Safe: A Memoir of Fatherhood, Foster Care, and the Risks We Take for Family

Safe: A Memoir of Fatherhood, Foster Care, and the Risks We Take for Family

by Mark Daley
Safe: A Memoir of Fatherhood, Foster Care, and the Risks We Take for Family

Safe: A Memoir of Fatherhood, Foster Care, and the Risks We Take for Family

by Mark Daley


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“If you want a lifechanging book, this is the one to read.” —The View

“A truly revealing” (Hillary Clinton) memoir of an unlikely journey to parenthood through America’s broken foster care system.

What does it take to keep a child safe?

As a long-time strategist and activist fighting for better outcomes for foster children, Mark Daley thought he knew the answer. But when Ethan and Logan, an adorable infant and a precocious toddler, entered their lives, Mark and his husband Jason quickly realized they were not remotely prepared for the uncertainty and complication of foster parenting.

Every day seven hundred children enter the foster care system in the United States, and thousands more live on the brink. Safe offers a deeply personal and “riveting” (Booklist) window into what happens when the universal longing for family crashes up against the unique madness and bureaucracy of a child protection system that often fails to consider the needs of the most vulnerable parties of all—the children themselves.

Daley takes us on a roller-coaster ride as he and Jason grapple with Ethan and Logan’s potential reunification with their biological family, learn brutal lessons about sacrifice, acceptance, and healing, and face the honest, heartbreaking, and sometimes hilarious challenges of becoming a parent at the intersection of intergenerational trauma, inadequate social support, and systemic issues of prejudice.

For fans of Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, Stephanie Land’s Maid, and Roxanna Asgarian’s We Were Once a Family, Safe is “a strong indictment of a failed child welfare system, but with an unexpectedly happy ending that speaks to the power of love” (Kirkus Reviews).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781668008782
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 01/30/2024
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 136,645
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Mark Daley is a social activist, entrepreneur, and foster-turned-adoptive father. Daley has over two decades of experience in message development, communication strategy, and public policy, including as a communications director and spokesperson for then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. He has worked with more than thirty members of Congress, numerous governors, and other elected officials. He is the founder of One Iowa, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ equality organization, and, a national platform to connect interested families with foster organizations. Daley lives in Southern California with his husband and three children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Protection Chapter 1 Protection
No matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t get pregnant,” I said, winking at Jason, my husband of four months. The six other couples—one also gay, the rest straight—stared blankly at me, trying to determine if I was joking or a complete idiot. I smiled and let out a small laugh to assure them of my humor and that I understood the basics of reproduction. Jason smiled, but didn’t laugh. He’d heard me deliver that joke a few dozen times before and it was apparent by the look on his face that he didn’t believe our first class to become certified foster parents was the best place to recycle it.

“Both of our families have a history of fostering and adoption,” he chimed in. “We just feel like we want to start our family the same way.” Jason delivered our canned response and I nodded in agreement. The truth was a little more complex but there was no reason to spill the tea to a bunch of people we’d just met.

The class was held in the brightly colored conference room of Children’s Bureau, a nonprofit located between Koreatown and downtown Los Angeles that recruits, trains, approves, and supports foster parents. The tables were arranged in a semicircle with each couple occupying their own table; a piece of paper with our names handwritten on the front was folded to stand upright. Sonja, a woman in her twenties with the longest and most intricate eyelashes I’d ever seen, shared that she and her husband had just taken custody of their school-age nephew and were now required to get certified in order to keep him. “My sister was a teenager when she got pregnant,” Sonja said. “She wasn’t ready to be a mom and now she’s dealing with some addiction and mental health issues.” She paused for a second, likely questioning if she’d just overshared. “But she’s starting to do some work and taking her meds, so we are all hopeful.”

As a gay man, I never had to worry about an unplanned pregnancy, morning sickness, or the lifetime of responsibilities that go along with having a child. I could brunch, blissfully unaware of the hours-long dance recital at the theater on the corner, sipping mimosas while parents reapplied sunblock at soccer games in the park. I have never had a pregnancy scare force me to ponder important questions like: Am I ready to be a parent? What does it mean to be one? What makes a good parent or even an acceptable one?

