My Lost Decade

Reflections on Ten Years in Foster Care and my life since.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Follow up to Familiar Strangers

I decided not to go to my bio uncle's this past weekend. My mom went. She said she had a good time. She loves her siblings and was looking forward to seeing them when we talked before she left.

Part of the reason I decided not to go was that I had already made plans for this past weekend and was really looking forward to them. I decided I was not going to just kill my plans just because I received an invitation to do something else. I will go to my uncles this weekend with my husband instead. None of the rest of my bio family will be there this week, except my uncle and his girlfriend, but maybe it is better that way for now, for the reason spelled out in the October post I called "Choices".

Another thing that crossed my mind, I'm sorry to say, was the fact that my uncle called less than a week in advance to invite Mom and I. I do not know how long ago he decided to have Thanksgiving at his house, but it did not sound like this was thrown together at the last minute. It felt like Mom and I were after thoughts and I am not okay with that. To me, this is what we have always been in my biological family and I don't like it. When people get married or have a baby, we never find out until right before and then we have to scramble if we want to be involved. When people die, we hear about it not when they first got sick, but once they are already dead and it is too late to say goodbye. Sometimes we don't hear at all. It has been this way since I entered foster care 16 years ago. That means that for 2/3 of my life, I have been out of the loop.

So, I want to see my bio family and all of that and I do not expect them to change their plans to fit my schedule or anything, but I also do not want to be an after thought. I think I would encourage this by sending the message that I have no life and am just waiting for their call or that if I do have plans and they call at the last minute, that I will just ditch whatever is going on with me to be with them. If they want a special presence in my life, they need to earn it, just like everyone else has. In the mean time, I will be happy to go see whichever of them care to see me, but I'll have to fit them in where I do not already have plans.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The right to do versus the right thing to do

I am of the opinion that just because you have the right to do something, that does not necessarily make it the right thing to do. This belief stems would apply to a lot of my experiences in foster care.

I was in foster care for ten years. After about five of those years, the judge on the case terminated my mom' s parental rights. The judge had the jurisdiction and thus the right to do it, but it was not the right thing to do, given the situation.
I had the right, when I aged out, to turn my back on my foster family, never thank them for what they did and never speak to them again. It would not have been the right thing for anyone, but I had the legal right to do it.
One of my foster mothers got angry at me and put me in respite to punish me and put me in my place. She had the right to put me in respite, but in this case, it was not the right thing to do.

On the other side of this paradox is the fact that sometimes you do not have the right to do the thing which would be right. You may know what would be best and have every desire to do it, but because of the law, you may be prohibited from doing it.

I lived in a foster family that was abusive. My social worker moved me when she learned that the foster parents were abusive. She knew that the best thing for the other children in that home would be to be moved elsewhere immediately, but she could not do this, by law. When the investigators assigned to the case found no evidence of abuse, she simply had to leave those other children there because she was not their worker and did not have the right to move them.
By the time I aged out of foster care, the statute of limitations had run out to sue the abusive foster parents or the state for what was endured in some of my placements. It would have been right to make abusers pay back the money they pocketed rather than caring for kids, but I had no right to do so.
It would have been right if my friend's parents, good Christian people who loved me, could have gotten their foster care license when they saw I was being mistreated in a foster family, but their bedrooms were too small, and so they had no right to pursue licensing.

I wish more people would stop and think about the difference between their rights and the right thing to do. They are not always one and the same.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Familiar strangers

I was just writing not that long ago that my mom has five siblings and 17 nieces and nephews and never gets a visit from any of them. Sure enough, one of them has suddenly decided to come forward and make a liar out of me. I'm okay with that. My mom loves her family and enjoys visiting with all of them, even the dysfunctional ones.

I had a message when I got home last night that my mom's functional brother wants her to come visit his home for an early Thanksgiving this weekend. Because of mom's condition and inability to tell her family no, even when it is in her best interests to do so, the facility where she lives calls me whenever something like this comes up. I was happy because I knew Mom would be excited. The messed up brother will be there too, but after talking to the good uncle last night, I am confident that he will be kept in line.

