Another Mother: Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System

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Overview

One night after midnight social workers brought a baby girl to the author's home, and her life as a foster mother began. A social worker herself, Gerstenzang discovered that raising Cecilia, deespite all the personal joys, would be a complex and frustrating process of "co-parenting" with the foster care system in New York City. Foster parents are in great demand, but they are not necessarily treated well. We follow the author through the home visits, the Early Intervention evaluation, the WIC program that (with much bureaucratic hassle) provides free formula and cereal, and the mandatory parenting training sessions. She comments, "When Michael and I became foster parents, we learned how stigmatizing, demoralizing, and just plain inconvenient and time-consuming being part of the 'unentitled' population can be. With the exception of Early Intervention, we often felt that the programs were more concerned with regulating our behavior than with providing services."

Regular meetings with the birth family were also part of the process. Not only were they awkward for all concerned, but each visit involved a commute of several hours. One social worker admitted that she preferred a foster parent who didn't work because that person could more easily comply with the time-consuming regulations. Sarah and her husband Michael also agonize over complying with special regulations about hiring babysitters or traveling ("anytime we left New York State we needed to ask the agency's permission, which in turn had to get the signed consent from the birth mother").

Central to Another Mother is the issue of transracial placement. Sarah remembers, "That first day the contrast between my pale skin and Cecilia's brown skin seemed glaring. Not only did I feel that I had someone else's child, I felt that I had a child from another culture. Would I owe someone an explanation?" (Gerstenzang is recalling the 1972 opposition of the National Association of Black Social Workers.) Her account is full of anecdotes and reflections about race: acceptance and prejudice from others; the feelings of her two children about having a sibling of a different race; and culture keeping, beginning with skin and hair care.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Sarah Gerstenzang does an excellent job of capturing the anxieties and challenges of fostering children in today's public child welfare system in this lively and engaging personal narrative.
—Martha M. Dore
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826515490
  • Publisher: Vanderbilt Univ Pr
  • Publication date: 3/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Gerstenzang is an Assistant Project Director of the Adoption Exchange Association, an organization dedicated to finding adoptive families for the 119,000 children who wait in foster care. She was formerly a Senior Policy Analyst at Children's Rights and holds a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University. She and her husband live with their three children in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Another Mother

Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System


By Sarah Gerstenzang

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2007 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-9223-1



CHAPTER 1

"Become a Foster Parent: Help a Child"


IT WAS MIDNIGHT, February 28, 2000, a Monday on the verge of a Tuesday. I lay in bed, shivering from anxiety. Although I had wondered if I should stay dressed for the visitors I was expecting, I had decided to change into my pajamas to help myself relax. My two children—Peter, nine, and Martha, six and a half—were fast asleep upstairs in their bedrooms. My husband, Michael, was away on business in Chicago, just for the night. I kept wishing he was home with me.

The doorbell rang at 12:30 AM. I walked through the hall and down the stairs, my footsteps silenced by the carpeting under my bare feet. As if in a dream, I opened the front door to the cold night air. Our street, lined with brownstones and alive in the daytime with traffic and people walking children and dogs, was perfectly quiet, the only light thrown by streetlamps. Two strangers, an African American man and woman, stood on the doorstep. The man was cradling a tiny bundle wrapped in a soft white blanket. Seeing this couple so neatly and professionally dressed for work at my front door in the middle of the night added to my sense that I had entered another realm—where it is someone's job to take children from their own unsafe homes and place them with another family where they will be safe. Nothing about this situation was familiar to me.

My sense of the surreal was displaced by my desire to see inside that soft white bundle. I invited my visitors to the living room, where we all sat down on my overstuffed green velvet sofa and armchairs. Trying to appear generous, I offered to take their coats, but they said they wouldn't be staying. I wanted the bundle but the man did not offer it to me. Sensing his hesitation, I wondered if it was because I was white, because he felt sorry for the birth mother, or because he already felt attached to the baby himself. So I reached for the bundle, took my foster daughter into my arms, and felt the soft weight of her almost nine pounds. Inside the blanket, her head was covered with the hood of a matching white fleece snowsuit. I looked down at her face and she gazed straight back at me, her large brown eyes wide open. Experience told me that, at five weeks, she was too young to understand the precariousness of her situation. But searching for something, a clue to who she was, I thought I saw sadness in those eyes.

