A Letter to Foster Parents

Dear Foster Parent,

There are some things I want to share with you. Things I noticed while spending time with my young friend who is in foster care. Although my perceptions originate from one specific child, I hope they resonate with you and provide encouragement.

The following list represents what I want my friends foster mom to know:

  • She talks about you often.
  • Asks when you will be back to pick her up.
  • Easily refers to you as “Mom.”
  • Happily shares that you call her “daughter.”
  • Confidently includes herself when describing your children.
  • Refers to your parents as Memaw and Pawpaw.
  • Talks about how hard you work.
  • Likes helping you.
  • Proudly says that you help children.
  • Wants to help children when she grows up.
  • Is happy and secure, thanks to you.

So, in case you have not heard these things with your own ears, I thought you should know. What you are doing matters. Your sacrifices do not go unnoticed. There are difficult days, trauma-induced behaviors, and unanswered questions. Yet, in the midst of all this, you love. And love is the only thing which has the power to bring healing.

My Sincerest Thanks,

Kelley

The Right Question

A recent story on the local morning news involved someone being shot at an apartment complex. There were not many details. One adult shot another adult. While listening to the report I kept thinking, “I wonder if there were any children present?”

Had I heard the same story any morning previous, my reaction might have been different. That is what happens when we view our surroundings through a different lens. Gain a new perspective.

Why did this story have this effect on me on this particular day? Because the day before I attended a professional development workshop for educators entitled “The Trauma-Informed Classroom.” Dr. Barbara Sorrels, author of the book “Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma,” was our presenter.

One of the most powerful moments of the day was listening to an actual 911 recording. The voice we heard was a six-year-old little girl named Lisa. Lisa was witnessing a violent attack on her mom and siblings by her stepfather. And it was not the first.

It is difficult for me to imagine the awful things this little girl witnessed. The fear in her voice was almost palpable. Her cries for help were interchanged with moments of extreme clarity. She provided crucial information and displayed incredible bravery.

The screams of this little girl caused a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Once the recording ended, the room remained silent. Dr. Sorrels then asked us to discuss how memories from this event might affect Lisa in the future. What images, smells, sounds, etc. might trigger negative responses from her?

All I could think was, “How can a child be expected to function at school after such a traumatic event?”

The workshop continued with stories of other trauma children, their caregivers, and teachers. We also explored ways to help promote healing.

By the end of the day, I felt emotionally and intellectually overwhelmed. How could I use this information to positively influence my classroom? How could it help me better connect with my students?

Dr. Sorrels encouraged us to start with one objective, helping one child at a time. And then another idea and another child, and so on. I reviewed my notes, and one thing stood out-a comparison of two questions. The questions represent two ways I might respond to a child’s behavior.

What is wrong with you?

What happened to you?

These questions have definitely been asked inside my teacher brain. And more often than not, I asked the first question. I should be asking the second.

So where do I begin?

  • Be mindful that a frustrating “behavior” might actually be a reaction to trauma.
  • Realize my perspective in approaching a child has the power to foster healing.
  • Be willing to ask the right question.

Little Ones

They used to come as a shock. News stories of missing children. Parents crying on the news, begging for their child to be found. Putting on an innocent face. Declaring they have no idea what might have happened to their precious child. But in the end, they are responsible.

I remember clearly the first of these stories that stuck with me, and that was over 20 years ago. I won’t mention the details. I don’t believe it would help. But I remember sitting in a Subway with Gart, hearing the breaking news. I cried, thinking, “How could a parent do this to their own children?”

Now when I hear one of these stories (one was recently in the national news) my heart breaks. My first thought? The parents are responsible, the ending will be tragic, and my heartbreak will turn to anger.

This recent story was no different. A child was reported missing. Past reports of abuse and horrible living conditions surfaced. There were years when the child was removed from the home. And now? The parents have been arrested…this precious child found dead not far from his home.

This could have easily been the story of my sweet friend, Marie. Thankfully, she got out. But only after many years in an abusive home. Read more about her story here. https://pianogirlthoughts.com/2019/04/01/child-abuse-awareness/

Why am I writing about this now? Because I continue to see and hear the stories of abuse. I have no answers but acknowledge the need for diligence in reporting and supporting survivors.

