Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Risks of Being a Fostering Child

So I left you off with my doing deep breathing exercises in front of an angry Brian.

I really was upset. I stayed calm, but I hardly behaved like the perfect mommy. I tried to get him to talk about how upset he was about the weekend, but he wanted to focus on how he had been trying to tell me and I hadn't listened. The conversation was civil, but not the comforting that he needed.

He brought it up again last night, brave soul that he is. We talked about it for a while and we did work things out. There were tears, hugs and reconciliation. His claim that he had been trying to tell me turns out not to be without justification. My inability to understand the significance behind the words he was using is completely understandable.

But that is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk why that weekend was so upsetting to him.

Brian was still seven when we left. I may have said he he was eight, but that was wrong. He was still seven.

When we started care we, like most foster parents, did not explain foster care to our kids. We gave them the information that we thought they needed and then they filled in the details. So what we told them went something like this, "Carl's mom died a couple of years ago and nobody knows where his dad is. So Carl is in a special program that finds families for him to live with. We could join that program and he could live with us."

The boys were excited. They slowly learned more about the reasons why kids were in care, but it wasn't because I was ever careful about giving them complete and accurate information. Brian in the beginning was only five and I did not want to tell him the truth. That was a mistake. I told him, "There are all sorts of reasons why sometimes parents can't take care of their kids." That was another mistake.

I did reassure him that he was ours forever and that he would never go to foster care, but I think that assurance did not fill up the space of his anxiety. It did not because I did not understand that he was really worried. He needed more assurance than I was giving him. And I had no idea how many stories the respite kids, and Carl to be fair, were telling him.

When we went on that trip, Brian was afraid we weren't going to come back. Of course we told him that we were, but he knew that sometimes parents didn't.

That's important. He was a fostering child. We had done respite care of multiple kids. He had been told stories about abandonment that I did not know he had been told. He knew for an actual fact that sometimes parents left their children. He had met and spoken to children who had been left, and some of those children enjoyed telling horror stories to frighten privileged little brats. I know from my research that most fostering children his age believe that kids are left in foster care because they were naughty.

So now it makes sense. I understand why our leaving him that weekend, with a woman he knew and trusted, but who had a boyfriend (now her husband) whom he did not know well, was frightening to him. Though we said we were coming back, he was not certain that was true. He was afraid that he was being abandoned like all the foster kids he knew had been abandoned.

So I wonder what I might have done differently had I understood. I cannot imagine not going on the trip. The agency was paying for everything. It was a foster parent conference, but it was in Las Vegas. We would spend the days in long, emotionally exhausting seminars, but we would have other times when we could eat out at adult restaurants and tour the sights. We needed that time. I always understood the trip to be partly a bribe to get us to continue to do care after Carl left. It worked.

I know I said all the right words to Brian before we left, but I don't know that I said them carefully enough. I did not occur to me that he might not believe me when I said we would be back in four days.

No matter what, I cannot imagine a past in which we did not take Carl. I cannot imagine him not being part of our lives, part of Brian's life. Brian adores Carl. I might not have done any respite care though. I might have protected Brian from all the stories he heard. I might have waited until he was old enough that I was willing to tell him the truth about why these kids were in care.

At whatever age we started doing respite care, I would have spoke more carefully about the reasons kids go into care. The same of course would have applied to taking David. David was an abandoned child (whom we did not meet until more than a year after we went on that trip). I should have had conversations with Brian and Andrew about abandonment, about why it happens and why it wasn't going to happen to them.

But it could be that nothing would have worked. It might have been that Brian was just at a stage where he was afraid of monsters under his bed and parents abandoning him. It might be that there was nothing that I could have done except not go on the trip, and I know that even if I should not have gone on that trip, I would have. I can't imagine anything anyone might have said that would convince me that Brian would carry around pain from it for fiive years. I would have gone.

Last summer I helped do a training on children who foster. The lesson we tried to communicate then is certainly something I wish someone had told me:

Explain everything to your kids; even the ugly parts. If you don't want them to know those things, don't do care. If you don't tell them the foster kids will, or their imaginations will create something far worse.


  1. Excellent advice. Bug understands about the kids. But Bubba, he is too young and too delayed to understand what foster care means. I can tell how confused he gets by visits and he has a very strong fear of abandonment.

    By the way, I think you are such a great parent because even in this situation, you stop to analyze what happened and what you might have done different. You don't beat yourself up too bad at all, you just learn from it. I admire that.

  2. Can I share this when I do a training? With credit given, of course.

  3. Wow. What a great point!



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