As Long as it Lasts

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

"You have to work with the social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, biological parent, the courts, maybe a probation officer. You have some responsibility for what happens to the child but there's always someone else to consult," she says. "If you can't deal with the system, then you might end up being an unhappy foster parent."

The very best foster parents, she tells me, are the ones who can handle a daily mix of joy and grief. They have a sense of humor. They do what they can for as long as their foster kids are with them and they let go when the system says so, hoping that some of the good times and hard lessons will endure.

To Do Some Good

Days later, a few blocks away from the county government center in the downtown Embers restaurant, blasts of air conditioning give me goose bumps. I'm watching out the window for Nancy, Tracy's foster mom. Jeanne had called her to ask if she would meet with me, to help tell their story. Nancy had agreed. But after twenty minutes of waiting in the Embers lobby, I think she might have had second thoughts.

Finally I pick up the payphone and call, ask if this is still a good time to meet. "Oh my Lordy," she says, "I completely forgot about you! Are you there? I'll be right there." Young high voices chatter in the background. Nancy's tone is light and warm. I start to get a feel for the balance and the humor that makes foster parenting work.

She breezes in just ten minutes later, calm, pulled together, smiling. Shorts and a T-shirt, soft brown shoulder-length hair, careful lipstick, gentle eyes. Side by side with Jeanne she could be her big sister. An older, firmer, wiser Jeanne. Perhaps what Tracy needs. She extends a hand and says hello, apologizes again for forgetting our meeting. My goose bumps are gone. We take a seat.

Nancy asks the waitress for something cold and decaffeinated and tells me what it is that draws her to the system, to Tracy. "I'm always looking for something challenging, something different," she says. For seventeen years Nancy worked as a registered nurse. Now she's thinking about a degree in social work. The stipend from the county doesn't make much difference for Nancy and her husband. Foster care meets their need to learn, to help, to do some good.

Nancy tells me that Tracy is her second foster placement. The first, another adolescent girl, failed for lack of teamwork with the biological mother. After that, they took a break from the system. A few months later they got a call from a different social worker on behalf of a different adolescent girl and her mom, a ready and willing "co-parent." Tracy and Jeanne. Nancy, her husband, and their two children invited Tracy to spend a weekend. It went well. When Tracy left they voted on whether she would become part of the family. Unanimous. Within days Tracy moved in. Nancy and her family greeted Tracy with compassion, excitement, and a page-long list of house rules.

Nancy had drafted the rules after her first foster-care experience and added to them as her she saw the need. Now they're part of the family routine, thirteen pages in total, saved on a floppy for frequent revisions. When Tracy arrived she read the rules and tested the limits. She settled into a groove of compliance, rebellion, and acceptance of the consequences.

It works like this, Nancy says: for days in a row, sometimes weeks, Tracy complies. Puts all of her angst and energy into passions that fall within the rules--swim team, Tai Kwon Do, volunteering at the family's church and at the Salvation Army, and two part-time jobs. She works hard. Then an injustice or an inconvenience or just a bad day ignites Tracy's rage. Self-control slips out of reach and she screams, blames, runs. Sometimes Nancy and her family drop everything, call the police, and search for Tracy. Sometimes--especially when the rage is too much for Nancy's own two young children--they call on the system to help by providing respite care, a short-term stay with another foster family. A breather.

When the rage dies down Nancy pulls out the rules and lays down the consequences. Individual consequences for each infraction of each rule. But overall, for the rage, Tracy goes on house arrest. That means that outside of school, school activities, and her job, she stays home. It soothes her, Nancy says, and for a time she is calm.

"I've had some real trials with this child," she says, smiling. Shaking her head. "But I can call Jeanne any time and she's 100 percent behind what my husband and I do." Jeanne has her own copy of the rules and she reports back to Nancy on compliance and violations whenever Tracy spends time at home, about one weekend a month.

Right now the rules total seventy-seven. Each one has a consequence, mostly cash. There's also a statement of understanding, a signature line, and space for four witness names. The purpose of the rules, the document says, is "to promote and develop independent living skills; to enhance level of responsibility and maturity; to learn to be respectful of others and earn this respect." Nancy collects fines in a jar and at the end of the month, Tracy chooses a charity to receive the balance--sometimes as much as $30.

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