A 20-Year Fostering Reflection From One Foster and Adoptive Mom

A foster and adoptive mom shares what she’s learned since first becoming a foster parent 20 years ago

Sarah Gerstenzang (right( with her daughter Cecilia, who was adopted from foster care. Photo courtesy of Sarah Gerstenzang

In 2000, we became foster parents with the arrival of a 5-week-old baby girl whom we adopted nearly three years later. I began taking notes that first year trying to make sense of the experience and later turned that into a book, “Another Mother: Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System.” This article addresses our experience 20 years later, reflecting three lessons learned.*

Protect Children Emotionally

It is painful to read some of the excerpts of “Another Mother.” The two sisters hung on the stroller saying hello to Cecilia who pouted several times and then began to cry. I wondered if it was too much noise and activity for her or whether she realized I would be leaving her … If I had any choice in the matter, I would never leave her alone at the agency — it is contrary to my mothering instincts. I want to know what it is that makes Cecilia cry during the visits so we can fix it, but no one seems to welcome my intervening. (p.124)

Sarah Gerstenzang with her daughter Cecilia when she first joined her family. Photo courtesy of Sarah Gerstenzang

I told [my sister] how stressful it was for me to leave Cecilia at the agency now … Cecilia seemed so unhappy there and it pained me to feel that I was abandoning her … After shopping, I picked Cecilia up … and as I descended the [subway stairs, she bounced joyfully in the backpack.] … That night, I had stress dreams. In one, buildings were collapsing nearby and I was desperately trying to figure out how to help the people inside. (p. 145)

Eventually, I was permitted to sit in on the visits with Cecilia. I got up the courage to ask after my psychiatrist father-in-law asked me how Cecilia acted in the visits. When I told him, he responded, “she is going to be traumatized.” I will never forget how Cecilia pressed her back to my belly while on my lap during every subsequent visit, physically signaling to me that I couldn’t leave her.  I felt awkward for a very long time talking about this with anyone as if I was disparaging her birth family — people who had not been treated well.

When I think that the government authorized the removal of this child and then essentially abused her for almost three years by leaving her every single week (more than 100 times!) in a situation where she did not feel safe, it makes me furious and really, really sad because these experiences have had significant repercussions for our daughter. The agency should have had people who were competent enough to recognize what my father-in-law who was trained in the 1960s could comprehend in a one-minute conversation. The visits should have been done in a way that taught Cecilia’s birth mother to help Cecilia feel safe and nurtured — skills that would improve any child’s life and relationship with their family when the child hopefully returns home — keeping a close eye on Cecilia’s emotional state. The rights of adults should not supercede those of children.

These experiences have contributed to decades of anxiety for Cecilia. When our daughter was about 12, and I had become head of our statewide foster and adoptive parent coalition, I took her with me to do an agency training for other foster parents. She exploded on the way home. Only the next day could we piece together the fear she felt being back in that environment.
I question whether visits have changed significantly in the past 20 years.

Teach Foster Parents the Skills They Need

There is some hope on the horizon. This year, I read “Coaching Parents of Vulnerable Infants: The Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up Approach” by Mary Dozier and Kristin Bernard. If only I had had this book 20 years ago! They have created an approach based on their research and others’ that “children who have experienced early adversity are in particular need of parents who are nurturing (i.e., who soothe their distressed child), follow their children’s lead in play, and consistently avoid behaving in ways that are harsh, frightening or intrusive.” (p. 3) The authors found that when foster parents are highly committed to the children in their care, and foster fewer children, the children have fewer behavior problems. In other words, contrary to most agency directives, foster parents need to be told: You are important! Attach to This Child! Trust Your Instincts!

I could have really used this advice; leaving Cecilia to sob every week was not nurturing. And I could have really used some help in following her lead in play when things were not what I was used to. Their interventions focus on some really key issues: focusing on nurturing your child even when she doesn’t signal the need for nurturance (p.101) and “helping parents recognize and acknowledge the effects of their child’s indiscriminate behavior on them.” (p. 104)

Their 10-session intervention has shown that parents who participate have children who “are more likely to develop secure and organized attachments, show more normative cortisol production, exhibit stronger vocabulary capabilities, have stronger executive functioning, and display fewer behavioral problems.” (p. 148) The research in this book also documented what I felt intuitively: Cecilia bonded to us within a week of her placement with us. (p. 44). This did not mean that she has not felt (and still does feel) great sadness at being separated from her birth family and has had to think a lot about how she fits into our family.

Open Records

When our daughter first arrived, feeding her was very confusing. She didn’t really let me know she was hungry but when I fed her, she seemed ravenous. And she steadily gained weight until she was in her natural zone to match her height — 95th percentile. As she developed, she had a lot of emotions around eating and feeding her remained confusing until we got things somewhat sorted out with the help of “Love Me, Feed Me” by Katya Rowell, M.D.

It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to put together a horrible fact: She was born at about the 80th percentile and delivered to us at the 5th percentile in weight (all while living in a city run shelter). No one, including the agency physician or our own pediatrician, thought to mention that she had been nearly starved to death or told us what we should do about it.

When our daughter was a teenager, we went back to our agency because she had a number of questions. Although it was considerate of them to meet with us, they told us they were bound by confidentiality and therefore could only provide us with a few cursory responses. I’ll never forget one of the people who met with us saying that he had read the stack of records to do with our daughter’s life, “It was this high! What a privilege it was.”

Additionally, as younger siblings were born in Cecilia’s birth family, not once were we ever asked to foster any of them or even told of their existence. Mostly we found out through Facebook!

This “confidentiality” stuff is just wrong. All records should be open to the children and the families caring for them.

Sarah Gerstenzang, LCSW, works as a therapist with foster and adoptive families. She is the board president of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York (AFFCNY), and was formerly the executive director of AFFCNY, the associate director of AdoptUsKids, and a senior policy analyst at Children’s Rights.

* My daughter has read this and has authorized its publication.

This article first appeared in our sister publication Fostering Families Today.

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