There are only a few roads leading to parenthood for couples like Jason and me: surrogacy, private adoption, or foster to adopt. I don’t recall exactly when we first talked about our options, but I’d always assumed we’d foster-adopt a child at some point. Three of my cousins had come into our family through foster care, and I’d also consulted for a few child welfare nonprofits, which gave me some familiarity with how many children across the country were in need of foster homes. I knew that over four million children come to the attention of child welfare agencies each year on concern of abuse or neglect,1 and that on any given day, roughly 120,000 children are waiting to be adopted.2 In California, one in five children entering foster care were babies under the age of one.3 And that is what we wanted, a baby. We didn’t care about race or gender. Give us a boy or a girl or one whose gender would be determined later in life. None of that mattered. We were in love and we had two big, loud, supportive families and a huge community of friends in our corner.

I’d skipped into the first of four intensive foster parent training sessions like Belle in the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast—one hand clasping my husband’s and the other tightly wrapped around a Starbucks. “Bonjour. Good day.” We were newlyweds, living our fairy tale. And like the heroes at the beginning of every classic quest, we were excited and naive. Our love for one another and desire to grow a family overshadowed the truth of what we’d just signed up to do.

We were less than fifteen minutes into class when Cindy, the social worker with tight, curly hair and glasses who led the training, crushed my “infants-only” stance. “The county allows families to set age ranges like zero to three for the children they are willing to foster, but infants-only isn’t an acceptable range,” she said. That was news to me. We expected a child entering our lives from foster care to carry a history of trauma, but we had hoped to intervene early enough to spare them from any significant harm or abuse. I thought more about Cindy’s words and realized they couldn’t just force us to take in whatever child they want. When they would eventually call and tell us about an available child, we could still say no and wait for them to call back with an infant. But, like a bartender with a heavy pour, Cindy kept serving truth bombs, hell-bent on making sure the entire class understood the realities of fostering.

“There are normal losses almost every one of us experienced growing up, like going to day care or starting school and being forced to be away from our parents for the first time,” Cindy said. “These are relatable, common experiences we call maturational losses. Children in foster care, however, often experience unpredictable, traumatic life events, called situational losses.” She asked us to name examples of situational loss and wrote the list on a whiteboard: divorce, death of a parent or child, sexual abuse, mental illness, job loss, natural disaster, loss of a home, food insecurity, community violence, incarceration, drug addiction and alcoholism, witnessing or experiencing physical or emotional abuse or neglect. She went on to talk about these adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) and how they can lead to depression and anxiety, and may have long-term effects on our emotional well-being and physical health.4

“By a show of hands, how many of you have experienced one of the losses on this list?” Cindy asked, looking around the room. Most people’s hands shot up. “How many have experienced two? How about three?” By the time she got to five there were no hands in the air.

I looked around the room, at the other families. The couple next to us, who had jokingly told the class they were done having babies and wanted to foster and possibly adopt a teenager, was no longer smiling. They were inspired to foster when they learned that teens account for less than 10 percent of all adoptions.5 They had two adult children. “What’s one more?” the husband had joked. But in that moment, their good intentions were blindsided by the realities of childhood trauma.

Everyone was silent, imagining the horrors our future foster children might have endured and the resulting behavioral issues that might emerge. Cindy had deflated our cheerful optimism with the sharp edge of truth. I looked around the room and tried to guess who might not be back the following week—who was up for the challenge and who was not.

The couple who wanted a teen looked especially grim.

Next, Cindy the Dream-Slayer asked us to track how many situational losses had been experienced by a seven-year-old boy in a video she screened from a warbly VHS cassette. When the video was over, I had to count again, sure I’d made a mistake. I hadn’t miscounted. In just seven years, he’d endured thirteen of these losses, a number Cindy told us was not unusual for a child in foster care. She’d seen five-year-olds who’d entered care with scars from cigarette burns, had cases with kids as young as two who’d been molested. I could feel my stomach turning. Cindy had just said our baby could be a victim of sexual abuse. Where would I begin to help that child? What would they need? The questions in my mind raced as fast as the adrenaline in my veins. Will the baby act out? What sort of behavioral issues might they have? What if my little girl is afraid of men? She’s going to have two dads. I feared what I didn’t know—the past of a child, a victim, who was about to enter my life, to become my world, and I was completely unprepared. I wanted to watch them shine, but first I’d have to help them heal.

