Ted Peterson of The Next Family and his partner Ian share their experience of becoming foster parents and discuss the scars that can run deep in foster children.
My partner Ian and I did an interview which will appear in the newsletter for the Alliance for Children’s Rights about some of the myths of foster adoption. Some of the myths were about whether it was difficult for same-sex couples to adopt (it’s not) and whether the biological parents can take the children away after the adoption (no, they can’t). Then the next myth we were presented with was whether children in the foster adoption system are damaged. That was a hard question to answer.
We wanted to say that the kids in foster care are just like all kids everywhere, but that’s not really true. Ask any social worker and they’ll tell you that the vast majority of kids in foster care were born with drugs in their system, crystal meth, cocaine, alcohol, and more, in some combination. Even if they weren’t born with those poisons in them, something bad happened to put them into the system. Their bodies suffered abuse, most often in the form of neglect. It’s dishonest to say these aren’t damaged kids.
We’ve been incredibly lucky with Mikey. He was carried to term with no drugs detected in his system. He’s in great health—mentally, physically, and emotionally—but he’s not even four yet. It’s hard to tell what effect having three different homes before he was two years old will have, but it’s unrealistic to think that there was none. He was developmentally trying to form bonds with people and they kept being broken.
Of course, the scars of that damage are all on the inside. Anyone who meets Mikey is not only charmed by his personality, but by his good looks. Not that he hasn’t suffered his share of bumps and bruises like any three-year-old. The week before Easter, there was an incident while playing basketball where the flesh just below Mikey’s eye had unwanted contact with a fingernail. The timing wasn’t great for a bloody gash, with the photo op of egg hunting around the corner and school pictures the following week. Luckily (Thanks Neosporin!), the scratch had faded away in time for the school pictures, and at Easter, it gave him a tough look which let the other kids know not to touch his chocolates.
After the child’s initial pain has subsided, I think many parents worry about these scratches and bumps and how it reflects on them. On one hand, we know that every kid who isn’t in a bubble gets them; on the other, we don’t want anyone to look at our kid, and then look at us, and think, “Child abuse!” I think that comes from the same part of the brain which makes you panic even though you’re not doing anything wrong when a police car pulls up next to you at a traffic light.
So those shallow scratches fade away, but sometimes an injury’s deeper. Sometimes, there’s a scar on the surface or deep inside, which very few can see.
The thing about discussing kids as being damaged is that it makes it sound like they’re a chair partially eaten by termites, or a scratch on a car bumper, or a hole in the bottom of a shoe. Kids aren’t objects which can either be repaired or are ruined for good, or things which lose their value when they’re hurt.
In Mikey, his early experience losing home after home has made him more empathetic. He watches everyone around him, at home and at preschool, and is the first person to give hugs when someone is feeling bad.
That damage has been done, and we can’t undo it. It’s fucking unfair, but it’s not all bad.
The cliché, of course, is that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Like so many clichés, it’s true.