Molly & Keith

Tammy was barely out of childhood when she became pregnant. Fearing she would anger the boy intent on forcing his affections on her and desperately wanting to please him, she allowed him to become sexual with her. She was so frightened. She barely remembered his name, or maybe she didn't remember it at all. Her authoritarian parents refused to allow any contradiction of their absolute authority by any of their children. To say "no" was unheard of! Tammy had been trained from childhood to obey those in power. Disobedience meant severe punishment and she never chanced it.

Robbie was born almost 3 years ago. It had been hard and Tammy had to go on welfare for a while. She loved her son and couldn't imagine life without him. She watched him as he slept so peacefully, his little fists clenched tightly under his chin. "Go to sleep, Robbie," she'd say and the tiny baby, wanting to please though not yet sleepy, tightly pinched his tiny eyelids together.

By age two, Robbie, outgrew some of the adorable "Cabbage Patch" doll ways which Tammy interpreted as "only wanting to give back love." He was now curious and exploring his world. Tammy described him as "hell on wheels." He seemed to so fast, beyond her ability to follow as he ran, laughed, yelled and screamed, exploring and breaking, plundering and annoying. When Tammy tried spanking, he yelled louder; when she hit him, he screamed. Clearly these punishments didn't work. Bath time came and, frustrated, Tammy wrestled Robbie into the bathroom and the tub. Annoyed, she bathed him inappropriately. Did he purposely soil himself so that she would have to spend extra time cleaning him? She was so tired. Fiishing up, Tammy got ready for the struggle that washing Robbie's hair entailed. He always hated it, and tonight, he screamed and thrashed relentlessly. Tammy, at wits end, was determined to control him. Frustrated and enraged, she forced his head firmly down under the running faucet of the tub and held it there! Robbie sputtered and thrashed. Coming to her senses in alarm, Tammy realized what was happening. What was she doing!? Her eyes wide with fear, she lifted Robbie out of the tub and held him. He cried and cried. She noticed the bruise on his face and she cried, too. It was too much.

The next day, Tammy received a call at the factory where she had begun a new job. The day care center where Robbie was enrolled, noticed the bruise and called the Division for Children, Youth and Families. Tammy was terrified and expressed her feelings to co-workers, who understood her swearing and her anger. Privately, she was relieved, though she would never have admitted it.

Tammy's visit with the social worker was very difficult. Robbie's favorite day care worker was a nurturing older woman, who had rocked and comforted him as he told her what had happened, how mom had tried to drown him. She was the one who had called the Agency. Tammy was scared and sorrowful at the same time. She thought about her parents: what would they think! They still exercised a heavy influence on her life and wouldn't hesitate to say," I told you so!" and "You got just what you deserved after all the trouble you gave us!" She wondered if she could survive all this.

Robbie would be placed with Keith and Molly Burke who lived in a nearby town. They were to meet Tammy at the day care center and take him home from there. The social worker didn't tell them very much. She had only met Tammy and Robbie once and didn't really know much about them. The Burkes had been fostering for about 6 years and they were used to these circumstances. When they walked into the room, they were touched to find Tammy, sitting in a rocking chair holding Robbie and rocking. She crooned to her son, telling him that it was going to be "OK," apologizing to him over and over again for being such a bad mother. Then the tears came. Molly went over to them and all three of them just hugged. Tammy didn't even know Molly's name! Keith rubbed Robbie's back gently and put his hand on Molly's shoulder remembering, again, his reason for marrying her. She was so nurturing, so able to give love when it was most needed. "Whew! What a scene," he thought.

After being in the Burke home for a while, Robbie finally learned to relax and began to fit in with his foster family, blending in well with the Burke's own children. In the beginning he had missed his mom terribly and often cried at night. Once visits began and the Burkes got to know Tammy, things became more comfortable and easier. Tammy bonded with Molly, looking up to her as a "big sister." She shared the story of her troubled life and Molly and Keith understood. They could have been in Tammy's shoes if life had dealt the cards differently. They married young and money was in short supply at first. Tammy's circumstances could just as easily have been theirs.

As understanding grew, Robbie and Tammy stabilized. Tammy allowed herself to accept help and began to grow stronger. The social worker was pleased with the way the two families interacted.

As time passed, the Burkes involved Tammy more and more in Robbie's care. They were actually co-parenting with her. It was gratifying to watch Tammy use the skills she had learned from them. When the day came for Robbie and Tammy to reunite, the Burkes threw a celebration party. The social worker, the foster parents, Tammy and Robbie and Robbie's favorite child care worker all attended. The social worker and the child care worker left together. Both women felt that they had done the right thing. "Sometimes, with the right foster family, we can really make a difference and help the family learn new ways to deal with their kid's behaviors. It's a team effort, though, and we couldn't do it without the assistance of folks like the Burkes and yourself," the social worker commented. "I think, this time, we helped our young mother make friends as well!," the child care worker replied.

(The above is a compilation of various stories related to me by practicing foster parents at a New Hampshire Foster Parent Training Conference held in Littleton, NH.) Social workers are gratified when their decision to place a child in foster care while the parents work on their problems ends with successful reunification of the child and a more stable family. It is a learning experience for all participants.

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