Myra & Chet

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I traveled to the Howard foster home on a hot summer day for another "Stories of the Heart" interview.
Directly in front of me a Chevy Blazer moved slowly along on the stretch of road labeled "no passing."
Since I was going to be a companion to this large vehicle for a while, I crept close enough to read a
sticker attached to the rear bumper. "I'd rather be on the train!" it read. I had to agree. It would surely
be quicker. Finally, the Blazer turned off at a "pick your own blueberries" sign and I proceeded,
with relief and a little more speed.

 

Myra and Chet Howard live on a country road off the main thoroughfare in one of New Hampshire's rural towns. Myra greeted me and, as I seated myself in the kitchen beside their adorable, new puppy, Myra and Chet's story of the heart began.

The Howards are experienced foster parents, trained to handle the more difficult behaviors and problems exhibited by some of the children the Agency has to place in foster care. In spite of what might be considered a heavy load, the Howards still find time to pursue their recreational and leisure interests. Myra teaches a crafts class as part of the local high school's continuing education program. In this type of class, the teacher usually gets to know her students more personally as life experiences are shared between teacher and students. Myra and Chet are strong supporters of foster parenting and make no secret of the fact that they are foster parents.

One night, at the end of class, an older woman came forward to ask Myra if she knew of any way to help her daughter and granddaughter who were currently involved with New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth & Families (DCYF). Checking further, Myra learned that the Agency was looking for a foster home, willing to take in the mother as well as her daughter. Myra thought about it and talked it over with Chet. Their own children are grown up and have families of their own. Their last foster teen had recently moved on and the house was empty. The Howards were aware that this older mother and her eight year old daughter had some limitations. Their background included physical and sexual abuse. This would not be an easy placement but Myra and Chet felt they had something to offer. Within a few days, Debbie and her mother, Gloria, moved into the Howard foster home.

"The first two months were awful," Myra recalled. "Something was really bothering Gloria, but she wouldn't or couldn't tell me what it was. Chet and I thought that she misunderstood the reason why she and Debbie were with us. We explained that we knew she needed help with Debbie and that was the reason we opened our home to her. Finally, I told her that we were not going to take her daughter away. It was the only thing I could think of, and it worked."

Gloria's parenting skills were less than desirable. Although she was able to hold a job as an assembly line worker, she was somewhat limited and had no prior role models to guide her. She would dress Debbie in winter clothes in the summer and in summer clothes in winter. She did not accept constructive criticism or suggestions easily. Myra had to learn how to tactfully shift Gloria's methods to something more acceptable.

"She's my kid and I'll dress her the way I want!" Gloria grumbled. The old fear that the Howards would "steal" Debbie away from her resurfaced and Myra and Chet again reassured her that this was not their intent.

Myra took Gloria out for breakfast one morning after Debbie had left for school. "Gloria had trouble communicating. I thought doing something 'just for her' might show her that I wasn't angry with her and put her at ease," Myra recalled. "I know that she loves Debbie fiercely." Gloria and Myra had several special "breakfast outings." It did seem to help. Soon, Gloria would dress Debbie for school and ask Myra what she thought about her choice of clothing. She was learning and the Howards were proud of her efforts.

When two families live together it is necessary to have "house rules." Since Gloria had problems telling others what she needed, Myra created a communication chart for her. Rules were added to the chart to help Gloria get started. Gloria found it helpful. "She had to know what was expected of her," Myra added. She had no problem with rules after that, although she needed constant reassurance. As the system took hold, Gloria was able to write down, among other things, what foods she liked.

"We realized that Gloria's limitations caused her to behave much like a teenager. I found that I needed to explain things more thoroughly, so she wouldn't misunderstand." Myra recalled. Gloria attended the regularly scheduled court review of her case. Upon her return she told Myra that she didn't understand what was going on there. Myra explained the goals of the plan which stipulated what Gloria and everyone involved with Debbie had to do. The explanation was very difficult and Myra broke it down, discussing one detail at a time. In the end, Gloria wasn't upset, she was surprised. She hadn't realized that certain things were expected of her. She agreed to do her part.

