Dot & David
I had spent the previous night in an ocean side town with a friend and colleague who also has the good fortune to work with foster parents. This stay made my trip to Dot and David Ford's home far shorter than it would otherwise have been. Nostalgia overtook me as my journey progressed and an Indian saying, something on the idea of, "before you judge another, you must walk a mile in his moccasins," kept running through my mind. I was brought up short by a road sign warning me to "Brake for Moose, 176 Collisions!" I put nostalgia aside and reviewed my directions for reaching Dot and David's log cabin which, I was told, was guarded by a "noisy beige dog." "We live in the deep woods," Dot had said. She was right! I arrived safely and was met by both Dot and the noisy beige dog. I made friends with both.
I had met Dot at a recent foster parent conference and was impressed by her openness and her wisdom. She had been asked, since she had fostered for so many years, how she kept from succumbing to "burn out," a common foster parent ailment. I remembered her reply which was simply, "I don't think of foster parenting as a chore." She invited me to sit with her at the kitchen table and she began to tell me her story.
The Fords have provided kinship care, first for their orphaned niece and nephew, who are now grown, then later for their two grandsons who were in need of long term foster care and had been placed in a foster home in another state. The boys, now teenagers, have been with the Fords for most of their lives.
Dot and David were living in a large city in a neighboring state when their grandsons came to live with them.
As the boys approached teen years, the Fords knew that they did not want them on the streets of the city, and, although they both had good jobs, chose early retirement and moved to New Hampshire. "David was born in the country and he was ready to get back to it. He had just been waiting for the opportunity to arise," Dot said. The move has been a good choice. Dot proudly showed me her most recent pictures of the boys. I was impressed.
David arrived and, after introductions, began making himself a late breakfast, joining in the discussion here and there.
The Fords decided to become licensed foster parents about four years ago, feeling that they wanted to give something back in return for the foster care the boys received before they came to live with them.
About three years ago, when fifteen year old Sarah arrived, the Fords were serving as a short term emergency foster home. Sarah had run away from all her previous placements and Dot was told not to be surprised if she ran away from her home as well. The plan had been for Sarah to stay with them on a short term, temporary basis while a suitable, more permanent placement was arranged. "Sarah saw that we were black and she didn't want to come here," Dot said with a grin. "She came with seven garbage bags filled with her clothes and other belongings but she left with proper luggage and a gym bag. When it was time to leave here, she didn't want to go." Sarah had been with the Fords for five months, quite a bit longer than the usual "emergency placement" of ten days or less. Homes are hard to find for teenagers and a troubled girl like Sarah must have presented a challenge for her social worker. Dot smiled, "when your kid comes in my gate, she's my kid until she leaves. Sarah got no less than my grandsons did. I told her, as I tell all my kids, you respect me and I will respect you, that's how it's going to be!"
An attractive boy and girl quietly joined us at the table and I was introduced. John, 13, and Stacey, 11, have been with the Ford family for about two years. They were born in Alaska but were taken into care when their Native American mother was picked up in New Hampshire and charged with driving while intoxicated. The children had been in the car with her.
The Fords last foster child had just left for an adoptive home and they had decided, as healthy foster parents often do, to take a break for a while. The phone rang and a desperate social worker begged them to help out with these two children who had been placed in emergency care and could no longer remain where they were. When the Fords learned that the children's mother was an alcoholic who had lived here and there in "the States," taking the children with her and of the history of abuse and neglect the children had endured, they decided to accept their placement.
John is polite and well informed. Like most teenagers, he likes playing basketball. He also likes staying with the Fords. He spoke of coming from Alaska and described what his life had been like when he lived there. His mother, he said, belonged to an Alaskan Indian tribe called, in English, "People of the Tide." He showed me a picture book about Southern Alaska which included pictures of the town where he had lived. "It can only be reached by boat or plane.," he said. Stacey is the quiet one. "She didn't talk at all when she first came here," Dot said. "John did all the talking and answered for her.
Stacey was afraid at first, but I made her one good meal and she was home free!"
The children's father is not Native American but was stationed in Alaska while in the service. John and Stacey will be going to visit him this summer and maybe again around Christmas time.
John, still showing me pictures in his book, comments that he could see Mount Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano, from his home in Alaska.
"The children's father had no idea where his children were," Dot explained. "He finally learned from DCYF that they were in foster care in New Hampshire. This past winter he came to visit them. He hadn't seen them in eight years and he told me that he often wondered if he would ever see them again. We went to meet him at the airport. The kids didn't know their dad, but he recognized John. We were surprised to see that he had just a light jacket with him. southern Alaska is warmer than we thought. He stayed with us and, the next day, we had five feet of snow! He pitched right in and helped us out, just like he lived here. He shoveled snow all day. We couldn't have done it without him."
The idea of "foster care" reminded Dad of the misconceptions he had heard about foster parents who were viewed as "mean" to the children and who fostered "for the money." "He didn't expect his kids to be in such good condition," Dot added. The Fords took Dad to John's school and he was impressed. One of the staff members had lived in the same town he came from in Alaska and they became friends immediately.
Dot continued, "Kids need their own. That's why we asked for Dad's input. The kids could stay with me forever but they should be with their father. He has gone back to Alaska now. We send him copies of school reports and pictures and we correspond. He had no idea, until his visit, how his kids were faring."
When Dad first visited, Stacey hung back. She wasn't sure about him as they had been separated for such a long time. Dad had said that, during the years before his marriage dissolved, Stacey had been his "little shadow," following him everywhere. He realized how difficult it was for both children to adjust to him after such a long separation.
When he was ready board the plane for the return trip to Alaska, Stacey finally gave him a hug and called him "Dad" again for the first time in eight years. "He told us that he felt good about his kids being with us and he gave me a big hug," Dot said. "He feels that we have done a lot for his kids and he told us that he appreciated it. We were really pleased." The plan is for the children to be reunited with their father. His life has become more stable. He has a good job and lives in a mobile home.
Placement in a strange home is difficult for any child. Stacey had nightmares when she first arrived at the Fords' home. Dot told her about the beige dog and how he always barked when strangers were around. He even barked when a neighboring moose appeared in the yard, stood blandly staring at the dog and did not offer to leave. "I had to go out and shoo him away. It was a country sight, it sure was!" David added. Stacey feels safe now, knowing that the beige dog is on the job.
Despite all that has gone on, Stacey misses her mother and wants to go to her. "She thinks that she can heal her," Dot said. "That isn't possible and I want her to attend Al-A-Teen meetings to help her to understand. Stacey's mother is the only one capable of healing herself."
The Fords are one of the few black families fostering in New Hampshire. I asked them if prejudice was a problem for them here. To my surprise, they told me that it was not a big problem and, in fact, the local people accept them totally. It is the new arrivals who move here from the cities who seem to hold to the views of prejudice. In these rare cases the Fords have stood up for themselves successfully and to their credit. I gained a new respect for our native New Hampshire residents!
In Memory of "David Ford" 1923-1996. We miss him!
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