Feeling Like Damaged Goods

It’s a problem I feel compassion for – from a woman who aged out of foster care . . .

I never was adopted. I almost was and then, my dad got custody. Then, I went back into foster care from the age of 13 until I turned 18. When you’re a teen in foster care, everyone knows no one wants you because you’re too old. It sucks. Like you’re just damaged goods.

Advice to hopeful adoptive parents – Maybe use your desire to reach out and get to know and/or adopt a teen.

I will say from personal experience, it’s not easy. Because for me – I was damaged goods. But I still deserved to know I had worth and was loved. Teenagers also can make choices regarding adoption and name change vs younger kids who can’t. So if you’re wanting to adopt to “be the change”, and not just because you want a baby to cuddle, then actually make real contribution to change. Help someone in foster care who is likely to turn 18 while still in the state’s care. When they look at their future, there seems to be no one there who cares.

Jarvis Jay Masters

Jarvis Jay Masters is a former foster care youth and long time inmate on Death Row in San Quentin Prison. His story is now getting a lot of attention since Oprah chose his book That Bird Has My Wings for her book club. Rebecca Solnit has also taken up his cause and his Buddhist choice for sustenance has brought him additional attention. It may seem strange with so much attention given to his situation that I am only just now learning about him but I had read a book some months, maybe a year ago, about how unequal our criminal justice system is and how overwhelmingly unfair to black men. And as part of my learning about all things adoption, foster care has also come to my awareness many times.

He was born in 1962 in Long Beach, California. At the age of five, after watching his father almost beat his mother to death, while he tried to keep his sisters safe, he was taken by the system from her. The children were living in filth and hunger when they were finally found. Someone (perhaps the old lady who set out food for them) reported them to the cops, who brought in social services. The sight of how ragged their clothes were then led social services into their house. The situation was so bad they were removed from both the house and their parents.

This is how from the age of five, he was in and out of foster homes and institutions, enduring violence and trauma in a system meant to provide some measure of protection for him. Here is the story of one such memory of the kind of care he was receiving.

One morning when he was nine, while eating breakfast and hating the yolk from the fried eggs he had been fed. As he usually did, he went to dump that into the trash without his foster mother knowing he had done that. Only this time her daughter saw him. At the trash can, he was met by his foster mother’s hand as she hit his face. She had slapped him so hard, his ears rang and he could taste blood bubbling in his mouth. After that, she grabbed his head and stuffed his face down into the garbage, all the while yelling at him to find the eggs and eat them. During this abuse, he passed out.

I will make a long story shorter (you can read much more at the LINK> to the Free Jarvis website) – he ended up at the California Youth Authority, the last stop before adult prison. After his release, he soon found himself sentenced to 20 years in San Quentin Prison at the age of 19. Hooking up with a childhood friend of his uncle’s, he was involved in an armed robbery trying to grab sacks of money being collected by a store employee from the registers. He says, the whole scene was a disaster and in less than a day later, there were warrants out for their arrest, even charging them with crimes in towns he had never even heard of. Even so, he actually felt lucky to have been caught and thereby stopped as his life had spun so far out of control.

Four years after entering prison, a guard was killed and he was one of three charged in that crime. He was innocent as all of the other prisoners were well aware but a jury found him guilty of a conspiracy to murder and he was sentenced to death by lethal injection. That is why he has spent more than 21 years in solitary confinement, which longer than any other prisoner in San Quentin history. A woman judge was assigned to the case, and this brought back memories that he had a woman judge the first time he was taken away from his mother.

When he was a child, he had been made a ward of the state as they told him, they only wanted to protect him but never did. Now, he found himself in the same kind of room, with dim buzzing lights, as the law was deciding how to kill him. He describes that life in San Quentin – “To find home in San Quentin I had to summon an unbelievable will to survive. The roaches, the filth plastered on the walls, the dirt balls on the floor, and the awful smell of urine left in the toilet for God knows how long sickened me nearly to the point of passing out.”

