Picture this if you will, one of those teens you hear about in the news, see on the MAX, or who maybe appear in nightmares about your own kids. They’re never home, ignore authority, and get into serious trouble. They’re angry, shut down, and living by their own rules. Now imagine opening your home to these strangers. Letting them sleep there, cooking for them, and being a caring “Auntie.” That’s what I do. I’m a foster mom.
I provide highly supervised care to teenage boys who are involved with the juvenile justice system. They could be pre-trial, on probation, or awaiting placement in a residential program—but because of their charges, the system has decided detention is not beneficial. They live with me anywhere from one to 90 days. After six years and close to 100 boys, I describe this as a calling—because really, who in their right mind would do this?
I never wanted kids. Until I was 40, I lived a hassle-free, single life. I was an artist and musician with a day job. I traveled frequently and enjoyed caring for nobody but myself. By 50 I was divorced, Mom to four incredible teenage sons (whom I did not divorce), and looking to supplement my income with a job I could do from home. For two years I flirted with the impulse to become a foster parent. Every time I saw an ad, I’d research the agency, read a few testimonials, and then tell myself, “No way.” I finally said yes, got certified, and began working for an agency that serves Clackamas and Multnomah County youth.
There are many things I know I cannot do. I cannot work with sick people, babies, seniors, or the homeless. It’s just not a good fit. But teenage boys I “get.” Really get. I enjoy, understand, and respect them. I have an appreciation for this stage of their development that few people can fathom. As a society we are all pretty clear that teenagers—especially boys—are the worst, right? And maybe that’s part of the problem.
Two years and 20 boys later, a 12-year-old (whom we’ll call Bob), came to live with me. I give him that name to be as neutral as possible. It’s to remind you these children can be any race or ethnic group, but are most likely working class, because there are ways of keeping your child out of the system if you have money. While I have seen certain situational similarities among boys who share cultural backgrounds, I don’t want to fuel any existing bias.
Bob cried all the way to my house. He cried like his life was ending, because from his perspective, it was. He was scared and alone, and in a car with a complete stranger. No amount of reassurance from me could change that. I knew I’d have to gain his trust through my actions, not words. So I sat with him in silence as he cried.
As a foster parent, I’m required to attend monthly parenting classes and yearly crisis prevention trainings. At this point I have 200+ hours of classroom time, which is about 200 hours more than the average parent. One recurring topic is the idea of family culture: Each family has their own unique set of rules, assumptions, and expectations that inform every aspect of how they interact. Combine that with the values and behaviors of class and education, and it’s clear that Bob truly had landed in foreign territory.
We all have family practices we take for granted. Take sleep: I was raised to believe that a bed should be a mattress on box springs, sheets that are cleaned bi-weekly, warm blankets, and a pillow that supports the head. Sleep is a regular thing, with set hours and silence, a bed for each kid, and sleeping people should not be disturbed. The foundational beliefs are about health, self-care, and safety, and that this is the “correct” way to sleep.
Bob had a very different experience. Sleep for him was not safe, not comfortable, not even a given. It certainly didn’t begin with a warm sendoff, which is my norm. Every time I sent him to bed with, “Good night, sleep well, I’ll see you in the morning,” he glared at me, became annoyed, and sometimes told me to shut up. He hated it, but it’s a ritual I use to demonstrate my caring. To survive in his home, Bob had learned to sleep with lights on, his back to the wall, and never alone. He was hyper-vigilant, even in sleep.
Three weeks after coming to my house, Bob’s closest relative was murdered. Bob was allowed to go to the funeral: 12 years old, separated from family, and dealing with the loss of the person closest to him. I hope you can begin to perceive not only the tragedy of this, but his strength and resilience.
Bob was the most sensitive child I have ever met, a true empath. His heart was big; his curiosity about the world was immense. Once he realized he could trust me to be honest, take him seriously, and respect him, he asked a lifetime’s worth of questions. About everything. He only watched movies that dealt with human emotions and family crisis. He watched them over and over until we could both recite dialogue by heart. We had long conversations about why people do what they do, and about suffering. We talked about his life, what he wanted from it, and who he wanted to be in the world. He had dreams, goals and hopes. He began to smile more and cry less. He came to expect my nightly sendoff. He relaxed, and began sleeping with the light off.
I’d like to to tell you that Bob went back home to his loving family (because his parents truly do love him). That they’d found well-paying jobs which meant they could work less and care for him better, and that his brothers had given up gang life for good. Unfortunately, that’s not how his story goes. After three months, he left my home to live in a long-term residential program.
Three years later he was back in my home, after more jail time. He was now 15, with a longer record and a street reputation as a badass. That first night we sat for hours as he described those three years. He told me the most tragic story I’ve ever heard, and I’d heard a lot by then. This child (because at 15, he still was a child) was brutalized by the life he was born into. To survive, he made bad choice after bad choice. And in my car again, he cried his heart out. In the end, he couldn’t stay at my house because a rival gang controls my neighborhood, and he didn’t feel safe. He left the program soon afterward. He is one more story without an ending. I love that child. I think about him often, and I always hope he’s safe—with people who understand him, where he’s able to shine.
I became a foster parent to support boys whom society has deemed problematic. Initial dreams I had about fixing them, solving their problems, or saving them from their lives were replaced with the more realistic goal of showing them the kindness, respect, and love they deserve—despite what they’ve done. I listen to them and give them guidance, I advocate for them, and help them rethink their futures. Hopefully they learn they’re worthy of love, that not everything they’ve learned is true, and that sometimes, strangers can be trusted.
Erin Middleton is a foster parent for Boys & Girls Aid, a private family coach, and teen mentor. Learn more at thrivefamilysupport.com.