"Little Tommy" McRae was sleeping on a sofa in the living room of a Northeast Washington, D.C., apartment when shotgun pellets blew through a wall behind him.
He’d lived there since he was dropped off by Thomas McRae, Sr., whom he believed was his father. He’d suffered severe beatings and sexual abuse in the apartment. The searing pain in his back and right shoulder told him that now he’d been shot.
Tommy struggled to sit up on the sofa, blood soaking his T-shirt. There were two adults and two teens in the apartment, but no one came to his aid.
It was three days before his 11th birthday.
“I know it is only by the grace of God that I am still here,” said Tommy, whose full name is Thomas Jefferson McRae, Jr.
McRae, now 23, discusses the July 19, 2004 shooting with a dispassion that belies its horror.
The incident led to his placement in foster care. It also drives his commitment to help traumatized children today.
The two teenagers who were in the apartment – the 14-year-old who fired the shotgun, and an older teenager who owned it – were arrested and served time in custody for the shooting. They were the godson and grandson, respectively, of the woman who lived there. The woman had beaten him and the older boy had sexually molested him for years.
McRae serves as a case worker for the Philadelphia Department of Social Services, working with children who are in foster care and other out-of-home placements. He serves on the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency’s Foster Youth Alumni Board and as a youth advocate at Boys Town in Washington, D.C. He is the youngest board member of the Association of Children’s Residential Centers, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
He mentors five youths and speaks regularly to foster and adoptive children and their caregivers. In his work, McRae puts a special focus on dealing with the lasting psychological problems of kids who have been through the system.
McRae is scheduled to appear Nov. 19 at the 30th annual D.C. Adoption Day program at the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse in Northwest Washington. He will be among several former D.C. foster children and others who were adopted who will celebrate November as National Adoption Month.
McRae has chosen to tell his story to help children – and adults who take care of them – to understand that there are happy endings.
“My background helps me because there is nothing that I have not heard when I talk to young people,” said McRae, who now lives in Philadelphia. “When I got shot, I almost died. I was moved from place to place where nobody wanted me. I was mistreated by a lot of people. I was beaten with everything you can imagine. I was sexually abused. I can help a lot because I’ve been through a lot.”
Damian Miller, the special assistant to the director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency and president of the agency's Foster Youth Alumni Board, said McRae’s experience allows him to “empathize, instead of just sympathize” with the youths he mentors – a quality McRae showed while speaking at a fundraiser last year.
“He talked about his own struggles and you could see that everybody – but especially the young people – were really captivated by his story,” Miller said. “Afterward, a lot of them came up to him. He had a group of children all around him. They really wanted to connect with him.”
McRae tells his audiences that his journey into foster care started with the shooting. He spares no details, including the fear that shook him as he was taken by helicopter to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he was operated on that same day.
McRae’s anxiety over the incident led to fits of anger. He attacked a child after his release from the hospital at the summer camp in which his new caregiver had enrolled him. The caregiver took him back to Children’s, where he was hospitalized in the psychiatric unit for 22 days. Staff diagnosed ADHD, depression and post traumatic stress syndrome.
He went from the D.C. hospital to a foster home in Prince George’s County, the first of 11 he’d live in before he was finally adopted at age 17.
McRae had for years been in the custody of the elder McRae, a corrections officer who claimed to be his father. He told the child that his mother abandoned him when he was an infant. A DNA test administered after the shooting determined that they were not related. The elder McRae died of colon cancer in 2006. McRae has no idea who his real father is.
The elder McRae moved him from unfamiliar location to another. Tommy spent lonely days watching World Wrestling Entertainment on television and playing with his action figures.
Kathleen Stines, McRae’s former adoption recruiter, recalls their first meeting. Tommy was 11.
“What struck me was his innocence,” she said. “He was sad, but hopeful. His desire was to have a sense of belonging because he’d never had that. He wanted to feel safe and have consistency and stability because he’d never had that.”
