As Long as it Lasts

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

It's the middle of June and the air is cold inside a coffee shop just off campus. It's noon. I'm cooling off waiting for Jeanne, my lunch date, a senior whose summer days include morning class from eight to noon and a four-mile run at lunchtime when she can fit it in.

Jeanne walks in wet; class ended early and she managed to run and grab a quick shower afterward in the university gym. Her shoulder-length blond hair is smoothed back in combed grooves, baking on her head from the hot walk across campus. Her blue eyes open wider and she smiles when she sees me. Tan cheeks. Pink smile. Tank top, soccer shorts, Nikes, and a water bottle. All I can think is, My God, she looks so young.

Fair is a Myth

When I first heard Jeanne talk about her daughter in foster care, it was through a cubicle wall and I didn't ask questions. She worked twelve hours a week, more if she could get it, in the same office as I did on the campus where I had just relocated from the Twin Cities. A quiet out-state campus just far enough from the bustle so that there was room to breathe, to relax, to live like neighbors and families. Jeanne chatted with other student workers about running, about fitting into a size-twelve bridesmaid's dress by summer, about her latest poem for creative writing class, and about her daughter in foster placement.

It was something about the foster family that I heard first--something like, "They can give her the things I can't, the things she needs"--that cut through my wall before I'd even been introduced to Jeanne. I pictured an infant, a toddler at most, because Jeanne has a smile and a softness that date her right along with tattooed Chelsea and gel-soaked, ears-pierced Patrick. A baby for sure. A baby not wanted. Abused maybe. I thought about my own two-year-old and shuddered. Wondered what went wrong. What Jeanne did wrong.

A few days later Jeanne came to work with a shy blond preteen in tow. This girl sat at a student work station and wrote a book report on Egyptian queens while Jeanne put in her hours to meet the requirements for government-funded student employment. I thought the girl was a sister, a niece maybe. But I heard her whisper "mom" and I watched Jeanne walk around making quiet introductions, pleased by the inconvenience of having to sneak her bright and beautiful look-alike into the office. I was honored to be asked to proofread the book report. I was confused about how this articulate, tender preadolescent fit in with the bits and pieces about foster placement and the unnamed things Jeanne couldn't give. It was months later over our first shared coffee in the basement of the student union that I learned.

"Fair is a myth." That's how she started.

"Lots of women don't know that. They think, 'I'll get child support if I leave.' I knew when I left my husband I was going to face obstacles, but I thought there would be support. I thought, now we'll be happy. I thought the girls would get the life they wanted." She told me that for thirteen years of marriage in a tidy suburban Twin Cities home she tried to make a good life for her girls--Cindy, now nine years old (the book report writer) and almost-seventeen-year-old twins, Tracy and Rose. Thirteen years of marriage and three daughters. She let me figure out for myself that the softness I mistook for youth was something more like resignation, distant amusement, thirty-some years of hard-won self-worth.

More and more in the latter part of the marriage the girls had looked on with big eyes and closed mouths while dad drank and called mom names. Called her fat. Left, and came back the next day with warm words and kisses. Told her she was worthless. Told her if she dared to leave, no one would want her. She dared anyway. First, she did her best to prepare the girls. "We'll be poor," she said. "We won't have nice things anymore." It sunk in as far as world-weariness can with preteens, and the girls said, "Go. Please let's go."

They left in the spring of 1993. When the twins entered junior high that fall they were furious most of the time, mostly at their mother. Jeanne accounted for it two ways. First, she wasn't around much. Time she used to spend at home was now consumed by attorney's visits, court appearances, a new part-time job, and behaving like a grateful guest in mother's Twin Cities home. Second, for the girls with big eyes and closed mouths, freedom from dad meant first-time freedom to get loud and angry. They let loose on the only target they knew. They let loose on Jeanne.

At home the twins fought. The youngest one cried and tried to hide from the noise. At school the twins told counselors stories of abuse, of a mother who withheld necessities, of an unbearable new family dynamic. Jeanne was stunned. "I expected my husband to stalk me. I expected that. I didn't expect my children to go against me." Tracy led the rebellion. She moved farther and faster than her twin into bad-girl territory. The seventh grader coaxed her sister into leaving home and the two ended up at an urban center for runaway youth. Rose was scared and went home after a few days. Tracy stayed. She had a lot of sex. When she finally came home she launched a silent hunger strike that turned her slim body into a mottled pink skeleton. Jeanne wondered if it was because of her own weight, the constant target of taunts by the girls' father. Or maybe because now she was shedding it, exercising regularly, sometimes when she could have been home to referee one more fight.

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."

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.

"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.

