It’s about strangers moving in with strangers. These kids have habits and characteristics that may seem foreign. And if their biological family life is dysfunctional, they’ve adapted to living in an unhealthy culture with humans who act more like animals. Or who don’t know how to nurture. Screaming and hitting, throwing things and slamming doors, spitting, doing drugs and doing all sorts of unmentionables in the wide open may be normal behavior to them.
(I’m sure for some people my habits and quirks can take some getting used to, as well.)
Within the first week of being a foster mom I was cussed out by a two-year-old. My nine-year-old daughter wanted to know, What does that word mean? That was only the first of thousands of moments I regretted ever thinking of being a foster mom.
Then while dealing with Katie’s screaming profanities, Rachel fell apart and started yelling, too. And my heart broke every time I looked at Katie, realizing only days prior, her mom stood helpless as her kids were taken away from her.
The more often a foster child is moved from one home to another, the more she will struggle with feeling loved and accepted. In her mind the difference glares between her and any biological children in the home. Some foster kids want to fit in, but some want to retain their own identity, and rebel at almost everything to prove it, especially if they’re junior high age and older.
With a distorted view of family, having never or rarely experienced normalcy in the home, when strangers want to take away her freedom by expecting her to follow reasonable structure and guidelines, to help her reach goals and accomplish something more than getting out of bed in the morning (before calling the Sheriff’s Department), and nudge her toward success, she will dig in her heels and refuse to budge. Her perspective of life is upside-down, and so often based on the temporal and immediate, or on her feelings alone.
Starved for attention and beyond insecure, on the defensive, emotions raw… Learning new things is hard, and a quiet house is frightening. Or annoying. Or just plain boring.
I never knew what a day would bring or how it would end. And this life with her is exhausting – whether she’s two or twelve.
Yet, every tiny success and each smile and hug were a cause for celebration. And in those moments I knew we had made the right decision.
Most of the time we could handle Rachel – her moods, the nightmares, the threats, the time when she almost caught the bathroom door on fire after leaving for school, forgetting to turn the space heater off. But when her tantrums became a regular occurrence, the tension between us escalated. She didn’t like being told what to do, but she needed to be told what to do. We wouldn’t allow her to spend all her free time eating junk food and staying in bed, with her clothes and stuff scattered all over the room.
She wanted to play the guitar. So I bought a music book and arranged for lessons. But that’s when things turned…
I had talked to her earlier one day (and other days) about picking up and taking care of her things, showing her how to fold and hang up clothes, where she could put them, etc., etc.
When I went to her room later she was angry, depressed, non-compliant. To me, it was a simple request, but maybe to her mind it was huge. She’d rarely had a room of her own, much less a pile of stuff to take care of. Or maybe she just didn’t want to.
I didn’t understand her, and didn’t always know if or when I should step in to help. She was definitely capable and old enough to be responsible. In other words, the task wasn’t as daunting as it seemed, and she wasn’t as helpless as she pretended. I explained how easily the room could be picked up if she just tried. After giving her firm instructions in a quiet voice, I walked out of the room.
Not only did she scream, but she screamed obscenities. I turned around, laid my hand over her mouth, and told her to stop. My patience had been stretched beyond its limits, and I didn’t know anymore what to do with her.
The next afternoon when she didn’t come home from school, I called her case worker. But she wasn’t allowed to tell me anything, because of the confidentiality issue. Later we were told by the child welfare supervisor that Rachel’s teacher found a note, and I needed to come to the CWS office immediately.
Rachel would be placed in a different home, because I touched her in a non-affectionate manner. I hadn’t hurt her. She wasn’t being suffocated. But yes, I had physically handled her, trying to calm her, trying to teach her how to respond without screaming. (It happened in the stores, too, when I wouldn’t let her buy four-inch-spiked heels or bags of candy.)
She didn’t want to live with us anymore, and she used the system to get her way.
I know – some people believe it’s better to let a kid scream. But I don’t. Not as a rule, anyway.
At the meeting with the case worker and the department supervisor, I admitted my mistake, and then told of other incidents that had challenged us during the four months prior.
One social worker looked at me, horrified. I don’t know how you do it. I could never be a foster parent.
And I could never be a social worker.
Both women understood, both felt bad, but rules are rules. And when you’re a foster parent, the rules of the state trump the rules of your home.
It’s so mixed up. The government was not created, is not equipped to rear children. Social Services looks for stable families to become foster parents. But once you’re licensed, the very things that make your family successful – loving and reasonable expectations, a structured schedule balancing work with play, the importance of education including read-aloud-bedtime-stories, baking cookies together and licking the beaters, the value of chores and the accompanying sense of accomplishment, a reasonable bedtime and waking time (in a clean bed and a safe place), regular and nutritious meals and snacks, plus all the solid, proven-over-time qualities of a stable family – aren’t allowed unless the child chooses to comply.
Because foster kids can’t be forced to do anything against their will, especially the older ones. And foster parents are reduced to bribery.
Basically, the social worker’s job is to find beds and babysitters for these kids (for less than a dollar an hour for round-the-clock care—nannies today make in one week what we made in one month).
I’ve learned since, that private foster agencies are more involved, more supportive. They view foster parents as family members, and don’t give foster kids all the rights while stripping foster families of theirs. One mistake on either side shouldn’t mean an automatic new placement.
We were beginning to make progress, and Rachel’s grades were inching their way upward. There were even moments when I liked her. (Not only was she placed in another home after leaving ours, she was moved into a group home and then ran away and lived on the streets and never graduated from high school and drifted away from society like so many others do.)
I wish she could have stayed. Because then, just maybe, her story would have taken a different turn.
Foster care isn’t for wimps. Your family life will be upended at times on some days most of the time. But being part of the solution to transform a life is worth every sacrifice.
We beat the national average. Four years is a little longer than the one to one-and-a-half years in a journey over some of the roughest mental and emotional terrain ever produced by the Fall.
I’m usually an optimist. But foster parenting requires more than optimism. Those involved need to understand the challenge, and be willing to exercise patience and make whatever sacrifices are necessary to work with traumatized kids. And you have to expect drama, because it comes in boat-loads.
When the state asked more of us than we were willing to give without compromising our values, it was time for our family to return to normal. And I’m not a quitter. But we were treated like babysitters instead of caring adults who wanted to be an integral part of these kids’ lives.
Looking back, I see God’s purposes in a different light. Maybe not as much for the kids as for us. And for me. I learned a lot, and I’m wiser and stronger for having tried. It was one of my most difficult experiences, but it’s part of who I am today. And our involvement in their lives is a small part of who they’re becoming. Because I still pray Rachel’s story won’t be destined for a tragic ending.
To be continued…