Now his Buddhism and his legal case, thanks to his writings, have made him a bit of a celebrity, perhaps on the verge of finally being acquitted, or at least pardoned, and released into freedom as a changed man with so much to offer others in similar circumstances to the ones his life brought him into. Wisdom gained at a great price.

Guilt

Today, I’ll let the feelings and thoughts speak for themselves. (Not my own personal experience.) From blogger – At The Willow Tree.

Today marks one week since I had to give him away.

You’ve probably heard that being a foster parent is rewarding. You’ve probably heard that it is challenging. You’ve probably heard that there is grief in saying goodbye. You’ve probably heard that there is joy in knowing we were there when it counted.

But have you heard of “foster parent” guilt?

I hadn’t. In fact, since I’ve been fostering, I still haven’t heard anyone mention it. This is the first I’ve spoken of it.

You see I had this sweet little love until Thursday of last week.

He came to us at three weeks old. He had to have an extended stay in the hospital to help his little body detox, followed by two failed placement attempts with relatives… they gave him back to CPS, TWICE.

I remember his perfect little face, fingers and toes on the day he came HOME. Now he’s almost six months old. He’s finally sleeping through the night, two weeks ago he rolled over for the first time and he’s almost sitting up on his own! He’s devouring any solid food he can get his cute, chubby little hands on. He is a real smiler, it literally goes from ear to ear. He can’t help it. He is my happy boy. He looks to me for comfort and security. You see, I was his constant. I was his safe place. I was his everything, until last Thursday.

My home was the only one he’s ever known. My arms were the ones that he’s happiest in. My voice is the one that calmed him. My family was his family. He trusted me totally, completely, utterly, unquestionably.

And what shatters my heart is that I had to betray his trust. He wasn’t mine to keep. I know that – BUT HE DIDN’T.

This last week has been a blur. The long awaited court hearing has come and gone. I found out that the home approval had last minute been approved for another relative. The judge approved moving my boy again to yet more relatives. I had two hours after the court hearing to pack what I could, say goodbye and drop my baby off in an unfamiliar town, in a strange parking lot with more caseworkers. I watched as they drove away with him searching for ME! The guilt is crushing.

I had to give him away.

And as much as that hurt me, the thing that I can’t bear is how it has hurt him. How his little innocent heart, which believed I would protect him from everything, is now so deeply and irreparably hurt by me.

Please don’t be quick to jump and tell me not to feel guilty. Don’t say it’s not my fault. Don’t remind me of the good I’ve done and how that will set him up so well. Because in my head I know these things. I know them. But however true they are, they can’t change the facts.

Foster care will always, always be second best. And moving these already broken little people on to yet another home will always, always cause even more trauma. It’s unavoidable. It’s not my fault, yes – but I am still caught up in the process. And it is still me who had to look into those sparkling, big brown beautiful eyes, so full of trust and love – and then hand him over to strangers, and leave.

I’m sure he has cried for ME. He has searched for ME. He feels abandoned by ME.

So yes, I am guilty. And I am heartbroken. And so incredibly sad and sorry for the unfairness of this world.

But there is hope. And faith. And love. And in the truest, wisest book ever written we are told that love is the greatest.

The Wrong Pro-Choice Response

I’ve probably been guilty of this, to whatever extent, over the course of writing so many blogs here at WordPress but today, I was really made aware of how problematic this argument feels to some who have been in foster care and they have a valid point.

Someone posted that the pro-Choice argument that goes something like this is problematic. [1] it makes some former foster care youth feel like a rescue dog or a commodity. [2] It can be misinterpreted by some (it is a stretch but it has happened) that foster children should have been aborted. Former foster care youth object to the weaponizing of their trauma to support the pro-choice argument.

