Jan & Bruce

I stood across from the tall woman who was receiving a foster parent appreciation award in the lobby of New Hampshire's Legislative Office Building this past May. May is traditionally designated as Foster Care Month by the Governor and the staff of the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families take this time to honor and thank our foster families for all their help.

The tall woman was accompanied by a younger woman, perhaps nineteen or twenty years old. After the award was presented to her, the young woman asked to speak and added her own emotional words of praise for the woman who had provided foster care for her during a particularly troubled time in her life. Everyone in attendance was moved by the young woman's impromptu speech. I crossed the room and introduced myself to the tall woman, congratulating her on her award. This was my first meeting with Jan Colson.

My visit to the Colson home took place on an extremely hot summer day, temperatures had reached the 90's, even in the Lakes Region. The pavement radiated the current heat wave in a shimmer of illusory undulations. Jan and Bruce Colson's large white farm house is located in a comfortable neighborhood, a short drive from the main thoroughfare of the city. "You found us okay?" Jan called out to me from the kitchen door. "Come on in. If you sit here you'll have the coolest seat in the house." I gratefully accepted the seat she offered near a large fan, strategically placed at the cellar door to blow air in my direction from the cool stone cellar below. The kitchen table at which we sat must have been ten to twelve feet long and looked as if it could accommodate a dozen or more diners.

The Colsons have been foster parents for about twenty years and have, so far, provided foster care for about eighty-five children. Their own two boys have grown up and left home. They are currently licensed to provide care for six foster children and they are usually at capacity as they tend to accept teenagers and handicapped children. Jan and Bruce have many stories of the heart.

Jan began by telling me Paul's story. The Colsons usually accept older children but, when asked to consider a gifted, streetwise three year old, they decided to give it a try. They felt that it was time for the teen girls currently in the home to learn to nurture a younger child. Paul had been described as a "terror," with temper tantrums and out of control behaviors. Sure enough, almost as soon as he was placed, Paul had a temper tantrum. Since she is a tall woman, Jan said she had only to tower over Paul and say, "what are you doing?" Paul looked up at her, surprised, and stopped the behavior and it didn't return. Jan mentioned that Paul had seen the police forcibly remove his father from their home and take him away to jail.

The Colsons successfully cared for Paul, assisted by the teen girls who seemed to enjoy and benefit from having such a lively little boy around. He stayed with them for about a year and was then reunified with his mother, Marion. Jan handed me a letter she had received from Marion. In it she thanks the Colsons, mentioning that they had "taught Paul what it means to live in a home with structure and nurturing," and that "they were very pleasant with me throughout Paul's stay and always did their best to keep me informed on what was happening with him." She concludes with, "my husband and I are very grateful that we had the chance to know them. They are very special people."

But this is only one story. There are many others, like the story of sixteen year old Katie, who lived near the Colsons and who visited their home for a sleepover. Midway through the evening Katie told Jan that she wanted to go home. She told the Colsons that, although her parents were not home, it didn't matter as she was allowed to do anything she wanted to do. Jan refused to let her go home at night to an empty house. Katie surprised her by expressing gratitude. She said that her parents didn't care about her. Her mother had abandoned the family years ago and Katie's dad had remarried when she was about three years old. Katie was able to tell Jan that she really wanted rules. She said that she used to make up her own rules as she felt a "mother-who-cared" might do. Jan listened. Katie never became a foster child but she "adopted" Jan and Bruce as surrogate parents. They knew Katie's father and step-mother. The Colsons felt that Katie's father loved her but, as often happens, had gotten all wrapped up in his "new family," perhaps neglecting his old one. "Teens need structure and chores and less idle time. They also need a lot of love and someone who is willing to listen to them," Jan said as she ended this story and began to tell another.

Abby was sixteen when she came to stay with the Colsons who were providing foster care in a nearby state at the time. She remained with them for about a year. It was Abby who had given Jan Colson the impromptu commendation at the foster parent awards presentation. Abby's mother had surrendered her at birth and she was quickly adopted. At age two the adoption failed. Abby was placed in foster care where she remained until she turned five and was again placed in an adoptive home, this time with her half brother, three year old Ray. Unfortunately, the adoptive family only wanted to adopt Ray. The Agency, wanting to keep the sister and brother together, pushed the adoptive parents to take both children which they reluctantly did. Abby remained there with Ray until she was thirteen. During that time she was physically and emotionally abused by the adoptive mother and Ray was emotionally abused. The adoptive family had lost a son, about Ray's age, in a fire and they had hoped to replace him with Ray. They were stuck with Abby. The adoptive mother talked constantly about her deceased son. Finally, in desperation, Ray attempted to burn down the house. He told Abby afterward, "I thought, if we were burned up, (the adoptive mother) would love us." The adoptive father was a weak man and was never able to protect the children and eventually, both children were removed.

Ray went from foster home to foster home. He is seventeen now, drug involved and "living on the streets," according to Jan, having "burned out" all the foster parents who had tried to help him. Abby also went from foster home to foster home between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. She was extremely angry. Her acting out behaviors included an incident in which, in a blind rage, she threw a chair at a foster parent. Jan and Bruce agreed to accept placement of Abby.

