Suzanne & Andy
The Kinsman's new home appeared at the end of a short street. It is located in a small town which borders a lake near one of New Hampshire's larger cities. Suzanne Kinsman met me at the driveway and ushered me into the dining room past several children of varying ages who were introduced to me as Joey, age ten, Kristin, age twelve, and Bonnie Kinsman, age thirteen and the two foster children; Jason, age six, who has been in this home for about three weeks and Steve, age eleven, who was placed here last Friday.
Three yellow kittens and a white fluffy dog dozed lazily on the deck outside the sliding glass doors near where I sat,
barely noticing me as the late afternoon sun warmed and extended their nap. Andy Kinsman joined Suzanne and
their story of the heart began to unfold.
Although the Kinsman's had completed foster parent preservice
training about a year ago, they decided to proceed slowly and
had, in fact, placed themselves on hold with the agency while
they really looked at whether or not they could handle all that
would be required of them as active foster parents. "There
lots of fears in the beginning," Suzanne said. "We thought
about it a lot, considering all that we had learned in the
foster parent training classes and worrying about how our own
children might be affected. We aren't a dysfunctional family and
neither Andy nor I come from dysfunction. We really searched
our family trees for any `flakey areas' and, in all honesty, we
didn't find any." Andy, who says that he is the "quiet
added, "We talked about fostering with our kids and took
opportunity to ask them questions like `could you share that
with a foster child?' and we weighed their responses." Suzanne
"We honestly felt that we could handle more children, after all, we had read `The Family Nobody Wanted.' The Waltons of the TV series had eight," they had reasoned, "We can do it!"
The Kinsmans accepted the weekend respite placement of three children to give another foster parent a break. "It went well and we loved it. Our kids pitched in and helped, too. We figured it was `on the job training.' You have to grow with it like you do with your own kids," Suzanne explained.
Last winter a social worker called the Kinsmans and asked them to consider accepting placement of two brothers, Benny, age six, and Tommy, age eight. Benny has many problems. He is wheelchair bound, blind, deaf and had to be fed through a stomach tube. His weight was low and he functioned at the level of a four month old. Tommy was in need of supervision and structure. The Kinsmans talked it over and decided to accept the placement. It was a lot of work due to Benny's physical needs. The Kinsman children took turns helping their parents with the boys. Andy and Benny soon became a team. Benny responded to Andy, especially when Andy began to play with him. "They told us that Benny couldn't do anything!" Andy remembered.
The boys' mother, Eva, is mentally limited, functioning much like a twelve year old child. She had many problems handling Benny's needs. She had been a victim of domestic violence and had moved to this area after leaving her abusive husband. She knew her way around her previous town and agencies there had helped her. When she arrived in this area, she knew no one and had no idea where to turn. Having no help, she went quickly down hill, becoming unclean and had little or no self esteem left. She felt that people were "accusing" her and, indeed, that was the case. Someone, seeing Benny's condition and his mother's limitations, called the Agency, resulting in the children's placement in foster care with the Kinsmans.
"Eva comes from a generation or two of abusive families" Suzanne mentioned, "She has a nine month old baby who was placed for a few days but returned to Eva when she got settled. She was used to having services handed to her. The Agency worked hard to get her the resources she needed. She didn't mean to neglect the children. She had just left a husband who was abusive and violent," Suzanne continued, "Eva took parenting classes, got into counseling and the visiting nurse taught her about the kind of care that Benny requires. Eva called us every night after the boys were placed." At first she was very angry and, as often happens, directed her anger toward the foster parents. Suzanne tried to imagine herself in Eva's situation. She is a good listener and she listened to Eva. When Eva became depressed, Suzanne cheered her up, reminding her how the boys loved and needed her. She told Eva that she and Andy were there to help her until she could take them home again.
Suzanne let Eva know that she did not want to take away Eva's children. She asked for Eva's help with them, asking her questions like, "What foods did they like and dislike?" and "Did they like to sleep with a stuffed cuddly toy?" She asked about Benny's care, what had worked and what hadn't.
Eva asked Suzanne to go with her to a medical team meeting where Benny's needs would be discussed. "She liked to show me off," Suzanne said laughing. Benny progressed in the Kinsman home and was returned to Eva. He has grown a lot since he left and he is getting stronger. Eva has a boyfriend named Arnold. He, too, is mentally limited and functions at about the twelve year level. One night she and Arnold and the boys came to visit Andy and Suzanne. "We decided you guys are the kids' Godparents," Eva said.
