Another Place at the Table
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For more than a decade, Kathy Harrison has sheltered a shifting cast of troubled youngstersthe offspring of prostitutes and addicts; the sons and daughters of abusers; and teenage parents who can't handle parenthood. What would motivate someone to give herself over to constant, largely uncompensated chaos? How does she manage her extraordinary blended family? Why would anyone voluntarily take on her job?
Harrison is no saint, but an ordinary woman doing heroic work. In Another Place at the Table, she describes her life at our social services' front linescentered around three children who, when they come together in her home, nearly destroy it. Danny, age eight, is borderline mentally retarded and a budding pedophile (a frequent result of sexual abuse in boys). No other family will take him in. Tough, magnetic Sara, age six, is dangerously promiscuous (a typical manifestation of abuse in girls). Karen, six months, shares Danny's legal advocate, who must represent the interests of both. All three living under the same roof will lead to an inevitable explosionbut for each, Harrison's care offers the greatest hope of a reinvented childhood.
For readers of The Lost Children of Wilder, Expecting Adam, and Somebody Else's Kids, this is the first-person story of a woman whose compassionate best intentions for a child are sometimes all that stand between violence and redemption.
Kathy Harrison has been a foster parent to nearly one hundred children. In 1996, she and her husband were named Massachusetts Foster Parents of the Year, and in 2002, they received the prestigious Goldie Foster Award.
When you were little and people asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, did you ever imagine it would be "foster mom"?
No. I didn't even want children. I was going to be rich and famous and live in New York City. I figured I would be a writer.
Why a writer?
I've always written, from the time I was little. I wrote stories, fables, children's stuff. I kept journals. When I started doing foster care, I used journals with the children.
How do you use journals with the children?
When kids come to me and they've been in twenty-seven different homes, they don't remember much of their past. They think they were hatched at age nine or something. What I often do is buy them a little binder notebook and say, "Tell me the first thing you remember. Who's the first person you remember living with?" If that person is not the birth mother, I will talk to the child's caseworker and see if I can learn the child's exact history. Then I will tell the childsay her name is Anna"Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Anna. When she was born, she had a mother, whose name was Elizabeth. But Elizabeth couldn't take care of her well enough, so Anna went to live with her aunt Sally." And so on. When I'm done with the story, Anna has a picture of her past so she can write it down in her journal herself. It's a timeline. I also use journals with teenagers. Imagine being fifteen and walking into some stranger's house, especially if you don't happen to speak English. I say to teenagers, "Tell me your story." Then, if they do, I say, "That's so interestingthis is like the best work of fiction, but it's real. Why don't you write it down?" The alternative is that they'll put on headphones and veg out for hours. Another thing I might say to kids is, "Wow, this is how long your life has been so far, but this is how long you have left." I want to give them a sense of wide-open futures and the opportunity to make good choices from this point forward.
What about you? Do you still keep a journal?
Yes. Writing helps me process things. For example, when a child first comes to me, I often write down the child's story and from that compile a list of strengths and needs. In the course of writing, I get a clearer understanding of children and their families. It puts things in a context that I can understand. I have a sense of, "Oh, now I get it. I see how this happened and who these people are in the world." It also helps me cope with some of the horror of a particular story. It's cheaper and more accessible than a therapist. I'm not good at keeping a specific journal, though. I'll write something in one notebook, and then in anotherfragments here and there. I'll write in margins of books, on napkins, backs of envelopes. I'm always saying, "Does anyone have a paper bag? I need to write something down." My husband bought me one of those handheld tape recorders. But it's not the same. For me, writing has to be longhand. It has something to do with how I sit to write, how the words go on the paper. Writing isn't just the product, it's also the process. There's a physical side to it.
Did you write this book longhand, or on a computer?
The first five drafts were handwritten. The initial part of the writing process for me always has to be handwritten. After those drafts, though, I typed the text into a computer. I still don't know how to cut and paste. I have to ask the kids.
When did you go from saying, "I want to be a writer in New York City," to, "I want to be a foster mom"?
