The Children I Have Loved

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Dedicated to Kimberly Laughton, whose friendship and compassion enriches my heartfelt goals and dreams.

The 3-year-old I was there to meet sat next to me, looking up at me with beautiful blue eyes and the face of an angel. I later learned she was an angry child - far too angry for such a young heart.

My goal that day was to meet the toddler, and possibly take her home as a foster mother. She was one of a group of about five children who came rushing toward me, as I sat in their house and told them a story. As a professional entertainer, I well know how children respond to stories, especially when I threw in bit of humor and love. So even though I wasn't there to work, it felt right entertaining these kids.

Their home - for the time, at least - was small and not elaborately furnished. It was obvious the home did not belong to wealthy people. But it provided something invaluable to those children: a safe haven.

The home was an emergency foster facility, which would house the children until a more permanent home could be found. Through no fault of their own, the children living there were battling a host of problems: disabilities; abandonment, sadness, confusion, anger.

Take, for example, the little boy, no older than two, who struggled, across the floor to greet me. His arms came to an abrupt end below his shoulders. His legs ended at his thighs, perhaps the victim of a drug-addicted mother. But he knew how to move, inching himself forward using the shortened limbs he had.

I saw an incredible child, struggling with every ounce of strength he had just to sit next to me for a few moments of attention, a simple desire that every child deserves. I picked him up and held him close. Tears streamed down his face and he cried for his mommy. My heart broke into a million pieces, knowing that his mommy was gone, possibly for good. If only others knew how these children suffered, I thought, perhaps they would be willing to help too.

I did my part that day by taking the 3-year-old girl home with me. It wasn't easy, as we both tried to surmount the immense anger she felt at being taken away from her mother, a heroin addict. But she lived with me for a year and a half. She is now 17, and to this day we are very dear friends.

In an ideal world, children would always be placed into strong, loving arms at birth. Parents would be there to provide the deep wells of warmth and security that children need to thrive. Unfortunately, though, that's simply not reality for many children. In California, about 7,000 of the 113,000 children in the state are waiting for families to adopt them, according to state statistics.

Locally, it's a problem too. The state office of adoption in Rohnert Park is constantly seeing families to adopt, a spokesperson said. There is a need in counties throughout the area. In August 1998, there were 1,072 children in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties in need of foster homes.

I also know from personal experience. I became a foster mother -- and my life changed forever -- more than a decade ago. My work with children in the foster care system dates back 15 years, when I was bringing performing arts workshops to a San Joaquin Valley elementary school. I developed strong relationships with the kids there. They would talk and I would listen. I brought humor, music, dance and compassion into their lives. They could tell I cared. Not all those children, though, were carefree. A large number of kids at that school came from homes where they were neglected or struggling with other problems, such as poverty or parents who were alcoholics and drug addicts.

I was especially struck by the story of one little girl, a kindergartner who I first met in the school nurse's office where she was in midst of an asthma attack, gasping for breath. She was frightened, weak, and alone. The girl's mother was in prison and the aunt who was supposed to take care of her was regularly nowhere to be found.

I was 29 and single at a time when skeptics still questioned the merits of single parenthood. Yet I knew instantly that I, even alone, had far more to offer this child than what she was receiving and I made the decision there and then to act. I could not help that little girl - she needed help faster than I could give it to her. The school nurse did her best. But I could not sit by knowing there were children in danger. I became a foster mother.

My house was inspected, my friends had to vouch for me and I was fingerprinted. My background was checked, I learned CPR and first aid and I attended parenting classes. As required by law, I set aside a room in my house big enough for one or two kids to call their own. I worked hard enough to keep a two-bedroom apartment. The state helps cover other expenses, such as medical care, room, clothing and food.

Within weeks of being licensed, I received a call from the Department of Social Services. They had a child for me. I was excited at the prospect. A child! This is what I was longing for. Then I heard the story - the whole story. The 7-year-old girl had been sexually molested, which resulted in behavior problems so bad she was being bounced from foster home to foster home. She had already been in and out of seven of them. Her mother was in jail and there were no relatives interested in helping. The social worker, which had heard about my previous work with children through entertainment, was frustrated. He thought I might be able to help.

I met the girl the next day. She was one of the most rambunctious looking children I had ever seen. She had a wildness about her and seemed unsettled. Her eyes didn't focus on any particular subject and her behavior was erratic. She had untamed energy.

Yet, I was excited by the prospect of having her come to live with me. I wanted the challenge. I wanted to help, even though it was clear we wouldn't bond quickly and had a long road ahead. I didn't know what to say or do, so I turned to my old tricks. As we left the department of social services building that day, I took her hand, started skipping and began singing Zippidity Do Dah, Zippady A, my oh my what a wonderful day.... My father has always sung and danced with me. He is understanding and funny too. It calms my soul and helps me feel secure. So, this I gave her.