To be fair to my own intentions (and I don’t actually know if I was guilty or not but I could have been because nuance is tricky) – it’s a good argument. Pointing out the hypocrisy of a society that only wants to help a fetus and not actual children. Pointing out how social service systems are already underfunded. However, it also dehumanizes foster youth by lumping them into a monolith in need of rescue.

The recent overturn of Roe v Wade by the Supreme Court will cause a flood of pregnant and parenting teens into the system. One pro-Choicer writes – I’m not comfortable weaponizing a trauma I haven’t experienced personally, but I believe the point they are trying to make (harmfully, to note) is that pro life people aren’t actually pro life, they just want to control women and people with uteruses. It’s not about life with them, it’s about control. They don’t actually put effort towards improving the quality of life of those struggling. I once read a post where a woman convinced a mother to keep her child, but when the mom needed financial support, the lady basically said “tough luck.” Meaning they only value what decisions that can control of a pregnant person, and they don’t care about the struggles of those already born and alive. Especially considering a lot of people forced to give birth or were given no other option might consider to put up for adoption because having a kid wasn’t something they wanted OR they might keep the kid and the child might be raised in an environment where they aren’t wanted or abused. But most pro lifers don’t care about providing resources or voting for increased accessibility to resources for those who need it.

I agree that it’s not right to use someone’s trauma as an argument. Instead of using that kind of argument, we should just argue it at face value – people claiming to be pro life don’t allow access to resources that living people need. Instead, they vote AGAINST accessibility and governmental help for those in need. Instead of focusing on current foster children, we should be asking questions such as – what they would do to help mothers who aren’t in a position to raise children, instead of them saying, “Well if you don’t want kids, just close your legs or put the baby up for adoption.” I believe the pro lifers make children more of a commodity than pro choicers do because they act like adoption is an easy solution and decision- “just adopt your baby out! Just give your kid up! But don’t you dare have an abortion!” And yes, not every foster child is the result of such a decision or dilemma but pro lifers act like adoption is easy for everyone involved, and it’s really not.

Neither side should be using the adoption community as a weapon, but one side brings it up and the other side fires back, and it’s making this whole situation ugly. They’re fighting with feelings instead of facts.

Did You Know ?

Did you know that among the many hurdles that parents face when their children are removed (often due to poverty mainly) and placed in foster care, that these struggling parents are also hand a bill for the costs of that foster care of their children ? This has been the way that it has been handled but that may change over the coming weeks and months.

According to Aysha Schomburg, the associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau which is the agency that provides federal funding to state and county child welfare agencies, their “default position” now is that states should stop charging the child’s parents and “find innovative ways to support families.” She adds, “When a state child support agency takes what little funds a parent has when a child enters foster care, it makes it harder for that parent to pay for gas or bus fare or to get to work; harder to get or keep stable housing. That’s not what we want.”

Impoverished families keep getting those bills until they’re paid off completely. Some parents still get billed for years — even 20 years or more — after being reunited with their kids. So this is a financial burden that can stick with families for years — and decades.

Examples of how big these bills can be . . . a Minnesota mother’s tax refunds were garnished after her three children were placed in foster care. That bill was over $19,000 after her children spent 20 months in foster care. One couple in Washington state had the horrendous experience of having their son taken from them due to the husband being charged with assaulting their 4 year old son. Eventually, all charges were dismissed but it took 13 months to get their son came back home. The state sent the couple a bill of $8,000 for the boy’s foster care and garnished their paychecks. 

The policy changes will only apply to parents coming into the system now in some states. In reality, some states will be more generous and other states will not. A 1984 federal law requires state and county child welfare agencies to, when “appropriate,” collect the money and return part of it to the US Treasury to reimburse the federal government, which pays for a large percentage of foster care.  

There is more where the content for today’s blog was sourced – “The federal government will allow states to stop charging families for foster care” by Joseph Shapiro posted at NPR’s website.

