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.  

When you entered the back stairwell at the end of that long Lake Phalen driveway, a buzzer sounded in the house below to alert the foster mother to your arrival. Once up the stairs and into the apartment, you were required to dial downstairs and "check in." This was how she kept track of our comings and goings. Could have been a decent set-up for responsible kids whose families were in trouble, however, it wasn't, because the foster parents preferred to believe, perhaps based on their experiences, that foster kids were by definition criminals. I remember going to my boyfriend's family's house for Christmas Eve, and arriving back at the foster ranch just a few minutes late. On this night, I was relying on a friend of the family for a ride, rather than the good old MTC. When I pulled on the door to the stairway, it was locked. I panicked. It was freezing--well below zero--and I had nowhere to go and no way to get there. The friend of the family waited in the car to see if I'd get inside the apartment. I was mortified and began to feel as if I really had committed a crime. For some reason, maybe because it was Christmas Eve, or maybe because she didn't know if the person in the car was someone in my own family who might complain to the social worker, the foster mom came out and opened the door. But for the furious lecture she gave me, I almost wished she hadn't.

With spring came my eighteenth birthday, and I left the foster-care system and didn't look back until six years later, when my husband and I signed up to do the job ourselves. We had two small children, a large house, and, we believed, the combined skills and experience to treat kids like kids instead of monsters. Indirectly, I know I was trying to rewrite my own past by giving to kids in need what hadn't been offered to me years ago. We cared for one tiny five-month-old who'd been diagnosed with "failure to thrive," and we watched her transform with every gained pound as she became healthy again. We took other kids for "respite" care, when they needed a short-term place to stay during family crises or foster-parent vacations. These were my favorite placements: my own toddler liked the company, and we all knew up front how long each stay would last.

Finally, we took a teenager. Only then did I understand, not fully, but a little, how those pitiful foster parents I'd stayed with ended up the way they did. Our foster daughter was a spitfire. She broke every rule we had and then some. She smoked in the house. She snuck out the window. She stole John's coat and my perfume. She cooked beautiful plates of eggs with elaborate garnishes which she left to congeal, untouched, overnight. She took up every minute of our time and every ounce of our energy, until she ended up transferred to a "therapeutic" foster home, where she, too, was treated like a criminal (which she sometimes was). We saw her regularly and had her for frequent weekend and holiday visits for two years before we tried again, and failed again, to give her a home. Within two weeks of reuniting with us, our foster daughter was sent to an even more intense therapeutic program in Duluth, where, the last I heard from her, she had dropped out of high school to become an exotic dancer. You could say the system failed her, and she failed the system. It was a predictable heartbreak.

After that, we let our foster-parenting days slip behind us, at least for now. But the calling still stirs me, gently, in a maybe-again-someday kind of way. How could I not be stirred, after this has all been said and done? I look into my own children's faces and cringe to imagine them alone and afraid, in need of someone to treat them decently and with love. Most days, I'm pretty confident John and I can see these three children of ours safely through to adulthood, but can we, along the way, offer a lifeline to anyone else? In a system as broken as the one we've got, I'm not sure. It scares me to try. And it scares me not to.

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