I looked back at the list on the board and thought about my mom. She was the same age as the boy in the video when she lost her own mother to a hemorrhage caused by an ectopic pregnancy. In a sense, she lost her father that night too. His battle with grief was roiled by alcoholism. Mom was bounced from one living situation to another. A series of people incapable of caring for her and her younger siblings.

I estimated she had experienced at least seven situational losses before the age of ten. It was hard to know for sure. She was always careful when she talked about her childhood, never wanting us to be encumbered by the pain of her past. But over the years I had collected the slivers she let slip and assembled them, along with the fragments I gathered from my aunts and uncles, in meticulous fashion, like piecing together the shards of a broken lamp.

Despite, or maybe as a result of, her childhood, Mom loved and watched over her three children with the ferocity of someone who understands just how delicate life is, how one tragedy can upend everything in a matter of seconds. She mastered the balance of protecting her children, while teaching us to survive. She gave us experiences she had only dreamt about. But most importantly, she provided the one thing I needed above all else: a safe space. Whether we were alone talking in the kitchen or belting along to Rod Stewart in her Monte Carlo, the pressure I felt around others to be someone else was never there. It always felt like she saw me, the real me. And she loved me just the same.

The biggest trauma of my childhood was coming to grips with being gay. My parents had never physically hurt or abandoned me. I never worried about my safety the way Mom had or the way my future child may have. How would we build trust with a child who’d endured so many losses? We wouldn’t just be first-time foster parents—we would be first-time parents, period. My baby fever had suddenly been interrupted by the heavy recognition of all the hurt our future child might have experienced, and of all I didn’t know about nurturing any young person, much less one who’d faced trauma.

“What is the most common reason a child enters foster care?” the woman at the table next to ours asked.

“That’s a great question,” Cindy replied with a smile, “and it’s also a very difficult one to answer.” She took a deep breath, removed her glasses with one hand, and rubbed her eyes with the other. “Neglect is the box that gets checked most frequently by investigators, but neglect can mean different things to different people. If there’s an allegation of abuse, a judge may want evidence and an investigator can’t always prove how a bruise ended up somewhere. Neglect, however, can be subjective, relying on the opinions of investigators or the agency’s definition of neglect. Sometimes neglect gets selected simply because it’s easier than proving abuse.”

Cindy’s answer was yet another curveball to my foster-adopt strategy. I’d done a lot of homework before arriving in class. I knew there were factors that increased the likelihood of a child not returning to their birth parents. When a parent has already lost a child to the system or has a history of drug use or mental health issues, the odds are not in their favor for reunification. When the call would come, and Jason and I would be presented with the facts of the case, we planned to ask a series of questions to screen out the children with the highest likelihood of reunification. We wanted to adopt a child in need and I wasn’t sure I was emotionally prepared for reunification. I thought, by doing my homework, I could increase my chances of winning the jackpot, the perfect baby ready to be adopted. But what Cindy had just said meant that the data used to inform my research might have been a bit murky. I was beginning to believe it was all muddy, a swamp.

Cindy returned the conversation to trauma and how foster parents can best support children who’ve been traumatized. She must have mistaken my wandering thoughts for an expression of boredom because she called on me for her next question.

“Mark, what are you going to do if you have a Black daughter?” she asked. “How are you going to help her maintain a connection to her culture of origin? How are you going to learn to do her hair?”

“I’m a gay man in Hollywood,” I joked, trying to deflect the question and hide my growing insecurities. “Do you really think I don’t know a hairdresser?”

Everyone laughed. But her point wasn’t lost on me. We were navigating challenging terrain, and understanding how to care for and style a child’s natural hair was just the tip of the iceberg. As foster parents, it would become our responsibility to instill a child with a sense of pride and cultural context. There was also the legacy of social injustice. Poverty, mass incarceration, and other social endemics adversely impacting communities of color have led to a population of Black and Indigenous youth in foster care that is far greater than their portion of the general population.6 It was unlikely, given the demographics of Los Angeles County, that the child we’d receive would look anything like us.

A few months into our marriage, and we were about to open our hearts and our home to someone with a host of needs and experiences we couldn’t predict—or in some cases, even fathom. I had no idea exactly what kind of parents we would be, but I did know we had both the time and love to share.

I figured that was as good a place as any to begin figuring it out.

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