I never said to myself, "I want to be a foster mom." That was never the plan. My husband and I got married and had our first son. We moved to a rural environmenta town with seven hundred people, a farm in the middle of nowhere. Then we had another couple of kids. I liked having kids. I liked being a motherbaking bread, giving baths, the physical stuff. When it was time for me to think about gainful employment, I took some classes and taught preschool. I loved being in the classroom, having children around. Then I met my first little girl who needed a home. She's starting college next week. There was never an epiphany moment when I said, "This is what I want to do." I slid into it. During that slide, I had moments when I said to myself, "Holy smoke! This is really interesting!"
What is it about being a foster parent that you find interesting?
I'm not a cocktail party girl. But when we do go to cocktail parties, the other guests are talking about their investments or their computers, and are probably thinking about me, "She's fifty years old and she's still home?" And what I'm thinking is, "You have no idea how interesting my life is!" We all like to glimpse into other people's lives. I think I'm nosy by nature. It's interesting for me to see how other families work and survive. Some families live lives about which you think: "How do they stand the trauma? I couldn't stand the trauma." But some of these families actually thrive on it. Kids themselves are amazingly perceptive and courageous and smart. They slay me when they tell me some of their stories-fifteen moves, not knowing where they're going to be tomorrow. And yet they get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other. How interesting is that? How lucky am I? I have the opportunity to hold their hands. I think I've become an adrenaline junkie as far as what I do. This is real drama, complete with mysteries and heroes and villains and plot twists. I'm energized by the unexpected.
Why did you write this book?
I'm a writer. A Boston Globe reporter wanted to write a book about what I do. But my husband said to me, "You write it. This is the book you want to write." Foster parents are among the most misunderstood people in the world. There seems to be a mental picture of foster parentswe're either selfless saints, or we're leeches of society who take in children and spend government money on Cadillacs while we feed the kids macaroni and cheese, and lock them in the closet. The truth is, I'm not a saint. I can get impatient. I don't always make the right choices. Sometimes I just want to go into my bedroom and lock the door. But I'm also not cruel and awful. In this book, I wanted to offer a more authentic and realistic public image of people who choose to do foster care. I also wanted people to read the book and say, "I can do this." And I wanted to tell my kids' stories. There's this image of kids in foster care, that they're all hideous delinquents. And instead, so many of them are remarkable. They have sweet streaks. Even the worst kids can have sweet streaks. I had a horrible childdifficult as can be, retarded, very aggressive and violent, sneaky, sometimes really mean. A hard kid. I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?" But when she came into the house, she looked around and said, "My God, this is like living in a party!" Just like that, as soon as her attitude changed, my attitude changed. There are moments that are quite sweet. Underneath it all, the kids are just kids. How do you keep your equilibrium with the other people in these kids' livesthe birth parents, the caseworkers, the social workers, the attorneys? When you meet birth parents who were or are awful to the kids, are you tempted to lecture or yell at them? I'm the sort of person who wants everyone to do what I want, yesterday. I want everyone to do what my kids want. I'm that way with attorneys and social workers and caseworkers. But not with birth parents.
These birth parents were six years old themselves once upon a time, and nobody helped them. If someone had, none of this would be happening now. I can have long conversations in my head in which I tell a birth parent what to do. But judgment doesn't help. What I see in the birth parents is an enormous amount of pain and anger and fear. Still, there are kinds of abuse that would blow your mind. The sexual abuse of children is incomprehensible to me, and after all these years, I'm still floored when mothers choose abusive mates over the welfare of their children. I can wrap my brain around the idea of a parent's losing it and shaking a baby or hitting a child harder than intended, but I struggle to come up with any empathy in cases of planned, systematic abuse or lack of remorse. There is neglect that comes from poverty or a parent's limitations, but I've seen parents who smoke while trying to justify not feeding their babies.
What was your childhood like? Do your own experiences as a child help you now with your foster children?
Yes, there's no question. As for my childhoodthere was a fair amount of good stuff with a fair amount of awful stuff. The family structure was there. I have two brothers and a sister, who are very successful nowgood lives, solid marriages, nice kids. We're very tight. We all talk to at least one of the others every day. When we were kids, we always had one another. We also always had somebody in the backgroundsome adultwho was willing to prop us up. There was always somebody to tell us, "You are so bright." My mother felt that we were smart and capable. I realize that I might be that person for my kids.