When To Intervene

My neighbor does foster care and I am not sure if this is normal or something I should be reporting. (Disclaimer – from a post, this is not my own experience but I do think this is important.)

Yesterday, I heard a kid crying outside. After about 5-10 minutes, I went out onto my deck to see where it was coming from and it was my neighbor’s backyard. At this point the kid was sobbing, I hadn’t heard or seen any type of intervention from any adult, so I yelled over the fence asking the kid if they were okay. At that point, I did hear an adult, maybe also on their deck but I couldn’t see. The kid continued to cry for their mom and at no point did I see anybody attempt to comfort them. More kids came out to play and I stayed on my deck. This child cried for probably 20 minutes.

Now today, I can hear a kid crying in their backyard. After about 5 minutes, I look out my patio door and see again – there is no adult attempting comfort. I’m not sure if it is the same kid as yesterday, but at this point I’m trying to decide if I should call the county to do a check or the police for a welfare check. I started recording should this continue so there is documentation and the child is in the backyard sobbing that he wants to go inside. no adults come out, no comfort is made. the only thing that changes is more children are then in the backyard, playing but not with him.

I have no other context to go off of here. I know kids get upset. My kids get upset, but I feel like I always try and distract, comfort, or intervene in some way – but foster care comes with trauma – so I don’t want to cause these kids any more trauma, if I am overreacting.

From a foster parent – it is against our agency’s policy to prevent children from entering the house. Even if the county clears them of “abuse,” I would try to report it to their licensing worker, as well. Continue to document.

Discussing this with my husband as I have been concerned when my children were younger, about do-gooders misunderstanding context and presenting a threat to my own family. He said, the woman should contact the foster care agency supervisor and say that she doesn’t want to call police into the situation but that it distresses her as a next door neighbor not to be comforting this child. Would it be appropriate for her to do that and how should she approach it ? I don’t know if that is a realistic proposition but I am considering a desire not to inflict more trauma. I can certainly understand a child recently removed from their mother would be generally in a distressed emotional state.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Just to recommend this movie for every former foster care youth that ever yearned for a good life and freedom. Taika Waititi was recently featured in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Persons issue. My son remembered this movie of his – Hunt for the Wilderpeople. We had seen it before but so long ago, I only remember a couple of scenes and not even much about those.

Regarding the movie – Ricky Baker – was abandoned as a baby by his teenage mother and who has since been shifted several times through foster families by child welfare officers. The film is based on the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump. Some thoughts on that book follow.

Ricky Baker is a troubled 12 year old Maori boy. He is always committing small illegal acts. So he is sent for foster care with Bella and Hec. “Uncle” Hec is a tough, grouchy fifty-three old bushman who eventually warms to Ricky and teaches him how to hunt and survive in the bush. When “Auntie” Bella dies from a sudden stroke and social welfare plan to place Ricky in another foster home.

Uncle Hec and Ricky take to the bush and disappear in the dense Urewera region of the North Island, tramping and hunting and staying a few days at a time in the dozens of forester’s huts scattered in the remote, heavily mountain ridged area. The authorities wrongly surmise that Ricky has been abducted by his “uncle” and a search by forestry workers and police ensues. The rest of the novel follows the duo’s journey and their struggle for survival over the next nineteen months through a variety of humorous and sometimes tragic anecdotes. The writing is simple and sparkingly clear.

Crump uses his vast knowledge of the New Zealand bush and his practical bush skills to add considerable credibility and interest in his narrative. On several occasions I have gone pig hunting with the locals in the heavily forested area south of Opotiki and stayed in the forester’s huts and Crump brings this way of living alive with zest and color through his wonderful descriptions of the bush and its wildlife. Consider this amazing description of the land:

“All this bush- there was so much of it. You could stand on a high ridge and as far as you could see in every direction rose other high ridges of bush, disappearing into the distance, split by slips and creeks and bluffs, but always with the bush growing in and on and around everything. There were times when I really didn’t think I’d ever see open land again. Sometimes the country we travelled through was so steep and broken up you noticed every flat area, even if it was only big enough to put your foot on. In other places the ridges were long and easy and open under the trees, and the rivers wide and flat, but I soon found out that you never travel far in the Urewera without coming across rough going.”

