I was eight years old when I spent one humid summer in Alabama, where I visited my great aunt Nell, her grown children and their squirrelly grandchildren. It was there I discovered salty boiled peanuts, pesky fire ants, roaring racetracks, and a lush foliage cemetery devoted to my family.
All those dead relatives, forever resting in their dark, decomposing graves at the Lee Cemetery made me grateful for the living progeny scattered about in that hardscrabble, Bible Belt town. It was comforting to be surrounded by so much family.
Six years after that wasp-bitten summer visit, I entered the foster care system. Since family gossip can spread faster than a knife through melted butter, everyone knew about how my grandfather came out to California when my mother died and cared for my younger sister and me until he was arrested. He was released a week after his arrest, the first and only in his long life.
Our grandfather tirelessly attempted to gain custody of us to no avail. As a result, my sister and I languished in foster care for years on end.
In the back of my mind, I’ve always wondered why none of these relatives made an effort to care for my sister and me? Wasn’t family supposed to stick together? Didn’t people in the South have admirable family values? Why didn’t anyone step up to care for us when we needed our family the most?
I was drinking lemon-flavored ice tea in my great aunt Nell’s kitchen, encircled by ceramic chicken figurines, when I finally got to ask her these questions that have plagued my mind for decades. I was on vacation from California and this was my first visit to her since her brother, my grandfather, died.
Aunt Nell, a lovely, traditional, Southern Christian woman, sipped her tea as she gave it to me straight. “Georgie, it’s hard to take care of your own children, let alone other people’s children even if they’re family.”
I had a hard time with this response. I thought families are supposed to be there for one another through good times and bad. Otherwise, what’s the point? It was my turn to be blunt to Aunt Nell. “What are families for then? Wouldn’t one of you have taken us in if compensation were offered? They have that you know? It’s called kinship care.”
As Aunt Nell motioned her hand to encourage me to keep eating her fried chicken, seasoned okra and hot skillet cornbread, she conceded that the money would’ve helped make a difference on who would step up, since caring for kids can be costly and no one in our family is outright rich. “Still, Georgie, it’d be hard for any household to take on kids they don’t have a relationship with.”
I appreciated her honesty, along with her delicious, coma-inducing food. But what she was saying didn’t sit well with me.
Strangely, a day after having my talk with Aunt Nell, I was confronted with the same dilemma that I brought up in her kitchen. I discovered that some relatives of mine aren’t living with their parents. These children are now living with a family friend, loved and well cared for, but there are no bloodlines in that household.
Right after that visit, my husband asked me if I’d be willing to step in if something ever happened? My husband, who was never in foster care, didn’t hesitate when he said he would take them in, but I paused, surprising myself at this instinctual, guttural reaction.
I didn’t know these children all that well. And despite the fact they were in the same situation I was in 20 years prior, all I could think about was how topsy-turvy my nice, little quiet life would become.
I couldn’t believe my reaction since I know what foster care is like and I’ve been working off and on in the foster care industry for years. Also, I’ve been on a speaking circuit lecturing others about how families need to stand up against the growing foster care bureaucracy, yet there I was, equivocating. Why?
It comes down to connection. I would take in my niece, who I know and love deeply, in less than a millisecond. But extended relatives I hardly know? Because we have the room and we don’t have children yet, my husband convinced me to finally come around.
At this point, I’d be open to kinship care if anything else happened. But I have to be honest when I say that I hope, for their sake and mine, they remain where they are, under the care of someone else. It’d just be easier that way.
Georgette Todd is the author of Foster Girl, A Memoir. She wrote this as a member of the Chronicle’s Blogger Co-Op.