Finding Empathy in the Foster Care System

I had the opportunity to interview a close family friend about her experience as a foster parent.

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I had the opportunity to interview a close family friend about her experience as a foster parent. Her story sheds light on her journey to find empathy in untraditional places. My favorite quote from our conversation: "Sometimes when you don’t know someone, you try to put your own story in there for them."

Read below for the full story...

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“The first time I met them was four days after I became Grant’s* foster parent. I went to the Department of Child and Youth Services (DCYS), to take Grant for a visitation, and I met the father and mother.” Megan* recalls meeting Grant’s parents the way you might recall meeting an an ex, warm memories filled with sadness.

In August of 2011, Megan became a first-time foster parent to two-month old Grant. Her year caring for Grant and the relationship she built with his parents has given her a new blended family, and is a remarkable testament to empathy in extraordinary situations. She recently shared her story with me, and I am honored to share it with you.

After months of training and preparation, Megan received the call that Grant would be coming to live with her. After decades as an educator and parent counselor, Megan was nervous, but ready. She knew that Grant’s parents would remain in the picture during his year-long stay with her.

“For me, I had two jobs to do. The first was to be empathetic towards his parents - people whose child had been taken from them. That, in some ways, is a pretty big job because it was determined that they had either harmed their child or that their child was in a dangerous environment. In this case, they were both drug addicts and they had not created an environment for Grant that was safe.”

“And, I had to be empathetic towards Grant. He was already addicted to drugs and had been put in a clinic. I heard from a caseworker that the nurses at the clinic didn’t like him because he was a high need baby, he needed to be held a lot and fed a lot. So, trying to - I don't know, you just reach in yourself and try to find the place to provide that comfort and understand that he’d had life trauma. There is a part of yourself that opens up.”

At their first meeting, Megan could see immediately how Grant’s parents were struggling. “Dad had almost stopped using drugs at that point, but mom hadn’t. She was a mess, her face was distorted and she had all kinds of crazy makeup on. She was definitely deep her in addiction.”

For Megan, this meeting was her first opportunity to in practice empathy for Grant’s family.

“Seeing them and trying to empathize without judging them was the first step in creating empathy for them and for Grant, and for their family unit. I recognized that he was a part of them, and he was eventually going to go back to them. How could I best create that kind of empathy for them?”

“That for me was a process. Of trying to put myself in their shoes. The more that I knew them, the more that I heard their story. Sometimes when you don’t know someone, you try to put your own story in there for them. Part of it was just trying to be open to them and trying to be forgiving and loving.”

The challenge to feel empathy was mutual. It wasn’t easy for Grant’s parents to see him with Megan. But, there was an element of trust that helped build a foundation for empathy. “That first day I took him to visitation, they couldn’t believe how different he looked. Years later they told me they were taken aback by how healthy and happy he looked, after only four days with me. They told me that had a profound affect on them.”

“You hear all kinds of crazy stories about the divisions between the foster parents and the biological parents, but Grant’s parents built that bridge immediately. At our first visitation, Grant’s dad came up to me and said some very kind things to me - I think they were empathetic towards me. They were already doing for me what they hoped I would do for their son.”

Over the next year, as Grant lived and grew happily in Megan’s home, Grant’s parent’s focused on getting healthy. By the following June, 10 months after Grant had been taken from them, DCYS determined Grant could go home. Megan was crushed. “The first week after he left, I felt numb and cried. The DCYS worker came and took all of his stuff. It was really hard.”

Megan knew her pain meant positive things for Grant and his family. “It’s the best scenario for foster care - that the parents are given an opportunity to improve, and they do, and they get the child back. And it worked! It doesn’t always work. And then in our case, it went in the most bizarre direction…”

A few days after Grant returned to his family, his parent’s called Megan to ask if she would stay in Grant’s life. “They said that they didn’t have a lot of upright people in their lives, and they wanted him to have someone. At first I thought, ‘they just need the extra help and this is their way of saying it.’”

For three years, Grant spent every other weekend with Megan. Eventually, they went down to visits once a month.

Grant is 5½ now, and Megan continues to be a presence in his life and the life of his parents. “I feel like fostering Grant was a gift, and his parents were a gift too, because they brought him to me. We have a legacy now, five years going, and we’ve created a blended family. They gave me opportunities to help them and they helped me in ways they probably can’t articulate.”

Recently, Megan checked in with Grant’s parents, as she has every six months since he went home. “I said ‘Are these visits still working? Do you think we should continue?’ His dad said, ‘I can see him going to your house when he is 16.’”

*Names have been changed to preserve privacy.

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Kevin Day Erin Quinn Katherine Hauser I'm so glad it spoke to you all! Another addition I didn't include was about why this unique blended-family relationship has worked for them. I asked Megan "was it just dumb luck?" She had interesting things to say about Grant's parents being both sensitive and tough. Also, that trust was very important and allowed them to be open to one another.

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