In chapter 4 ‘A Tin of Peaches’ he describes a fascinating encounter with a fierce boar. The language has a spontaneous, immediate sense to it and we tremble in Ricky’s worn boots.

“I was going to yell out to Uncle Hec when something came crashing down like a falling boulder through a ferny vine-filled gully and out through a stony place to the riverbed where it suddenly stopped, right under the bank I’d just slid down. It was a huge grey boar, like a big piece of elephant, with pricked-up hairy ears and dark sullen tufts for eyes. Its mouth was frothing and chomping on its big white tusks and its tail was slapping from side to side while it stood there.”

“If you’d never heard or seen a pig before you’d know this one was definitely dangerous. And there I was standing right out in the open, thirty feet away from it, and I couldn’t tell if it had seen me or not. We stood like that forever, then suddenly this great big thing let out a WHOOF and ran downstream, bigger than ever, through the creek with a shower of water and round the corner, heading up into the bush on the other side.”

~ my blog today is thanks to Bold Monkey Review

It’s Not Glamorous Or Easier

A trauma informed therapist says “let me tell you that some of my 2-5 year old kids who have experienced trauma have more behavioral “issues” than my teens. She shares this story –

One of my best friends is starting the process to foster. She has a 16-month old biological daughter and is due in July with her second. We were talking on the phone last night and she said her and her husband are doing an orientation and are wanting to get licensed to become foster parents. When I asked her, what ages? Without missing a beat, she said, “0-5. I know it will be harder to get kids in that age group. But kids who are older have been passed around so much and have gone through so much. I just don’t wanna deal with all that!”

When I brought up childcare (her and her husband work full time), she said that the government pays for daycare for foster kids. Babies/toddlers who are in foster care have just as much trauma as older kids. They just can’t express it. They likely have struggled to form attachments and ideally, I don’t think foster babies should just be put in daycare full time.

In looking for an image to illustrate this blog, I encountered another perspective that is in this same realm. “Fostering Offers Flexibility in Age and Gender Preference (But I Don’t Foster Babies Because They Are Cute and Easy).”

The decision to become a foster family is never easy. The idea can seem overwhelming when you hear about aspects of providing care that will be out of your control as a foster parent. However, foster parents have total control in terms of selecting what children come into our homes. Foster parents are able to choose a preferred age range, select gender preference if desired, and say “yes” or “no” to each child needing placement.

My husband and I chose to foster babies and toddlers for the life-long impact we believe we can make on these children and their families. There were other reasons as well; for example, we want to welcome children who are significantly younger than our 11-year-old biological twins. We may decide to raise our age preference for fostering as our own children continue to age, but that’s not a decision we need to make right now.

In an article related to fostering The Developing Child found at harvard.edu, “Toxic stress weakens the architecture of the developing brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.” This is the type of information that led us to foster children ages three and under, which is a critical time that we feel we can make the greatest long-term impact. (Offering full disclosure, I also want to offer my best self, which tolerates toddler tantrums much better than I handle tween tantrums.)

During our original licensing process, I sought counsel from a friend who used to work in adoption placement and currently works with traumatized children as a therapist. She helped prepare me for the atrocities I would face as a foster parent. She explained that for babies and toddlers to be identified, it takes a serious injury that requires medical attention, and hospital workers often file the report of suspected abuse or neglect for young children.

A Different Perspective

I found this perspective thoughtful . . .

I’m a Christian foster carer though I am not actively fostering as I have a long term child and he is my priority. To me the call from God to Foster was nothing to do with an inability to have children (and I am NOT infertile) and I don’t think it was even a calling to be honest.

