Foster Care System Repeatedly Let Them Down, But They Survived

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Mary Callahan_squareMy favorite memory from this past holiday season has to be Thanksgiving dinner with two of my former foster kids. They spent many of their teenage years with me, are now in their mid-20s and doing fine. It was good to see.

So far, it sounds like one of those heartwarming stories, a tale for the annual TV salute to adoption, from which Rosie O'Donnell was notably absent this year. But I would never make it on that show, either. Our lives together were way too complicated for that.

First of all, neither one of my foster kids lasted with me until they were 18. Gil finished high school at Job Corps after breaking my cardinal, you-can't-live-here-anymore rule. He tried to set the house on fire. Why? He was angry. He spent most of his teenage years angry. He saw counselors but he wasn't impressed with any of them.

They wanted to put him on medications. He wanted to know how his life got so screwed up. I thought I had done him a favor when I got him back in touch with his birth mother. And in the long run, I did. But he had lived with a fantasy of how he ended up in foster care that wasn’t at all the story she told.

He thought he had done something to “get them in trouble.” He didn’t know she had called the state for help when she was 19 with three kids and going through a depression. She kicked the stone that started the avalanche, not him, and he was furious with her. But he was 11 at the time. I don’t think he stopped blaming her until he was 19 and realized just how young 19 is.

Then he turned his anger to where it belonged: the foster care system itself. Instead of helping his mother, they lied to her. They told her they would keep the kids together, help her get on her feet and then they would all come back together. Once she signed on the dotted line and everyone started getting paid by the child, by the day, they stopped returning her calls.

Maybe the part that makes me the most angry is that she was a former foster child herself. Instead of seeing her as one of their own and giving her the support she needed, they fed the hungry system with her kids. And they all suffered for it.

Gina had been with me for three years and was on the adoption track when things blew up. She and her friend decided to cut school and steal a car. Gina was driving without even a permit, caused an accident and her friend was hurt. I was willing to deal with it, the same way I would deal with one of my birth kids in the same situation. Which means I was not sympathetic. I was furious.

[Related: Bill Would Give Former Foster Youth Early Access to Tax Credit]

“I’m not taking a lot of crap from you over this,” she told me, hands on her hips.

“Yeah, don’t count on it. You are grounded,” I retorted.

“It’s none of your business.”

“It is absolutely my business and don’t talk to me like I’m the A-hole here. You’re the one that stole a car.”

She stormed off to her friend’s home, and I had to call our social worker as the state was still her ultimate parent.

Instead of telling her she needed to come home and face the music, the social worker sympathized with her and told me I needed to apologize to her.

“You’re the adult,” she told me, as if the adult always apologizes, even when the kid steals the car.

“If she comes home because I asked her to, she owns this place. She has all the power.”

We were at a stalemate and the social worker chose to move her away from mean old me.

Now all these years later, they are both doing fine. That doesn’t mean they have college degrees and are making big bucks. It means they are functioning grownups, paying their own way in the world, taking care of their families. They are good people.

It wasn’t a smooth ride for either one of them. Gil couldn’t hold a job until the last year or so. He walked out every time things didn’t go his way. Gina escalated into a real problem child for a while, with many a brush with the law.

She almost went to prison for assault at one point, which would have put her own kids in the foster care system. I like to think she could have avoided it all if she had been given consequences instead of sympathy back when she was 15, but who knows. She eventually snapped out of it. Now they both work with handicapped adults, coincidentally, and they love it.

I am proud of them but not taking any credit. They did it themselves and with more help from their birth families than from me. You see, when the system and I gave up on them, they found their way home, to their real homes, to the people who loved them long before I did and clearly more than I did.

It was Gina’s aunt who invited me to their holiday dinner. She and Gina babysit for each other’s kids and have big family gatherings all the time. Gina made the sides that day while her aunt made the turkey. Gil and I brought desserts. The conversation was light and easy.

I left there feeling like I finally found something to like about getting old. I am 65 now, and I didn't think I would ever find anything I like about that. The wrinkles, the aches and pains, dealing with Social Security and Medicare — it all seems like life is going down, down, downhill. But seeing my former foster kids as mature adults was incredibly uplifting.

I hope we can do it again soon.

Mary Callahan is an author in Maine.

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