Saturday, June 03, 2006

Erikson & Foster Care

While I was at the Foster Care Alumni of America's May Summit, I mentioned the challenges inherent in trying to establish a movement by foster care alumni.

Specifically, we are asking people who have learned distrust, independence and isolation to trust, connect and commit. As foster alumni members discussed policies, strategies and best practices for FCAA, we had to learn to listen to one another with an attitude of openness.

It was a difficult transition from being the "Lone Ranger."

This applies also in the area of marriage. By making a 'lifetime commitment,' a former foster child who has learned not to trust is required to entrust their very soul to another person. A person who might betray them, abandon them or abuse them, as their parents did...

Erikson's '8 stages of man' has significant relevance to foster care:
Stage 1, Trust vs. Mistrust
Stage 2, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
Stage 3, Initiative vs. Guilt
Stage 4, Industry vs. Inferiority
Stage 5, Identity vs. Role Confusion
Stage 6, Intimacy vs. Isolation
Stage 7, Generativity vs. Stagnation
Stage 8, Integrity vs. Despair

Regarding foster alumni, I am going to focus on the sixth stage: "intimacy vs. isolation." Several participants at the Seattle FCAA summit, including myself, agreed that this stage is particularly challenging.

Several of us mentioned that, after experiencing problems early in our marriage, the simplest option appeared to be, "Why not just leave?" Leaving is what we know; what we are familiar with; what we have experienced throughout our entire lives. So, why stick around?

One participant confided to me that on her ten-year anniversary, she told her husband, "I've finally decided that I'm in this for keeps." He was quite relieved to hear it. I have a similar story of my own.

Can marital intimacy be enjoyed by the former foster child?
Many barriers often impede this:

1.) Fear and confusion regarding physical intimacy. If the person has experienced abuse, particularly sexual abuse or rape, physical intimacy can be overshadowed by fear or a deep sense of shame.

Or, the person might try to face their fears by heading in the opposite direction: sexual addiction; using sex to "numb out" rather than to connect with another person.

2.) Fragile sense of self. Foster alumni are often plagued with a sense of self-doubt. We truly haven't had the freedom to make mistakes because the consequences for those mistakes were often blown out of proportion. What might be viewed as 'normal' teenage risk-taking for other teens often sent us reeling into a different foster placement.

In addition, moving around frequently makes it difficult to build a rock-solid identity. To please foster placement #5 might require different tactics than pleasing foster placements #2, 3 and 4. Staff or foster parents might perceive you differently, and you find your behavior changing as a result.

In foster care, adapting to each new placement is vital to survival. But, along the way, you might wonder, "Who am I, anyway?" And, as we know, dating someone else when you don't know who you are is fertile ground for codependence.

3.) No roots or safety net. Let's say a young woman ages out of foster care. She's confused about intimacy. She has a fragile sense of self-worth. The first guy she attracts turns out to be abusive. They enter into a codependent relationship. What then?

Will she leave? What if she has become emotionally or financially dependent on him? If she summons up the courage to leave him, where will she live? If she is isolated, who is there in her life to give her wise counsel and say, "Leave this jerk. You deserve better - whether you believe it or not."

Not her father, she doesn't have one. Not her brother, they were separated. If she is very lucky, she might have established a safety net of trustworthy friends. If not, she is on her own.

Foster alumni are at a disadvantage due to their lack of roots. If you were uprooted from living with your parents, separated from your siblings and shuttled from one placement to another, with whom can you share your stories?

Even now, listening to my husband and stepdaughters, I am amazed at the shared history between them. It is something that I have never had.

4.) Distrusting their partner. If you are a former foster child, must your partner win your trust over and over again? At what point will you stop testing him or her?

Perhaps the distrust comes from something your partner has done. You just found out that the love of your life is imperfect. What if his fallibility leads him to do something horrible - like betraying you?

