“I love you baby and I always will
I love you baby and I always will
I love you baby and I always will
Ever since I put your picture
In a frame.” – Tom Waits
I worked with a girl who was placed into foster care for the very first time on her 10th birthday.
She was picked up in the middle of the school day and yanked from her entire life, thrust into a new one altogether.
Her belongings were jammed into garbage bags, already waiting for her in the car.
Maybe her classmates had planned a party for her? (She’ll never know).
Maybe her best friend had gotten her a gift? (She’ll never know).
Maybe the party was scheduled for after recess, but she didn’t get to stay that long? (She’ll never know).
Just like that, a new life.
Changes so abrupt they leave our kids with emotional whiplash.
In the larger scheme of the trauma that is inherent in foster care, why do the small things matter so much?
Why is it important what kind of bags kids use to carry their personal belongings?
Why does it matter if they’re placed into foster care on their birthdays?
What does all of this add up to?
These things matter because they send a clear, if unintended, message:
You are invisible.
You don’t matter.
You are a throwaway kid, now.
You are trash.
This is what we think of you.
That is the message children get when they are treated carelessly.
And in many ways, I understand it.
I get how it works, because I have been that worker jamming clothes into a garbage bag, in a rush to get papers signed, in a rush to get a child settled into a new home before dark.
Workers are overburdened and our system is underfunded and good people do this work day in and day out and still it is not enough. The systemic support is lacking.
There are too many kids. There are so many broken families. And it’s all too much.
We do not mean to devalue our kids this way. But we do it. Every single day.
But this is the thing: It matters how you move a child.
It matters if it is on that child’s birthday. It matters if their things are in garbage bags. It matters if you forget a favorite stuffed animal, lost to the shuffle of home-to-home.
It matters that in their new home nobody knows how they like they their eggs, or what their favorite snack food is.
It matters that they need to sleep with a nightlight on, and there is no nightlight.
It matters that nobody knows that before bed they need four stories, not three, to feel safe. It matters when nobody remembers the fourth story.
It matters that the smells are unfamiliar to them. It matters that they need new clothes for summer, and that the clothing allowance check hasn’t arrived yet, and so they are still wearing winter clothes in June.
It matters when the Christmas presents they receive were meant for a younger child, or an older one, because there were no presents donated for a 10 year old.
It matters that because of this they no longer believe in Santa.
It matters if there are pictures of all of the biological family members on the walls, and no pictures of the foster child.
These things – they matter to kids. They matter deeply.
So how long before a child’s image makes it into a frame? How long before the absence of that photo in a frame etches itself into a child’s psyche?
How long before that child, who never sees herself reflected back, feels invisible? And if that child becomes invisible, how will we ever see her pain?
We have to pay closer attention. All of us.
Kids need stable families. And they need other things, too.
They need real luggage. They need their own stuffed animals. They need night-lights and some of them? They need that fourth story.
They need not to move on their birthdays unless it’s a true emergency, and they need a system that pays attention to such details.
They need all of this, and while each one of us may not be able to provide all of this, we can help.
We can support the agencies and the people who do this work with our money or our time.
We can become a mentor.
We can speak up when we see a child being mistreated.
We can advocate.
We can enroll in a training course if we are moved to become foster parents ourselves. We can talk about adoption openly and earnestly and learn what it takes to provide a home for a child in care.
Because these kids? They need a lot of things. They need families that will stick. They need a constant person in their lives.
They need their picture in somebody’s frame.
You may also be interested in: The Boy I Didn’t Adopt
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Fellow Boston toddler mama here who laughs along with you on most days but am writing for the first time to thank you for this beautiful post, and the others, that have introduced me to some pretty amazing organizations over the past few weeks. I like to consider myself an advocate, involved, aware, and yet foster kids weren’t on my radar up until a month ago. I hate admitting that. Pretty embarrassing, but it’s true. Thanks for changing that.
Caitlin, I really appreciate this comment. One of my goals with the blog is to raise awareness about this particular issue, so it means a lot to me that you took the time to let me know that maybe my efforts can work. Thank you!
I hadn’t thought about foster care before the age of 17, I was working in a state funded daycare and a man was taking pictures. I had to go get our director to ask him to stop. He showed up is the photos and they were all of one little boy and his sister. Bothe were in foster care. Before that moment it never occurred to me that they have no childhood photographs or memories for that matter (other than being shuffled around) These foster parents make a scrapbook of the time the children are with them, may not be allowed now, this was years ago, I was touched at the idea. Then u was reminded again of all the children who are lost in the system when I had a yard sale. We were selling two sets of luggage and some other bags. A woman came and bought them all because she said her foster children deserved to carry their things with dignity, and I cried, gave her the bags ALL OF THEM, and said thank you. Every child matters, no one should feel invisible or forgotten. In a time when the media focuses on what’s wrong with the system, twice I saw what was right!
Katrina, these are great examples of the types of small things people can do that can have an impact on how kids experience the system. Thanks for sharing this!
As a former foster child (from ages 5-10), though I am now 47, I still cry nearly every day. I l know I have PTSD from the experience, and it has affected every area of my life, every cell of my being. Though I made a life for myself (living on my own from age 16 on, traveling the world, graduating from UC Berkeley, having a 20 year relationship with the father of my 2 children, and a very successful career), I am the walking dead. I am the solid glass object with a fracture from end to end. I am the sob that never seems to release the ache.
Being in someone’s picture frame is not enough. I used to stare at the fake pictures in the picture frames at stores, and wonder if good and happy families existed. A child needs a good and happy family forever. Without pause.
Thank you for speaking for the foster children, the most hurt and lost amongst us.
By the grace.
Kelly, I’m so sorry you’ve gone through this. It sounds terrible, and having not experienced it first hand I can only imagine what it must feel like from the inside. I appreciate how you wrote “A child needs a good and happy family forever. Without pause.” The “pause” can be a killer. And while I know that having your picture on the wall isn’t enough, I do think it’s symbolic of having a real “place” somewhere, and that it signifies that a child matters. Of course there is much more to it than that, as you well know.
Thank you for this poignant post… so heartbreaking to learn of the children who have to suffer through such traumatic transitions, and tragic circumstances. This pains me. SO deeply.
Your voice is as loud as thousands, through your powerful and gripping words. Thank you for being these children’s voice. I split into crumbled pieces, to think of a scared child without her nightlight, or leaving school not knowing where she is going, or entering a new home with new smells and not understanding why he is there.
Frightened and alone, in a world they cannot trust.
Oh, how I wish I could take every single one of them and protect them from it all…
I grew up being a ward of the state of KS from the age of two, off and on for 16yrs. I am now 36 and have a 10 ur old beautiful little girl that I am so protective of. We have DCF, which used to be SRS. The system is so broken that none of us, who use to be in it trust it. I sure don’t and I don’t think I ever will. The system is broken I believe beyond repair