There Are No Orphans in Foster Care

Cute boy thinking in the park

We received one very memorable and lasting piece of advice during our early training to be foster parents, and it was this: never criticize, however implicitly, a child’s birth family. Because to criticize the child’s birth family is to criticize the child.

Seems obvious, right? But becoming the foster/adoptive parent of an older child means entering that child’s life midstream. As the newcomer to the equation, you inherit unknown and often unsettling birth family circumstances that have to be navigated with care.

As a newbie foster parent, with a goal of adoption, you might wish for a child with few biological family ties. I certainly had those moments. But in my limited experience, that’s a misplaced wish. First of all, very few children in foster care lack strong ties to birth relatives. They aren’t orphans. The problem is that their beloved relatives are unable to care for them, for myriad reasons, ranging from addiction to mental illness to incarceration. The bottom line is that they cannot be with those relatives—not right now, and possibly not for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean they don’t love them, long for them, and regard them as family. Unless you understand and empathize with that predicament, it’s hard to provide the love and patience the child needs. What’s more, it’s been my experience that it is my son’s connection to his birth family, however fraught, that enabled him to eventually develop a loving attachment to us. We are part of his family network; we are a supplement, not an alternative. He invited us to join the web of love and connection he’s cobbled together in his young life, and that’s an honor, and should be acknowledged as such.

That sounds good. But real life is hard, and messy, and the stress and confusion that it creates can disrupt even the most earnest commitment to honoring the child’s family ties. And that’s when our social worker’s advice really came in handy.

Example one: when T came to live with us, we were given a brief by his social worker that described his family situation. It mentioned only one sibling, younger. About six weeks later, T told us that his older brother was coming to visit him. We probed a little more and found out he had never met this older brother before. We probed a little more and found out this older brother sold drugs. T was smitten with hero worship at the sudden appearance of a big brother who might understand some of what he’d been through and adamant that they meet.

Example two: T never lived with his birth mom and as far as we were told, he had met her just a few times in his life. But on his first birthday with us, she called him. He told her excitedly about the new pet lizard we’d just got for his birthday, to which she responded by cursing him for being disloyal to her, and accusing him of pursuing adoption in order to get material things, like pet lizards. He immediately asked to return the lizard to the pet store and spent the rest of the day locked in his room not speaking to anyone.

Example three: The first year that he lived with us, T asked to visit his cousins on Christmas Eve for an overnight, which his social worker approved. He had once lived with these cousins and considered them his closest family. About three hours after we dropped him off, we checked in with him by text. The adults had given gifts to the other kids, but not T, then left for the rest of the night, leaving no food in the house.

I didn’t tell you what we did in each of the above situations, because that’s not my point. Of course we had to act to protect him, but in doing so, the voice of that social worker never left me. Sometimes I was seething inside, or frightened, or confused, or simply on the back foot because I hadn’t seen it coming. But I tried to remember that no matter what happened, he would feel compelled to defend his relatives, and would interpret my feelings about them as feelings about him. “Criticize the family and you criticize the child,” our social worker would say, repeatedly. I heard her voice in my head.

Navigating situations like the above in a way that preserves the safety of the child and your authority as a parent, while at the same time avoiding implicit or explicit criticism in word or gesture is really hard. Nevertheless, I absolutely believe in the wisdom of our social worker’s words. We learned to stay close and have a backup plan whenever T went to visit his relatives, and yet continued to facilitate these visits without skepticism. Sometimes we gently sidestepped a situation, other times we felt our way through it. I’m not saying feelings didn’t get hurt, including mine. But we did our best to become part of T’s world, not to force him to leave it behind to become part of ours.