I called Mom tonight to see if she wants to go and she is REALLY happy about it. She adores this brother who invited her and is looking forward to seeing the other members of the family who have been invited.

I was invited to come too, but am not sure how I feel about it. First off, I promised my time elsewhere and could not get there until evening. Secondly, my foster parents have been really good to me and they might feel a little bit unappreciated or hurt if I suddenly start spending time with my biological family, when none of them (except Mom) have bothered with me for most of my life. My foster family has been more like a family to me than my bio family has. They have been there for me through some really good times and some really rough times and there is no way anyone could compete with them for my love, but my foster mom gets really jealous sometimes and I worry about her feelings as a result. I think I might take some more time to think about it before I reach a decision and maybe talk to my foster mom once I have sorted through my own feelings on the subject a bit more.

Monday, November 14, 2005

To Disclose or Not to Disclose...

I just started a new job, hence the decrease in posts, and I find myself in an odd situation. My supervisor wrote a letter announcing my arrival and briefly stating my past experience and expertise. It was a nice thing to do and a well-written letter. Many of my employees have read the letter and commented on it already.

Mentioned in the letter and relevant to the job, is my foster care work. Though I'm not working directly in foster care, the overlap between foster care and my job makes it worth mentioning. The thing is, most people only get into foster care because they were a foster kid or knew a foster kid. People always seem to want to know which it was for me.

In my last job, it was known to pretty much all of my colleagues that I grew up in care and I was okay with that. I'm not sure that I want to tell everyone at my new job though. For starters, in my last job, I was encouraged to socailize with my colleagues, thus making it okay to disclose more personal information about myself to them. Here, I am a supervisor and socializing with employees outside of work has been discouraged by my boss. My thought is, if I am not to hang out, perhaps I am to keep my personal life to myself in general. This won't be easy, since I have only been there a week and some of my employees have already started asking about my background. What am I supposed to say if they ask how I got involved in foster care?

If I don't disclose that I was in foster care, they may still figure it out, since I am only 24, but having over two decades of experience advocating for a person with disabilties helped land me this job. If I explain that my mom is disabled and lives in a home for people with disabilties, a smart person will put two and two together to realize I was in foster care. Also, I do trainings for foster parents on the weekends and frequently have articles published in magazines, newspapers and on-line. I am fully identifiable by the accompanying photo and/or biography. Once they figure out I was a foster child, they might assume I had solely negative foster care experiences, since I did not disclose this in the first place. I am far from ashamed that I was in foster care, but I wonder if it would be unprofessional to disclose such personal information to my employees. It feels like it might be crossing some invisible line.

My husband disagrees. His opinion is that being a foster kid and the child of a person with a disability are job credentials in this case and thus it is okay to state those facts. In his opinion, making this information known will only make it more clear to my staff and others with whom we interact as a company that I have the kind of know-how and compassion needed to do my job. It will send the message that I care about vulnerable people and will not accept things that are not in their best interests.

I'm not sure yet what I will do. If I do not disclose, this will be the first time in my life that I have not done so. I have always been very upfront about it in school, at other jobs and with friends. I have taken every opportunity possible to educate people about foster care and recruit people to be foster parents if I think they would be good at it. On the one hand, it makes me feel good to enlighten people about foster care and potentially bring more people into the circle. On the other hand, I've always felt a little bit exposed by disclosing my past. It might be nice to not feel emotionally naked for a while.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The luck of the Irish

A friend recently told me that the luck of the Irish is "Stepping in dog doo, but you weren't wearing your good shoes." I guess that is a pretty good descriptor of my life. Sure, I had my share of bad experiences, but I had some really good fortune too. This post is dedicated to those lucky breaks I experienced in care.

