I’ve been wanting to write about foster care for awhile now. Last year, I interned at AZ Adoption & Foster Care, an agency that specializes in certifying parents for foster care and adoption. I had the opportunity to learn about the public child welfare system and how children are placed into foster and adoptive homes. I was given a “caseload” and worked alongside adoption and foster care specialists whose primary task was to prepare families for foster care/adoption through education, training, and ultimately licensure/certification. This post will be the first of a brief series on foster care, primarily foster care in Arizona. I thought I’d begin the series by highlighting an article that I came across on a blog called, “No Bohn’s About It.” The author, Erin Bohn, writes about her family’s journey through foster care, adoption, birth and parenthood. Erin graciously gave me permission to reblog a guest post written by her friend, Jackie, who spent some of her teen years in foster care. Jackie’s article from “No Bohn’s About It” is posted below in its entirety, but you can also click here to read it. Her story made me happy because she had a strong foster parent, one who has the characteristics of a “model” foster parent, and Jackie thrived while in her care. Children who enter the system have experienced trauma that affects them in profound ways, which in turn affects parenting and relationships within the family. I hope you enjoy reading Jackie’s article. And stay tuned for more to come in this series.
I am sitting in my comfy chair playing Freecell solitaire, while my curry chicken casserole cooks in the oven, trying to think of what to say about being a foster-daughter. Then it hits me. The only reason I play this game is because my foster-mom, Naida, played it endless times and it makes me feel good that I have finally conquered it. The only reason I’m making chicken with curry is because she introduced me to it. In fact, it was a staple once I became used to the flavor. And the only reason I’m sitting in my chair instead of on the couch is because that’s how she relaxed.
I am a middle class mom and live in a middle class neighborhood. So when I say things like, “My foster-mom” people stop and look at me like I just said I’m Cat Woman. How could someone like me have a foster-mom?!
How far back do you want me to go in telling my story? Do you want the part about how my parents met? I could go farther back. My dad grew up in an orphanage because his father went to prison and then his mother lost custody. My mother was the first baby to have the a new kind of paternity test because her mother wasn’t quite sure who the father was.
Not that far back?
After my parents married they had 6 babies that lived to term. My father had anger issues. My mother was depressed, often. When payday came he would go shopping for new shoes, new clothes, and new toys. For himself. When my mother cooked, if she cooked, it was one box of Hamburger Helper. That’s it. Vegetables and fruit were what rich people ate. I thought a side dish was the dish next to mine.
When they did buy us clothes, because the teachers would call and call asking where we were, they were quickly bought from the thrift store. Something always seemed to be wrong with the washer and/or dryer. Apparently those things need soap, softener, electricity. School was both awful and wonderful. I got to learn how to read and that opened up whole new worlds to me. The library become my own personal wonderland and I read every single thing I could get my hands on.
It was awful because the kids could be very cruel about the extended absences, the smells that emanate from an unwashed body, the librarian coming to your classroom to check your desk because you were the last person she saw with a particular book and it hadn’t been checked out properly.
Things like that make you not want to go to school. I had two choices, go to school and be rough housed and made of fun by the kids and teachers, or hide out at the stadium. Except when I did that my siblings weren’t protected from our father. One day, after my older brother had almost been beaten to a pulp, I walked 13 city blocks to the police department. I had had enough of my father’s outbursts. The sergeant made the mistake of asking if I was truant. I didn’t know what the term meant. After he dropped me off at school I overheard him talking to my high school guidance counselor about it. He was told that everybody knew about my family and my background but no one could make anything stick and until I was truant there really wasn’t much they could do.
Anyway, to make a long story short, because I can go on and on sometimes, I was finally placed in a foster-home at the age of 16. My older brother and younger brother had been placed in two separate homes a month earlier. My younger sister was placed a month after me. My two youngest sisters were never placed. They didn’t have enough truancy days.
I’m not going to go into the legal mumbo jumbo of the whole thing. We’d be here all day. Suffice it to say that in those days if something didn’t happen right in front of an adult, then it didn’t happen at all. No one looked for bruises in those days. Unless you were bleeding right in front of them it was chalked up to you being a kid.
Out of the 4 of us I am the only one who was well placed. I still have what’s known as Survivor’s Guilt. Sadly anyone can be a foster-parent. Anyone can take great advantage of a foster-kid. There just aren’t enough good people who want to, or are able to, help.
My foster-mom had a strong sense of Social Justice. She had been a missionary for a girls school in Inanda, South Africa. Had taught and worked in the inner city of Cleveland. She wanted to make a difference in the world. She served as the minister at my high school graduation. Yes, I finally graduated after 6 years. It took that long because my parents had moved us around so many times I had to keep starting over as a freshman when I was placed. That hurt, I was 16 years old! Naida made sure I went to summer school and I did my Junior and Senior years simultaneously. I was supposed to only be in foster-care for one year. Naida fought with the judge to keep me and to discontinue forced visitation with my family. Every time I saw them I would descend into a depressive state. There was just not enough I could do to help my siblings and that killed me. Still does. The funny thing is, she had decided that she was done being a foster-mom. If it wasn’t for my case worker begging her to take me who knows what would have happened.
Once I graduated she accepted a position in a new city miles away. I moved with her and stayed with her during my college breaks. She helped me get my first apartment. She was also the officiating minister at my wedding and my children knew her as Gramma. She passed away two years and and I miss her terribly. She went the extra mile for me so many times. She was my hero.
I don’t really keep in contact with my birth family. There is a lot of mental, and financial, instability there. My mother passed away when I was in my early 20’s. We had an argument at her mother’s funeral and we didn’t talk for 7 years. The last thing I said to her was, “You really think you are so right but you are dead wrong.” Yeah, I probably could have used better words. Ever since then I am very conscience of hugging the people I love and telling them how much I love them before parting, even when I am angry. Especially when I am angry.
After several tries to reconcile and help my family Scott, my husband, asked me to stop. Any time I get around, or even just talk with, someone from my family I get well, emotional. My PTSD kicks into overtime. Yes, even at the age of 50. Some scars don’t heal. You just learn to ignore them or find other ways to occupy your mind. Some people do not want to be helped and are happy the way they are, no matter how dysfunctional.
My focus has been on the family my husband and I created. We have two boys and they are are my pride and joy. They tell me that I’m the World’s Best Mom. I tell them that I am the best mom I know how to be and I hope that’s OK. I also focus on having a loving and respectful marriage. My husband is my harbor. He keeps me balanced and protects me. I don’t think it’s any accident that he is a big and tall man. God knew exactly who would be the perfect match for me.
So, yeah. I’m not “normal” by any stretch of the imagination. I sure have gotten good at a reasonable facsimile though.
Have I ever thought about being a foster parent? Absolutely. I just never thought it would be fair to the foster kids. I am making up this parenting stuff as I go. It’s probably also safer for me to be away from people who would harm their kids for them to be in The System, know what I mean? I did volunteer at Royal Family Kids Camp, a week long camp just for foster-kids, one summer and loved that. My church sponsored it and I was able to really connect with the kids on a level none of the other volunteers could match. We survivors can sense each other’s pain, if it isn’t there we do not trust you. Not totally. That is just a fact. On the other hand, it took me 3 months to come out of a depression from that.
Strong people are needed to be foster parents; tough people who don’t take any guff. People like Rev. Naida Sutch Gillespie, may she rest in peace.