Somewhere out there we have a daughter and a son who would be in their late twenties. They were ours for a few short months and the truth is they were so young they would not even remember us. But they left a deep imprint on my heart and I hope that at some cellular level they feel that someone at some point cared for them the way they deserved. I am talking about our foster children; the brother and sister who came to stay with us when we were just in our early twenties and getting ready to start a family.
The whole foster care thing came up the first year I started teaching. I was just twenty-one, and teaching in a poverty-stricken and dangerous area of South Tucson. It was love at first sight with that class of third graders (who are now turning thirty-eight; holy crap). Everyday I leaped out of bed and showed up at school with the custodians to open the building and get the room ready for them. When they came in, I hugged each one and warmly welcomed her or him to our day together. Many came from homes that were toxic and where there was not food to eat or a bed to sleep in. School was a safe place where the lunch ladies cooked rice and beans from scratch to go along with whatever often-unidentifiable main course was on the menu. That was 1983, the year Ronald Reagan declared that ketchup could be counted as a vegetable on school lunches; which made me so angry I wrote a nasty letter to him explaining how school lunch was the only meal my students would eat each day. Although I had a wonderful relationship with each of my thirty students, one did stand out for me: Eddie.
After school each day, I would walk the neighborhood and make home visits. Sometimes a mom would invite me to sit for coffee and fresh tortillas off the grill; other times a door would be slammed in my face by a threatening-looking man or a scared woman. Once I sat in a living room telling a boy’s mother that he was not reaching his potential because he chatted too much and was not making a good effort. She excused herself and went into the next room with him, and before I could even stand up she was screaming at the child and smacking him. As I came running in the room to stop her, she picked up this tiny boy and threw him against the wall. I pulled her off of him, yelling that this would not help him and left after she promised not to hit him again. That afternoon I called our full-time Child Protective Service caseworker who shrugged it off with a sigh. You can believe that I never talked to that mother about her child again. But that was not Eddie.
Eddie was the first child at school each day and the last to leave for home. He smelled bad and wore the same filthy clothes for days. But his round face with his deep, dark eyes and his bright smile belied any sadness that he might have gone home to. It was not unusual to see Eddie, barefoot and nearly naked, running through the streets after school as I made my rounds. One time I stopped in at his house and his massive father, reeking of alcohol at four in the afternoon, threatened to kill me. That night I came home and told my husband that I wanted us to get certified as foster parents so I could bring Eddie home and give him the love he needed. My husband, being the most generous human being I know, was all for it. It took us a over year of training and completing the investigation of our personal information and our home to obtain our foster care license. By that time, with CPS sniffing around Eddie’s family, his grandmother had taken him in to raise him and I never saw him again.
Within a few short days of our license being granted, we received a call from our social worker with the happy news that they had a sister and brother who would be coming to stay with us. She was three and he was one, and we would pick them up at the foster-care home called Casa de los Niños. Their names were “Laura and Doug”. We showed up at the Casa with car seats waiting in the car, and a stuffed animal for each child. We were seated in a room, and a woman brought in two kids, brother and sister aged one and three, and said, “We are giving you these two instead of Laura and Doug.” That was it, introductions were made, and off we went home with our two little ones.
The first few weeks were actually hell. The sister was a wildcat, a scratcher and a biter who was fiercely and ferociously protective of her baby brother. She changed him, fed him, bathed him and watched him sleep, and would not allow me in the room when she was taking care of him. It took a long time for her to trust us and even longer to truly embrace what I kept telling her, while hugging her squirming fighting little body: we are here to take care of you both. Once she bought in, she would not get out of my lap and she totally ignored her brother the way a three-year-old older sister should. For a long time, things were great and we let the social worker know that we would adopt these two if their parents lost custody. We went on day trips to the zoo, and to the top of the Mount Lemmon to play in the snow, and for bicycle rides around the desert roads. It was all lovely.
A month or so after these two came to live with us, we were invited to bring them to a Casa de los Niños reunion at the local playground. I thought it would be nice that the workers there could see how happy these two were, and that the kids would see their little friends they had spent time with. As I was pushing them on the swings, a small girl with a smaller boy in tow came up to me and asked if I was Maureen. When I answered in the affirmative with a curious look on my face, she began to cry as she spoke: “We are Laura and Doug. You were supposed to take us home. Why didn’t you take us? Why did you take them instead? Please take us too, please don’t leave us here.” To this very day, I do not think I have ever been more shocked than I was at that second. What in the world was this and who told this three-year-old my name and that I was supposed to take them but took their little friends instead and what the hell? I had no words but murmured something lame and apologetic, and took my two home, crying the whole way. This was a harbinger of worse yet to come from the foster care system.
My entire family had embraced our foster children, buying them toys and clothes to supplement what we could purchase with the small state stipend. Christmas was approaching quickly and my mother, who was coming to visit, told us she had a whole suitcase full of stuff for the kids from the rest of the family in New York and could not wait to meet them. Early in December, our case worker suddenly told us that the children’s birth parents (a drug-addicted prostitute and an alcoholic unemployed abusive biker-gang member) were working on rehabilitating to reclaim their kids. Our two would be spending the weekend with their parents and we were to pack up enough clothes for several days. We sent them home with most of their new clothes and their favorite books and toys, and many hugs. When they came back to us three days later, they were dressed only in underpants/diapers and ragged shirts. The clothes we had bought were gone. They were filthy and exhausted, and she was carrying a handwritten note. I undressed them on the carport and threw the crap they were wearing in the garbage and carried them into the house straight into the tub. After I had fed them and put them to bed, I read the note which was from their grandmother, thanking us for taking good care of them.
The case worker told us there was nothing he could do to get back the stuff we had sent home with the kids, so we had to start all over again. It was with utter disbelief that just two weeks later, I got a phone call from the caseworker to say the parents had been deemed rehabilitated and that the kids would be going home for good. Once again we packed up all of the things we had bought, and this time the hugs were dreadfully charged with a feeling of loss and fear for the kids. When, three days after they went home, we received a call saying the girl had an injury and we were now being investigated for abuse, the fear for them turned to fear for ourselves. Through Christmas and New Year’s Day, we waited for the results of the investigation. To say that our holiday was a stressful disaster would be a sad understatement. The feeling of relief when we were finally found not responsible (with no apology) turned to rage at the system. We called the social worker and told him to take our names off of the foster care list, as they had already been calling us with more children; but that when our two came back into the system we would take them back and we would adopt them. We found out months later that they had in fact been put back in foster care almost immediately, and given to a woman with ten other foster kids. We told them to rip up our license and to never call again.
So, somewhere out there are two young adults who may or may not be having a good life, who may or may not have been bounced from one foster care situation to another, who may or may not have a family of their own. I will never know and can only hope for the best because I don’t want to think the worst. I truly hope the foster care system has improved since then, because it was an unmitigated disaster for us and for our two foster kids. I prefer happy endings….