What role does your husband play in your kids' lives?
Bruce feels very strongly that he's often the only normal guy that my little girls and my adolescent girls ever see. He's so good with them. He says, "I'm the only book they're going to read on what a guy should be like." Last night, he was washing the dishes after working a nine-hour day. I had started to do them, but he said, "No, I want you to take a swim. I can do this in ten minutes."
Isn't that a good message for the kids?
Bruce feels it's important for the kids to see a man who can be patient and kind and nurturing. Even if he and I get annoyed with the kids, we rarely lose our tempers. When we find ourselves not working well with a child, we usually ask to have the child moved rather than risk not meeting the child's needs. We are both pretty good at realizing that children use behaviors to express their feelings, so we don't take things personally. If the kids are getting to us, Bruce and I will give ourselves a time-out. I figure that God invented The Lion King to give parents an hour of peace and quiet. It can be hard enough balancing marriage with conventional parenthood.
What is it like balancing marriage with foster parenthood?
That's another message we give to our kidsthat Bruce and I need to have our time together. We guard that time. We're not opposed to telling the kids that they need to find something to do at certain times. Bruce and I find time alone. We're hedonistic about it. We have coffee together on the deck every morning. And every night, we have coffee, tea, or a drink and sit on the deck. Most nights, if the weather is good, we're in the pool at ten, eleven o'clock. We call it our "sacred spot." The kids know they're not allowed there unless their hair's on fire. This gives Bruce and me enough energy to face the next challenge. He and I have a standing Thursday-night date. We don't do anything spectacular. Sometimes we'll get a bottle of wine and rent a movie or play cards. We might just watch television or look at the stars. What we do isn't important, but the time alone together is. We don't even answer the phone. It's wonderful.
If you had a weekend to yourselfno kids, no husband, no obligationswhat would you do?
I would get homesick. My home is my favorite place to be. I'm on the go so much with the kids that I cherish an uninterrupted hour sitting on my deck, watching the birds. If I had a weekend of uninterrupted time, I would use it to enjoy the things I already cherishheaven for me is a cup of tea and enjoying a murder mystery in front of the fire. I love to cook, and I'm an avid reader.
How many foster children do you have in your house right now?
I have four, and I'm getting two new ones this afternoon. I usually have six. Two girls went home yesterdaytwo adolescent girls, very different from each other. One of them we had for a year and a half. The other one, we had for a week. The first one we sent home with a whole new set of skills. She promises that she'll keep her nose clean, that she's going to do the right thing. She's an A student, beautiful, smart. We spent the last three months talking about choices, how her life depends on making good ones. I told her, "If you make good choices, your life can be whatever you choose it to be." It was different with the other girl, the one I had for only a week. I had the same conversation with her, but delayed and condensed. I told her, "Your life may seem like it's over, but it doesn't have to be this way." She said, "All I want is for my life to be normal. I want a normal life where I get up, someone makes me breakfast, someone's there, and there's no violence. That's what I want my dad to give me." Her whole life to this point has been nothing but violence. I told her, "I don't think that's going to happen. But there's a choice you can make here. You can say, 'I'm going to stay away from violent men. I'm going to make my best efforts in school and always do my homework.'" If kids did their homework, a lot of them wouldn't have so many problems. I'm very strict about this. Life is not fun around my house if you don't do your homework!
What is the hardest part about being a foster mom?
I usually know exactly what a child needs after a whilebetter than the child's therapist or social worker. But it's very frustrating for me when I can't obtain those things. It's difficult to have to say, time and time again, "This is what this kid needs, so why can't she have it? Really, what would it cost?"
Is funding for social services getting better or worse?
Things are getting worse. Caseworker numbers are way down. It used to be that you could always get a caseworker, but now you can't. Since 9/11, funding for everything has been cut. There used to be a program called Parenting Partners. When I had a child in care who was ready to go home, I would be available to the child's mother as a support person. I could do things that social workers rarely have time to do. I could work on parenting skills and household management and provide some respite child-care. In effect, I could be a parent figure to the parent. At ten dollars an hour, I was a bargain. Unfortunately, the program was defunded, and that safety net disappeared.
