Former foster child Josh was a self-described nightmare to his foster parents—all 12 sets of them. He was so scared, so confused and so hurt when he ended up in the Children, Youth and Families Department as a middle-schooler that he cynically set out to make each family kick him out. He made a game of it. Josh had reasons not to trust adults; besides his own parents’ abandoning him, he was raped by another foster kid in one home, and bullied so badly in another that he tried to kill himself. In his YouTube video, Every Kid Is One Caring Adult Away From Being A Success Story, he says of the foster system, “People who were literally total strangers 10 minutes ago are now apparently Mom and Dad. Adults say, ‘Kids, don’t take candy from strangers!’ but now they’re telling me, ‘Just move in with them!’” The only reason he didn’t eventually drop out of school, fall prey to drugs or commit suicide, he says, is the rock-solid persistence of one particular foster parent, “who saw me not as a juvenile delinquent—he saw something far more subtle, far more nuanced: He saw what I could be. And that,” says Josh, “was genuinely my turning point.”
How did we get to a world where parents find themselves, for a multiplicity of reasons, incapable of being that caring adult for their own children? It’s a story of spirals begetting spirals. When kids don’t receive the nurturing, love and safety necessary for healthy human development, they can grow up without the inner resources necessary to parent kids themselves, especially in a world growing ever more chaotic. When parents feel marginalized, working several jobs just to adequately support their families, often suffering hopelessness and despair, they become prime targets for some of the bad coping choices they may have grown up witnessing: drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse, all of which can land them in jail, which only exacerbates their parental neglect. As troubled families increase, at-risk kids in the foster-care system, itself understaffed and overwhelmed, continue to multiply. Over 2016, according to Santa Fe CYFD’s Nancy Woodka, almost every month saw a larger and larger number of children entering foster care than exiting it. Last year, across New Mexico, there were consistently about 400 children waiting for adoption with no available families, while the number of active foster homes in Santa Fe County hovers at eight.
“We live in a society that doesn’t really support families,” says Rosemary Zibart, award-winning author and playwright, as well as former Santa Fe foster parent. “The biggest sin in our society is allowing individuals or corporations to profit from the misery of others. With for-profit hospitals and especially for-profit prisons, the incentive is to have more people sick or in jail. A child’s world is shaped by their parents. If that world is unstable, what will they find when they come home? These kids are living in an incredible sense of apprehension.” Rosemary knows firsthand how scary that is. As foster parents, she and her husband Jake earned an Angels in Adoption citation from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute for their contributions to local kids-at-risk. She wrote her latest book, Kit Coyote: A Brave Pup, for them; it describes all parts of the foster-care experience from a child’s-eye-view. Rosemary used various animals as the characters so any kid could relate to them.
“Kids who are traumatized often have difficulty expressing their feelings,” Rosemary says. “The illustrations, by Sandi Wright and Ryon Harding, poignantly convey the emotions of a child who’s confused, anxious, fearful, sad—and who ultimately finds the inner resources to be resilient in the face of the challenges he’s facing. I think children may not understand every word of the text, but they’ll see themselves reflected in the images. And that’s so important because it can validate their experience so they feel more understood and less alone.”
Rosemary and Jake became foster parents with the aim of adopting. “Between 1990 and 1991, we had 13 children come through our household. They were wonderful, so lively, resilient, often so unselfish.” She remembers one boy they had for almost a year, “an extremely cheerful and upbeat child, and for his birthday, we invited practically his whole class to McDonald’s. Nobody but his sister came, but he was just delighted, so happy to be with her!” The two kids they adopted, both with special needs, “easily have the best senses of humor I’ve ever been around. I’ll never forget one night I’d told our kids I’d stop on my way home for Chinese take-out. When I walked in, there sat my son, facing me in a kitchen chair, with knife and fork in hand!”
Another Santa Fe couple, Diane Kell and Russel Stolins, currently foster a toddler. Russel’s first marriage was childless; Diane was a widow when they met, with grown children. In many ways, they say, their fostering began as Diane’s gift to Russel. They’ve continued fostering—it’s been eight and a half years now—because “it made a difference in the lives of so many children,” they write by email, “and we found a great deal of joy in sharing day-to-day life with them. Russel found that being a parent to 65 children ranging from a five-day-old to a teenager, for periods from 48 hours to nearly a year, satisfied his dream of parenting. Every age brings its gifts of insight, of seeing the world with new eyes. We’ve loved them all.”
Still, as all foster parents can attest, every foster child has been through a fair amount of trauma—sometimes, as Josh describes, in a foster home. “You can’t use harsh discipline because that can trigger a traumatized reaction,” Russel and Diane explain. Better, they say, to try to “ease the child through the day, encouraging responsibility and accomplishment but not forcing it. You must be understanding of the child’s viewpoint.” As Rosemary shows in Kit Coyote, a child in foster care is haunted by such basic questions as do my parents still love me; will I get to go home; what’s going to happen to me? “If the child is disrespectful, or seems ungrateful,” Russel and Diane continue, “remember that they’re feeling lost and finding their way using tools they’ve developed under less than ideal circumstances. Encourage them to develop new tools, but don’t expect immediate or dramatic improvement.” Dr. Hedgehog, Kit’s therapist, explains to him, “Being a parent is a job. A very tough job. You have to be patient and kind and mature. Not everybody knows how to do this job. Your parents are learning. When they learn all they need to know, then you can live with them.”
Of course, not all parents are going to reach that goal. “Foster kids are very loyal,” Rosemary says. It’s notoriously hard for them to give up on their parents, even when those parents have given up on them. And the wheels of the system turn very slowly. “What’s going to happen to me?” often hangs, unanswered, in an agonizing vacuum. “To not-know is the most frightening,” Rosemary says. “I want children to know they can survive and even thrive despite circumstances they haven’t chosen. Hopefully, in each case, things will get better, but we don’t know. Can the parents do their job?”
What happens if they can’t? With so few foster homes in Santa Fe County, how do we care for the spillover? There are, of course, group homes. And, Rosemary says, “What if neighborhoods all went in together to foster a child? We have so many creative people here; we have lots of retired folks, too. The child could stay with one specified family, and neighbors could come by to help with homework, take the child to appointments, pick up groceries or school supplies, shoot baskets with or read to or mentor the child. It could be a church group, or a book club. We can embrace these children as our children, if we act as a community.” Diane and Russel add, “You can foster short-term; you can be a respite family, giving foster parents a weekend off; your home could be a refuge when a child first comes into custody and their case needs time for investigation.”
Ensuring that there is a next generation seems daunting, but remember: We’re living in a time of legend. We’re the ones who can ensure that seven generations will look back and tell tales of this mythical time. The foster parent who gave Josh his turning point, Rodney, “was just one flawed yet caring adult,” says Josh. “An adult who refused to give up on me. After bailing me out of prison, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Son, you can keep causing problems, you can keep trying to push us away, you can keep trying to get us to kick you out of here, but you’ve got to get it through your thick head, Son, we don’t see you as a problem. We see you as an opportunity.’ Kids spell trust T.I.M.E. Intentionally and consistently invest time in one kid, doing something that matters to them because they matter to you. It’s not really about them. It’s about you. Because the difference between that kid becoming a statistic and a success story…is you.”
If you or anyone you know is interested in hearing more about becoming a foster parent, please contact Santa Fe CYFD at 827-7450 for more information.
For adoption information, please contact Nancy Woodka, CYFD Heart Gallery, Nancy.firstname.lastname@example.org
Story by Gail Snyder