When Alice, my first foster child, came to me, I was a young, brand new parent. Alice was, and still is, the child that brought the steepest learning curve for me. Some of that learning curve was just like any new parent…. schedules, logistics, priorities, and goals. Much of it, though, was the emotional depth of what I had taken on.
All of the training and conversations and preparations leading up to being licensed as a foster parent and taking in a child does not prepare you for the nitty, gritty, raw onslaught of feelings. It’s EVERYTHING all at once — excitement, curiosity, fear, uncertainty, anger, grief — all piled on top of sleep deprivation. A new child in your home is experiencing new sounds, new smells, new tastes, new textures and they often don’t sleep well for a while. Add the child’s fear and grief and anger, and the first few weeks can be a hot mess.
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Everyone DOES talk about the honeymoon period, though, and I have experienced that with some of the kids. It’s a period where everyone is on their best behavior because they don’t know what will happen if they make a mistake. The child doesn’t want to have to move again and tries hard to not make waves. And they really just haven’t figured out how to push your buttons yet.
Alice had the shortest honeymoon period in history. But it wasn’t her choice. She had so much fear and rage and grief bottled up inside that it poured out easily in a safe place. Alice was born to a young mother whom herself had been adopted. By all family accounts, she truly loved her little girl and did her best much of the time. But she would fall into depressions that would lead to drinking and, sometimes, Alice would be forgotten for a bit. Then, when Alice was 2 1/2 years old, there was a party in the house they were living in and someone raped and strangled her mother.
When I met Alice at 4 years old, I was told that her mother had died and that she had a lot of anger and sadness and would lash out and hurt other kids and destroy things. After she was placed with me, I began to learn more and found out that not only had her mother died, that she was murdered and that Alice had witnessed it all. I know that piece of information would not have led me to refuse the placement, but it may have made a difference in how I approached Alice in the beginning.
Alice indeed raged…. all day, every day. She had no language. A child’s language, both hearing and comprehending speech as well as actually speaking, develops very rapidly during their 2nd and 3rd year of life. At 2 and a half years old, with such severe trauma, Alice’s language development stopped. Literally stopped. She spoke and communicated as a 2-year-old. She had very few words and did a lot of pointing and screaming to indicate what she wanted. She’d used ‘uh’ for every pronoun and had very little use of past or future tense. So, ‘uh go there’ could mean I go there, you go there, we go there AND I went there, I want to go there, are we going there? It was very hard and confusing for both us.
Over time, we started to figure each other out and as she felt safer, new expressions started to emerge. When I knew what she wanted to say, I’d just quietly rephrase her communication with the correct sentence…. “Are we going to go home? Yes, we are going to go home.” Then, something wonderful and terrifying started to happen (terrifying, because you never want to hear your child talk about murder)…. Alice started to share tiny little memories of the day her mom died.
It was pretty subtle and I didn’t realized what was happening at first. She had a doll someone had given her that became what I used to call her “abuse a baby” (I know… gallows humor… all foster parents have it!). The poor thing would get smacked against windows and stomped on and thrown across the room. I’d name what was happening; “Wow! Does that hurt baby? Are you angry at her?” She nod or shake her head and tell me, “Bad baby.” or “Baby sad.” It was disturbing, but it seemed useful to get her feelings out. And I limited that kind of ‘play’ to only that one doll. All other toys were to be treated as treasures. One day, she was pulling a jump rope tight around baby’s neck and I asked her what was happening. She said “BB squeeze tight. BB squeeze neck. Gladys die. Gladys DIE.”
I froze and almost broke down. But I managed a quiet, “I’ll bet you are sad about that.” She nodded her head, then threw the doll on the floor and started singing a song. I asked if she needed a hug and she crawled up into my lap and we snuggled and sang together. And I cried with my face buried in her hair. SHE REMEMBERED EVERYTHING. Oh, my heart!
Then things started to happen that nothing in foster care training prepares you for. The person she named during that story was not the person who had been prosecuted and gone to prison. Over the next few weeks, as Alice would periodically bring it up again (I asked her where she was when Gladys died and she said, “Jail.”) and she started to make the most awful gagging and choking sounds when she played with that particularly baby. Those sounds must have been ingrained into her very fiber. I told all of it to the social worker and before I knew it, I as having interviews with FBI agents and Federal prosecutors and more social workers. They all believed her. The room that they stayed in had a bed with iron railings for a headboard. Alice was on the bed with her mom and her mom’s attacker when it happened and she was describing the metal bars as “jail.” After all of it, the official people all decided that there was no way to prosecute the second person based only on the word of a 4-year-old who was only two when she witnessed it. AND, they didn’t want him to know that she was disclosing, because the social workers were afraid that he would come to find her if he knew. That was his reputation. Criminy!!!!!
So we went on with healing. We did therapy, we played, we cried and we laughed. We started soothing the little baby instead of whomping her against the windows. She had less and less need to rage as she slowly found her words and within a year, that little doll was a beloved baby who got snuggled and fed and rocked and was taken on a lot of adventures to the park and playgrounds and on the ferry boat and to daycare.
It’s not a completely happy ending. That kind of trauma permanently changes a person’s brain function, neurological connections, and language abilities. Alice has lived with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) all of her life. Fear, especially, takes her way back to a two-year-old response sometimes, so that, along with lingering language issues and learning issues related to the brain changes has made Alice’s journey harder than it ever should have been.
Precious, resilient child.