Is lack of funding the only problem at the institutional level? Are poor planning or bad decision making also problems?
Yes. For example, we know that adolescents don't do well in foster homes. There's an intimacy involved that's hard for them. What they really need are small, structured group homesfour to six kids, rotating house parents, one set of mom and dad. That way, the parents don't get frustrated, and the kids don't get the boot, as often happens in foster homes. Adolescents are toughthey run away, they take drugs, they're sexually active, and so on. They need to be someplace where they don't get the boot whenever their behavior becomes challenging. But very few of these homes exist. We have some shelters around here, but they don't meet a tenth of the need. There's often a three-month wait to get in, and three months is too long. While teens wait for a group home slot to open up, they might be bouncing from home to home for weeks, and not be able to attend school or therapy or visit with family. And parents with the skills to take on a long-term commitment to teens are few and far between. Talk about saints.
Would group homes be more expensive than foster care?
Group homes are more expensive, but a good one can change a teen's life. By the time a child reaches fourteen or fifteen, the behaviors that were troublesome when the child was younger often become both dangerous and criminal. I'm talking about chronic running away, promiscuity, drug abuse, aggressiveness, problems with authority. That makes it tricky when you draw the line between programs that are punitive and those that are therapeutic. I think it becomes harder for people at some programs to feel good about spending money on children who are labeled "delinquent" rather than "troubled."
Are there other aspects of the social services system that frustrate you?
There can be long waits for foster kids to get into schools because of trouble transferring academic and health records, and the reluctance of some school districts (not mine!) to provide the extensive special education services some kids need. I haven't been able to find a local orthodontist who accepts state health insurance, so a lot of my kids, unfortunately, don't get braces. I never give my children broken toys or puzzles with missing pieces, but that's what tends to be donated. People sometimes view foster kids as a lost cause, but they're not. Most of them have a lot of potential. I'm always amazed at their brains and the creativity and the self-sufficiency of these kids. And at their moments of kindness, when they don't have to be kind. I remember taking one little girl to the dentist. She had never had her teeth taken care of, and they were a mess. She underwent a very painful procedure, and when she got back to the waiting room, she was still howling. All of a sudden, she was surrounded by a sea of girls (I had other children with me). They were all offering her hugs and trinkets, barrettes and stickers, anything they thought she might like. Each girl had little to call her own, but each was willing to share with someone who had even less.
Do you ever try to persuade people you know to become foster parents?
I have done TV, radio, and newspaper interviews about foster parenting, and some recruiting at fairs and other local events. I've even passed out fliers on street corners. But when it comes to individuals I know, unless I see some signs that they would be into it, I don't say anything. It's not a life for everyone, after all. Because of the way the system is structured, financially, if you don't take at least four kids, you can't afford to do it. The pay is terribleit ranges from $14.92 to $17.36 a day, depending on age. Most foster parents feel that taking at least four kids at a time is the only way they can make it work financially. I would love to see things set up so that people can take just one kid, because parents get burned out taking more kids. It's a battleyou become numb to what you see around you. It's easy to lose track of what you're supposed to do. If you have just one kid, on the other hand, you can focus. I have often found that I can have only one, sometimes two, hard kids at once. If I have a runner, I don't want another runner. If I have someone who's sexually acting out, I say thank you to the Department of Social Services, but I don't need another.
Do you plan to write another book?
I'm working on one now, about the challenges of raising a child with serious mental health problems. It won't be sad or depressing, though. It's about how my family structures life in terms of patience, calmness, serenity. I have a pretty serene house.
The book is about your daughter Karen?
Yes. Karen is eight now. She functions, for the most part, really well. Not always. But we're creating a solid life.
How do you build your lives in terms of patience, calmness, and serenity?
Good nutrition. Lack of violence. I don't allow television shows that are at all violent. Also, I sit with the kids and block out commercials with the mute button. We listen to classical music before bed and we read a lot. We avoid the big hurrahs like amusement parks. Bruce and I encourage the kids to watch birds and otherwise appreciate nature. We are blessed to live in a rural community, and we have a three-acre backyard. I also talk about meditation with the little ones. I do guided imagery with them"Take a deep breath, and now let's go for a walk in our minds."