Maybe you think this person must be crazy for loving you. Over the years in foster care and afterward, you've developed a sense of inferiority about yourself. Perhaps your low sense of self-worth manifests itself in body dysmorphia or eating disorders. Or, maybe you just dump the other person before they get the chance to disappoint you.

Intimacy versus Isolation for Foster Alumni
Foster children grow up feeling powerless. After aging out of foster care, independence offers us power. Think of what first comes to mind when you hear the word "emancipation." No one can hurt us anymore. No one can dump us anymore. We are on our own authority.

To entrust yourself to another person requires a leap of faith that the person will love you. It assumes the fact that you realize that you are loveable. To give that much power to another person, after a lifetime of rejection, is scary.

Remember the scene in the movie "Good Will Hunting" where Matt Damon sabotages his relationship with Minnie Dryver? Where might he have ended up if he hadn't chosen to take that rat-trap of a car and drive out to reconcile with her at the end?

Several of us at the summit could relate with Matt Damon's character. But most of us had one thing in common - we were married. We had taken the risk... and with that leap of faith, we found out that we did have (relational) wings.

Attachment patterns, once developed, tend to persist. Patterns only change if experiences change. One of my follow-up plans from the FCAA summit is collaborate with others to develop and lead presentations on this topic for teenagers and young adults aging out of foster care.

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Hi, Lisa. I met a very special 11 year old girl and her foster mom yesterday. The girl's mother has bipolar disorder, and when the girl was only 5 years old, her mother set her on fire. She is not only severely disfigured now, but she often lives in constant pain, can't speak very clearly, lost half of her eyesight, and can only eat liquid and semisolid foods. In the 6 years since it happened, she has been in 4 foster homes, one of which was abusive in that the other children in the home called her "Frankenstein". The foster mom told me, that she had to pull her out of counseling, because no counselor would allow her to be even the slightest bit angry about what her mom did to her- they all made excuses for the mother, which made this child feel even worse. If the foster mother doesn't find another therapist who will at least *understand* that this child has a reason or two to be angry, she'll have to go to another foster home. It's so sad. Why does our society allow these things to happen to children? Why do we let our chidlren down? And what did this girl ever do to deserve this kind of existence? I don't understand it.
Wow - what terrible counselors. Not allowing an 11-year-old to own and discuss her angry feelings about almost being burned to death?

What possible excuse could there be for setting your own child on fire?

Here's where the lack of judgment sets in... People have to talk out their anger and feel heard.

I hated my dad for years for abandoning me. I chose, as a 19-year-old, to forgive him because something had changed in my heart.

This did not mean he was blameless. Nor did it mean we fully reconciled. It meant that I had decided that the anger was weighing too heavily on my heart.

I decided. No one told me. If a person is mad, they are mad. It's not wrong, it's a feeling.

Why have they not severed custodial rights and put this young lady up for adoption? If it has been six years, then they are violating the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.

What agency is supervising this case? I would like to look into this, and invite my friend Angie Cross to look into it also.
If you speak with this 11-year-old survivor and her foster mother again, please share this:

One of my best friend in college was named Hayden. He was in a fire when he was in high school. He would never reveal the exact details.

His mother had been abusive, but I am not sure if what happened was a result of her abuse, or perhaps a car accident.

Hayden was burned over every inch of his body. His face was scarred. His fingers were shortened by the fire.

What Hayden feared was a lifetime with no one to love him. He tried to come to terms with his physical body. He was in several weightlifting competitions (in at least one of them, he won "Most Courageous").

Hayden is married now, to a wonderful woman named Hazel. She comes from another country; a different culture; one that values not what you look like on the outside, but who you are.

I have to admit that when I first heard about their relationship, I was suspicious of Hazel. Did she truly love Hayden, or was she using him for a green card?

I had the opportunity to work with her at KinderCare for over a year. During that time, I saw her love for him, her loyalty and her sincerity.

My point is that this 11-year-old girl, who's spent the past six years in four different foster homes, is no Frankenstein (as those thoughtless children referred to her).

She is lovely, she is loveable, she is worthy of love.
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