself.

"There was no way I was going to let them grow up that way," she said.

Two days after her high school graduation she became her siblings' legal guardian. For her brothers and sister, there would be no more living with strangers in strange homes.

For her, there would be no college scholarship, no heading off to UCLA.

"I gave up the scholarship that day and got the kids that night," Waldroop said.

Many people told Waldroop she was wasting her talents, spoiling her chances for a promising future. She didn't listen.

"People ask me, 'What are you doing with your life?' I look at it as I'm saving other lives," she said. "I'm all they know."

When Waldroop was 12, she went to live with her grandmother. She was later joined by her younger brothers. That arrangement lasted until a social worker discovered that her mother was making unsupervised visits to the home.

A judge granted Waldroop emancipation from the foster care system when she was 17 1/2, and a high school counselor proposed that Waldroop petition juvenile court to become the boys' legal guardian.


Waldroop had already proven responsible beyond her years. She'd started working at age 12, sweeping floors at a beauty salon for $2 an hour. In high school she often held two part-time jobs, working at a Coco's restaurant and Conroy's Flowers and as a nurse's assistant at UCI Medical Center.

She saved $10,000, money she hoped would buy her freedom. Instead it went for furniture, clothes, the down payment on a car, and everything else she needed to start a home.

At 23, Waldroop is single-handedly raising her three brothers--Adam, 13, Joey, 11, and Tony, 8--as well as her own 3-year-old son Donavin.

For a short time she also cared for a sister, now 18, who went to live with an aunt.

She had a fiance, but he was overwhelmed at the prospect of raising a group of boys and left two weeks after she gave birth to Donavin.

"My brothers think of me as mom, although they call me Amy. So does Donavin, but he's learning to call me Mom," Waldroop said.

Two of her brothers show signs of developmental disability, the result of being born with drugs in their systems. Waldroop cares for all of them in a rented three-bedroom townhome in Anaheim while holding down a full-time job.

"At first I was really scared, but they're really good kids," she said. "Now they're like my own."

Waldroop has given the boys something she never had: A stable home, one with beds and toys and family photographs on the walls.

Her achievement in the face of enormous obstacles has not gone unnoticed. She recently received PacifiCare's Touch a Life Award, the highest honor given to a former foster child by the Southern Area Fostercare Effort (SAFE), an Orange-based nonprofit agency that recruits foster parents for eight counties.

Antoinette Bailey, senior social worker with Orange County Children and Family Services in Orange, nominated Waldroop for the award because of "her willingness to put aside her own desires to care for her siblings and how hard she works to make ends meet and have as normal a life as possible."

While it's not uncommon for another family member to step in and take care of foster children, usually the guardian is an older relative.

"To have a sibling become a guardian is a rarity," Bailey said.

Bailey handles cases where at least one child in the family was exposed to drugs while in the womb. She's the social worker for Waldroop's three brothers and has seen them thrive under Waldroop's care.

"They're really longing for some structure," she says.

In June, when Waldroop went to the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena to receive her award from SAFE, no one recognized the young woman because she was busy setting up the luncheon. That's not the usual role of an honoree, but she felt awkward just standing around.

"She told me, 'I can't help it. I can't sit still,' " said Barbara Labitzke, executive director of SAFE.

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