Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Seeing past the labels stamped on foster kids

It's easy to label and dismiss a foster child.  It's easy to judge the children for those labels and behaviors, although I know most people would never admit to doing that.  Here are some of the labels I was laden with as a child:

  • Attachment disorder
  • ADHD
  • Depression
  • Eating Disorder
  • Selective and full mutism
  • PTSD
  • Difficult
  • stubborn
  • suicidal
  • gifted
  • smart
  • bed-wetter
  • impossible
  • Emotional problems (emotionally delayed, disturbed, etc...)
Labels and warnings are stamped on every foster child.  Every single one of them.  The minute they enter the system, judgements are made about who they are.  Many people cannot look past these labels.  Sometimes children become their labels.  "It says I am this, so I must be."  They are no longer just "Michael" or "Sarah," they are now the kid who is/has/does ____(fill in the blank).  Sometimes these labels become how they identify themselves too.  And these labels make people fear them.  These labels make children hate themselves.

It's easy to resent foster children for their behaviors and labels they've had painted on them even when the adults think they understand the reasons behind them.  But my point is this: Labels are just giant red stamps all over scared, cute, lovable little people.  Labels mean nothing.  Foster children are children.  Just children.  They are children who have only known pain in life.  They are little children trapped in big heavy artillery tanks.  Overwhelmed little children with civil wars raging inside their little bodies.  They yearn for love.  They need love.  They need soft, gentle, nurturing.  But they fight as hard as they can to shield themselves from any possible bullets or shrapnel that might fly at them at any moment.  They fight so hard that they often squash everything around them just to stay safe.  Foster care is a vast, scary, lonely, dangerous place without a soft place to land or find cover.

I think it can be pretty difficult to see past a child's labels and behaviors when you are an unprepared, frustrated parent or case manager.  Many caring people go into the system unprepared with totally unrealistic ideas and motives.  They easily burn out when their Superhero or Happily-Ever-After fantasy doesn't come true.  It becomes easy to blame and give up on the child.  "What am I going to do with this difficult child?"  or "We are just not a match."  Or, "This child is too much."  I am sure it must sometimes be pretty hard to see the beautiful little person inside that impenetrable hard shell.  It can be difficult to remember or maybe even fully understand what it's like to be a little kid stuck in a raging hurricane of unpredictably cruel big people.

CPS was supposed to protect me, protect my childhood, but they didn't.  CPS repeatedly removed my siblings and me from our mother, often times with dramatic scary scenes with screaming, crying, and chasing.  They removed us over and over, giving our mother chance after chance despite the extreme abuse and neglect that they later sent her to prison for.  Every removal was a trauma.  Every removal from our foster homes to return us to her was a trauma.  It became so bad that every time we saw a police car or heard a siren we would panic a little bit.  CPS finally decided to do what was best for us and terminate our mother's rights and lock her up where she couldn't hurt or produce anymore children (although she did have my sister in prison).  After they slammed the cell door on my mother for abusing me, they put me in a home with a man who seriously screwed me up for life.  A man that ruined all of me.  I honestly don't know if I would have been better off with my mother or not.

CPS took me from a very unstable environment with an unpredictable mother and put me in an even more unstable system with even more unpredictable adults where they often forgot about me and completely neglected me.  There were a few years that I don't think I saw my case worker once.  There was no one to advocate for me, and stand up for what was best for me until I met my CASA, Eileen.  There was no one that really knew me at all.  There were times where even my basic human needs were neglected while in foster care.  This is still happening today.  There is a child hurting in foster care right now.  There is a child being hurt BY foster care right now.

This little paper that I put together for my Lifebook represents18 years of my life in foster care:

Removed image for privacy purposes.

42 placements.  I count places that I lived at more than once as separate placements because even though I had already been there before, it was equally as jolting and scary as going to a new home.  I moved so much as a child that I don't know how to stay in one place today.  After six or seven months I get this really antsy feeling.  I need something to change.  I have to rearrange my furniture.  Make my apartment look different.  Something has to change.  It just HAS to.  I've moved a lot as an adult and I'm sure my therapist would say it's because of how I grew up in foster care.  I've always dreamed of a forever home, but I can't even give that to myself.

Do you remember what it felt like to be the new kid at school, or maybe a time where you had to prepare for and go to an important job interview or maybe even just starting a new job.  Remember how much anxiety and fear you felt?  Remember how you were afraid of not doing or saying the right thing and being judged for everything?  Remember how scared you were that people wouldn't like you?  That you wouldn't get the job.  That they would regret hiring you.  That they would pick someone better than you.  That you weren't good enough?  Remember being scared simply because everything was new and unfamiliar?  Imagine always feeling like the new kid.  Now Imagine feeling that way at home without any hope for relief.  When you go to a scary new school or job, you have a place to look forward to.  There is an end to this stress.  You can go home, kick off your shoes and de-stress from that intense day.  Foster kids can't.  That intense day is constant.  Foster kids can't leave the scary situation and seek comfort from home and loved ones because home is that new job or new school and there are no loved ones.  Home is scary and stressful.  There is never any relief.  Never any comfort.  Not only did I constantly move homes, I constantly moved schools too.  I never had friends or adults to teach me about life so that I could develop normally, intellectually, socially and emotionally.  After a while, that feeling of always being the new kid becomes kind of constant.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that I'm not the new kid anymore, that no one is judging me, that I'm not going to be sent away.  It is still really hard for me to feel safe.  I am not sure I really know how.

