Joanne & Jerry

"These families have such a lot of needs," Joanne said as we car pooled together to a foster parent meeting in a neighboring state. "You can't just focus on the child, you have to include the whole family, even grandparents in some cases. Some kids go home and some don't but it's much better if you work with the child's parents when you can, even if the child remains in long term foster care or is getting ready to move into an adoptive home. 
It's all in how the transition is handled." Joanne & Jerry Reed have fostered for many years. They have adopted, Edward, a former foster child, and they provide long term foster care for Johnny, a multi-handicapped child. They have also served as a bridge foster home, preparing children for the transition from foster care into an adoptive home. They have provided foster care for many other children over the years, as well.
As we proceeded toward our destination, I listened to Joanne as she related some of her stories of the heart. "I remember an emergency placement I had, maybe eight or nine years ago," she began, "there were two sisters, Jenny was twelve, Dianne was fourteen and was mentally retarded. Their mother, Margaret, was diabetic and had to be hospitalized. There was no child abuse in this particular case and the placement lasted only three days. These kids came to our house with only the clothes on their back and the first thing we did was to go shopping for clothes. Sometimes yard sales are a good source of quality clothing when you have an emergency and money is short." Before long, Joanne had the girls outfitted and they were off to visit their mother at the hospital.

Things went well and Margaret was due to be released after a three day hospital stay. However, when the time came for her to be released from the hospital she called Joanne. She was very upset. She wanted to get home and to get her girls and her life back in order. The person who had promised to give her a ride home and to bring her some clothes to wear never showed up. Not knowing what else to do, Margaret called Joanne, explained her situation, and asked her if she would keep the girls for one more night. Like many foster parents do, Joanne pitched in to help out. She arranged to get Margaret some clothing and to give her and the girls a ride home. For Joanne, it was simply the sensible thing to do. It was good to have the placement end on a happy note. Joanne didn't realize what an impression she had made until a few months ago after a local newspaper did a feature story on foster parenting and Joanne and Jerry participated. A photo of the Reeds accompanied the article. "I don't know if you remember me or not...," the voice on the phone said. It was Margaret. She had seen the article in the newspaper and wanted to thank the Reeds for all the help they had given to her family. It was a foster parent special moment.

Tina was six months old when she arrived at the Reed foster home. Her mother had died shortly after her birth. Her father, Harry, was only nineteen at the time. His wife's death came as such a violent shock to him that he suffered a nervous breakdown which resulted in his being hospitalized. The Reeds were told that Tina would be returned to Harry when he recovered. Eventually Harry was released from the hospital but he dropped out of sight immediately thereafter. "He was so young," Joanne said, "he told me when he surfaced later that he had left home at age fifteen taking his younger brother with him. He hasn't had an easy life. I don't think he ever allowed himself to mourn his wife's death."

Tina stayed with Joanne and Jerry until she was two years old. Harry was in and out of her life, visiting and disappearing and returning again. "Harry didn't know what to do. He was a guy, about the age of one of my sons. He needed a lot of nurturing and we talked to him like he was one of our own kids. Sometimes I held him when he cried and sometimes I scolded him when he needed it. I finally told Harry that Tina needed a permanent home either with us, with an adoptive home or she needed to be returned to her father. I also told him that I was determined to work with the Agency to see that Tina had a permanent home and that Harry could either work with me or not, it was up to him," she said. Harry was a little more stable at this time. He had a steady girlfriend named Rose and he really worked hard. He was finally able to take Tina. He and Rose married and Harry named Joanne Reed as Tina's Godmother. They maintained connection with the Reeds and Joanne helped them out by providing child care for Tina when they needed it. Tina is now about eight years old and has a younger brother, John. Rose and Harry have separated and Rose has the two children. It is not easy for her and the children call Joanne when they "want to visit" (and need a break). Joanne figures that Harry will resurface again. However, she has also let the Agency know that if child abuse or neglect occurs involving these two children and placement is needed, she is available. I remember a story Joanne related at a recent foster parent training conference about the importance of pictures to foster children as they grow up and try to piece together their often fragmented lives.

The Reeds take lots of pictures. They try to get pictures of the foster child(ren) and their parent(s) and siblings as well whenever possible. She remembered a ten year old boy named Bobby whom she had fostered some time ago. The kids at school were asked to bring pictures of themselves as infants or very young children to line the walls of the school. The idea was for the viewer to identify each student's photograph. Bobby asked Joanne if he had any baby pictures. Joanne agreed to check with Bobby's mother, Anne. Anne was an alcoholic and Bobby's placement with the Reed's was for an undetermined length of time as Anne was not improving. Joanne called her and asked if she had any baby pictures of Bobby and explained what was happening at school. Anne said that there were a few pictures but she refused to part with them. She tearfully told Joanne, "The pictures are all I have to remind me of Bobby. I know he isn't coming back to me and I can't give them up." Joanne continued to talk with Anne about the pictures and how important it was for Bobby to have a link with his past. She asked Anne if she would allow her to have the pictures copied and finally, after several years, Anne relented. Knowing how much the pictures meant to Anne and how important they also were to Bobby, Joanne enlisted Anne's help in putting together a scrap book for him. They did it together and that interaction meant a lot to Anne. Bobby never did return to his mother. He is grown up now, married and doing well. Anne continues to drink. She runs into Joanne now and then and talks to her about "our son," saying "we did a good job, didn't we?" Joanne commented thoughtfully, "There's a little bit of good in everyone. Jerry and I look back at out fostering experiences and think of our own life together. We realize that, if we had not been able to handle the stress of marrying young, it could have been us."