I signed some paperwork without reading it. I was given a copy of the "Administration for Children's Services Preplacement Services Fact Sheet Report" and the nurse triage form that confirmed the baby's name was Cecilia and that as of ten o'clock that night she was medically cleared with the exception of a diaper rash. The man and woman said a courteous goodbye, gave a little good luck pat to the bundle, and walked off into the night. As I shut the door, I caught sight of the large white van parked by the fire hydrant. My thoughts raced: Temporary parking because they don't intend to stay, this child is my responsibility now ... Such a large van, how many children could they fit in that thing? ... Looks like a commercial vehicle but it's anonymous—no large block letters on its side announcing "Administration for Children's Services: Rescuers of Abused and Neglected Children."

I carried the baby up to my bedroom, where I had hastily assembled a bassinet and some other necessities earlier that day. I laid Cecilia gently on my bed and, alone now, took my time examining her, feeling her downy-soft jet-black hair, getting to know her. I changed her from the Administration for Children's Services thin but new clothing into a white cotton T-shirt and a cozy blue sleeper that had belonged to a friend's daughter. Between outfits I paused, looking for clues, which I didn't find, that might help me understand why a child would be taken from her mother in the middle of the night. She had the diaper rash—nothing oozing and nasty, although the loss of pigment on her brown skin could have been a clue to some neglect in her first five weeks. But it was only a diaper rash. They don't remove children for that, do they?

The handoff had been so unofficial and mysterious that I was uncertain. When Martha and Peter were born, I saw them examined directly by the doctors, and that gave me confidence. As I examined Cecilia from head to toe, I noticed something on the upper fold of her tiny ear—my mind leapt—a cigarette burn? When I looked more closely, I saw that it was only a little indent, a natural mark that I would learn was formed in utero and completely harmless. (I later met an adult with the same indent on her ear, who said her grandmother told her it was the mark of an angel's kiss.) I reviewed the contents of the clear plastic bag the caseworkers had left with me—a can of formula, some ointment for the diaper rash, some clothing (several sizes too large) I assumed Cecilia was wearing when she was picked up, and a bottle with partly drunk formula and "I love my Mommy" written in pink on its side.

I kept expecting the baby to cry, but she didn't. She seemed completely alert and content. So I settled her into the bassinet, right next to the bed. I had rolled a towel up at the top so her head wouldn't hit the edge, and I covered her with a tiny down comforter and a green wool blanket that my mother had knit when Martha was born. I had no idea how much she would eat or when, but I decided to figure it out when she cried to tell me that she was hungry.

I called Michael at the hotel in Chicago. He asked me what she looked like and where she was at the moment. He sounded excited and eager to get home. It was difficult to describe to him how our entire lives had just changed with the ring of the doorbell. Seeing this baby, holding her, feeling her warmth and the softness of her skin, looking into her bright brown eyes and feeling her little breaths of air on my neck as I held her upright was so different from talking in the abstract about becoming foster parents, as we had on occasion for years and intensely for the last few months. I urged Michael to come home quickly but, just as I had savored the time alone in the hospital with Peter and Martha after their births, I clung to this time in the night with my foster daughter—just the two of us and no one else in the world. It was time not to react or plan or think but to be in the moment.

Cecilia hardly cried that first night but I didn't fall asleep until five o'clock. Martha, her face filled with magic and enthusiasm, woke me at 6:30, unable to contain her excitement at seeing the bassinet and the infant nestled inside. At seven, after waking Peter and holding the baby, she called "Mommy's mom" to share her joyful news.

* * *

I have wanted to have children for as long as I can remember—I believe I started thinking about this at about the same time I realized that my mother wasn't going to have any more (I was one of four) and that my desire to parent would be fulfilled only when I was old enough to have my own. Michael and I met at the end of high school, married at twenty-four, and had two children before we were thirty—young by today's standards. The pregnancies were horrific initially, as a result of excessive vomiting and nausea. During the second one, I lost so much weight that the doctor began to weigh me weekly and told me that unless I could manage to keep down "half a sandwich" I would have to be admitted to the hospital. I vowed to my husband, my sisters, and anyone else who would listen that I would never become pregnant again.