McRae was removed from his first foster home after verbally lashing out at the foster parents during a therapy session. He was sent away from the second home for leaving the house without permission when he was punished for missing the school bus. His third foster parent had said he planned to adopt Tommy and two other foster children before reneging on Father’s Day. McRae had purchased candy and a card to give him.
“I talked to my lawyer, my therapist, my case worker, the judge who handled my case,” he said. “We never found out why he put me out.”
McRae had been upset after an altercation with another foster parent in 2009 when he asked a friend's mother to adopt him. She agreed. He was adopted in 2010.
The relationship later grew strained, however, and he now has little contact with his adoptive family, McRae said.
He’d dreamed of a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”-type family and the reality of his adoption hurt.
“Adoption is the closest thing to marriage. You are promising to love this child through thick and thin, hell or high water,” McRae said. “You are saying that you are taking on everything the child has been through. ‘I know you’ve been depressed. I know you’ve been hurt. I’m going to give you love and affection. I’m going to take care of you.’”
McRae graduated from high school in 2011 and headed to Philadelphia to attend historically black Cheney University. He ran track and joined student chapters of the NAACP and 100 Black Men of America, Inc., which offered him opportunities to mentor youth. His first mentee was a former high school classmate.
He interned with U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program his junior year. He focused his research on mental health issues for foster children, including PTSD.
Karen Thiel, McRae’s former guardian ad litem, was present when McRae impressed Capitol Hill staffers with his final presentation. She is one of several professionals who worked with McRae as a foster child who remains close to him.
His commencement from Cheney in May 2016 was attended by Thiel, the judge who handled his case, his former therapist and caseworker and a couple who worked with him during his six-month stay at Boys Town in D.C.
“He has a remarkable spirit in him that has gotten him through a lot,” said Thiel, an attorney with Akin Gump in Washington, D.C. For his birthday in July, she took McRae to dinner in Philadelphia and to the Democratic National Convention, where he heard President Obama speak.
“I told him when he got adopted that I was no longer his attorney, but I would always be his friend,” Thiel said.
McRae’s circle expanded in 2011 when he was reunited with his biological family. He had received a social media message in 2008 from a young man claiming to be his brother. His call to the included number went unanswered.
He fasted and prayed in 2010 for God to reunite him with his family. He called the number again in 2011 and this time, his brother answered. He shared a family dinner with his mother, two brothers, three sisters, grandfather and several other relatives three days after Thanksgiving.
Christal Williams, his aunt, said the family never knew what happened to the baby they knew for only a short time. McRae said he has not asked his mother why they were separated and she has offered no details. He was told that his real name is Michael Anthony Williams.
“I know he needs answers to get closure, but we don’t have those answers; only his mother does,” said Williams, who has two daughters and raised two of McRae’s sisters. “I told him that he really needs to have a conversation with his mom. The time may not be now, but God will reveal the answers to him in time.”
His biological family joined his adoptive mother and his friends at his commencement. His biological mother was the first person he saw as he walked off the stage.
He hugged her and wept.
“That moment healed more tears and scars than anything else that could have been done,” McRae said. “I was able to accept what had happened.”
McRae encourages the children he mentors to accept their circumstances as well. He prays with them and their families, often sharing the Bible verse that helped him during his toughest times – Romans 8:18.
“It says the present suffering is nothing compared to the glory that lies ahead,” McRae said. “That got me through a lot.”
He recently gave one protégé a new pair of Jordan basketball shoes, a gift he always wanted as a child. He talks over schoolwork with another who is struggling with his courses and behavior.
Miller said McRae is uniquely qualified to help children. McRae plans to begin pursuing a master’s degree in social work next year and eventually wants to earn a doctorate.
“He has overcome so many challenges and still manages to be incredibly positive and upbeat,” Miller said. “He’s not that far from the age where many of these young people are now, so he relates to them in a special way. He knows their lives. He wants to save them from what he went through.”