Val and Alex had a visit with their family this weekend and then a tough evening coming back to us, as usual. They understand that we get to go through this process one more time and then their next exit will be for good. Wow.
I may have mentioned this in vague terms, about a month ago, one of the kids opened up about something that had happened unrelated to the kids’ time in care or with their parents that led me to play my mandated reporter role and let the authorities know what had been said. I’m being deliberately vague, but let me say that this seems fairly minor in the scheme of things but still worth investigating, and that investigation (plus added support for the kid in question) is going on and has support in both our family and theirs. This weekend, the kids’ dad had a conversation about the same thing and his first call was to me to make sure we’re on the same page about it, which we are. We think the same parts of the story are credible and suspect the same parts may be covering up something quite different. After I’d made the initial report, I’d called their parent to make sure the family knew about this too so that it didn’t seem like I was doing anything behind their backs, and since this didn’t have anything to do with their case I’d told the social workers I was going to do this.
All of that is just background to say that almost all of the interaction between the kids’ parents and me does not involve intermediaries, and that’s a good thing because it lets us really know what’s going on. It’s also hard because it can be awkward, because we all feel uncomfortable at times with our roles. (For instance, I found myself lying to make it seem Val’s school photos had been cheaper than they actually were because I didn’t want them to think they needed to reimburse me when they have so many better uses for their money, and I reminded them that we get a stipend to care for the kids and I’m just caring for the kids in buying pictures. Just a little weird because the situation is weird.)
Their mom told me at one point that she’d been so relieved at the first meeting to see that I have a pierced nose, that she trusted me more after that. On both sides (in many ways theirs more than mine) we have to be willing to reach out based on little more than that. I mean, I got to hear the kids talk about how much they love their parents and (even though I wasn’t supposed to be able to) read the court documents that told me what the family crisis was, though I’d picked up on a lot from what the kids said. They were just heading into a meeting with the stranger who was raising their kids, although I guess I also put things on a good note by seeing them in the waiting room outside our meeting, “Hey, are you [Name] and [Name}? Here are some pictures of the kids, since I know you haven’t seen them in a few weeks and I know I’d want to know my kids were okay.” We’d also been lucky because on the first full day of placement I’d run into the kids’ old next-door neighbor while I was out with Alex, and she was so thrilled about how calm and happy he seemed that she went right home and told his relatives he was doing well, so they’d gotten that message even if the family social worker wasn’t relaying all the things she was supposed to. (I’d ask that she share my cell phone number with the family member who’d been caring for the kids and who was now grieving terribly about having to ask to have them placed in care, but she didn’t actually do that until I made a point of giving out my number at the meeting a week later.)
Where we live, the assumption isn’t supposed to be that foster parents and biological parents are in some sort of adversarial relationship. We keep being told that we’re pushing the team idea more than most foster parents, but I thought that was generally the goal. It’s not the norm that we let them come to our house, I don’t think, but in this instance it really seemed to make sense and I absolutely don’t regret it. I also absolutely do think there are cases where we wouldn’t want someone to know where we live, though that doesn’t mean I’d stand in the way of visitation elsewhere.
Um, all of that was just background for what I actually wanted to talk about. A week or two ago, Val asked as I was driving her home from school what color Mara’s skin was. So I asked what she thought and she said “brown!” and we talked about that for a minute. Then she said, “But after we go home, my daddy won’t let us play with Mara because he doesn’t like people with brown skin and I can’t talk about that with Lee or Mara!” And that’s where I had to keep myself from falling into Oh HELL NO HE DID NOT SAY THAT ABOUT MY BABY mode and remember that I was listening to a (sometimes unintentionally) manipulative five-year-old and not the man himself. (And if he did avoid black people? Well, he was raised way out in the county and it’s quite possible there are racists in the family, but I know how kind he’s been to Mara and polite and friendly to Lee, even though I’m the one who handles most of the contact. So even if he is a racist, he’s not someone who’s actively trying to undermine our family. Yet. So, yeah, I was a little nervous.)
I pushed Val for a little more and found that this conversation had definitely happened over the weekend when she wouldn’t stop talking about what she’d learned in school about “Martin Loofah King,” if you take her version at face value. Her story about him basically was: the holiday is his birthday, he was killed on his birthday, he was killed because he thought black people and white people should do the same things together, and before that black people and white people couldn’t eat together or use water fountains together or ride on the bus together. And boy oh boy did we hear a lot about that, and we were only with her a few hours before she went with family for the weekend. Honestly, I’m glad she’s comfortable talking about that and while we’ve talked a fair bit about why Lee and I have each other and don’t want boyfriends instead, which still leaves the kids skeptical sometimes, we haven’t talked a ton about race other than noting differences about hair and skin and how people look like their biological parents.
What I eventually got from Val was that her dad had advised her to stop talking so much about race because it might make Mara and Lee uncomfortable. I understand what he was trying to say; the standard message about race in America is that talking about it too much is rude. I think he wanted to keep Val from saying something that might be unintentionally offensive. And hey, maybe he wanted to get through a whole conversation without having to try to convince her that no, seriously, there’s no Loofah in Luther, regardless of what she thinks her teacher said.
But I’m saying all this because it took me some time to trust myself on my interpretation of this, to trust him. I’ve thought a lot about how Mara’s family surely didn’t hope that their beloved little girl would end up with an interracial lesbian couple, and yet they’ve embraced us nonetheless because they see that she’s loved. I hadn’t thought as much about to what extent it may have been a leap for Val and Alex’s parents to accept us because they seemed to accept us so readily and mentioned some lesbian acquaintances of theirs to signal that they were able to deal with that just fine. I told them at that first meeting that my partner was a woman and the pictures of the kids included a few with Mara, so whether or not I mentioned that Lee was black they knew from early on that we were a mixed-race family.
After the kids go back, I know that we might not see them again. I don’t think that’s the case. I think their family is committed to what’s best for them and that what’s best for them is going to include knowing that we miss them and are absolutely thrilled that they’re with their family. If we don’t end up with much contact, I don’t know if it will be because we’re gay or because Lee’s black or because their parents are involved in a whole lot of time-consuming bureaucracy already and don’t want to be dragged down with more reminders of the kids’ time in care. There are so many unknowns in this for all of us, and I appreciated getting the reminder that some of them are going to stay unknowns. I’m not going to call Val’s dad and ask him what he thinks about black people, but I’m going to trust that if he’s calling me when he hits a tough situation with his kid, that means that we have an understanding of each other as parents, as supports for these kids. Whether or not that lasts, it was worth having that faith. And I also have faith that things can go really, really well for these kids and the parents who love them. It won’t be easy, but I still have trust and hope.