Check out this personal story from a survivor. Tressa bravely shares her story in hopes of helping others. https://alifeofabuse.home.blog/

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18:10

Child Abuse Awareness

April is National Child Abuse Prevention month.  A difficult subject, but I could not let the first day of the month pass by without recognition.  As a teacher, I’ve witnessed the heartache and devastation which accompanies this kind of abuse.  Documented, reported, testified-all things I hope I never have to do again. 

I continue to have contact with my former student, Marie.  Today I will share the link to her story.  But first, a brief update.  She continues to thrive in her foster home.  I’m amazed with each new photo.  They show a different child.  And the events she has attended?  School dances, church events, even a Tim Tebow Night to Shine prom.  She looked like a princess!

Marie is happy and well-adjusted.  She laughs and jokes.  Her personality is funny, sassy, and sweet.  Although I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like, phone calls are treasured.  She continues to ask, “Do you miss me?”  My answer will never change. “Yes, sweet girl. I miss you.” 

https://pianogirlthoughts.com/2018/08/13/face-to-face-with-child-abuse-personal-reflections-of-a-teacher/

Right Where We Left Off

I love the way certain friendships seem to transcend time and space. Life’s circumstances may take us far away from each other. Yet when our paths cross again, we pick up right where we left off. When reunited, it feels like nothing has changed and no time has passed.

Today I realized how much I take this phenomenon for granted. I always thought of it as a natural occurrence. Something you simply experience over time, not something you are taught. Maybe that comes from growing up in a loving home, having friends from an early age.

But what happens when a child grows up in the opposite?

Rachel and I took a little road trip to visit our sweet friend, Marie. Our short visit was well worth the almost three-hour drive. We had Christmas presents to deliver and it had been several months since we’d seen her. The year prior to her foster home placement, Rachel and I saw her almost weekly, so we were very excited about this visit! (See earlier post for more of Marie’s story.) https://pianogirlthoughts.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/face-to-face-with-child-abuse-personal-reflections-of-a-teacher/

Marie had requested Braum’s for our meeting place. You can’t go wrong with ice cream! We arrived, all smiles and ready for hugs. Her initial reaction was interesting. Lots of eye rolls and shoulder shrugs in response to our questions and attempts at conversation.

Her foster mom reassured us she had been really excited to see us. We trusted this was true, she was just not quite ready to show it. With patience and persistence (about 10-15 minutes worth) Marie was smiling, holding Rachel’s hand and laying her head on my shoulder. Finally, we were right where we left off.

On the drive home I was thinking about our visit, trying not to cry. Those goodbye hugs do it every time. Not to mention my daughter saying things like, “You’re doing really good, Mom.” 😉

As Rachel and I talked about the day, it suddenly hit me. Of course Marie would have reacted that way. This child has never had a secure home, was abused for years, tossed from one facility to another. And on top of all that, she has developmental disabilities. Before she was finally placed in this amazing foster home, the uncertainty of her future was difficult for her to understand.

We often had the following conversation:

Marie: What if I go someplace else?
Me: What are we?
Marie: My friends.
Me: Yes. And wherever you go, we will see you.
Marie: Ok.

Then she would smile. And that explanation would suffice for maybe a week…or a day. Now that she is in a loving home, our conversations have changed. She laughs as she tells me about her mom, dad, siblings, and extended family when we talk on the phone. She enjoys going to school and is making new friends. She is happy.

Marie knows we love her, but we cannot expect her to understand this idea of “picking up where you left off” just yet. She will need to experience it many times. Hopefully, time will continue to heal. And maybe one day she will be able to trust that we are true friends. Friends who pick up right where they left off, no matter the miles apart or the time gone by.

A Single Snapshot

I continue to be amazed how one photo has the power to bring such a flood of emotions.  Just when I think my heart is ok, one picture of my sweet friend Marie-and I’m crying.  See earlier blog post:   Face to Face with Child Abuse: Personal Reflections of a Teacher

A sweet teacher friend recognized Marie in an online adoption video and shared the link.  I had to watch it, of course.  Hearing how the social worker described her-listening as Marie answered questions about her favorite things-all I could think was, “I know the answer!”  Like an impatient student raising their hand, shouting, “Pick me! Pick me! Oh, and here’s some additional info you didn’t even ask for.”

