T. is making his Christmas list - very sweet, since he typically loathes asking for anything. And last night, after he went to bed, he snuck out, ostensibly to get a drink of water, but we caught him tip-toeing (as lightly as a 6'2" teenager can tip-toe) in to the living room to look at the Christmas Tree. It inspired me to write down a list I've been keeping in my head: the list of things that kids stuck in long-term foster care don't have.
It's an un-Christmas list, because I think Christmas (if you're into that kind of thing) should be frosting, it shouldn't be food. In other words, whether it's just a special day spent with family or a longed-for present, Christmas should be about something a little out of the ordinary. But in our experience, kids in foster care often lack the "ordinary". There are deficits, not just in terms of love and security, but also in terms of experience - the kind of experience that, within the limits of affordability, kids should be able to expect.
Neither T nor any of the kids he's been in foster care with have had any of the following:
- a parent that you know won't "give you away" if your behavior is challenging (this, he tells us, is the difference in his mind between a foster parent and an adoptive parent)
- photos of yourself around the house
- a bicycle
- a pet
- driving lessons and the opportunity to earn a license during your teenage years
- parents to help you line up internships and after-school jobs
- regular good-night kisses
- a homemade lunch to take to school
- someone to say "I love you" every day
- a key to the front door
- a normal social life
- the ability to invite another kid over to your house after school
- a bank account
- a suitcase (we learned that when foster kids are moved from home to home, their possessions are almost always loaded into plastic garbage bags)
- an opportunity to help plan a family vacation (most of the foster kids we've met in LA have never been outside of the county)
- a chance to go someplace on an airplane
- a choice about what kind of food to eat for dinner
- an adult who says "I apologize" when they make a mistake
I could add to this list for days. This year, T. will get an iPod and a turtle (he told us he doesn't believe in Santa, but if it will help him get an iPod, he thinks he'd like to make a list for Santa this year and he's dropping very heavy hints about the turtle).
Over time he'll also get a lot of the things he's been missing, having spent 12 of his 15 years in foster care. We'll introduce these things gradually to avoid overwhelming him. When we mess up, we'll say "I'm sorry". And when he messes up, we won't "give him away" as he always phrases it. We'll visit his relatives on Christmas, because they are important to him. And we'll wear our pajamas to the movies on Christmas Day, because that's his dream. Over time, I hope we'll fill in a few of the potholes that foster care left in his life. And all I want is the chance to have him with us for long enough to try to do that.