As Long as it Lasts

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

But Tracy will turn eighteen next fall, the beginning of her senior year of high school, and permanent foster care can't keep her in Nancy's home beyond her birthday. For now, for as long as it lasts, she's chosen rules, consequences, swim team, two jobs, co-parents. It was a good day in court.

Jeanne tells me about other days in court when she had to announce her presence under "Child Protection and Services" but the "Services" got drowned out by raised eyebrows and silent speculations about what went wrong. What Jeanne did wrong. Last week wasn't like that. Last week the five women left the courthouse knowing that for as long as Tracy will let them, they're giving her the things she needs.

I ask Jeanne what she thinks about me talking with Tracy. About letting Tracy know there's a story about to be published, a story about her, and I want her voice to be heard. Jeanne smiles. "Oh, I told her about it," she says. "She got excited--'you mean everybody's gonna know about me?'" Jeanne rolls her eyes and shrugs. Her response is like the foster mom's--she's standing firm between Tracy and me, but I'm not sure if she wants to protect Tracy from possible exploitation, or guard me from her fiery, flippant child. As much as I sense that Tracy would be glad to talk, I sense that what Tracy might want isn't up for consideration. Ever. No time for perks. Basic needs are the focus of court dates, conferences, co-parenting conversations. What Tracy might want is superfluous.

The waitress brings the bill and I take it fast, quietly, so I can hear everything Jeanne wants to say in the few minutes before she has to leave again for class. She's talking about her urge these days to "tell," about the satisfaction and release she gets from talking about the events of her life. It's her topic of choice for writing, women's studies, and speech communication projects. She likes to look at the young women just out of high school, maybe in love, who keep their disdain barely in check when Jeanne speaks about divorce or foster care and says that what happened to her could just as easily happen to them. "They don't think so," she says. "I just tell them, 'never say never.'"

The waitress comes back and I fumble around for my checkbook, or cash, neither of which are in my purse. I had said I would buy lunch. My face gets hot when Jeanne reaches into her wallet and unfolds a $10. "I've got it," she tells me. "I've got it this time." Patient, paced, firm. I apologize, stammer that I don't know what happened, that I'm embarrassed.

Jeanne swallows her coffee and looks me in the eye. "Don't," she stops me. She means it. She means more. She knows what it is to think you've covered your bases and learn that you haven't, to mean well then lose your footing and watch your good intentions scatter across the floor. "Don't be embarrassed," she say, and I thank her.

Epilogue: For As Long As It Lasts

Several weeks after Tracy's foster-care placement was made permanent--shortly before this story went to press--Tracy ran away. Without asking permission, she took a road trip with a new boyfriend in a stolen car. Police searched for more than twenty hours. It was just enough time for Nancy and her husband to decide this kind of disruption was more than their family could take. When police found Tracy and returned her to her foster home, Nancy and her husband terminated Tracy's foster-care placement.

Currently, Tracy is living with another local foster family in short-term respite care. Her mother, Jeanne, is helping her explore living options including Job Corps, post-secondary enrollment at the University, and group home settings. The options do not include returning to the home where Tracy's twin and younger sister live with their mother in relative calm.

Most of Tracy's former advocates in the foster-care system are currently lobbying to have her case dropped. "She's already cost them so much," Jeanne says, sounding tired over the phone. She explains the system's foreclosure on her daughter in a way that makes them sound like partners--Jeanne and the system--both caring, but both spent. Exhausted.

Jeanne hasn't been in my office at the university yet this fall. It's not that she doesn't need to work this semester, or that she doesn't care. A few semesters ago Jeanne requested privacy codes on all of her personal information in the university's database, in order to keep her family safe from her ex-husband. Now, somehow, the privacy codes are holding up Jeanne's government-funded student work assignment. Just another system. Jeanne has patience, and practice.

Ann Rosenquist Fee is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent.

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