42 placements is a high number, but sadly, it is not a rare one.  But the number of placements isn't what is important.  3 moves or 100, EVERY single move is a trauma.  Every single lost relationship is a major trauma.  Every failed family is a major trauma.  It is a major loss.  It is a set back in everything.  In every part of life.  Foster children are not given the nurturing they need to grow.  While doing yard work the other day, I was thinking about how much I have to tend to the little garden in my yard to get my plants to grow and prevent them from wilting and withering away.  Everything in life needs to be nurtured to grow, change, evolve.  Without that care and nurturing, everything wilts and fails to develop.  

I still hold on to this little piece of paper for dear life because I thought it was true.

The wonderful woman who wrote that letter to me sent me away after 7 months.  Then they kicked me out a second time when I turned 18.  I reached out to her last week.  My heart still aches that she used the words "former friend" to describe me.  All these families that promised forever and sent me away within months were not bad people.  C. and D. were good people.  I write about my painful experiences on here, but they did a lot for me too.  I still have this note that was attached to a box, wrapped in cheesy Christmas paper, that held a small family figurine.  I've held on to it for more than 10 years because it still makes my heart race.  I still want it to be true.  I still have a little fantasy that I will wake up one day and it will still be true.  It's a good example of the well meaning people throughout my life who thought they could "save me," but ended up seriously hurting me instead.  It's a good example of the people thought that I would be easy because I was quiet and did well in school.  They thought that all they had to do was say I love you and that they will be my family and that would fix everything.  It would erase all my pain and struggles.  That that would be all I need.  They thought that their promises would mean more because somehow I would trust that they mean it more.  That I would believe their I-love-yous and promises because they really meant them.  And then they gave up when they realized they couldn't save me, or when my normal childish or teenage behavior scared them.  Foster children are judged for everything they do.  Everything I did was scrutinized, analyzed, and labeled as a symptom or disorder.  This 15 year old is really moody.  I think it's a sign of depression or some other mental illness.  She needs medication.  This 16 year old broke curfew to spend more time with her boyfriend.  OMG, what does that mean?  This teenager keeps talking back.  I think she might have "Oppositional defiant disorder."  She needs more medication.  True story.

Foster children need someone who can see them trapped deep inside that army tank.  Someone who can see them, know them, and love them for who they are no matter what.  Someone who can help them see past their own labels and self hatred.  Someone who can show them that they matter, that they are lovable.  THAT THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS UNADOPTABLE!  Someone who can help them climb out of that heavy, destructive hunk of rusty armor.

Foster care needs more responsible, prepared, capable, unyielding foster parents, social workers, volunteers, CASA's.  We need more people who understand their limits and what it takes to be a foster parent.  We need people who can't and won't give up on a child.  People who are determined not to be another trauma for these children.  People sometimes believe that because children are young, they won't remember painful situations or events.  That's just not true.  I still think about things my foster parents said and did to me, and they still hurt today.

I've had a lot of people tell me they love me, that they will be my family, but then change their minds and it's affected me for life.  That should not happen to children.  Please, NEVER tell a foster child that you will adopt them until you are starting the process.  Don't make promises you cannot keep, no matter how much you believe you can.  Being told you will be loved and kept forever and then sent away is a lot more painful then being sent away from a home without those promises.  By not making those kinds of promises, it leaves less room for the child to blame themselves when they have to move.  It leaves less room to feel like a failure.  It leaves less room for a child to hate him/herself when things don't work out.  Even if you are bubbling over with love and desire to adopt your foster child, never tell them until it's a very real possibility.  Tell them you love them.  Tell them you are proud of them.  Smother them with affection, but never throw around the A word.  

Foster care is failing children.  The government is failing children.  We are failing foster children.  Foster care is not a place to grow up.  It's a quarantine tank where children float around until they either become too big for their environment or someone takes them home.  Sometimes they go home forever, but most of the time they get thrown back in the tank, where they wait for the next person to take them home.

Can you scoop someone out of that tank and take them home?  Can you do that without a return warranty?

I made this cheesy poster for foster care awareness month.  It's totally a ripoff of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters.

 You don't have to be super human or perfect to be a foster or adoptive parent.  You don't have to be a foster parent to make a difference.  Become a CASA or "Special Friend" or mentor a foster child.  Just let a child know that you care about them.  It matters more than you think.