A Story of Inspiration for Future Foster & Adoptive Parents
The 3-year-old I was there to meet sat next to me, looking up at me with beautiful blue eyes and the face of an angel. “Brianna”, I later learned, was an angry child - far too angry for such a young heart. My goal that day was to meet the toddler, and possibly take her home as a foster child. When I entered the room she was one of a group of about five children who came rushing toward me , including the little boy, no older than two, who struggled, across the floor to greet me. His arms came to an abrupt end below his shoulders. His legs ended at his thighs. But he knew how to move, inching himself forward using the shortened limbs he had. Such an incredible boy, struggling with every ounce of strength he had just to sit next to me for a few moments of attention, a simple desire that every child deserves. I picked him up and held him close. Tears streamed down his face as he cried “Mommy, Mommy.” My heart broke into a million pieces, knowing that he had been taken from his parent, maybe forever. If only others knew how these children suffered, I thought, perhaps they would be willing to help.
Many people have shared with me over the years that they could never be a foster parent because they could not love and let go. I knew I had to learn to, because if I could not then more children would be left without care. It is important to look outside of oneself and go past our own personal needs for love and connection so others will not suffer.
The home I was at was an emergency foster facility which would house the children until a more permanent home could be found. These children were battling a host of problems such as abandonment, sadness, confusion and anger.
As a professional entertainer, I decided to perform a little for them because I know how children respond to stories. Spiced with a bit of humor and love I found my character persona to be a fun way to interact and make them happy. I sat down and told them a story which I had written for little ones hoping to comfort their hearts. It was a big success and enjoyment filled their faces.
I did my part that day by taking the "Brianna” home with me and became her foster parent. Our adventure wasn’t easy, as we both tried to surmount the immense anger she felt at being taken away from her mother, a heroin addict. But at age 3, she lived with me for a year and a half. She is now in her thirties, and to this day we are very dear friends. Her mother too remained my friend, grateful not resentful. The beauty of her mother's life is that she made better choices as her life progressed.
In an ideal world, children would always be placed into strong, loving arms at birth. Parents would be there to provide the deep wells of warmth and security that children need to thrive. Unfortunately, though, that’s simply not reality for many children. In the United States there are thousands of children waiting for families to foster or adopt them.
When I became a foster mother more than a decade ago my life changed forever. My work with children in the foster care system actually dates back 36 years ago, when I brought performing arts workshops to California elementary schools. I developed strong relationships with the students. They would talk and I would listen. I brought humor, music, dance and compassion into their lives. They could tell I cared. Not all those children, though, were carefree. A large number of kids at these schools came from homes where they were neglected or struggling with other problems, such as poverty or parents who had alcohol and drug dependencies.
I was especially struck by the story of one little girl, a kindergartner who I first met in the school nurse’s office where she was in midst of an asthma attack, gasping for breath. She was frightened. The girl’s mother was in prison and the aunt who was supposed to take care of her according to the nurse was regularly nowhere to be found.
I was 29 and single at a time when skeptics still questioned the merits of single parenthood. I could not help that little girl, she needed help faster than I could offer but I could not sit by knowing there were children in danger. So, I became a foster mother.
My house was inspected, my friends had to vouch for me and I was fingerprinted. My background was checked, I learned CPR and first aid and I attended parenting classes. As required by law, I set aside a room in my house big enough for one or two kids to call their own. I worked hard enough to keep a two-bedroom apartment. The state helped cover other expenses, such as medical care, room, clothing and food.
Within weeks of being licensed, I received a call from the Department of Social Services. They had a child for me. I was excited at the prospect. A child! This is what I was longing for. Then I heard the story, the whole story. The 7-year-old girl, “Stephanie” had been sexually molested, which resulted in behavior problems so challenging she was being bounced from foster home to foster home. She had already been in and out of seven of them. Her mother was in jail and there were no relatives interested in helping. The social worker, who had heard about my previous work with children through entertainment thought a unique approach may be able to help.
I met “Stephanie” the next day. She had a wildness about her and seemed unsettled. Her eyes didn’t focus on any particular subject and her behavior was erratic. She had untamed energy. Yet, I was excited by the prospect of having her come to live with me. I wanted to help, even though it was clear we wouldn’t bond quickly. Wed had a long road ahead. I didn’t know what to say or do, so I turned to my old tricks. As we left the Department of Social Services building that day, I took her hand, started skipping and began singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-a-Dee Ahh, My oh My what a wonderful day”. It is one of many popular Disney songs that features a bluebird ("Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder"), epitomized by the "bluebird of happiness," as a symbol of cheer. My father has always sung and danced with me. He is understanding and funny too. It brings me a sense of calm and helps me feel secure. So, this I gave to her.
I soon got other on-the-job training. The #1 lesson “Stephanie” taught me was that I had to be selfless. I realize now that, like so many others, I had gone into being a foster mother hoping to fulfill my own needs and desires, mainly to be as close to a child as only a parent could. I was naïve, as I had never dealt so intimately with such an injured child. The girl lied often. She had tantrums and talked back. She was sassy and defiant. She stole. She showed me how severe the emotional upheaval that afflicts a troubled child can be. And I struggled, also, to find the best ways and means of connecting with this child to help her.
