The heck you say! Parenting is hard, the kids need to eat 3 meals a day, have clean clothes, minds and bodies, be supervised so they aren’t poking themselves or someone else with sharp objects and they need to be loved. Sound difficult? Imagine you have to do that for children that don’t know what it’s like to have a regular meal or whose clothes, minds and/or bodies are dirty, they have been hurt by others and they don’t know what it’s like to be loved and accepted by the people they trust the most. After you wrap your head around that, imagine that every few weeks or months, you get a different child(ren) and you need to start all over again. That’s what it’s like to be a Foster Parent. Your version of parenting suddenly seems easier, doesn’t it?
An 18 month old boy is brought to your home with nothing but the clothes on his back. He can’t walk or talk, still bottle feeds and doesn’t know his own name. His little body has scabies, boils and MSRA scars. Three times per day you must soak him in a warm bath, lie him down and gently press the boils to drain the fluid the warm water has brought to the surface. For three months you lie awake with him at night because he cries and scratches his skin, even though it has healed. He hoards food in his mouth and sometimes eats until he vomits, he is starved for food. He is also starved for love, he needs you to hold him constantly. He needs to love and trust. After 4 months, it’s time for the walking, talking, laughing boy to move to his adoptive family and your heart feels as though it will never heal. That was my experience as a foster parent. Doing it once was more difficult than I could have imagined, doing it for 30 years take an incredible couple.
Pat is 69 years old, has 4 birth children, 5 adopted children, and 9 of her grandchildren are adopted. In May 2013, she adopted 40-year-old Liz. Liz had moved through the foster system without being adopted, now with 2 adopted children of her own, she had no family beyond her children. Knowing how important it is to have a family that you can count on and spend holidays with, Pat and her husband, Larry, decided to adopt Liz. Liz’s children now have grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins; Liz now has a home, family and name of her own.
Pat and Larry have been foster parents for 30 years and are currently caring for 3 young girls ages 2, 4 and 5. Their lifelong journey into Foster Parenting, started with Early Intervention. As a volunteer, Pat came into contact with many special education families and parents of foster children, she found it to be “another world” which was interesting and filled with “so many good people”. In 1971 when her friend entered the hospital, Pat and Larry cared for one of her children and they loved it. They loved the nurturing and caring shown for the children and decided she wanted to help. Since 1973, her house has always been full of children of all ages. When her children were young, she fostered teens; when her children entered their teens, she fostered younger children.
Most impressive to me is her daughter Maria. Maria was a 2-year-old autistic quadriplegic when she first went to stay with Pat and Larry, she was 7 when they decided to adopt her. When I asked Pat why she decided to adopt her, she said “It just felt right”. How’s that for a tear jerker? I’ve met Maria many times, she is a beautiful girl who is obviously well-loved. Being surrounded by the innocence of children on a daily basis, was beneficial for Maria, they loved her unconditionally. When Pat and Larry turned 62, Maria was 33 and they decided Maria would be better cared for in an assisted living home. Needing constant care, Pat and her body were getting too old to give her what she needed physically. Don’t get worked up, she hasn’t been abandoned into a group home, she in a 1 on 1 situation in a lovely home with her sole caregiver. They love each other and Maria continues to thrive, is visited often by Pat and Larry and spends weekends with them every 6 weeks.
Tuesday mornings Pat’s house is even more crowded, she has hosted a support group for foster parents for 20 years. Getting families together to talk and help each other out is something she really enjoys. I know from personal experience, she can walk you through nearly every situation. After 30 years in the business of love, I’m not surprised. When does she plan to stop? She doesn’t know.
After 30 years, you’d think she has a lot of stories. She does. At the age of 24, one of her foster boys passed away. She had kept his baby pictures to give him when he had a family of his own, she never got the chance and it broke her heart. She fostered the sibling of a Mom who was killed while pregnant, the baby stolen from her stomach. There were the sisters whose father drank himself to death. He tried to rehabilitate himself many times but simply couldn’t. Seeing the love for his daughters mixed with his own pain was something Pat will never forget. She was able to pass on his story to their adoptive Mom and convey his love for them. Sometimes love isn’t enough to save a family. It’s something Pat witnesses regularly.
One of the biggest challenges to the system Pat has seen over the years is the lack of resources and understanding for the mental health issues the families and children face. There no good answers, not enough help and the issues are becoming more complicated at a younger age. Their simply isn’t enough understanding of mental health issues by the public or the caregivers. Despite the challenges, there are rewards – seeing the parents pull it together and be able to care for their own children or seeing a child adopted into a permanent home. A happy ending for the child is the greatest joy of foster parenting.
Over the years, not only has Pat seen the system change, she has seen the family structure change. Back in 1973, same-sex couples weren’t part of the program. Benefits and services for the children were different. There weren’t as many lawyers, advocates, probation officers and case workers involved. Although there are more people than ever involved, there are also more children. More children means more paperwork, more people to track down, more people to interview and less time overall.
Without Pat and others like her, these kids would not stand a chance.