The rules fall into four categories: Cleanliness of Home and Environment, Personal Care, Self-Control, and Respect. The hardest ones for Tracy are the sixteen under Self-Control. Number one: "no whining about personal choices that have gone bad." Consequence: $5. Number five: "leaving the house without permission will not be tolerated." Consequence: a call to 911 and $20. Number seven: "name calling/verbal abuse will not be tolerated." Consequence: $5.

The rules also cover common courtesies, things--Nancy reminds me--"that you and I did growing up just because. They didn't have to be written down. But with these kids, they do." Things like number six under Cleanliness: "wet towels, washcloths, bath mats, swimsuits will be hung up on towel bars, shower stall, side of bathtub, or other predetermined area." Consequence: $.50. Or number six under Personal Care: "daily shower/bath is encouraged. Shower will be no longer than fifteen minutes. Maximum of one per day, unless permission obtained." Consequence: $1.

They're thorough. They're legalistic. They give me the creeps. But Nancy explains how important it is for Tracy to have these reliable, literal expectations. And she tells me Tracy thrives when she's in compliance. "She's very pleasant. She's funny. She's very respectful. Fun to have around. Willing to give of herself and help out others."

I think about Jeanne. A warm, lush, earnest mother with windblown blond hair, big blue eyes, and a lot of work invested in her budding self-discipline. If rules like these are the things Tracy needs, then Jeanne isn't the one to give them, not right now. Better, perhaps, that her daughter is with Nancy, secure in her seventy-seven rules, learning to keep her towels off the floor, respect her own body, accept her own choices.

I ask Nancy whether she thinks I could talk with Tracy. Maybe get her take on the system. Maybe hear for myself what this precious, volatile creature has to say. I ask Nancy how she thinks Tracy would respond. Nancy laughs and shrugs. "Depends on her mood." I'm not sure if she wants to protect me from Tracy, or Tracy from me. I want to interview Tracy in private, somewhere she feels comfortable enough to talk. But Nancy's not going to grant me a private audience. Instead, she tells me about Tracy's two part-time jobs at nearby fast-food restaurants and offers her schedule for next Saturday. "Just go see," she says. "Introduce yourself. Tell her you work with her mom. Go see."

Before we get up to leave, Nancy grabs the check for her 7-Up and my decaf. "For making you wait," she says. I thank her and leave, hoping that it was proper to let her pay; pretty sure Nancy would know.

The Force Disrupting

The taco place is dead Saturday at 1:30 p.m., close to the end of Tracy's shift. The first thing I see is her curly yellow ponytail tumbling out the top of her visor, blunt bangs and ringlets wet with deep-fryer sweat sticking out underneath. No makeup on the big blue eyes. Her skin is gorgeous. Her arms are strong. She's as tall as the clean-cut, nervous guy standing next to her, squirting mild sauce into lined-up tacos. Tracy's eyes don't look malicious or out of control. They look bored.

A wiry middle-aged woman steps in front of Tracy to take my order. I stammer and stall for more time to watch Tracy work. She looks patient. Polite. Normal. I'm the conspicuous one, staring.

I'm in a trance thinking about her calm eyes and perfect skin when she leans across the counter and moves my taco salad closer to me. "Excuse me. Is this yours?" I tell her it is, apologize, take it, find a seat. She lifts up a broom, walks out from the counter and starts to sweep.

Nobody else in the restaurant. Nancy had told me to introduce myself and I could, right now. So easily, I could pretend to notice her nametag and say: "Hey, you're Tracy? Your mom is Jeanne? I work with her. Great to meet you." But the afternoon lull at Taco John's is no backdrop for trust. It's not the quiet, respectful setting I had in mind for talking with Tracy. I am choked by the thought of becoming one more grownup probing around in Tracy's head, knowing what I know. I know she's going home in a half an hour because her foster mom has her on house arrest. I know that the wage she'll get for making my taco salad will probably go toward a fine for leaving a wet towel on the floor. I know she's the force disrupting two families even while they join together to give her the things she needs.

Tracy sweeps with strong slow strokes. The taco salad sits heavy in my gut. I don't want to see anything but boredom in Tracy's blue eyes, and I am not going to tell her what I know. I leave unsettled.

The Things She Needs

In the cool coffee shop just off campus Jeanne and I are finishing up fruit plates and big warm mugs of coffee. She has told me a lot. When her story catches up to the present she tells me she's breathing a little easier today, less than a week after a pivotal court date with Nancy, Tracy, Tracy's social worker, and Tracy's guardian ad litem. It was the date they made the foster placement permanent. The co-parents and the professionals had been afraid she might fight it, lobby for emancipation. She didn't.

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 toMinnesota Parent.

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