I soon got other on-the-job training. The No. 1 lesson that child taught me was that I had to be selfless. I realize now that, like so many others, I had gone into being a foster mother hoping to fulfill my own needs and desires, mainly to be a close to a child as only a parent could. I was naive, as I had never dealt so intimately with such an injured child. The girl lied often. She had tantrums and talked back. She was mean spirited and defiant. She stole.

She showed me how severe the emotional upheaval that afflicts a troubled child can be. And I struggled, also, to find the best ways and means of connecting with this child and helping her. My challenge was, after all, to guide this child so that she ultimately could break through her pain and discover joy on the other side.

She helped me learn what I needed to know. She taught me patience. I realized early on in our relationship that if I reacted to her anger with anger of my own that her problems would escalate, making me as unhappy as she was. She taught me to be strong. She taught me to be peaceful when she had outbursts. I had no choice. I had to give her a foundation to make her feel safe and secure if she was going to progress.

In time, she changed, and our relationship grew. Within six months, she started to calm down and became more settled. She was one of my greatest teachers in life; I learned more from her than any book or college education could have provided me. A year after we met, I wanted to adopt her -- only to be told I couldn't because I was not married. And though I had a loving home and the desire to be her mother for good, the girl was ultimately adopted by another family. Another needless disruption in a young girl who already had suffered so.

Hopefully, though, foster children soon will not have to endure that kind of disruption so frequently. The plights of foster children like that girl's got government officials' attention, resulting in a new program called Fost-Adopt. The goal of the program, established by the U.S. Department of Social Services, was to minimize the trauma and disruption so many foster children endured by being shuffled from foster home to foster home. Achieving that goal became even more essential in California, as the state became over burdened with a growing number of children who lacked a sense of home or family. Keeping such children in foster homes also cost the state a great deal of money.

Under the Fost-Adopt program, however, children who have little hope of returning to their birth parents are placed with foster parents who agree to consider adopting them. The state also has established the Adoption Assistance Program, which provides financial and medical support to adoptive families that need it. That program makes adoption possible for single or married people and low-income families whom otherwise may not be able to afford it. And there are some foster children who do go home again. In some cases, the children's birth parents remedy the problems that cost them their children in the first place, and the children are returned to their families. Women who lose infants due to neglect or abuse, for example, have six months to clean up their problems and regain custody of their children. Other times, relatives step forward.

All the above programs are designed to help foster children find permanent homes.

Perhaps my experiences have inspired you to move forward. That is good, for you may be the very person who changes a young person's life. None of us can reach every child in need. But there are kids out there whose lives will be forever changed because someone took a chance with them when others walked away.

My goal is not to pull on your heartstrings without being honest. I plunged into being a foster parent somewhat unprepared and with little support. I had never had to contend with the hardships these children experienced, from having parents so filled with anger that sometimes they blamed you for all their misfortunes and mistakes. No one warned me or my husband, Michael, who has stood by my commitment to help these children, of the challenges we would face, or the hoops of fire we would have to leap through just to make daily living work. There are times we had no one - not even the agencies we were working with - to support us in our trials. We definitely learned the hard way. The hardest problem to cope with was false accusations by children or adults. Sometimes when people are unhappy they make it about others rather than looking in the mirror and being honest about their own situation.

So it is essential that anyone considering being a foster parent investigates the agency they want to work with. What kind of agencies facilitates this type of thing? Make sure the staff shares your sense of compassion and goals. Be certain social workers are your allies and will be there to support you.

Now Michael and I are reaping a different kind of reward for our work - the pending adoption of Connor. The call came on Valentine's Day when Michael and I were asked to care for him. We had always wanted a baby of our own, but life had a different plan for us. After helping many older children, something very unexpected happened. We were met with failed pregnancies and an ironic twist of fate. We were denied the opportunity to have our own natural child, probably because there were other plans for us. I believed this happened so I would speak out even louder with my own life's pain and loss so children needing families would find loving homes.

Connor, who is physically challenged, came to us as a foster child. We thought it might be short term or possibly an adoptive placement. The family who was caring for Connor was outstanding but with a home filled with many children, it was difficult to provide the extra time and attention he would need. He needed immediate medical support. I was angry and tearful that he hadn't gotten the help he needed simply because his parents couldn't be found to sign the medical releases. It was important to find a foster parent who could advocate for him and move the mountains he needed to get better. This special needs boy has found a place in our hearts and the miracle of it all is he found good health also. We have been blessed beyond belief.

We will continue to open our home to foster children and help them move forward with their lives. Most likely we will adopt one more child, of an older age, because we know the importance of offering our acceptance and help to those needing us so much. We now may be able to offer at least one of them what we hope all our sons and daughters ultimately get: a family of their own.

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Credits: Barbara Schwartz-Davis

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