When I was 8 years old, I was called out of class to come to the principal’s office, immediately. I strolled through the hallway, happy to be missing French grammar lessons. By the time I arrived at the principal’s office, my sisters, Franny and Etty, and my big brother, Patty, were already sitting outside, arms folded and legs kicking at the air. What had they done? What did I do?
My baby sister, Etty, was in the first grade. She was the smallest of us. So we entertained her with stories as we waited.
When they finally brought us in, there were police officers, a smiling lady with moon eyes and my principal standing to greet us. My principal had lost his usual chatter and his domineering stance.
There was a lot of talk of us being “safe now.” But we were questioned by the police officers for hours, not allowed to return to class and, worst of all, told we couldn’t go home.
Instead, the smiling lady drove us two impossibly long hours away to a large country house where, for the first but not the last time, we were welcomed to our new “foster home."
Foster home would come to mean different things to each of my siblings. For me, it meant displacement, loneliness and fear. And these emotions are still housed inside me, 21 years later and thousands of miles from that first foster home, even after law school, even after I won my first case and even after I found the safest and most enduring of loves.
What I hope is that by sharing the tips for foster parents that follow — what hurt and what helped — I can ease the delicate transition from “home” to “foster home."
Here's what I really wish I could have said to those foster parents:
Our pinched faces may seem to plead for hugs and kisses. Don’t over-hug us. Please don’t kiss us. We need privacy. We need boundaries. Yes, the social worker probably told you this, but it’s different seeing us in person. My foster parents hugged me every day, which was an onslaught of affection. It felt like an intrusion on my personal space and my safety. What’s more, too much affection too soon can feel like a betrayal to our real parents. Having said that, if a kid asks for a hug, always go for it!
Coming out of an abusive home means that many kids in foster care aren’t familiar with kindness. A threat leers below its unfamiliar face. I remember lying awake at night, wondering why my foster parent wouldn’t let me help with the dishes. We have enough on our minds. Being given special treatment or no chores, especially when your own kids have clear responsibilities, makes us feel worse. Do your best to treat us as you would your own, even when it comes to chores and discipline.
In preparation for our arrival, you surely had conversations with your kids and with a social worker. If you didn’t, go back to foster parent boot camp. I was bullied by every foster sibling I had. The bullying was persistent and maddeningly specific about my drunk of a father and my crazy mom. Too often parents mistake oversharing information with preparation. Just because you tell your kids what we went through doesn’t mean your child will treat us any better. Pay extremely close attention to how your kids interact with us. And be cautious about leaving us alone, unsupervised, to play.
If you’re one of the good ones, which you clearly are if you’re reading this, then you’re probably racking your mind over how best to help the foster kids in your care. You worry. You talk to your spouse. You worry some more. You love us — infinitely and easily — and it shows. Unfortunately all the worrying, planning, books, meetings and groups won’t change what happened to us before we met you. You need to accept that we’ve been irreversibly hurt. No amount of gummy bears or staying up past curfew will change that. Time is the only antidote. So be patient. We’ll come around. (Sour lollipops do help a little, though.)
My older sister lived with her foster parents for years. She’s in her 40s now, and she continues to visit them. She has a longstanding relationship with her foster sibling, whom she refers to as a sister. She loves them as her own family. When she recently bought her own home, though, and couldn’t find the right lamp, she broke down. She was lost, a child again, needing the first home that was taken from her. No matter how much time has passed or how far we’ve come or how much we may love you, and through no fault of your own, we will always wish we could go back to our real home. Don’t mistake this as a criticism of the home you’ve provided. Longing is a part of our tapestry, like the hair you carefully comb for us and the hand you love holding — it’s not going anywhere. And neither are we.
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