ON BEING A FOSTER PARENT

The agency has paid us its highest compliment, although I bet they’ve said as much at one time or another to most of the other foster parents they supervise: If anyone can help this child, we’re the ones. With less confidence in ourselves than they have in us, we’ve tried and tried again. Each placement, lasting from a few months to five years, with kids from seven to seventeen, has ended in a shambles and we’ve felt as though we’ve failed.

It occurred to us to become foster parents when our son, who has multiple disabilities, was four years old. We wondered who would be there to love him if we both (let’s be blunt) died suddenly. We’ve made our arrangements, of course, and we leave the rest to faith, but we decided that, if that’s what we want for him, we ought to be willing to do as much for someone else’s child. Our two oldest children, both daughters, who were both off to higher education by the time the first foster child arrived, have supported us absolutely and have been ideal older siblings.

We applied to become, not just DHS foster parents, but treatment foster parents. Not just one of us, the stay-at-home mom, but both of us. The license requires much training, meetings upon meetings, family integration specialists in our home almost daily, fire marshal inspections, and required home modifications.

For most of the past five years we have had two foster kids at a time. Short of writing them into our wills we’ve integrated them into the family as totally as we -- as they -- can. We’ve tutored them after school, decorated their bedrooms to their taste, hosted their parties, provided driver ed, attended their field hockey games, cross-country meets, plays, concerts. We’ve provided them passports and taken them (two at once) to the Caribbean and camping in Canada. All our family photos include them. All our children, foster and “real,” have willingly and regularly gone to church as a family, mosttimes with enthusiasm.

We’ve participated in untold hours of family therapy. We’ve laughed ourselves silly and cried inconsolably together. We’ve fought and made up. We’ve torn each other’s hearts out and then sewn them back in again. Our home has been wide open to our children, save for the medicine chest, which has to be locked up. We’ve patched walls, re-hung doors, repaired damaged furniture.

And yet, not yet have we managed to see a foster child reach her majority in our home and move on into the world a happy, adjusted young adult.

Treatment foster care entails working intensely with those children who are especially traumatized by their past and who act accordingly, i.e., inappropriately. We give them a home with parents (ourselves), married 27 years, and two twenty-something young women who are proud to call themselves our (we don’t emphasize “real”) daughters. We ease these new kids into a life with routines and rules and chores and rewards. We help them put words to their sense of loss over their past, for which we’re sometimes punished because we’re available and it’s safe to flail at us. If we forgive their misdirected anger, they’re safe and maybe healing begins. If we don’t forgive it, their dysfunctional behavior, with which they’ve become comfortable, is vindicated because -- see? -- they’re unlovable.

But the kids continue to leave the homes of all the foster parents we know before any of us are “finished” with them -- each to a different dead end: an “ordinary” foster home that promises less supervision, the streets, an institution, or worst of all, back to the original corrupt home -- because, in the kids’ eyes, our rules have become too strict (they remain simple and unchanged), or someone in the agency betrayed their trust (spoke up to protect them), or we can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be “me,” or because the bond with the abusive parents is insidiously, strangely strong and the kids recant in the presence of the birth parents’ attorneys.

Occasionally they leave prematurely because the foster family’s risk of being assaulted was too great. In all cases, it seems, our “treatment” was insufficient to draw the child into a life that could look to the future with hope instead of to the past with terror and the present with rage.

We’re jarred by the lack of “success” with our charges. We know we’re good. But maybe we’re too good in a different sense.

I grew up poor, believing that I wasn’t as good as some people -- as the people I am now. My parents weren’t comfortable with people in my present circumstances, mostly separated by an imaginary and arbitrary economic stratification. Maybe our foster kids feel that way, too. We tell them they can be whatever they want to be and yet, modest as our situation is, they believe they can never hope to achieve as much as they perceive that we have. We’re beyond them. They’re not good enough. They never knew a home like ours existed except on ‘Beaver re-runs, and it’s not the norm to them.

The foster kids we’ve known and loved -- and this is what makes my blood boil -- are condemned evermore to the past, unable to command the future. Out there somewhere is a sperm donor and a willing vagina who came together for at least a moment’s selfish pleasure and who produced, then discarded, each of the children who has then come to our house and cried her eyes out to be in such a strange place. I worry, though, that only those of us who have dealt professionally with children this deeply scarred have any idea the extent of the crime that occurs quietly in our midst: the physical neglect, sexual abuse, and, most scarring, the emotional abandonment of children by their parents.

I suppose, too, that there are some truly awful foster homes out there. But none of the dozens of licensed homes I know is one of them. Of course, if you talk to the kids who’ve left our home, you may hear that ours is terrible. The news and entertainment media generalize it from the kids’ angle and demonize all foster homes. So far you probably won’t find a former foster kid of ours who, in the end, would praise the experience.

Are we disillusioned? Not that, really. Awakened. Better informed now. Mad as hell at the individuals who ought to pass a humanity test before procreating, madder still that we’re being sucked along in a “culture” where self-gratification has become the guiding virtue -- the nuisance by-products of copulation be damned, in a society dedicated to redefining the word, family, so that any two or more people fit the definition.

I don’t point the finger at politics or the schools or churches. I point it at all of us, at our ignorance, complacency, inertia.

Once inspired, we set out to do our part. We’ve been trying, and now we’re a bit discouraged. Is this what we should be doing? Or should it be political and social activism? Should I lobby Congress (or try to get elected?) and carry a 2x4 to Washington with me? Or is there yet another kid who needs the safety of a few months or years of tears and laughter in the relative privacy of our home?

In our home we preach the doctrine of random acts of kindness, that the good you do may have consequences you’ll never know (as will the evil you commit or permit), and that when someone asks how to repay a favor you should say: Pass it on. Therein lies my hope, that someone who passed through our doors will have learned that much.

I guess I have energy enough for one job. If I’m on a soapbox, I can’t be much of a dad. If I’m going to be a dad, I don’t have time to be knocking heads together in the Capitol’s vaulted chambers. Besides, the system, at least in Maine, seems designed to make it ever harder for anyone else to become foster parents. That may be for the good of the kids, but then I guess I’m needed that much more in this role. In spite of the stories that must be circulating locally about us in the under-twenty crowd, I know what we do is needed and what we’ve done up to now has been good.

I especially like my wife’s credo: I don’t ask, I just do. And when I see my maker, I’m going to insist upon a full explanation.

2002
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