Roxy Todd Published

Teen Finds Hope With Foster Family After Years of Abuse At Home

J.J. Cayton was first placed in foster care when he was 11 years old. He was placed with a foster family who eventually offered to take him in, permanently. He's pictured here with his dog Pepper and his foster mom Jill Cooper.

J.J. Cayton was placed in foster care when he was 12 years old. He was living in Braxton County with his father when a worker with child and protective services arrived at his home late on New Year’s Eve. He recalls his dad had been drinking, and the cops ended up at the house.

“And they took me to the DHHR [office] in Braxton County,” Cayton recalls. “I think I probably slept on the floor on some chairs, to be honest.”

Afterward, Cayton was placed with a foster family. He was lucky. According to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, out of every 10 teenagers in foster care in West Virginia, four end up being sent to a group home, a psychiatric hospital, or a shelter. Only about 50 percent are sent to live with a foster family.

After spending a little time in this foster home Cayton was returned to his father’s house in Braxton County, which is where he wanted to be. “It’s where I was raised for a long part of my life. I knew he needed me.”

But he wasn’t safe. Cayton’s dad physically abused him. “It would get to the point where I was afraid to go to sleep at night when he was angry.”

Time and again CPS returned to take Cayton away. He could have been sent to various group homes, or shuffled from place to place. Instead, he was consistently placed with Jill Cooper, and her family.

J.J. Cayton sits with his foster mom, Jill Cooper, and his therapy dog Pepper, on the Glenville Stage College, where he is a sophomore studying business.

Janet Kunicki/ WVPB
J.J. Cayton sits with his foster mom, Jill Cooper, and his therapy dog Pepper, on the Glenville Stage College, where he is a sophomore studying business.

“After J.J. had been with us, the first time we kind of built a relationship with the judge,” said Jill Cooper, Cayton’s foster mom. “So when he was back the second and third time the judge actually called us directly and say, ‘Hey, you know, are you willing to take him back?’”

Cayton formed a bond with the Coopers. With them, he had a home base he could return to, again and again, while the rest of his life continued to be topsy-turvy.

He kept in contact with his dad and still had hopes they would be reunited. Then things went downhill quickly. First, in 2015, his dad’s home flooded.

“My dad went back there after it had been renovated slightly, but I’d still say it was unfit to live in,” said Cayton. “My dad had also gotten pneumonia and COPD during this part of his life.”

Not long after the flood nearly destroyed their home, Cayton’s dad passed away. His birth mom, lives in the Philippines. Cayton came with his dad to the U.S. when he was two. He says he doesn’t have a relationship with his mom.

The Coopers offered to let him stay with them — permanently.

“My foster dad said, ‘We’d really like it if you’d stay with us,’” Cayton said. “Their kids and their animals liked me, and I liked them and their animals liked me. so it was the place I was the most comfortable in. I felt like it was the best course for me to go down.”

This was five years ago. Even though he’s aged out of foster care, the Coopers are his legal guardians. But he said it can be tough to be a foster child, in someone else’s family.

“They’re very involved with their own family activities,” said Cayton. “I respect their family and their family loves me, but I’m not exactly a part of the family. So I feel a little bit uncomfortable with family events and stuff and I just keep to myself for the most part, but I do love them. I respect them. And I appreciate them for trying to incorporate me.”

Despite the occasional awkwardness of family gatherings, Cayton said he’s doing much better now as a young adult coping with the trauma of his father’s abuse. Back when he was younger, his foster parents took him to a counselor, but he would never speak with them.

Recently, he began going to a therapist again. “So that has helped a lot,” said his foster mom, who persuaded him to talk with someone.

Through therapy, Cayton decided he wants to help other foster children, and focus on getting kids into safe homes when they are aging out of foster care. He volunteers with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. He made a short video for the group to share his story.

Working to End Youth Homelessness in WV

Today, Cayton is a sophomore at Glenville State, studying business. His therapy dog, a black lab named Pepper, wags her tail beside him and presses her head against his chest.

Cayton gives her a sip of his water from his water bottle, and she laps it up and returns his affection with a kiss. “Pepper makes me feel less lonely and constantly reminds me that she loves me because she just enjoys my company,” Cayton said. “Her love and loyalty are limitless, and she takes care of me. She is like my little baby, and I’m so excited to watch her grow up.”

This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia that features several young people who were former foster care children.