Today I had the pleasure of volunteering for the Heart Gallery‘s annual exhibit at Penn Station. The mission was to raise awareness about youth in foster care and encouraging passersby to sign up to receive more information about mentoring, fostering, or adopting hard to place children and youth. The most illuminating interaction I had this afternoon, however, was with a young mother who herself had been placed in foster care and who now had three very young kids in the system. It was one of those conversations that threatened to drag on, but I sensed that she really needed to have her story heard, and I’ve gotten much better at being able to hold space for people without getting pulled into the drama of their stories. The upshot for me was that I got to learn a lot from what may be the most overlooked entity in the foster care ecosystem: the birth parent.
The young mother said it’s wonderful that people are so invested in raising awareness for children in foster care, but that her heart went out to all the mothers who have lost children to the system. While she acknowledged that she’d made certain regretful judgment calls, she maintained that the system was not set up to make things easy for her to get her children back. She talked about the trauma of giving birth to a baby who was immediately taken away from her, and all the mistrust and anger that surfaced in the wake of the loss. When this rage came out during a visit to the agency, they took it as further indictment of her parenting skills.
In her words, “It takes a long time for a person to get her shit together,” and she couldn’t figure out why the agency kept giving her more hoops to jump through. In her eyes more opportunities for quality time with her children (birthday parties, home visits) would have served their relationship better than all the parenting workshops she had to sit through.
It’s been a five year journey for her, but she is hopeful that the courts will reinstate her parental rights for at least one of her children early next year. She credits much of her growth and success to her own outspokenness, her faith in God, and her ability to reach out to her community for help. At the end of her moving story, she apologized for chatting my ear off, but said it felt good to be able to share her life without any shame. She left us with a suggestion for another exhibit: photographs of birth parents hugging the children they’ve lost to foster care.