Linda & Rich

The morning is misty, unlike the dead heat this summer has presented to us thus far, but the promise of humidity looms ahead. Once again I head in a northeasterly direction. Passing a small cove, I notice a variety of boats lazily bobbing in the mostly calm water. Small birds surprise me flying low overhead, a single large mourning dove sleeps on the overhead powerline crossing the road in front of me. Vacationers cottages line the cove. An out of state car with forgotten parking lights still on sits helplessly in front of one of the cottages waiting. I smile, remembering errors of my own and wondering if the car would start when needed, knowing that vacationers tend to sleep late on misty mornings. An historic site, home of one of New Hampshire's early colonial governors, invites me to visit and I make a note of it as I pass.
The home of Linda and Rich Stone is set high on a bank. "Come on in," Linda calls, "watch your step!" I am introduced to Rich and to the Stone's two daughters, Iris, 9 and Terry, 14 and to Rich's mother, Grandma Stone. The Stones have been foster parents for almost three years.

People choose to provide foster care for many reasons. Sometimes, past experience in one's own life serves as a motivation for helping families whose children are in foster care. When I asked Linda what prompted her decision to become a foster parent she told me that, many years ago, prior to Terry's birth and prior to her marriage to Rich, she had been married to a man named Ben. Ben was abusive to Linda and to her older daughter, Gloria.

He had a violent temper and, as the situation worsened over time, the Agency stepped in and, with Linda's consent, placed her daughter in foster care while she tried to sort things out and decide what to do. Linda experienced the shock and disbelief that many women feel when they learn that their children have been abused by their own father. She knew what she had to do but it was not easy. She had just been laid off from a job she had held for some time due to company downsizing in a sluggish economy. She was relieved that her daughter was safe and that the Agency was there to help her. Ben's indignation and his temper outbursts increased after his daughter was placed. He felt outraged that someone could invade his family and interfere with his life. Linda wanted her daughter back as soon as she could figure out a way to safely leave Ben. At Easter time an opportunity presented itself and Linda took advantage of it. She was able to arrange with her parents, and with the help of the Agency and the foster parents, for her daughter to visit them over the Easter holiday. Telling Ben that she was going to pick up their daughter, Linda was able to join her daughter at her parents' home and she never returned to Ben. Although it was a short two month placement, Linda was impressed with the foster parents and how willing they were to help her as well as her daughter. She remembered that they made a lovely birthday cake for her daughter and gave her a beautiful dress as a gift. "I was inspired by them and decided that, one day, I would become a foster parent, too and give back some of what was given to me and to my daughter," Linda said.

Rich continued, "I enjoy foster parenting. I was an only child and, when I was ten years old, my Dad just left us. My Mom raised me as a single parent. It could have been me in foster care. It was very hard for my mother." Grandma Stone had been listening and said, "He was a good boy and didn't give me any trouble." "When Linda decided that she wanted to try fostering, I was supportive. I wanted to be a part of it." Rich continued, "Our first placement was two children, Shawna, who was 6, and Patty, who was 5. They just left this past January after having been with us for about two years."

The girls had been removed due to abuse and neglect. There was a suspicion that sexual abuse might also have occurred. Their father, Derek, was known to have a violent temper. Their mother, Shirley, was the quiet one. The Stone family opened their hearts to the children and to their parents as well. Since the placement occurred near the holidays, the Stones included the children's parents in their Thanksgiving and Christmas activities. The children were glad to see their parents. Unfortunately, these otherwise happy occasions involved constant arguments between Derek and Shirley. Derek tried to convince the Stones that he and Shirley were doing all that was required of them, including his attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and parenting classes. He said that his marriage was getting better. Shirley was unusually silent and she seemed depressed. Linda smelled alcohol on Derek's breath, even as he was trying to convince them that things had changed for the better. Later, Linda learned that Derek had beaten Shirley the night before.

The Agency became concerned, particularly about the constant arguing between Derek and Shirley when they visited the children together. Finally, the Agency arranged for them to visit the children separately. This helped and the children seemed more calm. "Shirley was always on time for her visits with the children. Derek began missing visits. About this time, they separated and Derek stopped coming around. He just drifted away." Linda remembered.

Shirley was reliable and the Stones liked her. Linda was reminded of her own former life with Ben. She was able to encourage Shirley and she knew what Shirley was going through. When Shirley separated from Derek he was furious and harassed her at every opportunity. He stalked and threatened her and told her frequently that she'd never get the children back, at least not if he could do anything to prevent it. It was very hard for Shirley but the Stones were there for her offering support and hope.