"There is a lot of bias out there when it comes to handicapped children," Suzanne observed. "People treat you differently. It isn't empathy or even sympathy. It's almost accusatory, as if we had done something wrong to have had a child like Benny." Bonnie, Suzanne's daughter, was worried that her friends wouldn't be sympathetic to Benny's condition, but she role modeled caring for him with love and her girlfriends copied her.
Suzanne continued, "We had to build a relationship with the local schools for Eva, so that things would be in place for her when the boys were returned to her. Tommy enjoyed watching Andy and Joey's involvement with the Boy Scouts and Little League. Eva enrolled Tommy in those programs when he returned home. We brought Eva to church with us and she enjoyed it. She has made friends there. Some of the parishioners have handicapped children, too, and they are helping Eva locate more services and are generally encouraging her. She has decided that she wants to get a handicapped van. Some of the other parents have pointed out how helpful a van could be and Eva started raising money to help with the purchase by collecting aluminum cans for recycling.
Church members are helping out, too. They have located a van which can be purchased for two thousand dollars. They are building her a wheelchair ramp for her apartment. Eva is happy to have made these friends. "No one used to visit me," she told Suzanne, "now, I have lots of visitors!"
The Kinsmans feel that Eva's situation will never get out of hand again. "The State and the community worked hard to help Eva and her family and they succeeded!," they said, "She'll always need services, resources, friends and contacts. Benny will always have serious needs. Tommy will be a handful as he grows up. He's much smarter than his Mom. Eva's trying to get him into the Big Brother program and that will help. She's so industrious! I think of her as my friend. She's `on a roll' and that's what the DCYF system is for, to encourage individuals to begin to use their own imagination to find solutions to their problems."
I asked Suzanne and Andy about the children currently placed in their home. "Steve's Mom is scheduled to visit here this weekend," Suzanne told me, "Steve doesn't think that she will come. She said that she was having car problems and we offered to meet her somewhere if that was more helpful, but she refused, saying that she wanted to check out the house and our family, too! We'd like to build a relationship with her but it's hard. We don't know what's in her past. All we know is that Steve and his Mom moved around a lot. He said that he has lived in twelve or thirteen different states. The social worker told us that Mom dropped Steve off with strangers and was gone for three or four months. One day she called the Agency and asked them to place Steve, saying that she wasn't cut out to be a mother! From what we have been told it appears that Steve has basically raised himself.
Jason is a victim of abuse. The Kinsman's have not met his father and stepmother as yet. There are siblings in this family and a possibility exists that one of the children may have been sexually abused. "I realize that we may not be able to make a connection with the child's parents every time," Suzanne admitted, "I have to deal with my own feelings of anger toward the parents for what has happened to the children. I'm glad things are progressing slowly in this case. Jason is so hurt by it all. He cried, sobbed and raged when he first got here. I have talked about this with other foster parents and they tell me that it's all part of the healing process. I just rubbed his back until he subsided. As I was leaving his bedroom, he asked me to stay and he sobbed and sobbed, I just held him and rocked him. It was very sad."
"The parents are very angry and they express rage, too. Jason's father or grandfather had been violent in some way and court action is pending. His stepmother is vindictive at this point. They are all going through the grieving process in the only way they know how. The only way Jason knows how to react is with anger and violence. I noticed when he began to like Steve, his only way of expressing it was to say, `I hate you.' He sees me get angry occasionally and asks me why I don't hit him as that is the way he had been previously treated," Suzanne explained "It takes a lot of energy and constant discussion between Andy and myself, and sometimes with other foster parents, to be sure we are heading in the right direction. Andy is a good sounding board and he's level-headed. We are a good team! I do the organizing and paperwork and discuss it all with Andy. He gives me advice and support. Andy loves to play with the kids and he's good at it. He can step in with Jason when he's out of control without being heavy-handed.
It has paid off. Jason even asked Andy to come in and tuck him in, like he did with our kids. It was a break through. Andy doesn't force himself on the kids. They know he is there for them when they need him."
Our interview ended and, as I was getting ready to leave, Suzanne commented, "You know, I read an article recently in which New Hampshire was listed as the number one state in the nation in which to raise children. It occurred to me that it's not just our own children, it's out foster children, too!" Foster families with love in their hearts are always thinking of ways to promote the challenging job they do. This family is another good example of the endless possibilities that exist for helping troubled families as well as their children who are in foster care.
To view other "Stories of the Heart" selections go to the Contents Page