Jan had been told about the chair throwing incident and the rages which had caused the disruption of Abby's previous foster home placements. "I was clear with Abby, and I told her that if she threw a chair at me, I'd throw it right back," Jan said, "It was kind of humorous. Bruce and I are large and tall, Abby is tiny. I could see her sizing up the situation. She never did throw that chair." Jan and Abby became friends. Jan listened and Abby felt that Jan understood how frustrated and unhappy she had been. The anger didn't go away over night. "I'd advise Abby to walk off her anger and to slow down and think while she was walking. She was and still is very impulsive. She'd go for her walk and when she returned we'd talk and cry and hug and talk some more. Abby told me that she hadn't called the adoptive mother, "Mom," since she was eight years old. She hadn't called anyone else "Mom" either. On her own, she began to call me "Mom" and it has been that way ever since." Jan paused for a moment and continued, "It doesn't end when they hit age eighteen and leave foster care. I can't just walk away from her."

Abby recently had a premature baby who weighed two pounds at birth. "She has worked really hard for this baby," Jan added. "It remained in the hospital for some time. Abby went to the hospital faithfully to nurse the baby and even prepared her own milk for the baby for times when she couldn't get there. Now the baby has come home and Abby is scared. She doesn't want to repeat any of the abusive and neglectful things that happened to her." Abby has almost daily contact with Jan. "Please tell me, Mom, if you see that I'm being abusive to April," she said. Jan will continue to work with Abby using common sense and "straight talk."

At this point, Jan introduced me to the currently placed children who had been drifting in and out as we talked. Helen is seventeen years old. She has been in foster care for only a few months and this is her first placement. Helen's situation is somewhat unusual. Her father is an alcoholic and he is unwilling to control his drinking. Helen's home life became unbearable and her grades eventually dropped. Finally, she took matters into her own hands and went to an attorney, describing the emotional abuse she had suffered due to Dad's drinking habits and the dysfunction it had caused within the household. Helen went to court on her own behalf and placement was ordered. Her mother was upset about Helen's actions and the resulting placement. She refuses to believe that Dad has a drinking problem. Helen had begged her father to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings but he flatly refused. Now, Helen visits her parents but, if Dad begins drinking, Mom has been told to return Helen to the foster home. Mom is allowed to visit at the Colson home and she has done that. Jan worries about what will happen to Helen when she turns eighteen next year. "These kids need continuing love and guidance as they are still terribly naive. They need parents or foster parents, if their own parents aren't able to be involved, to continue to care. Otherwise, how can we expect them to become healthy stable adults," Jan stated.

When Jan and Bruce lived in another state, Sally, now age twenty-three, was in foster care with them for two years, beginning when she was fourteen years old. The placement ended when the Colsons moved to New Hampshire and the other state would not allow Sally to move with them. She was a child who wanted to do well and she had solid artistic talent. She graduated from high school with honors and a full scholarship to art school.

During the summer of her eighteenth year, she became pregnant, moved in with Dan, the child's father, and never did take advantage of the art school scholarship. Jan and Bruce were very disappointed but they remained supportive. They have continued their relationship with Sally over the years. Sally and Dan moved to the west coast but Dan couldn't find work there. They were struggling and unable to make it Sally was pregnant with their second child. She called Jan and Bruce and told them the situation. Jan and Bruce talked about it and knew that they couldn't stand by and do nothing while Sally was stranded out there. They agreed to send her money "to come home." "We felt that we were doing okay financially and it was not a big deal for us. We could afford to send her the money. To Sally and Dan it was very important and a very big deal," Jan remembered. "Since we had such a large house, we decided to divide it up and we made an apartment for Sally, Dan and the kids. They stayed with us for about six months. It was a little strained and they eventually found an apartment next door to us. Dan still couldn't find work and they finally moved in with his mother, who didn't like Sally. Eventually, they separated and now Sally has an apartment of her own. She calls me nearly every day and we just talk." The phone rang. "I'll bet that's Sally!" Jan said.

It was Sally. When she learned that I was interviewing Jan, she agreed to talk with me about what it was like to have been a foster child in this foster home. "I came from an abusive home," Sally told me, "I started to fight back and was placed in foster care with the Colsons after psychological evaluations and tests were done. At first, they scared me. They were so much bigger than I was and, at first, I thought that I was "in for it."

I also had heard that they had both been `cops' for one of the small towns. But in one week I felt at home and was calling them `Mom and Dad.' They were so easy to talk with and they got me on the right track. I used to keep my distance from people. They gave me lots of help. I was a real little punk! Now, I have two kids and I'm doing okay. The Colsons are always there for me. A lot of teenagers have been put on the right track, thanks to their help." I thanked Sally for sharing her insights with me.