I was struck by the social workers comment, “She deserves a family.”  I completely agree.  She’s not the only one.  While looking at this link, I saw pages and pages of other children-all with a story-all without a family.  And then my questions started all over again.  How does this happen?  Why does this happen so often?  What do we do to help?

My initial reaction was to shout inside my head, “I don’t have any answers!”  But when I took a step back and calmed my emotions, the following things came into focus:

  • Amazing people who have chosen to be foster parents.
  • Others who have adopted or are considering adoption.
  • People like myself-looking for ways to be an advocate and friend.

No, these positives won’t wipe away all the heartache.  They are however, small steps in the right direction.  When a child who has been neglected, abused, and deserted is able to experience love, acceptance, and security-the healing process begins.  I continue to witness this in my sweet friend.

There is still so much to do.  I don’t want to become complacent in searching for ways to advocate for my friend.  It’s also important for me to recognize the children right in front of me everyday who are facing the same kind of sadness and heartache.  Yes, it feels like an impossible, daunting task.  Today I was reminded of my role and responsibility-and for that reminder I’m thankful.

I was also reminded of the impact this one child has had on my heart.  No amount of my tears can cover the suffering she has endured, but seeing her smile gives me hope.

“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”  Galatians 6:9

 

Face to Face with Child Abuse: Personal Reflections of a Teacher

My first experiences concerning child abuse stem from my years as a special education teacher.  The students I served often had great difficulty communicating.  They were vulnerable, making this story all the more troubling.  The following reflections relate to one particular student who holds a special place in my heart.  Due to the need for privacy,  I will refer to her as Marie.  Not a day passes without thoughts of Marie-sadness for her past, uncertainty for her present, but also hope for her future.  Spending time with Marie has broken and challenged my heart.

***

Words are powerful.  Even more so accompanied by concrete images.  Consider the word shelter.  For many of us, this word reminds us of safety and home.  But what if we add just one word…emergency.  Emergency Shelter brings much different imagery.  One final word moves us even further from protective pictures of safety and home… children’s.

Before my first visit to an Emergency Children’s Shelter, my imagination created images in preparation for the experience-a clean building, professional staff, play areas, a visiting room.  In my mind,  the scene played out as follows.  A greeting from a smiling worker, thanking me for coming.  An onsite visit in a comfortable, nicely decorated area.  After all, this facility provided care for children who had experienced trauma and been removed from their home.

When map quest directed me to turn down a gravel road blocked by an iron gate, my previous notions of what the day would bring began to fade.  A quick phone call put me back on track, giving two guiding landmarks.  Passing the second landmark, I noticed an older, run-down, unassuming house.  This couldn’t be right, so I kept driving…dead end.  Cautiously turning around, I knew in my heart that old house was the place.  Private Property and Video Surveillance signs posted in the driveway prompted feelings of nervousness and uncertainty.

Taking a deep breath, I walked to the door, spoke to the cat on the porch, and rang the bell.  A calm, quiet proprietor answered.  Precious Marie stood nervously at the back of the house.  Initially, she did not seem to recognize me and appeared unsure.  After seeing some photos from when she was in my class, one a selfie of us on the playground, she smiled and said, “You were my teacher!”  Yes!  She did remember.  Uncertainties quickly turned to smiles, hugs, and laughter.

My visions of a visit at the home vanished as I spotted Marie’s backpack on the table.  My young friend was ready to go!  Now there were completely different reasons to be nervous.  Where would we go?  What would we do?  The area was unfamiliar, but surely we could find shopping and food!  A trip to Walmart produced a doll, nail polish, and a new book.  We had lunch and painted nails while sitting in a booth at McDonald’s.  Looking at old pictures and taking silly selfies helped us to get reacquainted.  Returning to the shelter, I reassured her that I would visit again soon.

As I drove home, my earlier thoughts of shelter shifted from place to person.  True safety and security in my life came from the people placed along my path.  Now I had the opportunity to provide this for Marie.  I know she is not my child, but this new focus gives me courage for future visits.  Sadness over past abuse and an uncertain future remains, but I trust God will guide my actions to help Marie experience His promise in Isaiah 25:4 to provide “…a shelter from the storm…”

***

My daughter Rachel, a college student studying to become a special education teacher, accompanied me on my second visit to the Emergency Children’s Shelter.  Her calm excitement covered the day and gave me confidence, replacing the anxiousness of my first visit.  Knowing where I was going, what to expect, and being accompanied by my sweet girl eased my mind.

