As Long as it Lasts

The story of two mothers, a child, and a fair shot at the foster-care system

Jeanne spent enough time with her daughter to know she needed help. She admitted Tracy to an eating-disorders clinic at a private hospital. She emerged three weeks later more sullen and an even better anorexic. A laxative overdose sent her back in, this time to the pediatric ward to be rehydrated. She ripped out her IV and punched an aide, and the private hospital moved her to the children's psychiatric ward of a public facility, where most of the workers gave Jeanne raised eyebrows and tight-lipped looks. Not much sympathy. She was confused. She hadn't thought about rejection or scorn from Tracy--or from strangers--when her three girls had said go, please let's go with big wet eyes.

That night, Tracy's first night in isolation on the children's psychiatric ward, a nurse called Jeanne. She didn't scold. She said she'd never seen a kid like Tracy. She asked how Jeanne was coping. Jeanne told her she was working with the county to try to find temporary foster placement for Tracy. A social worker from the first hospital had suggested it, and more and more it seemed like a good idea. But so far, no luck. And for the next several months the hospital moved Tracy in and out of the eating-disorders clinic, pediatrics, and the psychiatry ward while the county told Jeanne there were no available foster families.

Jeanne's plea was one of thousands that come to Hennepin County's Child and Family Services department each year. According to Marcella Grandpre, a senior social worker for foster care, all of the kids removed from their homes by the courts due to "imminent danger or harm" get placed sooner or later either with foster families, in group homes, or in shelters. But voluntary placements initiated by the biological family, without abuse in the picture, were hard to get when Jeanne begged for it in 1995. Today, they're virtually nonexistent.

The county is overloaded with 1,200 to1,500 placements per year to protect children from abuse and neglect. It was a tough call for the agency to stop serving families who just needed a breather from intense child-parent conflict. When Grandpre explains the change she sounds genuinely apologetic for situations like Jeanne's and Tracy's. But even if a social worker like Grandpre had felt that kind of compassion for them five years ago, neither the families nor the funds were in place to give Tracy what she needed.

While they waited for foster placement, Jeanne and her other two daughters delivered Tracy five days a week to professionals who did their best to help. Nutritionist, psychologist, psychiatrist, eating-disorders therapy group. The whole family took part in some of the appointments. Rose and Cindy complained. "We don't wanna spend two hours on a Saturday with a bunch of people talking about bingeing and purging," they would say. Rose especially. She told Jeanne, "I don't want to go. It makes me want to do it." But Jeanne insisted. She was following the rules, trusting the system, trusting that it would come to some good.

Jeanne's boss at a metro-area accounting firm was patient, but advancement was out of the question, and so was more money. Semester after semester Jeanne dropped the classes she had already started at a community college in order to meet the demands of her job and Tracy's treatment. She kept just enough credit hours to hold onto her financial aid. School and regular exercise kept her grounded even though they put extra stress on her schedule. She had a strong new sense that her own self-esteem was worth it, for her sake and for Tracy's.

Jeanne's college counselors told her she was right. Self-esteem was a legitimate priority. They also gave her some limits, told her she had to keep her credit load under fifteen per semester--no more full-time schoolwork on top of a part-time job and full-time single parenting. "They gave me paths to follow," Jeanne said. "They put it in perspective and they helped me avoid burnout." College support services also gave Jeanne her first getaway since the divorce: an overnight retreat for single moms. All expenses blissfully paid, including twenty-four hours of child care. Jeanne and a dozen other women signed up. It was at the retreat that Jeanne found out for the first time about an out-state university where she could finish her college degree living in Section 8 housing. Out-state where there was less traffic and less trouble. Section 8 housing right away, not years away like it was in the Cities. Over complimentary rolls and coffee in styrofoam cups, Jeanne's fellow single moms told her about a local shelter that would help her make the right connections. She went the next week.

The staff at the shelter pulled lists of available housing within driving distance of the university. And they listened to Jeanne. They weren't surprised to hear that her ex-husband had been arrested for stalking and making threats. They nodded when she told them Tracy had assaulted her once and threatened to kill her a few times. "Fear keeps kids in line," they told her. "And when you cut them loose, they act out."

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