The phone rang, almost as soon as it was hung up. A social worker had called reminding Jan of an appointment to be made or kept. Vivian, a shy, black Down's Syndrome child dressed in a sunsuit came into the kitchen. She teased me when I asked her age, first saying that she was twelve years old, then, "no, I'm nine, heh, heh." Jan covered the phone and whispered, "She's twelve!" Vivian giggled and fixed herself something to drink. She was a cute child and I marveled that she was not overweight as many Down's Syndrome children seem to be. Later, Jan told me that Vivian and Kay, another foster child, with Down's Syndrome, have both lost weight since they have been in the Colson home. "We take walks to the end of the street," Jan said. Vivian and Kay now are able to jog to the end of the street and back unaccompanied and they choose to do so regularly.

Bruce was working on the day of my visit and I asked Jan to tell me about him. "He's an easy going man, a `teddy bear' type. He's big, six foot three inches and he weighs two hundred and fifty pounds. He's not fat, he's just big. He is very supportive of me and of all the kids," Jan told me. The Colsons were childhood sweethearts and have a long thirty year marriage.
Carol was placed in foster care with the Colsons when they provided foster care in a neighboring state. She, too, remained with the Colsons for two years. Carol's mother, Mary, hated Jan at first. When Mary came to visit her daughter at the foster home Jan told her that she didn't want to steal her daughter. She asked Mary to work with her to help Carol and eventually, they became good friends. "In fact Carol and her mother came to our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary," Jan said. "Carol was bright and received high honors in high school, in fact, she was listed in `Who's Who in American High Schools."
When Carol began to date Jan's son, Mike, the Agency decided to move her into another foster home. Carol and Mike dated for several years and Jan and Bruce thought that they might eventually marry. Unfortunately, Carol became involved in drug use and Mike stopped the relationship. Carol dropped out of high school and ran away from the new foster home. Now, she lives with a man who is much older than she and they have a child.

"It breaks my heart to see so many of the teenagers who are in or have been in foster care become drug involved. So many of them are bright and could go far but they have such a hard time overcoming the effects of their dysfunctional raising," Jan said sorrowfully. "Another girl we had, Liza, who is now twenty years old, did well in school. She and Bruce had a deal. If she got an "A" on her report card, he'd pay her for it. She brought her grades up the next marking period. She graduated and was accepted into college where she planned on majoring in early childhood education. She began her first year of college and she came here on weekends. We treated her like we treat our own kids. We helped her get a car and she was paying us back. Her own parents had never been involved with her; although we had tried to enlist their help and cooperation, we were not successful. They wanted nothing to do with her." Liza dropped out of college during her second year. She, too, had become drug involved. The Colsons are trying to help her get into a drug treatment program. Jan's eyes became misty as she talked about Liza. She knows that she can't save them all, still she and Bruce continue to try.

"My father was a foster child. I didn't know it until I was grown up. His parents died when he was young and he grew up in foster care. He was very young when he was placed and he stayed with the same family until he became an adult. He considered himself a part of the family and he thought that they all accepted him. However, when he grew up and the foster parents, who were older, died, their birth sons told him that he wasn't part of the family and cut all ties. Their rejection was very hard for him and he carried the pain of that incident with him for the remainder of his life." Jan remembers what her father said and she understands.

The phone rang again and I heard Jan say, "Can I call you back?" The social worker on the other end was begging Jan to "take Diana back." Diana, a disturbed teenager, had run away from the Colson home the week before and had been found and placed in another foster home. "What happened in the other foster home?" I heard Jan ask. Diana has significant emotional problems and needs residential placement. Arranging for this kind of care often takes some time due to the scarcity of openings in the few available facilities. Diana had to wait her turn and needed to remain in foster care until a vacancy could be located. She is not an easy kid to foster. She was with the Colsons for only two days before she ran away. "I'll check with Bruce and the family and get back to you," Jan told the social worker. I sensed the social worker's urgency and knew that her next question for Jan was, "How soon?"

Jan finished her conversation, promising to get back to the social worker quickly. "I always discuss any placements we are asked to consider with Bruce and whatever other children are placed here. We had talked about the possibility of our being asked to take Diana again. Oddly enough, the kids wanted to give it another try! Diana had been really hard to deal with while she was here and I was tempted to say "no," feeling that the other kids shouldn't have to put up with such "bratty" behavior. We will probably give it another try, since she is now asking to come back here."

Jan and Bruce have given so much of themselves to the children and their families. "How do you do it?" I asked. "We know that, for the most part, the birth parents do care about their kids and their kids love them, regardless of the abuse and neglect that has occurred or their parent's limitations. We never put the child's parents down. We have always been able to find something good to say about them. The children want us to like their parents and they want to hear some good things about them. Most of the kids who are placed with us have been caring for themselves. They need structure and routine. Many of them haven't learned self-care, like brushing their teeth and washing and combing their hair," she said. "Teens are just bigger children with the same problems. They need to recover the nurturing that they have lost. Abby, for example, is reliving her lost childhood through her child. She wants to do it the right way."

I am reminded, by Jan's stories of the heart, that committed families provide foster care because of their desire to share their love with those who need it and they do so with no thought of reward.

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