For children who have to leave parents behind and enter foster care the caseworker is one person who can bring stability to their lives. As Alexus Colbert writes about her time in foster care, caseworkers who are can and do make an important difference for children whose lives are filled and uncertainty and loss.
Alexus also reminds all of us that repeated losses make children wary of forming new attachments as a means of protecting themselves against the pain of being left again. “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” begins to wear thin when the pain of the first loss is compounded by another and yet another.
They, like Alexus, begin to wonder why they should open themselves up to caring about a new person if the chance of that person staying around is small. It is extraordinarily sad that we put foster children into situations where they learn to harden themselves against love by the time they are five or ten or twelve years old.
One of the many unfortunate consequences of shunning relationships with adults is that children become prematurely self-sufficient. They don’t want to risk the vulnerability associated with wanting or asking for something. Sometimes it’s not that they need help—maybe it’s as simple as not asking for or accepting an adult’s offer to read a story or join them on a trip to the park. Relationships are built on small interactions like these.
Photo courtesy of Steve Kay.
Caring exchanges that happen over and over again bind people together. The foster mother who gently braids a child’s hair, the caseworker who brings a favorite snack on visits, the teacher who offers a smile of greeting all tell the child with their actions that they care, that the child is important to them.
The child will come to count on them, to believe in her importance to them. But if one leaves unexpectedly, her belief that she was important may be shaken. It is not only the frequency of the losses experienced by foster children that is disquieting but their unpredictability. For example, elementary school children expect to move on from their teachers at the end of a school year; they can prepare themselves for a parting of the ways. However, it is a very different experience if the teacher leaves with little or no warning in the middle of the school year. That will be a much more unsettling experience for the students.
Unlike the loss of a teacher, which is shared by all of the students in a class, a child’s loss of a foster parent or caseworker is often a solitary experience. Even though the caseworker, like the teacher, may be leaving many children behind, those children may not know or have any contact with each other.
One of the very saddest hallmarks of life in foster care is its solitary nature. Foster children are surrounded by people who have responsibility for bits and pieces of their care. Because there is no single person to keep them in mind, they learn too early keep their minds to themselves. That is a very lonely way to grow up.
We at A Home Within know that we all like the feeling of being in kept in mind. When someone smiles and says, “I’ve been thinking about you,” we know that we have been held in the mind of someone who cares about us and that we don’t actually have to be with that person to continue to exist in his mind. When a child is greeted by a caseworker, or foster parent, or therapist with “You’ve been on my mind,” she can relax a little, knowing that someone cares enough to think about her, even in her absence.
By Toni Heineman