Our day was well planned.  After checking in at the shelter and signing out Marie, we were ready to go.  First stop the zoo, then lunch, and finally shopping.  With two teenage girls, shopping was a given!  Rachel remembered Marie from visits to my classroom and I had shared pics of Rachel on my first visit.  I’m not sure who was more excited about this outing!

I’ve witnessed Rachel interact with friends who happen to have disabilities on many occasions.  Her ability to treat them as peers, spending time with them socially, and having regular conversations truly is a gift.  She is also a passionate advocate for these special friends, always looking for ways to help them realize their potential.  Her patience during often challenging communications is amazing.  On more than one occasion I’ve felt like the student and her the teacher as she confidently reminded me to address individuals based on their age and not their disability.

This particular day proved to be no different.  She embraced this precious girl with love and patience, looking for ways to give her independence and choice in our well planned day.  Instances where I would have made choices or suggestions for Marie, Rachel recognized the importance of giving her control over as many things as she could handle.  Following the zoo map, choosing what animal to see next, ordering pizza, and picking out sunglasses might seem insignificant to most people.  Thanks to Rachel’s insight, however, allowing our friend to make these decisions hopefully gave her a sense of control in a world where she has had little.

Although it was easier for me to visit the shelter this time, it was much harder for me to leave…

Rachel and I chatted the entire drive home, recounting all the experiences of the day.  What a beautiful day!  We talked about the future,  what it will hold for Marie and what role we might play.  When I began to feel overwhelmed with questions about what lies ahead, Rachel calmly reviewed the events of these pasts few months. She reminded me of the circumstance that brought us to this day; receiving a subpoena to testify at a child neglect reliability hearing.

“One step at a time,”  words of wisdom from my daughter as we headed home.  And a reminder when friends and family say Rachel takes after me,  the truth is I want to be more like her when I grow up…

***

Do emotions ever cloud your judgment or cause you to have a blurred sense of reality?  Honestly, I am often guilty.  My husband endearingly refers to me as a schemer and emotions typically play a role in my schemes.  He is the logical one, and we balance each other well.  Although we do not agree on everything, we do respect one another’s opinions.  Sometimes it is best that we agree to disagree, as long as we keep listening.

After two visits with Marie, her social worker mentioned the possibility of us hosting her for an overnight or weekend visit.  Of course!  We would love to have her visit our home!  Rachel and I had already completed the required background checks for our visits to the shelter.   But one more person needed to do the same; my husband.

Several days passed, thoughts swirling in my head, how should I broach the subject?  Not that he’s some mean ogre, quite the opposite in fact.  He’s a wonderful husband and father, and so very funny!  In my heart, however,  I knew he would be the one to look at the situation with logic and questions, unlike me, as I was ready to dive in head first.

So…the time came when I decided to ask about the background check and visit.  After all, I had prayed and waited five whole days!  What could possibly go wrong?  I was simply asking him to complete a form so Marie could visit our home.  My husband knows me so well.  His response was quick and logical.  Tears began to flow and my ability to communicate faded.  At this moment, listening was necessary and I’m not sure either of us was successful.

The response I heard went something like, “Honey, I knew this would happen.  We cannot adopt this child.  I am not getting a background check.  I’m not sure these visits are a good idea.”  I was devastated at the thought of this reality.  Even though I hadn’t mentioned adoption he was right, the thought had crossed my mind.

A sleepless night and tear-filled day helped me begin to hear what he actually said.  I wrote an essay on a heart-covered card asking him to give more thought to the background check and possible visit and carefully placed it on his pillow.  He chuckled at the length of my note, and gave the most surprising response, “Honey, I never said I would not have a background check.”  As it turned out he understood my need to visit Marie and have her visit our home.  He was also willing to provide material things she might need.  His main concern was the impact on our family and the probability that my heart would be broken no matter the outcome.