The story of Johnny, the multi-handicapped child unfolded as Joanne's memories resurfaced. Johnny was born with hydrocephalus and cerebral palsy, among other things. When his parents learned that he was so severely damaged and were advised that he would probably die in infancy, they relinquished their parental rights. He was placed with the Reeds as an infant after a prior foster home placement ended. Joanne was told that Johnny was also blind, deaf, profoundly mentally retarded and that he would not live long. She was told that Johnny's father was not around and that she should not meet or communicate with Peggy, Johnny's mother, as she was a violent woman who had "beaten up" a social worker and a nurse and that she resisted everyone who tried to help her. Joanne was only allowed to contact Peggy by going through the social worker.

Johnny is now nine years old and Joanne sends Peggy pictures of him frequently. She updates Peggy regarding his medical condition regularly and what is being done about it. She has let Peggy know that, so far as she and Jerry are concerned, Peggy did the right thing in relinquishing Johnny, whose medical needs are enormous. Peggy is still very disturbed and continues to have violent tendencies. Joanne's conviction that there is some good in everyone resurfaced in this story about the time when she agreed to provide respite care for a foster child in order to give another foster parent a short break. When the child arrived at the Reed home for an overnight stay and saw Johnny she said, "I know him, his picture's on his Mom's TV set." The child had been a visitor in Peggy's home. Joanne was touched by this incident and recognized that, despite her own limitations, Peggy still cared about her son.

Joanne remembered another touching incident when Johnny was five years old and Peggy came for what was to be her final visit. All contact between Peggy and Johnny would end at this point. Peggy said her last good-byes to Johnny and Johnny, the child who had no ability to speak, cried. "They told me that he couldn't communicate but I knew he had understood," Joanne stated emphatically, "Johnny isn't totally blind and he can hear somewhat. He has learned the names of everyone in the household and can turn toward each person as their name is mentioned. He knew his colors at age two. He loves music, it is the light of his life! He tries to sing. He is learning to communicate by using a computer but it is, physically, very hard for him to do. He has more success communicating by using his eyes and body language. He can shake his head for "no" and raise his eyebrows for "yes." He tries to talk. With some assistance, he can do second grade math and spelling. He is also able to read. Children's Hospital doesn't know what to do with him. The doctors didn't expect him to live this long. He has come to the brink of death six times but has recovered," Joanne states proudly. Johnny's brain damage is severe. He has only a narrow rim of brain around the inner edge of his skull. Two thirds of his brain is missing.

Due to his challenges, his courage, and because he is wheelchair bound, Johnny is easily recognized when he is taken out into the community. In fact, Joanne met his grandparents for the first time unexpectedly in a local supermarket. They had recognized Johnny and introduced themselves to Joanne. "Even the trash man recognizes him!" Joanne disclosed. "Johnny has made more of an impression on the people he has met than anyone else I've known. He's the best experience Jerry and I've ever had. He's taught us about love and trust, and what it's like to have to depend on someone else for everything for your entire life.

The miles had flown by and we were approaching our destination. I was glad neither of us were driving so that I could listen as Joanne began to tell her story of Edward, the Reed's eleven year old adopted son who had been placed in foster care as an infant. Joanne and Jerry had agreed to serve as temporary foster parents if reunification was to be considered or as a bridge home to adoption if it was not. Edward was not an easy placement. He was always testing the limits. It was essential for Edward to have a lot of structure and supervision. His mother, Karen, disappeared when Edward was about three and her rights were terminated. Despite his age at the time, it effected Edward and he continues to mourn for his lost mother. "When the termination was completed, Edward was about three and a half. He begged me to tell him everything I knew about Karen and I did, although there wasn't much to tell. We didn't know a lot about Karen and her background," Joanne explained. At this point, Edward was freed for adoption and the Reeds were asked to decide whether or not they would be willing to adopt him.

It should be understood that foster children are usually reunified with their birth families. However, occasionally, reunification is not possible and, if the placement has been lengthy and successful, foster parents might be asked if they would be willing to provide a permanent home for the child. It is a hard decision for foster parents to make. Future needs and income must be weighed. Consideration must be given to both the foster child in question and the existing family members as well as other current foster placements. At this time Joanne and Jerry were providing foster care for another child who now needed an adoptive home. They had been approached by the Agency to consider that child as well. It was a serious dilemma. They loved both children but, realistically, they knew that they could not adopt both. The Reeds weighed the situation carefully and finally decided that Edward, because of his challenging emotional needs, would be more difficult for the Agency to place successfully. Experience hinted that an adoption into another home might very well end in failure. The Reeds knew that Edward would act out and test the limits in any new placement, perhaps beyond the tolerance limits of the new family. The other child was not so needy and her adoption would be an easier task for the Agency to accomplish. The Reeds felt that she would be more likely to adapt successfully to an adoptive home. Therefore they chose to adopt Edward.

My thoughts, after listening to these stories, drifted back to Johnny and a question surfaced. How can you care for and nurture a child with loving detachment, knowing that the child may well die young or have to be moved to an adoptive home? How is that done? What do you need?, I thought. The answer came to me in a flash, "patience and unconditional love!"

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