One of the recommendations during the review called for Gloria to look for an apartment in preparation for moving out of the Howard's home. She would need to be able to live independently if she wanted to make a home for her daughter and herself. Debbie was getting older and, despite her own problems, the potential was there for her to eventually surpass her mother intellectually. Prior to placement in the Howard foster home, Debbie had often performed the adult role, essentially becoming her parent's parent. As Gloria learned parenting skills and became stronger, Debbie became more resistant and often abusive to Gloria. The therapist recommended that there be a separation between mother and daughter in order to give Debbie an opportunity to grow as an individual while, at the same time, maintaining and encouraging a loving relationship with her mother through regular visitation.

Gloria didn't move out right away. The Howards were cautious about pushing her, wanting her to view this move as one of "growth" rather than "rejection." They explained to Debbie that her mother was looking for an apartment and would be moving out and that, in a year or so, if all went well, she would be able to live with her. Although Debbie was somewhat saddened at the idea of her mother moving out, she overcame her feelings quickly. "Can I have the big bedroom," was her response. Myra realized that a lot of work was needed to help Debbie bond more firmly with her mother.

Gloria procrastinated. She was frightened by the thought of being on her own again, perhaps remembering some of the poor choices that she had made in the past. Some of those decisions had lead to her physical abuse and, eventually, to the sexual abuse of Debbie. The mechanics of managing an apartment alone were monumental for Gloria. Myra suspected that all of this was at the root of Gloria's hesitancy and asked her if she would allow her to help. Gloria agreed and Myra began to teach her budgeting techniques. Myra and Gloria looked at the amount of money she made and decided how much she could afford to pay for rent. Gloria responded well to concrete "hands on" instruction. "Now she manages a check book on her own and she's good at it!" Myra said.

Gloria was still resistant to moving out, even though she was now capable of managing her own money. She and Myra visited many apartments but none suited her. Myra began to suspect that Gloria believed, "if she didn't accept any apartment, she could continue to stay with us. It was scary for her," Myra remembered. Gloria had always lived with her father, until she met and moved in with Debbie's father. Most of her subsequent experiences, while on her own, were poor. Finally, a relative agreed to take Gloria in and, eventually, she was able to get her own apartment.

Debbie continues to make progress, but it is still difficult to deal with her anxiety related behaviors. Currently she is performing at about a six year level, although her reading skills are quite high. The professionals agree that she has a lot of potential but it has been masked by her early lack of stimulation. She is improving daily but outbursts of anger still occur occasionally. She is still hypersensitive and is afraid of discipline, fearing that she will be hit. continuous gentle reassurance coupled with consistent behavior modification has been successful. Debbie now realizes that she is safe in this home where no one hits. "It looks like it will have a happy ending," Chet predicts, "Gloria and Debbie are both getting the intensive services they need, including therapy. The goal continues to be reunification, perhaps as early as next year. Myra and Gloria still get together and talk, although not as regularly as when she lived here." Even though Gloria and Myra had a horrible beginning, they parted with hugs. The Howards realize how hard it will be for Gloria and they will be patient. They are committed to the children and families they serve.

Things have leveled out in the Howard foster home. Gloria voices her concerns at monthly team meetings with Agency staff and the Howards. It's a big step for Gloria and it's scary, but she's taking it. The Agency has given lots of support to all parties and things are greatly improved. Myra, alternating with a parent aide, supervises most of the visits between Debbie and Gloria. Chet has taken a course offered by a health institute dealing with children with severe hyperactivity and other disorders. He has learned a lot about children with special needs - like Debbie and her mother. He and Myra reached out and took a risk for a family in trouble and it has made all the difference. Foster parents are truly amazing people!

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