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Synopsis: For more than a decade, Kathy Harrison has sheltered a shifting cast of troubled youngsters-the 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 lines-centered 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 explosion-but 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.
From the Author:
A Conversation with Kathy Harrison
about herself, her book, her marriage, stereotypes, the system, cocktail parties, and what she'd do if she had a weekend to herself
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 child-say 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 interesting-this 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 another-fragments 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 environment-a 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 mother-baking 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 parents-we'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 child-difficult 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' lives-the 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 childhood-there 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 now-good 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 background-some adult-who 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 kids-that 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 yourself-no kids, no husband, no obligations-what 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 cherish-heaven 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 yesterday-two 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 while-better 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 homes-four to six kids, rotating house parents, one set of mom an...
Title: Another Place at the Table: A Story of ...
Publisher: Tarcher April 2003
Publication Date: 2003
Book Condition: Good - Used
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