Instability marked much of Shinelle’s childhood. Her parent’s relationship ended when she was very young; her father physically abused her mother, sending her to the hospital several times. Shinelle’s mother was unable to care for her daughter or her younger son so the children often lived with relatives, moving around frequently, and never knowing how long they would be in one place.
When she was seven years old, Shinelle moved in with her grandmother and father, who had just spent two years in jail in Canada. Shinelle lived there until she was 11 years old, witnessing her father physically abusing her younger brother, her grandmother, and his girlfriends. He was only verbally abusive to Shinelle. “In some ways I wish he had hit me instead of being verbally abusive,” she said. “It would have been easier to deal with.” Shinelle missed her mother and was deeply hurt that her mother had abandoned her.
Shinelle was left to raise herself. “I was outspoken and could defend myself. That’s how I survived,” she said. She was very competitive and worked hard, but did not do well in school.
At 11, Shinelle’s mother came back into her life and took Shinelle and her brother to the United States to visit Shinelle’s aunts. “I loved my mom and I wanted to spend my life with her. I thought this was going to be it, that we would be together,” Shinelle said. They moved from house to house; after a few months, Shinelle’s mother sent her brother back to Trinidad. Within six months of arriving, Shinelle’s mother also went back to Trinidad for what she said was a four-week visit. She never returned.
After her mother left, Shinelle stayed with an aunt in Brooklyn for a year. She was extremely depressed after being abandoned by her mother again; she started hanging around with the “wrong crowd” at her public school and her life began to go “downhill.” “I wanted so badly to have a parent who was mine,” Shinelle said. “I couldn’t understand how my parents could be ok just leaving me.” She was extremely unhappy at home and at school.