May 6, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
I write a fair amount about child protective agencies and foster care. My general take on foster care is that it should be a last resort for kids whose parents are truly dysfunctional, unfit to care for them and possibly dangerous to them. I favor reuniting children with their biological parents if at all possible. I report on studies showing that foster care is more dangerous for kids on average than parental care even when parents are somewhat abusive.
The reasons for my positions are clear. Whoever their parents are, whatever their competencies and deficiencies, children form biological attachments to them. We break those attachments at the peril of severe, lifelong damage to the children. The very act of taking a child from its parents and placing it with unfamiliar ones is traumatic. And children in foster care are far more likely than other kids to experience a range of abusive and neglectful behaviors from foster parents and foster siblings alike. Then, if they remain in foster care until their 18th birthday, all of a sudden, they’re on their own, having aged out of the foster care system. Finally, foster care costs states money – a lot of it. States don’t have to pay biological parents a cent to care for their kids, but they pay foster parents for every day a child is in their care.
In short, as I see it, pretty much everything militates against foster care in all but extreme cases.
So that’s why I think it’s appropriate to take a look at this fine, moving article by a foster mother, Meghan Moravcik Walbert (New York Times, 4/28/15). If the data on kids in foster care paint a pretty bleak picture, they overlook the countless loving and capable foster parents who do immeasurable good for kids who truly have nowhere else to turn.
Walbert and her husband got “BlueJay,” age three on the very first day they were licensed to be foster parents. What does that tell us about the supply of qualified foster parents and the demand for them?
But what comes through every line of Walbert’s piece is the heart-rendingly contingent nature of the foster parent-foster child relationship. Put simply, he might be gone any day. Or, he might be with them for the next 15 years. Who knows? No one.
A pregnancy lasts nine months. During that time, parents prepare themselves and their home for the arrival of their child. A foster child arrives in the blink of an eye; no preparation is possible.
We thought we were ready, but of course we weren’t. Not really. Because how could we be? To add to your family in such an abrupt way, to take in a child who comes with only himself, one box full of his own possessions, and a fear of sleeping in the room you’ve carefully prepared for him is jarring at best and heartbreaking at worst.
It is hard.
It is mad dashes through Target to grab a random list of essentials that include milk, orange juice and socks for a boy who has only a few pairs, all of which are too small.
It is spending hours internally debating which situation I am more likely to be able to handle — running out of pull-ups the next day or fending for myself for the extra 20 minutes it would take my husband to run to the store after work to pick them up.
It is trying to parent two children with two different temperaments and from two vastly different backgrounds with something that resembles fairness and grace.
It is hyperventilating in my bedroom.
It is thinking I am failing.
It is a cellphone that lights up with sweet, congratulatory messages that I imagine might not be so congratulatory if they only knew. If they only knew what BlueJay had been through or if they saw the way I broke down in body-shaking sobs when a friend stopped by with dinner and took the time to look in my eyes and ask, “How are you?”
But hard as the unpreparedness is, what’s far harder is never knowing what the parent-child relationship really is.
It is a boy who calls me “Meghan” one day and “Mommy” the next.
It is glancing in my rear-view mirror as I drive and watching Ryan try to comfort a distraught BlueJay strapped in next to him.
It is his little hand on my face, his brilliant smile, the way he softly says, “I love you,” before he falls asleep at night.
It is awaking at 6 a.m. to the sound of little boys whispering to each other down the hallway.
It is wanting him to be ours forever.
It is knowing that may not happen.
It is attempting to guard our hearts from the loss of him while simultaneously welcoming him into every aspect of our lives.
How exactly does a foster parent give unconditional love to a little child, knowing that tomorrow that love may be cut off? Does it feel like some perverse form of entrapment in which the adult convinces the child to love only to have the object of that love disappear as quickly as she came into the child’s life? Does it ever feel cruel, knowing what the adult knows – that this relationship, this love, this trust, may all end the next day - and that the child doesn’t?
The little boy, BlueJay, age three, answers all those questions.
It is a little boy I try to comfort with promises as he stares back at me, stares through me, and says, “Don’t say, ‘I promise you.’ ”
It is realizing with heart-clenching clarity that in his experience, promises are broken.
In the end, a foster parent’s story, movingly told by a mother who has deep resources of love and compassion, reveals perhaps the most important reason why foster care can be so precarious. Walbert seems like the type of foster parent we’d like every foster parent to be. She cares powerfully about what she’s doing and about making the best home she can for BlueJay. If anyone has a child taken into foster care, that parent would probably hope and pray for Walbert to be the foster mother.
But her love is contingent. It has to be. Because BlueJay may fly out of her life any day, the best she can do is give for now. She knows he is not hers, may not be hers tomorrow or the next day or the next. And the brutal truth is that, however fine a foster parent Walbert is, all foster parents face the same contingency that inevitably leads to giving less, caring less, loving less, protecting less, teaching less, guiding less. And not all foster parents have Walbert’s character or strength.
BlueJay’s words and Walbert’s remind me of a fine poem, “The Shield of Achilles,” by W.H. Auden that includes these lines:
“That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.”
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