My grandmother died when I was six and this was tragic. I miss her to this very day. The thing is, I had her for my formative years. I have dozens of memories of her, all of which are good. I am not sure if this would still be true, had she lived longer. We lived in poverty, partially due to my grandfather's alcoholism, partially due to my mom's disability and partially due to the fact that my grandmother weighed 400+ pounds and could not work. It is conceivable that as I grew older, I would have come to resent my grandmother for enabling my grandfather's addiction and not taking care of herself better. She was taken from me before I could take her for granted or judge her.

I entered the foster care system because no one in my birth family was willing or able to take care of me. I am now one of the only college graduates in the family and one of the only members of the family to make it to my twenties without becoming a parent. If I had been raised in my birth family, who's to say this would have happened?

As mentioed before, I was in a couple of foster homes that probably should never have been licensed. The thing is, in those placements, I made some really good friends who had really good families who let me hang out at their houses all the time. I spent less time with the foster families as a result and was less scarred by the experience than I might have been otherwise. In one of these situations, my friend's family even went so far as to contact the Department of Human Services to inquire about getting licensed as foster parents. Their hearts were huge, but their house was too small, so they were told it was not an option. I never knew they had done this until YEARS later, when their son mentioned it in passing. When I asked my friend about it, she seemed a bit annoyed that he told me. Their parents were not doing it for glory, money, my appreciation or anything like that. They simply wanted to help out a kid in a bad situation. As I look back at it, after they were turned down for their foster care license, they doubled their efforts to make sure I was safe. I was invited to more sleepovers, church events and family gatherings than before. That friend was the Matron of Honor in my wedding and I still value her whole family as a key part of my support network.

I left one perfectly good foster home for five years before I moved back in with them. I lost all of that time to bond with my foster family. I will never get that time back, but I learned to appreciate them more. My foster parents are not perfect, but their intentions are good and they want me to be happy and healthy. I can appreciate this about them now, but had I never lived in bad placements, I might take them for granted. As it is, I am thankfully every time I interact with them that I have a family.

I try not to get too caught up in the bad things that I have experienced because most of the time it gets balanced out by good things. It is easy for me to see this in hindsite, but I continue to work on it in the present. I have a friend who is always telling me that she has to "turn things over to God". I think that is what I need to do as well. I do not have the all encompassing knowledge of the future to handle it all on my own and it is always good to have a second set of eyes on things anyhow.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Why Me?

I had the good fortune to spend some quality time with one of my dearest friends this weekend. She lives two hours away, so we have to do a bit of coordinating to make this happen. I was in her neck of the woods, so it worked out well.

My friend is a protector. She shelters people she cares about from the storms of life. When she is unable to do this for someone she loves, it tears her up inside. I also tend to do this, but I can see where hardships (when limited in number, intensity and duration) can give a person character and emotional fortitude. This friend of mine is a perfect example of this.

Her dad is all kinds of expletives and caused her more harm in life than good. Her mom had to compensate for this, which was not easy, given that she was a young mom with three daughters (and later a son) and her husband acted like a child. When they divorced, my friend, the oldest child, was placed in an even tougher spot and had to be the mom for the half of the year when the girls lived with their dad. When they were with their mom, she still had to do more parenting than most kids because her mom was a single parent working overtime to keep them fed and a roof over their heads. My friend endured hardships that I would not have ever wanted for her, and if I had been in a position I would have done what I could to protect her. In doing so, I might have done her a disservice though.

My friend does not feel bad for herself. She says her parents were young and human. They made mistakes and she loves them anyway. She is glad she was there to take the brunt and protect her sisters. She has a tender spot for the afflicted as a result of her past. She runs her company's charitable donations and does a great job of it. They are the only company in their area to support a low-income family year-round and it has a lot to do with my friend's hard work and dedication. If it weren't for her suffering as a child, this family might not have food on the table, winter coats or Christmas gifts. She can see how her personal hardships opened her heart.

What she can't see is how this works for other people. For example, while we were talking, she told me that her sister is struggling financially. She has a daughter who my friend loves to pieces. It kills my friend to see her sister and niece making sacrifices, pinching pennies and utilizing public assistance. She wishes she could take care of them. When she told me this, I told her how admirable it is that she loves her family so much, but that God has a plan. My friend's niece is in her formative years right now. She may be learning something from all of this that will make her a great social worker, teacher or humanitarian later in life.