About this time Shawna, who had been plagued by ear aches, finally had to have surgery on her ears. The Stones allowed Shirley to stay in their home with Shawna overnight. Shirley took over some of the parenting and put the children to bed. She had held Shawna all afternoon as she was uncomfortable and fussy. It was a good experience for everyone. The children needed to know that their mother was all right. "Shirley loved to talk. We'd tell her how we had dealt with various situations and give her suggestions but we let her decide how to go with it," Linda said.

Shirley had been laid off at work and was receiving workmen's compensation. The north country had few available jobs at the time. Shirley could only afford an efficiency apartment. The children's visits became longer and more frequent as the team of foster parent and social worker actively strove towards reunifying the girls with their mother. Late one Saturday night Shirley called Linda and wanted to talk. "She sounded very depressed and I worried that she might be suicidal. Derek was constantly harassing and threatening her. It was beginning to get to her," Linda commented. Shirley wailed over the phone to Linda, "I'll never get my kids back!" Linda and Rich became concerned. They didn't feel that she should be alone but she lived about an hour away from them and they couldn't make the trip. She had no supportive family nearby.

It was a weekend, the Agency was closed and the social worker could not be reached. The Stones made a decision and the police were called and asked to check on Shirley to be sure she was okay. The Stones also told the police about Derek's constant harassment. The police did check on Shirley and found that she was all right. They found Derek, as well, and told him to stop harassing or face a jail sentence. Later, at a foster parent conference, the Stones told the Division for Children, Youth and Families Director what they had done. "She was pleased," Linda added.

Teamwork, creativity and finding solutions to problems are all part of foster parenting, especially when reunification is the goal. "You have to be understanding of the social workers, too," Rich cautioned, "Since we accepted these two children into our foster home, we have had three social workers. New social workers had to learn about the whole case. We knew this case and the direction it was supposed to be going. We try to help."

Linda paused to check off the "chore list" with her two daughters. "Let's see, kitchen cleaned? OK check. Grandma is cleaning the bathroom. How about your room, Terry, let's get that done." Terry leaves for her room and we continue.

"Shirley's situation brought up what had happened to me. Derek gave her sob stories and tried to bargain with her saying that he'd `never do it again.' It was very familiar to me. I'd tell Shirley bluntly that she didn't have to put up with it," Linda recalled. Rich joined in, "The unknown is scary for women who are being abused. They seem to have a `stand by your man' attitude."

Linda continued, "Shirley tried for seven years to make her marriage work but Derek wasn't going to change. Shirley didn't have much time left to get her act together before the Agency would begin looking toward the possibility of taking the kids away for good. The Agency tries to work with the biological family for about eighteen months to see if things can get corrected. If not, they begin to look for an alternate permanent plan for the children. I told Shirley that if Derek wanted to mess up his life it was his choice and his problem. I urged her to concentrate on her life and her kids and to let him go. She divorced him!"

Shirley had work to do. One thing she needed was a bigger apartment. She was given six months, by the court, to find a place and to make other necessary arrangements. "Shirley put a lot of thought into finding a suitable place for the kids. She knew that the court would be requesting that a report be made on her home and her current situation," Linda added. A favorable home study would be required before reunification could be attempted. "Shawna and Patty visited with Shirley. Shawna, who had frequent temper tantrums, began to calm down," Rich mentioned before leaving us to go to work. "Patty was the quiet one, almost too quiet. She had seen the abuse Shawna had endured. She began doing better, too."

Since the girls were returned to Shirley in January the school has recognized that Patty is dyslexic and she is receiving special attention. Shawna, who repeated first grade, has moved ahead dramatically and been promoted to a grade ahead of her peers. She has disclosed that Derek had physically abused her and she seems relieved that it is all finally over.

Derek hasn't seen the girls since their return to Shirley. The court has ordered that any visits between the girls and Derek will be supervised. The court did not specify who would be in charge of choosing the "supervisor." Shirley is determined that this supervisor be someone who is qualified to handle visits and Derek. He still calls and bellows about having Shirley choose the "supervisor," feeling that he should be able to do that. So far, there is an impasse. Shirley has moved to a neighboring state and the Agency there has agreed to monitor the situation for as long as is necessary.

The Stones have learned a lot from their experience with Derek, Shirley and the girls. They had set up co-parenting situations where they could watch as well as role model. Although visiting separately, Derek and Shirley continued to be part of the Stone's Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations throughout the girls' placement in their home and they saw how bonded they were to their mother and how they cried when she left. They also saw how relieved they were when their father left after his visits. The girls got along well with Iris and Terry. Iris still talks about Shawna and how they became friends. Fostering is a joint effort of all family members.

I gazed at the table as our interview ended and Linda went to answer the phone. A Snow White figurine and her plastic wishing well along with a copy of "The Gorilla Joke Book" lay on the kitchen table where I had been sitting. A sense of humor is a must when foster parenting. I was glad that this story from the heart had a happy ending. Reunification!

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