My current plan?  Proceed with caution.  Consider how my feelings, thoughts, and actions affect those around me, especially my family.  Remember how much this man loves me and be thankful he recognizes my desire to love this child. And let this verse guide my steps.  “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  Matthew 6:34

***

Do you enjoy being alone?  I must admit I do not.  Although necessary at times,  not a state I purposefully choose.  Others in my family seem to relish alone times, focusing on their particular interests.  Now consider the word isolation-it provokes a sense of being forced to be alone, having no control over circumstances-an unpleasant solitude.

What if you were intentionally left alone without the warmth of human companionship?  Feelings of abandonment seeping in slowly.  Dwelling on these thoughts makes me sad and angry.  Honestly, I don’t want to have these thoughts.  But right now it is necessary, at least for a time.

Marie’s social worker visited our home for an assessment to determine if she would be allowed to visit…proceeding with caution.  Her love and care for this sweet girl were evident.  Although she knows of terrible things from Marie’s past, she chooses to focus on the present and future with hope. Most of our conversation stayed in that realm, thankful for current shelter, safety, and happiness.  While showing her the room where Marie would sleep she cautioned, “Marie might be afraid if she’s left alone in a room with the door closed.”

My knowledge of the abuse Marie suffered involved physical harm, and those incidences were over four years ago.  I had not allowed myself to think about what happened in the years following.  But now I heard this word-isolation-bringing a completely different understanding of what she has endured.  Imagine not only having the scars from physical abuse, but also the fear which comes from intentional separation, and withholding the most basic human needs. We are talking about a child with intellectual disabilities, helpless to escape the cruelty imposed upon her.

I’m not sure how to process this information.  And if that’s my reaction, imagine the difficulty for Marie.  There is no comparison, and at this moment, no sufficient answers.

***

When I consider my own children, the thought of them suffering or experiencing any kind of trauma is unbearable.  I want to be the best parent I can be.  Parenting is hard, bringing many responsibilities and challenges.  But it also produces great rewards.  For example, hearing them call out “Mom” even as young adults-music to my ears.

One of the most thoughtful gifts I received from my husband was a sound wave print of my children saying, “Mom.”  Hanging on the wall in our living room, it makes me smile.  Am I a perfect mother?  Hardly!  But my children know they are loved.  My heart aches when they’re hurting and soars when they’re content.  A mother’s job is to love and protect.  That need is present from the moment a baby enters this world.  What happens when that love and protection are replaced by isolation and abuse?  The results are devastating, creating lasting memories and trauma difficult to overcome.

“My mom is mean” is not a phrase you hear every day.  Yes, I know kids sometimes exaggerate and say things that are not true.  Is it possible my own children thought I was mean at some point?  Oh yes.  I’ve even used the words “mean mama voice” when talking about discipline.  I may think twice about using those words again.

Tonight I was talking on the phone with Marie.  She has temporarily moved from the shelter she called home to a behavioral assistance facility.  Rachel and I have been visiting her twice a week, and she calls us almost every night.  Our visits consist of coloring, games, reading her stories, looking at pictures, and laughter.  Phone calls are a little more difficult, as it is often hard to understand what she’s trying to communicate. There are many issues she needs to work through and the process is made more difficult by her disability.

Some moments, however, are crystal clear-tonight was one of those times.

Marie told me her counselor came today and when I asked what they talked about she said, “My mom.”  I was caught off guard at first, not sure what she would say.  And then the words came, “My mom is mean.”  She went on to recall how her mom would hit her at their house.  Hearing a child say their parent hurt them…I know she said more, but her words started to blur.  The truth is, I already knew her words were not an exaggeration.  I saw the bruises when she was younger.  When asked what happened I heard her say, “Mi mama.”  I filed the abuse reports.  Then the family moved, and the abuse continued.  The abuse continued for four more years.

How was I supposed to respond?  The only thing I could say was, “I’m so sorry-moms are not supposed to act that way.”  My heart hurts.  Words are not enough.  We will continue to visit, encourage her to talk about the hard things and hopefully show her what it means to love. “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”  I Corinthians 13:7

***

Where does this story begin?  Each time I think about the answer to that question  I find myself unable to choose just one point in time.  The decision to become a special education teacher, the first time I met Marie, filing the first DHS report.  These events culminate with this one story which has changed my life forever.