It is hard to say what sparked our interest in becoming foster parents. I had always been interested in adoption. I didn't necessarily want to be pregnant (although I loved giving birth)—it was simply the easiest path to having children. I knew that if I hadn't been able to bear children, I would have had no trouble with the concept of adoption. Michael felt the same way. However, we already had two terrific children. It was fascinating to see our genes mixed into two separate and entirely independent humans. And at some level, I wouldn't have minded seeing what the next child or the next twenty children looked like and were like. But there was over time a nagging interest in foster care, a topic that I generated that was of interest to Michael as well.

Our interest may have come in part from our own experience. Michael and I come from nontraditional families. Both of us had parents who divorced while we were young, and Michael was raised in part by a stepfather who never married his mother. My own mother remarried when I was eleven. When Michael was a year old and his mother was hospitalized during her pregnancy with his brother and separated from their father, he went to live with a friend of his mother and her two daughters for five months. Their ongoing bond was obvious almost twenty years later, when during a fall visit to Michael at his college, I noticed a Halloween card one of the daughters had sent him. It was slightly babyish to send to a college student but sweet at the same time. The inclusion of nonblood relatives in each of our childhoods gave us more fluid but eventually more stable home environments. While having stepfathers caused more complicated family dynamics for us, we both felt that we benefited from their care because of the extra emotional and financial support.

As with most women who divorce, our mothers experienced real poverty and we remembered the times, as children, when it was a struggle to make ends meet. However, because of stable family support and good educational opportunities, Michael and I now had a comfortable life together. And we felt grateful. We felt foster care was a way that we could give back to society—and we shared a conviction that high-quality, loving care would be beneficial to a child even if it was only for a short time.

My desire for a larger family also stemmed from other, selfish reasons. We loved our two biological children's early years and we thought we would enjoy another child's early years—especially as more seasoned parents. And I loved the dynamics of my own large family (the multilevel interaction, the differing personalities, the stimulation) while growing up. I wanted that for my own two children.

In looking through old correspondence between Michael and me when we were in college, I found a letter where I had written about an encounter with a child who was in foster care. One of the ways I earned money in college was babysitting. At the time, I was living with a family and babysitting for their five-year-old daughter, Claire, in exchange for living in their basement apartment. Among my responsibilities was taking Claire to her swimming lessons. One day while at the pool, I saw a boy who seemed to be about the same age as Claire. He must have looked a little lost because I asked him if he was with his parents. He replied in a bold voice: "I ain't got no parents. I'm a foster kid. I'm here with a worker." I wrote Michael, "I wanted to adopt him." Of course, I didn't really, as I was just getting started in life myself. However, I did empathize strongly with his need for an everyday parent—I couldn't bear the idea that this boy was without parents.

Michael and I felt ready to provide some stability for a child who had none. We felt we understood what it took to be parents, having spent years parenting our two children. We knew how to be consistent, to be loving, and to gear activities to the age of a child to help him learn. And we enjoyed watching children develop, to see their personalities emerging and their competencies grow. We felt it was rewarding to be a part of that process.

When we were living in Brussels, we had our first experience with temporary care of a child in need. We were in Belgium on a two-and-a-half-year assignment for my husband's international law practice; Peter was then four and Martha was one and a half. I saw an ad one day in the Bulletin, an English-language weekly, about a group called SEMYA that was bringing Russian orphans to Belgium for the Christmas and summer holidays. The ad noted that the group needed more temporary families to house children. We signed up for the program, were interviewed during a home visit, and for two weeks in December, we housed, fed, and entertained Tatiana, who turned eight on the day she returned to Russia.

