As Long as it Lasts

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

Jeanne wasn't about to bring fear back into her kids' lives, but she was ready, and finally able, to introduce structure, strength, and authority. For Tracy, that would take more than Jeanne could give. But she had to start somewhere, so without looking back, she picked up and left.

Just far enough away. Room to breathe, to live like a family. The Section 8 apartment was twelve miles from campus, it had a yard, it was safe. Before all the boxes were unpacked, Jeanne cracked open her new phone book--white and yellow pages together, already simpler than the Cities--to Social Services. Public aid would pay for ten sessions with a social worker. Jeanne called the one she knew was approved and took the first available appointment. It went well, mostly because the social worker knew teenagers, cared about them, cared what happened to Tracy. She looked Jeanne and Tracy in the eye and listened to the history, the struggles, the recommendation for foster care. She agreed. She picked up the phone. In a county with fewer agencies, fewer phone calls to make, the channels that linked kids like Tracy to foster families were shorter and cleaner. It happened, fast.

A Right to Family

The out-state foster-care licenser nods patiently at me when I tell her Jeanne's story and ask about the system, how she thinks it works when it works. She gives me several handouts designed for families in the system. They look typewritten. They show foster-care statistics for the county versus the nation and they match, pretty much. Youth between thirteen and eighteen, kids like Tracy, make up roughly one-third of the foster-care placement population nationally and in this Midwest micropolitan. They show about the same rate of maltreatment determinations out of the number of maltreatment reports, about forty to forty-four percent. The needs are the same: kids come into foster care because of family problems, including chemical dependency (about seventy-five percent of the time locally and nationally, the licenser tells me), physical and mental illness, abuse, neglect, and--especially for teens in placement--parent-child conflict.

In this county, where people come to live like families and neighbors, where the foster-care licenser hands me a dozen neat and simple brochures, there are approximately fifty licensed foster homes and fifty kids in placement. There's frequently a waiting list for teens in need of a foster home. When that happens, the county turns to a private agency or a group home, sometimes outside of the local area.

When I ask about the balance of supply and demand the licenser frowns and says not as many people are applying to become foster parents these days. A good economy and low unemployment accounts for it in part, because while foster care reimbursement "isn't something people can make a living on," she says, the little extra to help a household support another kid gives some families flexibility to keep one parent at home when the right part-time job just isn't available.

I'm embarrassed to hear her say this out loud. I thought it was just a joke people made, a classist slur, to refer to foster parenting as an income stream. But there it is in black and white, in the foster family discussion guide called "Let's Vote!." It says, "Your desire to provide this kind of care may include the following reasons: 1) to bring in a little extra money while you stay home to take care of your other children." So it's okay to go into it with the desire for a little budget relief. She tells me, almost laughing, that it's not possible to make a profit on foster parenting. Basic daily rates for a teen in foster care in 1998 are $18.44 in Hennepin County, and average about the same where Tracy lives. The stipend is intended to cover food, clothes, incidentals, allowance, gifts, and household expenses. Foster families must be willing to provide certain things without reimbursement, things beyond the basics but essential to full participation in family and social life. Things like cash for lunch with the rest of the swim team or a dress for the prom.

"Let's Vote!," a 1993 publication of Human Service Resources of Minnesota, walks families through financial and other daily realities of foster care. Things like raised eyebrows from friends and neighbors, all-new negotiations over who gets the front seat, closer attention to keeping scissors and irons and other hazards out of reach, and a better wardrobe than underwear and a T-shirt on hot summer nights. The booklet advises families to vote on whether foster care is comfortable and right for them. It works best when "yes" is unanimous.

I ask the licenser what else it takes to make a foster family successful. The best mindset, she says, is "a love for children and a belief that these children have a right to family." It helps, she says, when foster parents keep some kind of faith in the child's biological family. Chances are the foster child harbors hope that things will work out, that they'll be able to return someday and get the things Mom or Dad or both just couldn't give them. A good foster family honors this hope. It's more effective than the desire to rescue, a fairly common problem among would-be foster parents and a red flag for licensers. It's just not sustainable, the licenser tells me, mostly because it's the system and not the foster parent alone making decisions about the child's life--and they're not always the decisions that a savior would make.

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