Has your life changed since you wrote this book?
It's too early for me to say. But the other day, Bruce and I were talking about our futurewhere were we going to be in a year, in five years? We wondered what it would be like to be able to make any choices we wanted, to not have tuition and household bills as our concerns. Bruce and I both said that we would unquestionably continue being foster parents, but that we might choose one really challenging kid and do all the things that would be important for that kidwithout having to depend on others to pay for it.
So you didn't talk about maybe just retiring?
Retirement doesn't even enter my head. I will always want a kid or two. I can't picture how I would structure my day if I didn't have to plan meals and baths. I love being a mother. I love kneading bread. I love giving baths. I gave one of my girls a bath last night. She was truly filthyshe'd been in a sandbox, a Popsicle had dripped all over her. It was a pleasure to see the dirt come off, to see her pretty face emerge. She said, "Aren't my teeth so sparkly?" I can't picture my life without children around.
Some people might consider you a saint. How do you feel about that?
I'm not a saint. I do exactly what I want every day. That makes me pretty self-indulgent. When I was working outside the home, I hated every minute away from my family. The lovely thing about being a foster parent is that I get a piece of everything I like best. I have the stimulation of working with professionals who care passionately about children. I get to indulge my fetish for organization. I love the challenge of tracking down records and catching up on medical and dental exams. I'm not above getting dramatic with some unsuspecting records clerk to make her part with information I need, like the dates of a child's past immunizations in order to enroll the child in school. My background is education, and I enjoy working on education plans and helping kids do well in school. I adore homemaking, cooking, and cleaningI even like doing laundry. Some women might crave red convertibles, but what I really pine for is a state-of-the-art, front-loading washing machine. As far as I'm concerned, I have the best life in the world. I'm grateful every day.
6 Ways You Can Help Foster Parents and Children in Your Community
- Donate your children's used toys, clothes, and books to foster homes in your area. Make sure the items are clean and in good condition.
- If you own a business with goods or services that would be useful to
foster families (ice-skating rink, restaurant, bookstore), offer free coupons or gift certificates. If you know others who own their own
businesses, encourage them to do so. Compile books of coupons and gift certificates to offer to foster families.
- Become a respite provider. With only thirty hours of training, you can take in foster kids for several days or weeks a year so that foster
parents can go on vacation (or simply take a break).
- Offer to be a babysitter for foster children. (You will be required to undergo a criminal background check.)
- Call your local YMCA and other community recreation centers and encourage them to provide free memberships to foster kids.
- Call your local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and ask if they might donate uniforms to, and waive fees for, foster kids who want to join.
- Before you read this book, did you think much about foster parents and
foster children and the foster care system in general? Were your impressions negative, positive, or neutral?
- Harrison writes about the negative stereotypes of foster parents and foster children. Do you find yourself thinking in terms of those stereotypes? How do you think they got started in our society? What keeps them alive?
- Did any one child in Harrison's book touch you more than others? What was it about his/her story that affected you?
- What parts of Harrison's book surprised or disturbed you?
- When you were a child, did you have a non-parent adult in your life
who helped you through a tough time, propped you up, mentored you, loved and encouraged you, or otherwise had a positive impact? Would your life be different now if you hadn't known this person?
- As an adult, have you ever helped a child (not your own) in the above ways? Do you feel that you made a difference in that child's life?
- There are half a million children in the foster care system in this country. In Harrison's view, it's an imperfect, financially depleted, and overburdened
system. The children are not receiving the care they need, and the children's birth families aren't receiving the help they require. What do you think is the solution? Should our government spend more money on social services? Or are tax dollars better spent in other areas?
- Harrison talks about having "long conversations in her head" telling birth mothers what to do. Do you ever have those conversations in your head with parents you know? As you read Harrison's book, did you ever find yourself judging her parenting skills?
- When is it appropriate to keep our opinions to ourselves about other people's parenting, and when is it appropriate to speak up? Serious abuse aside, what about when we see a parent screaming at a child, spanking a child, or acting out (with sexual behavior or drinking) in front of a child? Where do you draw the line?
- Do you ever imagine yourself becoming a foster parent? What would be the positive aspects of it for you? What would be the negative aspects?