We felt the experience was a success—Tatiana seemed happy in our care and had medical, dental, and ophthalmology appointments during her visit. It was satisfying to introduce her to new experiences. Tatiana would hesitate to try new foods, then venture a small bite. Frequently a smile of pleasure followed—we lost count of how many clementine oranges Tatiana devoured. Once when I gave her a banana, she took a bite of the skin, then gamely tried again once I demonstrated that bananas need to be peeled first. We also enjoyed Tatiana's enthusiasm for activities she probably didn't get to do very much at home, like swimming.

At the end of two weeks, we were only getting to know Tatiana but it was hard to say goodbye, not sure whether we would ever see her again. A friend once asked whether two weeks with us was of any benefit to Tatiana. I couldn't say. One thing that made it easier to say goodbye was that she seemed like a happy well-adjusted child, and we reasoned that she must have someone who cares for her in Russia. For more than a year, I mailed her small packages with pictures and inexpensive items—mail in Russia at that time was very unreliable and there was always a risk that your package would be stolen—but we never heard from or about Tatiana again.

This brief experience helped shape our feelings about becoming foster parents. Language had been an obvious problem with Tatiana, as we did not speak any Russian and Tatiana spoke neither English nor French. Tatiana had been happier and better adjusted than we had expected a child from a Russian orphanage to be. We realized we would have more insight into the situations of children in need from our own country. With Tatiana, we learned that taking in a child who was older than our own was difficult, as we had no experience parenting a child of this age, nor did we have any toys or activities in place to entertain her. When I took Tatiana to our neighborhood pool and watched her splash and play, I was touched by her joy. She was passionate about swimming in a way that only a child who is deprived of ordinary activities might be. But I was also overwhelmed because it was difficult to entertain a four-year-old and a one-year-old by the side of the pool, as they got cold after fifteen or twenty minutes in the water. The experience with Tatiana taught us that two small children at one time were enough to manage.

We also underestimated the significance of birth order. Peter was used to being the oldest, and Tatiana was not used to having younger siblings. If Martha paid attention to Tatiana, Peter would be jealous because he was used to having Martha's undivided attention. I could see that Tatiana wanted my attention as well—eight had seemed old to me, but it is only old in comparison to a four-year-old, and she was still really a small child. The low point of the visit was a physical altercation between Tatiana and Peter in which he bit her and I had to mediate using hand signals. Michael and I decided to wait a few years before taking another child into our family.

Four years later, in January 1999, we were living in Brooklyn, New York. Peter was eight and Martha was six. I had gone to school part-time for the previous three years, and I was finishing up my master's in social work. We felt the time was right to look seriously into becoming foster parents. I was still home a lot because of the kids, and we thought if we waited much longer, we might feel too liberated from the bonds of family routine to take in a young child. We also took into consideration that I would have to spend some time getting a child settled and taking her or him to appointments, which would be difficult once I graduated and took a job.

We felt that it was now or never, but I was uncertain how to begin the process. I didn't know one other foster parent and I had never seen anything in my neighborhood about becoming one. I looked up "social services" in the yellow pages and called two agencies not too far away that seemed as if they had foster care services. Excited, feeling that I was on the verge of a new adventure, I called them both ... and I was completely disappointed. One agency had a recorded message and I was able only to leave my name and address. The other had someone who knew nothing about the process answering the phone, and I could only give her my name and address. After a month or so, one agency sent a flier mentioning a foster parent information session. I never received anything from the other. I decided that these disorganized, unresponsive agencies were not the partners with whom we wanted to embark on a long-term relationship. I was excited and I wanted to work with people who would share my enthusiasm. A friend mentioned an agency in Manhattan that she had been dealing with on the adoption side; based on her positive experience, she suggested I call their foster care division. I called; they answered the phone; they mailed some materials. We chose to begin the process with them.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Another Mother by Sarah Gerstenzang. Copyright © 2007 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments, ix,
Foreword by Madelyn Freundlich, xi,
1 "Become a Foster Parent: Help a Child", 1,
2 And Baby Makes Five?, 21,
3 Help, American-Style, 59,
4 I'm Vanilla, You're Chocolate, 93,
5 Attachment: Meeting the Eyes of Love, 118,
6 Eye of the Storm, 138,
7 Transition, 165,
8 The End of the Beginning, 187,
References, 195,
Index, 199,

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