Many of my memories associated with Marie are difficult, the kind of memories I’d rather bury.  Before receiving the subpoena to testify at the reliability hearing, I had blocked specific events.  Four years had passed since she was my student.  And though I would never forget her, some things were just too hard to remember.  Until the day it remembering became necessary.

My heart sank at first sight of the word “subpoena” in my school mailbox.  There was no question who the notice concerned.  I followed the instructions on the letter and soon received an email filled with documents. Uncontrollable tears came as I read my own words from the reports I had filed.  And with them, the images I had worked so hard to bury.

I read, re-read, reviewed, made notes, whatever I needed to do to be prepared for this hearing.  My testimony, if accepted by the judge, would provide a voice for Marie.  I was naïve in my hope that there would be a settlement after the initial hearing.  That was not the case.  A trial date was set, and I would need to testify once again.

And so I continued to review, this time for the trial.  Sleepless nights, floods of unpleasant memories and tears filled the space leading up to the day.  We have all watched courtroom scenes, real and fictional on television.  None of those could prepare me for the reality of testifying.  Being sworn in, sitting next to a judge, the jury on one side and Marie’s mother on the other.  A surreal experience.

My testimony provided details of events that happened years earlier.  Speaking with clarity and emotion, I remained strong in the face of a cross-examination which attempted to discredit everything I said.  Some images will never be erased from my memory, and I made sure everyone in the courtroom understood that truth as I testified through my tears.  A tremendous weight accompanied this responsibility to “speak for this one who could not speak for herself.” Proverbs 31:8

Relief, after the trial ended, was short-lived and replaced by concern for Marie.  Where was she?  Was she ok?  I knew I had to see her if at all possible.  Would she remember me?

My first visit to that Emergency Children’s Shelter was just the beginning. My family spent the following year investing in this precious girl.  Phone calls, visits, birthdays, and holidays helped make sure she knew someone loved her.  Circumstances have recently changed with a foster home placement, and now I must let go.  I miss her.

***

Why is letting go so hard?  I remember the day we dropped off our son Robert at college.  I cried the entire drive there and back.  Two years later it was Rachel’s turn.  She was staying a little closer to home, but it was still difficult to leave her in that tiny dorm room alone.  One more year and it will be Ryan’s turn, my baby.  I’m trying not to think about that just yet.

Today brings a different kind of letting go.  Letting go of someone who was never mine, but who carved a lasting place in my heart.  And while I am thankful for our time with her, it’s not an exaggeration to say some days it feels like my heart is being ripped out.  Part of me wanted to be her mom.

Accepting that our family is not the final answer for Marie has been difficult.  Recently someone said to me, “What do you think your family could provide for this child that another family could not?”  That stung but was exactly what I needed to hear.  Suddenly the words “letting go” began invading my thoughts.  And then it hit me-maybe our purpose had simply been to provide love and friendship during a year of confusion, fear, and uncertainty.  And that was ok.

How appropriate that exactly one year after that first visit, I receive word of a foster home placement. Today some of my tears are selfish because I will miss her, but most are grateful-grateful for caring foster parents and a fresh start for our precious friend.  I seek comfort in words from Ecclesiastes 3:1, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens…”

***

The ending of this story has no more clarity than the beginning.  As I patiently wait to hear how my sweet friend is doing in her new home, there is much reflection.  Our time spent with her this past year challenged us and brought us closer together as a family.  We love her, and I believe she loves us, even if we were not meant to be her family.

Marie made us laugh with comments like “Why you so bossy?” directed toward my husband.  “You almost married?” multiple times to my oldest children.  “Why you so big?” to my 6’3 youngest son.  She brought tears to our eyes when she thanked us for singing happy birthday to her, telling each of us how pretty we sang.  And left us forever humbled by the way she so easily trusted us…

In our last conversation, Marie mentioned the idea of moving to a foster home.  Her social worker had been preparing her for this possibility.  I asked her if she felt ok about that.  She smiled nervously and said yes.  There was a long pause and then her precious words, “But I miss you.”

“Oh, honey, I will miss you too.  Don’t ever forget-what are we?”

“My friends.”

Yes, sweet girl…always.