To Try, or Not to Try

I don't often comment on stories in Minnesota Parent. I figure, if you're interested in the story, you'll read it. If the story doesn't speak for itself, there's scant more I can say for it.

But this month is an exception. I can't ignore a cover story on foster care--to do so would feel almost like a denial of my history, a denial of myself. It's an issue that cuts too close to home. It's an issue, I should say, that hits home--from both sides of the foster door.

Just about this time of year back in 1985, I landed in foster care for the first time. The foster parents were a husband-wife team with two biological kids of their own. They lived in some far-flung suburb of St. Paul, and foster care represented their sole income stream. Primarily, they specialized in "shelter care," acting as a holding tank for kids just entering the system, a place to put juveniles while professionals and birth parents hammered out a more permanent situation.

My biological family was in a state of crisis--the details of which aren't especially unique or important here--and to begin with, my younger sister and I were both staying at the shelter home, sleeping in the designated foster-care section of the house: a redecorated attached two-car garage. It felt like a garage. It smelled like a garage. It was a garage.

My sister was pretty young--just eleven years old--and the county workers decided she should go home with an assigned social worker to "monitor" her living situation. I, at seventeen, was left in the shelter from October until almost Christmas. The longest three months of my life.

I'll never forget that foster mom walking around the house in her bathrobe, long, scraggly blond hair hanging limply against her shoulders, hollowed-out face, suspicious, angry eyes. The foster dad was a little more approachable, but for the most part, his role boiled down to benevolent prison warden. He poured the Cap'n Crunch at breakfast. (I'd never had that cereal before; it was very unsettling to have my brains rattled so unforgivingly first thing in the morning.) He drove us to the city bus stop in the predawn darkness, from which point we hopped rides and transfers to our various public schools throughout the metro. He fixed the cold-cuts-and-butter-on-white sandwiches for weekend lunches. And he sat with his wife in the living room during those dark winter evenings and talked in hushed voices about us--the foster kids in the garage--and our messy, unfortunate lives.

There were strict, silly-seeming rules. For example, we were not allowed to change the channel on the television. Only a "real" family member was cleared to take on that dangerous, complicated task. Showers were allowed in the evening only. We couldn't be using up all the hot water in the morning when the "real" kids needed it for their own showers. And punctuality was of utmost importance. Walking in the door one minute late meant a call to the police station--a runaway report. This set-up seemed brutally unfair in light of the fact that most of us relied solely on those many-transferred bus rides to get us back and forth from the world as we knew it to that ends-of-the-earth prison.

But I learned a few things about myself at the shelter. I learned I can be on time when I damn well have to be. And I learned I'm not much for stupid risks. I was shocked that some of the kids in the shelter were insane enough to do things such as shoplift and skip school. Weren't they afraid of being caught? Where was their sense?

I learned, actually, that I wasn't much like any of the other kids who came and went through the Garage Motel. Mostly, I sought approval. Mostly, they didn't care anymore. One day, I overheard the shelter housekeeper (yes, they had a full-time housekeeper, a middle-aged woman who cleaned and helped assemble those hideous sandwiches) chattering in the kitchen with one of the other foster kids. When I realized they were talking about me, I froze and listened harder. "Yeah," the housekeeper was saying, "you know she'll go places. You can tell by how she talks. She's got . . . class."

Talk about irony. I'm sleeping in a garage, taking evening showers, busing thirty miles to school every morning, and I've got "class." Because I don't say "ain't" or "don't got no." Because I speak softly, defer, know how to reserve swear words for my own personal pleasure.

I was so happy to get out of that garage before Christmas, I cannot begin to tell you. On Christmas week, I moved into an Independent Living Situation foster home on Lake Phalen. This time, the male parent had a real job, driving an MTC bus. Funny, I thought, since we foster kids spent such a load of our limited cash on bus fare. The ILS home was a more subtle nightmare than the shelter. At first, I even thought it might be kind of cool--an apartment, the upper half of an over-under duplex, where foster kids lived independently under the "supervision" of the foster parents below. House rules were pretty strict around things like curfew (door locked after curfew and you were on your own for the night, with stiff consequences to face the next morning, including possible expulsion from the home), and no loafing: school or work were mandatory, and no one was allowed to stay in the apartment between the hours of seven and three on weekdays.

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