We are called to stand in the gap for these children. To be a safe and loving place where they can start to unpack their trauma with help from people like me who actively want to help. Not people that want to adopt these kids and pretend that they don’t have any issues.

The goal of foster care is to get the kids out of it and back home. Unfortunately there are a lot of foster carers who actively choose to ignore that. I would love to see my country move to a model where families are supported first and children are only removed due to the absolute worst case possible, end of the line option.

Unfortunately the system is completely broken and nobody in our government wants to fix it or knows how to. Which is why focusing on finding, training and keeping excellent foster carers is so important in the meantime. There should not just be a volunteering position that anyone can do. I am so sick of the advertisements on the radio and TV saying if you have a spare bed you could save a child’s life, when it is so much deeper than that.

These kids need more than just a bit of love and to be on their way. Unfortunately that seems to be what a lot of people think they need. Trauma is so complex and the whole idea of fostering at all, really should be taken so much more seriously.

Foster Care To Adoption Death

Victoria Rose Smith

After a four-day trial, Ariel Robinson was convicted of homicide by child abuse in the death of 3-year-old Victoria “Tori” Rose Smith. She died at their home in Simpsonville South Carolina on January 14, 2021. Prosecutors said Robinson severely beat the child with a belt which caused her to suffer internal bleeding. After an hour and a half of deliberation, Robinson was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Her husband, Jerry “Austin” Robinson, testified against her. He made a plea deal and faces a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.

Victoria with her large, biological family

Victoria’s biological relatives believe people who scrutinize the young girl’s January 14 death along racial lines will not do anything to prevent another tragedy. (The foster parents and their biological sons were black, the girl and her two brothers were white.) Her biological family says the blame belongs to the South Carolina Department of Social Services (SCDSS) who were too quick to seize her from biological mom, Casie Phares, and didn’t do enough to ensure she was going to a safe home. 

“This could have happened in a bad white home or they could have been placed in a loving black home where none of this would have happened. The point is that the people in charge of the adoption process are supposed to see through the smoke. These people are the experts, we trusted them to put the kids in a safe and loving environment. We now know they weren’t safe, they weren’t in a good home. Victoria was sweet, she was sassy. She was a smart, happy little girl and now she’s gone. It’s devastating,” Michelle Urps, Victoria’s great aunt, said in an interview.

Robinson had adopted Victoria and her two older brothers in March 2020. She has written repeatedly about her commitment to social justice, tweeting in the wake of the Capitol riot about how her four sons would experience the world differently because of their skin color. “In my house, my black children get treated the same as my white children, and my white children get treated the same as my black children. It’s a shame that when they go out into the real world, that won’t be the case.”

Three days before Victoria was allegedly beaten to death Robinson posted a cute collage of photos of the pair together, captioning it: “We go together like ketchup & MUSTARD! #MiniMe Being a girl mom is awesome.”

What occurs to me is – why with such a large extended biological family were the children taken and placed where they were ? Victoria’s case is unfortunately not the first time SCDSS has been blamed in a child’s death.

Victoria’s biological mother, Casie Phares, said she was never abusive to her children, but bullied by SCDSS into giving her children up. Phares said she was first flagged by SCDSS when she tested positive for marijuana while pregnant with Victoria. After Victoria tested positive as a newborn, Victoria’s aunt, Michelle Urps said “things just kind of spiraled from there.”

According to Victoria’s biological aunt, Michelle Urps – One day, while under SCDSS radar, Phares fell asleep while watching the two boys and Victoria, who was a newborn at the time. She had been up all night with the baby the night before. The two boys ran to the neighbors while their mom was asleep, The neighbors contacted police and that was the “final straw” with SCDSS. Phares was struggling to find housing at the time, which made her case with SCDSS even worse.

We don’t support families well enough to preserve children in the family they were born into. Many lose their children for nothing worse than being in poverty. This applies even more to struggling single moms.