Vol. 10, No. 2 • May 2006

Don't Forget the Birth Kids: It Takes an Entire Family to Love a Child Wholly

by Carroll Sue Priddy

Brandy and Sherri were 9 and 7 years old, respectively, when their parents began talking about foster care. Both of the girls liked the idea of having other kids around to play with, go to school with, and even to share chores with. Brandy thought it would be great to have a baby brother or sister, while Sherri wanted someone closer to her own age.

Their family’s first experience fostering brought them three brothers, ages 3, 8 and 13. The overnight change in the family was much more drastic than they anticipated. They had a big brother who was loud and bossy, but creative in thinking up games they could all play together. They had a brother right in between their own ages who was gentle and tender hearted and a great friend. They had a little brother who let them gel his hair and dress him in the coolest clothes a pre-schooler ever wore. For 6 months and 11 days these five children learned to trust, laugh with and love each other. These three boys, who had never had sisters before, learned that girls aren’t gross or scary, but rather are just kids who like to run and jump on the trampoline and have fun.

But this is foster care, and foster care is temporary. So eventually five heavy hearts said good-bye to each other. Five sets of eyes cried bitter tears as hugs were given and the van was loaded. Brandy and Sherri refer to the three boys as their “first brothers.” Sometimes the boys’ mother will let them call the foster family, but those calls have gotten rarer in the last couple of months as the boys moved with their mom to another state. Brandy and Sherri have had six more brothers and sisters since then.

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Alice is two and a half years old and has had baby RJ living in her home for 4 months. He is a tiny little baby with special medical needs. Alice is gentle with RJ and pats his hand when he cries. She knows all of the nurses who come to her home to help take care of her baby brother. She can get his pacifier and rinse it for him when it falls on the floor.

Last month the team decided that it was time for RJ to go home, and last week Alice watched her mommy and daddy cry as they packed RJ’s things into a suitcase and put the bags and RJ’s car seat into the social worker’s car. She kissed his little hands over and over as she said good-bye.

Every morning now she asks her mom, “Can we go get Jar-Jay today?”

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Being a foster parent is a tough job. Foster parents take hurting, scared, abused children and try to reconstruct a childhood for them. Being a birth child in a foster home is a tough job, too. These children are asked to share their toys, bedrooms, friends and community with strangers who come into their homes. They are also expected to share their parents’ time, energy, patience, and resources.

I grew up as a birth child in a foster home. I saw my parents disrespected, yelled at, and cursed at. I saw them give their time to help a kid who was three years behind in school; give their energy to a girl who threatened to hurt herself every night for the first three weeks she was in our home; give their patience to a teenager who refused to follow the house rules.

But I also saw a 7-year-old who was scarred all over his face finally give in and let my mom kiss his cheeks; a 9-year-old, who had raised her four younger siblings, learn how to climb a tree; and a rebellious 16-year-old apologize for her behavior and make an effort to be a part of the family. I have grieved in the lobby of a mental hospital as a foster sister shut her heart off to the love that was being given to her freely. I have held another sister as she recounted her childhood of abuse and hatred. I have played baseball with a foster brother and cheered when he got his first hit. We got dogs at the pound together, built forts together, and stayed up to watch the sunrise together. And in the end, we all said good-bye.

My family was blessed to have parents who were strong and committed to loving people who hurt, and this included my brother and me. We hurt when the kids we loved left, yes, but our parents were there to help us and there is nothing that makes me want to change that experience.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ sermon on the mount lists a progression of blessings for those who choose to suffer through service. I find comfort in several of these as I remember my childhood.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Birth children mourn when foster children leave their home.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. The birth children in our foster homes are showing mercy to the children who come into their homes. They are accepting, patient and giving.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. The birth children are loving, accepting, and sharing out of a pure heart that is promised nothing in return.

Foster care is a calling that the entire family has to agree to answer. We work with our families throughout the training process to make sure the children in the home are informed and know what to expect. We also make sure that the children placed in our homes are not going to be met with coldness or resistance from the birth children or previously adopted children living there. We want the children coming into our foster homes to be loved unconditionally by all members of the family.

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Collis, 6, and Wesley, 9, had 18 foster brothers and sisters come and go in three years. When 10-month-old Jamie and 2-year-old Dawn came to live with them, the two boys gathered these little ones under their wings and began anew. At the 6-month hearing, the Judge ruled that the children should be released for adoption.

Collis and Wesley’s parents came home and talked with the boys about adopting Jamie and Dawn. Collis thought about the idea for a few minutes in silence, then asked, “Does adoption mean forever?”

“Yes,” his mom answered.

Collis responded, “As long as it’s forever, we can adopt them. Just don’t make me say good-bye again. I hate that word.”

As you think about the needs and trials of foster families, don’t forget the birth kids. Pray for them. Offer to help in some way. Give them a word of thanks and encouragement.

It takes the whole family to love a child wholly.

Carroll Sue Priddy is a foster family recruiter for Grandfather Home for Children, a private child-placing agency in North Carolina.

Copyright 2006 Jordan Institute for Families