The trip was a long journey for me and I was awestruck at the grandeur of the nearby mountains as I always am when traveling into the far northern part of the State of New Hampshire. The day was warm and beautiful. I located Carol's lovely older home with its English style country gardens and white picket fence with little difficulty. An elegant lady with a soft European accent greeted me and introduced herself.
Carol has fostered for about 2 years. She has provided care for eight children during that time, two of whom are still with her. "The children are in day care until noon," she said. We retreated to a porch located at the rear of the house and our interview began. Remnants of propriety gained in the English boarding school which Carol attended in her native land remain and are coupled with concern and love for the children for whom she has provided care. "I see myself in a grandmother's role," she said, "I am able to maintain a certain detachment with love, knowing that separation is inevitable as it is for the grandmother who knows that this is not her child. I have always wanted to provide foster care and I love it!" The children who have come here, so far, seem to need structure and stability as well as mothering. Like many other foster parents, Carol has many stories of the heart to tell.
The families she has worked with have not always been easy. Carol believes that co-parenting with the parent(s) of the child in care produces the best results and she works with them whenever possible. Her compassion is obvious as she tells me of the parents who expressed fear that she planned to steal their child, a common thought of many of the parents whose children are in foster care.
Carol met with the parents of teenage Julie, soon after she arrived, and told them that this was not the case. "I told them that my role is to help the whole family, if I can, but I won't take sides. I let them know that I am providing a safe place for their child to be while problems are worked out," she said.
Carol has learned a lot about troubled families. Cathy came to her as an infant. Her teen mom, Janey, had several other children and little knowledge of proper child care. Carol found that she had difficulty remaining detached from baby Cathy, her bubbly personality and her ready smile won Carol's heart soon after the placement was made. "I am the grandmother," she reminded herself. She thought about the young mother, not in the judgmental way many might have thought of her; "married too young, too many kids, questionable morals," these words never entered Carol's thoughts. Instead, she thought about Janey and how much she wanted to share with her all the cute new things her baby was doing. Carol worried that Janey would think that she wanted to keep her baby. It was a sobering thought. She asked to have Janey visit as soon as possible. From her grandmotherly perspective, she saw herself meeting Janey and helping baby Cathy separate from her and bond to her mother. Carol worried, could she hold to the "grandmother role?" This was her first baby and she was childless. It would not be easy.
When the day came and Janey arrived, Carol was amazed to see how much baby Cathy resembled her mother. It helped Carol to refocus herself back into the grandmother role. She worked hard with Janey, teaching her about child care, and teaching her about how to give love. Eventually, the agency allowed Janey to practice what she had learned. She cared for baby Cathy in Carol's home without close supervision. Janey did well and soon afterwards the agency returned Cathy to her. She thanked Carol for "keeping my baby safe-and for helping me." "It was worth the anguished moments," Carol thought.
It was nearly noon and there was much more to be said. Carol left to pick up the children from a nearby day care center. I remained on the porch reading letters which the parents of former foster children had sent to Carol. They seemed to be pouring out their hearts in concern for their child, expressing sorrow for their present situationand all that had happened and they thanked Carol for all her help. The emotional charge contained in these letters was intense. Taking a break, I paused and looked out over the garden. The breeze was blowing and the wind chimes and the changing plants danced with it gracefully. Two orange cats and a dog with curly hair kept me company as I reflected on the challenge fostering presents as well as the opportunity for character development in the individual. Soon Carol returned with two exuberant children. The afternoon progressed as they were fed and eventually sent for a nap after they had elicited the possibility of "getting sprinkled" under the water sprinkler after a good snooze. Our interview continued.
Samantha was a preschooler when she was placed with Carol due to her Dad's incarceration. Dad was allowed to write to Carol and she maintained contact with him throughout his prison term. She saved his letters which were full of concern for Samantha as well as sorrow and guilt for whatever he had done. He, too, was concerned that Carol would judge him harshly. "I'd change history if only I could relive it. I'd never do anything to hurt Samantha. I realize, now, how important she is to me and how much I love her and I am so sorry," he said.
He wrote of his relief that Samantha was happy and in a safe place. Carol wrote to him frequently, telling him about his daughter, what she liked and disliked and the cute and funny things she did, things Carol felt would help him understand his child and appreciate her, things that would help him to make a commitment to keep her safe when she was returned to him. Dad wrote back, "I'm really glad to hear from someone who cares," the unspoken words seemed to continue, "not only about my child, but about me, too." Finally, Dad was released from prison. Soon afterwards, when he had settled into his new environment, Dad was allowed to visit. "Samantha was so happy, she just loved that Daddy!," Carol remembered. Samantha did return to her father and, although it is very hard for him, he is making it. He writes to Carol and sends her pictures. Carol sends Christmas presents to Samantha. "The grandmother knows that the child will leave and that's OK. A grandmother can maintain contact in a non-threatening way, knowing that the child is not hers," Carol said.
Then Nate, age 5 and Jeff, age 4, were placed with Carol. They were brothers who had been seriously neglected to the point where they had begged for food from neighbors and had even picked food out of garbage cans, a common occurrence in many neglect cases. The kids were wild and unmanageable at first. "They needed structure," Carol remembered, "It gave them a sense of permanence and stability. I asked to meet their Dad and was eventually allowed to do so at the local DCYF office. We sat across a table from each other and I saw how needy he was. Despite the anger he showed me at our first meeting, my heart went out to him, `you must have questions you'd like me to answer about your boys,' I said. `I can tell you about them.'"
He broke down and told Carol some of his problems. "I had been told that he was dangerous, although I did not feel threatened by him." Instead, she felt compassion for him and she put her arms on the table extending her hand to him as she spoke. He reached out and took her hand and sorrowfully began to tell her how much he missed the boys. A relationship began, and with it, perhaps, a healing.
Carol told this father that his children missed him but that they weren't hurting and that they were safe. "I knew that he was afraid of what he saw as the power of the Agency to take his children away and `give' them to me. I just talked to him softly and calmly, describing what the boys had done during the day. I told him that my role was to care for his children, not to replace him as their parent. After we talked, he seemed to feel better about it," she said.
Studies have shown that children love their parents even though abuse or neglect has occurred. They have a strong desire to remain with them and they tend to be very loyal to their family ties.
Carol remembered another time when the two children placed in her home were told by the social worker, without explanation, that they would not be seeing their father any more. They were extremely upset by this news and told Carol what the social worker had aid. Then they asked, "why?" This question is always hard for foster parents to answer especially when it involves the conviction of the parent for a crime, such as sexual abuse. Carol was purposely vague saying, "I think it may be a very long time before you see your daddy again." She continued, "I told them that their daddy had some problems and that he needed help. I told them that, `when he gets things worked out, I'll bet there will be visits again!"' Carol says that she is not afraid to admit that she does not have all the answers. It is an important aspect of foster parenting.
Meanwhile, their mother has become involved and there is hope for reunification with her. "I talk to the children about their going home and that we can write. I send presents to many of my former foster children, as a grandmother would do, with the parents' permission. However, my role ends when the child leaves unless the parents allow it to continue. I am willing to help out when the parents need it, especially during the early days of reunification. I have provided respite care for the day or, occasionally, over night. So far, no one has imposed or taken advantage of me," she said.
Our visit ended and I departed. On my way home I thought about what I had learned. Foster parents constantly stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone, reaching out to troubled families. It's what they do best and it's what makes them effective.
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