My challenge was, after all, to guide this child so that she ultimately could break through her pain and discover joy on the other side.
She helped me learn what I needed to know. She taught me patience. I realized early on in our relationship that if I reacted to her anger with anger of my own that her problems would escalate, making me as unhappy as she was. She taught me to be strong. She taught me to be peaceful when she had outbursts. I had no choice. I had to give her a foundation to make her feel safe and secure if she was going to progress.
In time, she changed, and our relationship grew. Within six months, she started to calm down and became more settled. She was one of my greatest teachers in life; I learned more from her than any book or college education could have provided me. A year after we met, I wanted to adopt her, only to be told I couldn’t because I was not married. This has all changed now. Single parents can adopt. And though I had a loving home and the desire to be her mother , the girl was ultimately adopted by another family. Another needless disruption for a young girl who already had suffered so much.
The plight of foster children, like Stephanie, got government official’s attention, resulting in a new program called Fost-Adopt. The goal of the program, established by the U.S. Department of Social Services, was to minimize the trauma and disruption so many foster children endured by being shuffled from foster home to foster home. Achieving that goal became even more essential in California, as the state became over burdened with a growing number of children who desperately needed a stable home. Keeping such children in foster homes also cost the state a great deal of money.
Under the Fost-Adopt program, parents of children put into the foster care can work at getting their children back. However, many times the social worker will place children or teens in a home that wants to adopt if the children become available. This has been found to be successful and relieves the child from multiple moves. The consistency in care and hope for permanent placement is a plus for many children.
The State has also established the Adoption Assistance Program, which provides financial and medical support to adoptive families in need. This program makes adoption possible for all families regardless of ethnic background or income level. Participants can be married or single.
There are some foster children who do go home again. In some cases, the children’s birth parents remedy their problems and the children are returned to their families. Also, relatives can step forward and offer their home to help these children. All the above options are designed to help foster children find permanent homes.
The future of a foster child can be forever changed by your involvement.
I plunged into being a foster parent somewhat unprepared and with little support. I had never had to contend with the hardships some children experienced, nor did I have to deal with difficult parents so filled with anger. Rather than looking into a mirror and being honest with themselves, they needed to see it was time to change. I was the target of their anger, and they had no idea my goal was to protect and care for their child.
No one warned me or my husband, Michael, who has stood by my commitment to help these children since the onset of our friendship of the challenges we would face. There were many hoops of fire we would have to leap through just to make daily living work. There are times we had no one, not even the agencies we were working with to support us in our trials. We definitely learned the hard way.
I have had many extraordinary experiences and friendships with parents whom I greatly respect, because they did get their lives back on track and worked hard to return to their child’s life.
It is essential that anyone considering being a foster parent investigates the agency they want to work with. Make sure the staff shares your sense of compassion and goals. Look for a supportive environment. Explore your options.
Now Michael and I are reaping a different kind of reward for our work, the adoption of Connor. I had always wanted a baby of our own but life had a different plan for us. After helping many older children, something very unexpected happened. Our attempts to conceive a child of our own were met with failed pregnancies which seemed an ironic twist of fate.
Connor who was medically fragile came to us as a foster child. The call asking Michael and I to care for him came on Valentine’s Day. We were not sure if his stay with us might be short term or possibly an adoptive placement. The family who was caring for Connor was outstanding but with a home filled with many children it was difficult to provide the extra time and attention he would need. He needed immediate medical support.
He was in such a vulnerable position, unless he found the right family with determination to help him he would not become stronger and develop properly. It was important to find a foster parent who could advocate for him and move the mountains he needed to get better. This precious boy has found a place in our hearts and the miracle of it all is he found good health also. We have been blessed beyond belief.
We will continue to open our home to foster children, and help them move forward with their lives. At age 65, I'm looking back on 35 years of serving foster youth . I have seen the outcome for children and parents in crisis. Some have soft landings and new beginnings, while others have a prison cell or a piece of cardboard on the street in which to sleep.
I have specialized in helping children who suffer emotional or medical complications, because the need for those who will accept children with special needs is so great. But it should be understood that many of the children in foster care are vulnerable children with unique personalities and needs. The stereotype that all foster children are difficult to raise is simply wrong. These are great kids who deserve a loving home and a chance at a future. We all hear stories upon stories of children who have foster home backgrounds and rise above to make great progress in their lives .They went on to become Olympians, Teachers, Social Workers, Caretakers, Artists, Doctors and Inventors and more. It is my greatest wish that my words inspire you to come forward, to foster and possibly adopt. It is a beautiful opportunity to help a child grow and prosper. And if that is not a possibility, helping in a program mentoring or providing respite to a foster parent is such a positive support. Spending time with a young one in foster care is a gift beyond measure.
For more information or support in navigating the world of foster care and adoption, visit the North American Council on Adoptable Children at nacac.org.
Names and story content has been changed to protect privacy of famil
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