Monday, April 24, 2017


I write rarely now. T is largely living as a young adult, still at home, working in his chosen career, slowly inching toward financial independence and, emotionally speaking, steering his own ship with a steady hand.

For anyone who has followed our family, it may be interesting to note that all of his childhood diagnoses seemed to amount to nothing more lingering than the general aftermath of trauma. I feel a bit foolish looking back for having dramatized or sometimes diagnosed him myself with the eye of an amateur. His behavior was alarming, even harrowing at times, but I see in retrospect that it was also pretty normal, given the very abnormal experiences he'd had in the system. These days, he goes without medication except for the marijuana he smokes on a daily basis, and no longer vacillates much in his mood or general well-being and capacity for sound decision-making. He's going on 24 now, and his maturity is right on track with what the science of brain development would lead one to expect for a young man.  He has friendships and girlfriends that come and go, squabbles at work, and moments of restlessness like anyone his age. He rarely picks fights of any substance anymore, and while he can be self-absorbed like any young adult, and complex, like anyone who has seen too much at a young age, he is also very much our friend.  In a few weeks, we are taking our first trip out of the country together.

My job brings me into regular contact with young adults who have been in foster care, and it gives me tremendous joy. What I lost with E's passing I see in a million luminescent fragments in the young people I know through work and I think of him every day, in ways that ground me, as if his memory is a pair of glasses through which priorities are easier to see. I have many moments with young people one-on-one and in groups when they are funny, profound, wickedly honest, hungry for compassion and solidarity, proud, vulnerable, and knowledgeable. I sit in meetings where representatives from the child welfare administration sometimes say things that make my skin crawl, things that are depersonalizing or unimaginative. But whenever one of our young adult clients who experienced foster care firsthand is around, everyone including me is energized.

I often ask these clients a simple question that is directly related to our advocacy work: if you could change something about the foster care system, what would it be? Every single one of them, regardless of personality or style, can answer that question quickly and without preparation in ways that will make you laugh and cry. Much of my work involves people who work in the system but have not experienced it firsthand, either as a child or as a foster parent (there are shockingly few foster parents working in child welfare, I've found!). They are well-intentioned, typically very well-informed, and very dedicated. But there is a unique quality to someone who can bear witness first-hand to the failed promises of the system. As my dad used to say of T, they have seen some of the worst that humans are capable of, and some of the best, and, as a result, they have a broad sense of the possibilities of human behavior.

The one thing almost everyone of our clients notes is the need for more loving foster parents, who can open their hearts and homes, look beyond behavior to recognize the soul of a child, help that child maintain contacts with their birth family, provide them with the safety and perspective to maintain those bridges in whatever way is best for them, and never, ever give up on them. Never "give them back", never threaten them with expulsion, never demand that they relinquish ties to birth family. Never demand that they fit in, never treat them as anything other than full-fledged members of the family.  Never judge them, never reject them, never fail to forgive them if their rage is misplaced or appears out of proportion to the moment at hand. Never withhold normal childhood pleasures, like sleep-overs and social events, birthday parties, trips to the county fair or the school carnival or the homecoming game.

If we took the need for such parents to heart, and provided more ways for them to do the work of helping to raise children who can't stay with their birth parents, including making it possible for them to dedicate themselves full-time to meeting the needs of those children at least for awhile without the dual responsibility of earning a living by working full-time, we would have a great deal more justice overnight. I get to help encourage public policies that might someday build such a world, and I feel grateful for that opportunity and happy for my remaining time on this earth.

No comments:

Site Meter