David & Lori

I arrived at the home of David and Lori Stewart in the late afternoon, after a long drive to the Seacoast region, one of my favorite places. The Stewarts are brand new foster parents who had completed the required foster parent pre-service training just two weeks ago. My colleague, who licenses foster homes in this area, was very impressed with the Stewarts and their ability to understand the parent of the child in care and what that parent might be feeling.
The Stewarts greeted me and invited me inside. They are a young couple with a three year old daughter, Kristin. They had just received their first foster child, Trevor, who is 3 years old, only five days ago. Lori met Trevor's mom, Cheryl, soon after his placement when she brought Trevor for his first visit with her. The Stewarts had been told that Cheryl belonged to the "world's oldest profession," that she had a pimp and that things were not going well for her. Trevor was removed due to severe neglect and extremely dirty surroundings.
Cheryl arrived to visit her son dressed for "work." Lori wondered how Cheryl had managed to care for Trevor as long as she had. "She acted like she missed Trevor but I could see that she was really immature." Lori said. "Her first words to Trevor were, `you haven't changed a bit, you're still a retard!' It was more like a joke than a criticism. I could see that she loved her child. I could also see that she had no clue."

Cheryl's life had not been an easy one. She had been raised in foster care for most of her growing up years, culminating in group care like many other teenagers in placement. She had no close family, only a grandmother, who had died only three days before Trevor was placed. She was depressed and grieving for them both. "The social worker found Cheryl's diary. She believes that Cheryl is suicidal. I want her to connect with Trevor and to bond with him, for her own sake as well as for his. I want her to stay alive!" Lori said.

Visits will occur in the Division for Children, Youth & Families office at first, until Cheryl and Trevor become stabilized. Lori would like the visits to be held in her home as soon as that is feasible. "Cheryl says she wants her child back as soon as possible. I spent a lot of time talking with her. I told her I realized how hard it must be for her and that I wasn't trying to take her baby away. I told her that Trevor calls us "aunt and uncle" and asked her if that was okay with her," Lori explained. "That's great," Cheryl replied, "I was afraid you guys would want to keep him and not give him back." Lori continued, "I told her that I was glad she wanted to visit Trevor. I said that her visiting was a reminder to me that he isn't mine and that it would have been very hard for me to give him up if she had been gone for two years and suddenly showed up." Cheryl said, "I'm glad you're taking care of him so that he won't be tossed from foster home to foster home like I was. When I get him back, it will be okay for you to visit him." Lori was amazed. She had only just met Cheryl.

David hasn't met Cheryl yet due to his busy work schedule. As Lori tells her story, he can visualize it. "Lori is very open and giving. That openness made Cheryl feel at home," he said. Cheryl needs a lot of help. She asked Lori if Trevor still covered his ears when he was told "no." "I would yell at him when he did something wrong and say "no" and pull my hair out to the sides to show him that I couldn't take any more. He tried to copy me," Cheryl had said. Lori says that Trevor had temper tantrums and a tendency to bang his head on the floor when he wanted something. I don't reward that behavior by picking him up. I try to distract him and get him interested in something else. Since he has been on a regular feeding schedule and his tummy isn't hurting him any more, he hasn't had any temper tantrums," she said. I noticed Trevor playing nicely with Kristin and by himself. He was not disruptive during my interview.

My colleague, the local foster home licensing worker, arrived and joined us at the table. She asked Lori and David to tell me why they chose to become foster parents. Lori said that they had Kristin and love her dearly but they were not sure that they wanted to bring another child into this troubled world. They felt that there were plenty of children already here who needed their help.

(When the Stewarts attended foster parent pre-service training classes the participants were asked to imagine themselves as birth parents and to consider what it would be like to be in a troubled family with an array of problems to be faced.) David and Lori were very touched by this activity and, as many trainees do, discussed it further on the way home and before falling asleep. "What would it be like if someone took our Kristin," they imagined. "What if we were alcoholics?" They were able to imagine and experience the helplessness and inadequacy most parents feel when their privacy is invaded by the Agency and their children are removed. They also felt fear.

Questions ran through their minds, "where did my child go and with whom," as well as a very common concern, "why are the foster parents better than me?" It expanded their awareness.

Thinking back to Cheryl's situation, my colleague commented that she had seen Lori talking to Cheryl and she had seen Cheryl relax. She had been very "up tight" when she arrived. David added, "We'd want someone patient and understanding to work with us if we were the ones with problems. The last thing Cheryl needs is someone coming between her child and herself." "Visits help the foster parents remember that the child is not theirs," my colleague mentioned, echoing Lori's discussion with Cheryl. "Cheryl needs to see that we don't judge her. Her recovery will be speeded up if she knows that there's no opposition from the foster parents," David added. Cheryl felt that she had to ask the social worker what she could do when she visited Trevor. "Is it okay if I touch him? Is it okay if I say good-bye?" she had said. She, indeed, felt helpless.

In talking with David and Lori I was reminded of the "Starfish Story" which the Director of the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families, had sent out in a Christmas letter last year. The story was taken from a brochure prepared by the Canadian Calgary Foster Parent Association. It seems to fit here. "It was still early, the mist had not yet cleared from the sea. In the distance a solitary figure stood throwing objects out over the water. Walking along the debris-strewn beach, I looked at the masses of starfish scattered everywhere. The tide had thrown them in, stranding them on the beach. As the sun rose higher, they would perish.

Approaching the stranger, I could see that it was the starfish he was picking up and returning to the sea. Our eyes met. "Do you really think you can help? There are millions of starfish on this beach. You can help so few. Does it really make a difference? Does it really matter?" He reached down and picked up another starfish, looking at it intently. "Oh, yes," he replied, "It matters to this one."

"You have to go into foster parenting with a clean heart," David said picking up the conversation again. "We don't foster for personal gain. Fostering tends to make our own family change and we have to be aware of that, but it has to be done. We do it because we want to help." David had summed up this story from the heart with his statement "we have to foster with a clean and open heart." I believe he and Lori will do that. Our interview ended, I was ready to leave and saying my final "good- byes," when little Trevor ran to me to be picked up and hugged. As I hugged him and kissed his pink cheek, causing an appreciative giggle, I was treated to a glimpse of one of the rewards foster parents experience. "With a clean and open heart," they had said and I understood.

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