Monday, May 2, 2011

Love, Foster children, and Pound Puppies

Pick me!  I’m good!  Pick me, I’ll love you!  Pick me, I’ll be the best companion in the world!  Foster children live a life not unlike the animals at the pound.   Many children painfully and earnestly wait for a family to come take them out of their cages and take them home.  Sadly some children wait for years and some children are never taken home.  Instead they are thrown out of the shelter when they come of age.  As a child, I had a lot of people come look at me, take me out for a walk, maybe even a short visit home and then decide to go with a smaller, younger puppy.  You know, a puppy without any bad habits.  One without a history, a blank slate. 

This analogy may seem ridiculous to you, but there have been times in my life that completely parallel that of the animals in shelters.  I have been to the children’s shelters quite often in my childhood.  Sometimes they let potential foster/adoptive families come and watch the children play to see if any of them might “match” your family.  It’s a lot like picking a puppy from the shelter.  There are also these events at a park where families come to meet all the available children to see if they want to take one home.  These things were always really hard for me.  Families would come and usually only interact with the younger kids.  I’d watch all the moms and dads come and interact with the other kids and wonder why no one wanted me.  Sometimes a family would be interested in me and then they would hear that I have four living siblings and change their minds.  Sometime I felt like livestock on farm at these picnics.  I felt so looked over and scrutinized that they might as well have examined my teeth and physical form.  It doesn’t matter though because nobody picked me at these events.

I was even a “Wednesday’s Child” on the news and in the paper a few times as a kid.  That’s when they put your picture and a description about you in an advertisement for a family.  Mine usually had a picture of me holding my violin or I’d be in some overly cheesy pose that made me look younger than I really was.  The description was very sugary sweet too.  It just went on and on about how good I was at school, my IQ score, and pretty much every mildly good thing I ever did.  Sometimes they wrote about challenges too.  It was humiliating when kids at school saw those things.  Sometimes they would quote the paper and laugh.  No foster children ever laughed.  Only the kids who never had to think about where they will live tomorrow thought it was funny.

Whenever someone did choose me, they always expected me to come trained to their lives.  I expect many people adopt older dogs hoping they would come already trained as well.  I was expected to know how to fit in with their family.  No one ever taught me how to part of a family, but still I was expected to know exactly what to do in every home I lived in.  I was expected to be better than a typical kid or teenager.  Often I felt like I was expected to be perfect and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that.  Every mistake and misbehavior was scrutinized as signs of an illness or ungratefulness.  Everything I did was a sign that I was an ungrateful, unruly, problematic, mentally ill child.  When in reality I was a terrified, confused, lost, and lonely child. When I adopted my cat from the humane society when I was 19, and she was 5, she would be really sweet for a minute and then turn around and attack me the next.  Then she’d run under the bed and hide for a few days.  Other families gave up on her and sent her back to the pound.  I kept her.  I totally understood how she felt.  I kept her and loved her no matter how many times she lashed out at me or what she damaged.  Today she is sweet and not afraid of me or my guests.  She is a little bit needy and wants me to hold her like a baby all the time, but I understand this too.  I want that too.  The point is, I never gave up on her and now she feels safe and loved.  She's not perfect, but her problem behaviors have almost disappeared.

I was not an ungrateful kid, but as a foster kid, you’re expected to feel grateful for absolutely everything.  It’s hard to feel grateful when you grow up in foster care.  I didn’t feel very grateful to the people that I knew would hurt me and then get rid of me.  Everything you do as a foster child is analyzed and over analyzed by so many people that normal childish behaviors are seen as abnormal signs of illness.  Because of this I left foster care with so many labels and disorders.  PTSD, attachment disorder, mutism, depression, eating disorder, defiant disorder, hyperactive, some other disorders I can’t remember, and I also wet the bed until I was about 12.  I can’t believe I’m making that public, but whatever.  It wasn’t my fault and I’m not ashamed of it anymore.  A lot of foster families would punish me and humiliate me when I wet the bed.  They’d call me a baby and make me parade my dirty sheets down the hall in front of other children.  Many foster parents thought I was dirty and lazy and did it on purpose.  It wasn’t something I could control.  I wanted nothing more than to be able to control that.  I know now that wetting the bed is common in abused children.  I wish my foster parents understood that too.

The point is foster children are labeled for normal childish behavior.  Dogs at the pound come with labels too:  Barker, jumper, aggressive, biter, escape artist, separation anxiety, not house broken, etc…  I was labeled hyperactive, but really I was a 12 year old in a group home that never let me go outside to play.  I had to stay inside at all times unless we were going on a supervised walk around the block.  I had a lot of energy but I was not abnormal.  I had an attachment disorder, but really how does anyone expect a child to bond normally when they lived in 42 placements in 18 years???  I had a defiant disorder but really I was just an angry teenager that was tired of being abused and neglected so I started to talk back.  I had PTSD, depression, and anorexia, but really I was an abused, scared, lonely, and totally powerless child in foster care.

Foster children are not their labels.  They are not puppies at the pound that you can take back.  Foster children are HUMAN BEINGS with fears and dreams and the desire to be loved.  Every child wants to be loved.  I don’t care how difficult or problematic they seem.  Every child wants to be held and loved.  Some of us want you to prove to us that you love us before we let ourselves love you back so we act out.  We make your life difficult for a little while because we are scared that you are like everyone else.  We are scared you are going to hurt us and leave us because so many people already have.  Foster children just want you to pick them and keep them and love them forever.  When I acted out in my foster homes it was usually when I started to feel something for my foster parents.  I was scared but really I just wanted them to hold me and tell me they would never go away, and then actually never go away.  That’s all I wanted.  Foster children need to feel safe before they can believe that they are loved.  Even today I find myself looking for evidence that people are going to go away and then I push them away first.  No one ever picked me as a kid, but there are still thousands of girls and boys out there waiting for you to pick them and prove to them that you won’t go away even when the going gets tough.  Thousands of foster children are waiting for someone to love them.  There are thousands of foster children waiting for someone like you.