When I was four, I remember getting WIC, commodities and food stamps pretty regularly. It was not ideal, but we had food to eat and I have never judged anyone on assistance as a result. I remember one of my teachers bringing boxes of stuff that her daughter had outgrown to our house. I got a lot of joy from the things she gave me and I learned the value of passing things along to others when you no longer have use for them. I grew up in foster care and while it was difficult, it made me much more appreciative of family and good parenting. If I had had a perfect life, I might take things for granted and never help anyone else. But I did not, so I do not. I never ask, "Why me?" I know why. Because it made me a better human being.

I do not think my friend's niece will ever ask that either. I think she will take something from the circumstances that she could not have learned any other way and she will incorporate it into herself. When she gets older, she will be a stronge, wise, compassionate woman, just like her mother, aunts and grandmother. She will respect her mom for working so hard to take care of her and she will become an amazing woman. My friend and everyone else in their family will shelter her from what they can, so she will not be hardened to the world or completely disillusioned, but she will be a real person and she will have some idea of how to get through the trials she has as an adult. She will know what it is like to live without certain luxuries and she will comfort people who are less fortunate than herself. If my friend saved her from her present, she would potentially doom others in the future.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Harry Potter

I had a conversation with my best friend's mom some time ago and it just came to mind, so I thought I would include it here. It is important to know that I am a HUGE Harry Potter fan. I own all of the books, have seen all of the movies and own the ones that are available on DVD. I have a Hogwarts watch and a replica of the necklace Hermione wore ot travel through time. I even wore it to dress up as Hermione to hand out candy this Halloween. One of our wedding gifts was book six, which came out on our wedding day. We nearly had duplicate copies because multiple guests were going to buy it for us. My love of Harry Potter is no secret.

That said, my friend's mom does not share this adoration of Harry Potter. As she told me, she started reading the first book and it just wasn't there for her. She did not connect to the book in the way I did. She thought perhaps I was drawn to the magic and wizardry in a way that she was not. It really was not that for me at all, so a discussion ensued, where I basically stated the following.

*Harry Potter is a foster kid like I was.

*He was placed in kinship care after his parents died. I entered kinship care after my primary care taker, my grandma, died. They were all three (his parents and my grandma) taken in very sudden and horrific ways.

*Kinship care ended and he moved on to a place that better allowed him to be himself and pursue his talents. This was also true for me. Entering foster care allowed me more of an opportunity to be a kid, do extra-curriculars and make friends.

*Harry witnessed some terrible things in this new place. I witnessed some terrible things in foster care. I witnessed other kids being abused and was powerless to stop it. The people inflicting this were demented. He faced Dementors.

*He came through things that other people were amazed he was able to handle at such a young age. The same was true for me. No one expected me to bounce back so well.

*We both came through relatively intact, but with some definite scars from our experience.

As I sat here writing, I came up with the following additional parallels:

Though I have the above in common with Harry, I lived in families the size of Ron Weasly's (and want one in the future), had a disposition similar to Hermione Granger's in school (complete with getting on people's nerves with my academic focus) and still have Neville Longbottom's hand-eye coordination. I see a lot of myself in a number of the characters.

In addition, Hagrid reminds me of my foster uncles, if you cross Professor Dumbledore and Sirius Black, you get my husband and my foster mom is a transfiguration spell shy of being Professor McConagall. I have a foster aunt who reminds me of Professor Trelawny as well as a high school friend who is Neville through and through.

As far as the evil characters go, my Voldemort is death and separation from the ones you love. I have always had a hard time dealing with both and he deals them continuously. Draco Malfoy is every kid who ever gave me a hard time in school because I was new. When Hermione punched him in the face in book three, it was like she punched every bully on the bus for me. It was a beautiful moment. Lucius Malfoy is the adults who did not understand foster care and who acted weird toward me as a result. Snape represents for me all of my foster parents who should not have been licensed and appeared so transparent to me, while the authorities were completely oblivious to their B.S.

