Five Stories from Foster Care
She turns to me after I finish paying for her Big Mac meal and McFlurry, and envelopes me in a hug. She says: “I forgive you now, Miss Jilly*.”
“Oh, it’s that easy?” I say, jokingly.
She grins easily. “Yeah, Miss Jilly, I’m a McDonald’s girl!”
As we drive back to school, she chatters freely, and hugs me one more time before she goes off to class. This is entirely different than the child who ran out of the courthouse just 15 minutes ago, refusing to speak to me, close to tears. This is entirely different than the child who was sullenly quiet when we were driving to the courthouse this morning, as I was explaining to her that I would be telling the judge I didn’t think it was safe for her to return home to her parents.
Tomorrow we’ll see her parents for family therapy. As we wait for the therapist, she’ll sign to them in the waiting room of the Department of Social Services, hands move lightly in the air, her thin, fine fingers shaping words and concepts with an airy grace her pre-adolescent body has not yet acquired. And in June, since I must abide by the Judge’s orders, I will return her to those same parents. She will return to her role of caregiver, nurturer, caretaker, translator, protector, provider to her parents, and to the child her mother will give birth to in July.
I only hope she’ll forgive me again, sometime in late summer or fall, when the inevitable happens. When some incident occurs that endangers her safety, or the safety of her new half-brother, and one or both of them come back into foster care again—this time permanently. I don’t think a Big Mac meal and a McFlurry will buy her forgiveness when her heart is broken for a second time.
“How do I spell her name?”
“Whose name, hon?”
“The lady we’re going to see.”
I spell the name for him, and then ask what he’s doing. Drawing a picture for her, he replies. After a moment, I swallow my surprise and tell him that’s very nice of him, and that I’m sure his new foster mom will like it.
He is five years old and this will be his 3rd foster home in two years. His last foster home decided not to adopt him when they found him straddling the youngest girl in the home.
Those kind of things happen when a child has been exposed to any number of unknown sexual, violent and simply terrifying situations in multiple homeless shelters, and been left with strangers or barely trusted friends in states up and down the East Coast.
I hope he won’t have to move to another home before he’s finally adopted, but we still don’t know what will happen with his older brother, who had to be placed in a therapeutic home for his
sexualized and aggressive behavior. He misses his brother, he tells me, but he doesn’t really ask about his parents anymore, who are rarely consistent with visits. He’s learned not to have high expectations.
As we pull up to his new home, he shows me two pictures he has drawn, and nervously asks what I think.
“They’re the most beautiful thing I’ve seen today,” I tell him, with absolute honesty.
With a very serious expression on her face, she pours the invisible tea and then turns to me. “Would you like sugar with your tea?”
“Oh, yes, please,” I respond, and thank her graciously once my chipped plastic cup has been topped off with a sprinkle of pretend sugar. She returns to drinking her tea and eating a veritable feast of plastic food with her mother—hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, pizza, ice cream, cookies and pancakes.
As she eats, she lectures her mother on the importance of eating healthy. I’m not laughing at the irony, because she is absolutely serious in her concern about how much soda her mother drinks, and whether she’s eating vegetables or not. And then she reminds her mother that it’s ok to eat junk food if it’s pretend—but not if it’s real.
She is five years old.
She says that one of the reasons she is in foster care is so her mother “can learn to be a better mommy.”
She asks her mother to read to her, and as they get halfway through the first page, she says: “No, mommy, it says ‘walk’, not ‘wall.’” She corrects her with a confident ease, with an assurance in understanding words, understanding concepts, and understanding the world her mother does not share.
With this same confidence she looked her mother in the eye a month ago and said: “Mommy, I’m mad at you for leaving me,” referring to her mom’s month long trip to the ocean with her boyfriend in a stolen car. With this same confidence she told her mother two weeks ago that she would start calling her foster mother, who is also her aunt, her mommy. She calmly explained that she had two mommies, one who gave birth to her, and one who is taking care of her now.
One day soon, I know she will look her mother in the eye with that same confidence and ask why her mother’s boyfriend was allowed to sexually abuse her. I wonder what her mother’s answer will be.
Stockings and patent leather, lip gloss and pretty skirts, she is a perfect little lady. More and more these days, when I watch her in the visiting room with her siblings and mother, I can only think of her covered in lice and going to school in a swimming suit. She was seven then, when she came into foster care, and she and her older brother and younger sister had almost nothing.
Two years later she steals to make up for that early lack, even though her foster home could nearly match Dudley Dursley for toys. I worry that stealing will be followed by sexual acting out as she reaches adolescence, and needs other methods of dealing with her depression, anxiety and numbness. Her younger sister has enuresis and encopresis, a polite way to say her bladder and bowels lose control when she is anxious or afraid. She fights in school, a ferocious tomboy lacking the social understanding to interact with her peers. Her older brother is a dormant volcano, anger bubbling and boiling beneath the surface, when he finally erupts, the only safe place for him may be in a residential treatment center or hospital.
In a few weeks the court will decide if her mother’s parental rights should be terminated, and we are still scrambling to find a home willing to adopt her and her siblings, with all of their anger and sadness, years of counseling and identity struggles. The issue becomes more complicated as time passes–her older brother is ten. He legally can and has refused to be adopted. She will turn ten in four months.
For now, every night she and her brother and sister say their prayers before they go to bed: “Please, God, help Mommy find a job and a place to live so we can go home.”
I have watched him learn to walk. I have listened to him begin to speak. I visited him in the hospital when he had pneumonia and played peekaboo with him through the bars of the infant cage.
A month old when he came into care, this tiny infant did not arrive empty handed. He carried physical complications due to his drug exposure, a convoluted conception involving legal incest, and two families living on the margins of society.
I spent every week with him and his mother, sometimes more than once a week, supervising their visits. Sometimes he would stare at me, bright blue eyes that reminded me the enormity of the responsibility I was undertaking. I would wonder what face those eyes would grow into, what potential was waiting to be developed.
As I watched him grow, I watched her grow as well. I watched her wrestle with depression and anger, watched her struggle to make decisions on her own, without being influenced or pressured by family members. I wondered what potential could be developed in her as well, if it was ever given the chance to thrive.
When she told me she had decided to let her child be adopted by his foster family, the family he knew as his own, I had to take a breath for a moment to hold back my own tears. Suddenly I could see the potential in her beginning to grow.
I will close his case in a few months, attend his adoption, and walk away, wondering what this blue-eyed toddler will become in twenty years, wondering how his potential will be realized. But I will also spend just as much time wondering about his mother, not even twenty-five, beginning her life again–becoming herself for the first time. I wonder what they’ll be when they grow up.
*I use the name Jilly as a substitute for my first name, after Jilly Coppercorn, the title character in Charles DeLint's Onion Girl