I had a foster family that punished one of my foster sisters by making her sit on the stairs to the basement for weeks on end, from the moment she woke up until she went to bed. No one was to speak to her or give her any attention of any type. The whole set up of the basement staircase and her isolation from everyone else in the house was what I thought of when I first read about Harry sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs.

So, I may be a bit obsessed with the books. I really connected with them. I would be interested to see if other foster children and former foster children feel the same way.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Foster Care Culture

I am a member of a foster care site called Foster Club. Currently, they are holding an essay contest for current and former foster children about what it means to be part of the foster care culture. My submission is below. The deadline is November 21, so it may be a while before I hear how I did.

From the day I entered care, being a foster kid meant missing school every other week to go to therapy. Sometimes kids asked if I had cancer because I went to "the doctor" so much. Conversely, I was told I could not go to court hearings because I had to go to school. One of the court hearings I was not allowed to attend was the termination hearing. Being a foster child can mean being told that a judge decided your parents are not your parents anymore and you were not allowed to say how you felt about it.

In grade school, being in foster care meant having friends who called my primary female caregiver "Mom," when I just called her by her first name. It also meant not knowing how to handle it when kids asked uncomfortable questions on the playground, and just going for shock value with my answers. Like many other foster kids, I was not sure where I would be in a year, or sometimes even a month. I can remember saying under my breath, "Hopefully," on the last day of school, when friends said, "See you next fall."

In junior high, being a foster child meant being asked how it is that I was completely white and my sister was a full-blood Sioux Indian. I think our answer was, "Different moms and not the same dad." It meant having lots of "siblings" from all of my past placements, but never getting to see them once I moved because nobody understood why I missed them, when they were not my "real" sibling. It was in junior high that I started to feel like I did not really belong. Sometimes I was included in family activities and sometimes my foster parents would leave me out or send me to respite. I never got too excited about anything because I never knew if I was "part of the family" when it came to that activity.

Being a foster child meant wondering, my senior year of high school, if I would still have a home the day after graduation (even though my foster parents said I would) and how I was going to be able to be an adult in such a short time when I still felt so much like a child. It meant holding on tighter to my high school days than most other kids because I was so afraid of what was to come when they ended.

As I talked to a fellow college student a year or two later, being a former foster kid meant realizing that the "welfare problem" he did not want to pay taxes for included feeding foster kids and paying for them to have a place to live. Being a former foster child meant not wanting to take "welfare" because I was trying so hard to break the cycle that landed me in care in the first place. I remember wondering if my scholarships counted as welfare.

Last year, being part of the foster care culture meant that when I took the training to become a foster parent, I caught mistakes in the information being taught to new foster parents. It meant having people in the class look at me differently than before, once I mentioned that I grew up in foster care. It also meant being one of the only people who had no trouble writing a letter to my future foster children because, having been a foster child, I knew exactly what questions they would have upon entering my home.

This summer, being a former foster child meant confusing guests at my wedding who were from nuclear families by introducing them to too many parents. I had two foster mothers, my birth mom and two foster fathers there, plus my new mother in-law. I also had two foster sisters there who did not know each other because they were from two different families. I have never met a non-foster kid who could introduce two of their sisters to each other for the first time at their wedding.

Years after aging out, being a former foster child still means being torn between loyalty to my birth family and accepting the love of another family, then feeling like a jerk regardless of what I choose. It means not knowing where I am "supposed to" spend Christmas, but feeling like I am betraying someone regardless of what I want to do.

Ultimately, being a foster child means seeing things through a different lens than the one other people use. It means having a heightened awareness of human nature, a greater capacity for compassion and a broader notion of family. It frequently means not having someone else's successful path to follow and having to blaze your own trail. Sometimes it means feeling most alone in a room full of people and least alone when reading the post of a stranger on a message board because they have been there too and they said something that made you realize you were not alone at all, but a part of a huge family of survivors who have a shared history of being in foster care.