Friday, October 6, 2006
Tim and Mary Hult: foster parents of the "invisible kids"
Tim and Mary Hult answer that question by participating in the Massachusetts foster parent program. The Hults, residents of Carlisle since 1979, raised three children of their own here, and both engaged fully in the Carlisle school system and in their own and other children's activities. Among their commitments were Tim's chairmanship of the Carlisle School Committee, and Mary's participation in Nancy Hendrie's Sharing Foundation (see Mosquito, January 16, 2004). We may know Tim best as a Carlisle Selectman, and Mary as a former news editor for the Carlisle Mosquito. In 2000, when he officially retired, Tim and Mary decided to devote themselves to community service pretty much full-time and to keep children in the forefront of their lives. With their own children well-grown and all but one out of the house, they became licensed foster parents.
Getting started as a foster family
Because children cannot speak for themselves, the foster parent licensing process is complex, involving multiple interviews, background checks, and the assembly of a thick dossier of references and history. In the course of this assessment process, some parents are weeded out; others, like the Hults, proceed to the eight-week training program required and run by the DSS. Parents must attend all sessions, which meet once a week for several hours. There, they meet other prospective foster parents who often form a chain of communication and resources, and receive instruction that includes training in children's behavior, caring for differences in race and resources for dealing with the effects of physical abuse, drugs, or other crises that children may face. The number one problem, Tim says, is substance abuse of the children's parents or guardians: 74% of all the children in Massachusetts in foster care are there because of this issue. Each child's situation is unique, however, and Tim and Mary concentrate on advocating for each child's particular needs, and on discovering ways to give that child a sense of family and normalcy.
Mary is quick to point out that the training offers a full panoply of state and regional professionals to help foster parents to achieve a good outcome for the children in their charge. Parents are taught to realize their own limitations and call upon these professionals: medical people and agencies, social workers, early intervention teams, and others, whenever the situation requires it. Each child and each foster family is assigned a social worker who deals specifically with that child's case. Social workers are busy; they may average as many as 21 cases at any given time, but Mary says that despite the caseloads, Massachusetts is fortunate to have a very responsive team of professionals to assist foster parents.
Some financial support
There is some financial support for foster parents: they receive a small per-child stipend (about $17 a day, Tim says) and a clothing stipend of $260 per quarter for long-term stays. The DSS is also concerned that children are matched with foster parents who are a good fit for them, so the intensive screening process comes in handy when it is time to assign children to foster homes. Careful assignment is also beneficial to foster parents, who may refuse a child if they feel they cannot take the case. Tim and Mary have tried to concentrate their foster parenting efforts largely on short-term stays because they travel frequently. However, Tim says, smiling, "You can say no, but the kid is usually sitting nearby ready to go." They have had children in their home for anywhere from three days to seven months. Even if the stay is a long one, however, there is a "respite" program, where another foster family can cover a trip or vacation by taking a child for a short time until the primary foster parents can resume care.
Who are the invisible kids?
So far, Tim and Mary have cared for 45 children in their home. Their first case was a 16-year-old boy, abused by his father, who had "spent some time alone on the streets of Boston and Framingham." He was quite taken aback by the difference in the Carlisle environment: he had not seen wide fields or even a lot of trees. Tim took him for a drive around the area and they wound up at the Old North Bridge. They stood in the middle of the bridge, and the boy said:
"So, there was a big fight here, right?"
"Yes," said Tim. "Pretty big."
The conversation went on to cover the issue of fighting and the boy's assertion of his own toughness, with Tim diffusing the idea of violence as an acceptable problem-solver. Soon afterward, Tim drove the young man to a dentist and offered to pick him up at the end of the appointment.
"You're not coming in with me?" asked the frightened boy. Tim chuckled as he recalled the story of this "tough kid," and said, "The point is that they're all kids, and they need people to take care of them, whether they think they do or not."
Another of the Hults' cases involved an eight-month-old girl from Cambodia who came to them with a serious cleft palate. They were able to see her through surgery at the Shriners Hospital in Boston and follow her progress. She is now a lovely little girl who has been adopted by a couple in Maine.
Most children come to the Hults very much afraid of the police, because they have come from environments where the police have had to break up domestic fights and remove them from their families. Tim makes a point of taking his charges to the Carlisle Police Department and re-educating them, getting them to see the police as part of their support system. The Carlisle community, Mary says, has been very supportive of the Hults' efforts.
Some stories begin in ways hard for us here in Carlisle to imagine. One group of siblings that the Hults took in had come from a trailer all but abandoned by a father who neglected the children to the point where they were "almost feral." The Hults were able to keep these children clean and safe until the DSS was able to return them to their family.
The DSS's first goal is "reunification" with the children's families. This is not always a simple process, because the children's families are usually fragmented. Not only must the children's parents often go through prison, rehabilitation, or detoxification programs to reclaim their children, but often one or both parents cannot be found, or are deceased. In those cases, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives must be sought. As Mary says, the community becomes part of the children's families, even if only temporarily, and "the more people who are invested in the child's life, the better."
"The most beautiful room in the world"
Tim and Mary do their part by giving the kids "normal" experiences. This involves something as simple as taking the child to Gleason Public Library. Upon entering the library, one of their young charges declared, "This is the most beautiful room in the world." Tim was able to catch a baseball at Fenway Park and slip it to a small foster daughter in such a way that she thought she had caught it herself. She slept with that baseball on her pillow for a week. Normal, regular meals, baths and showers, some fresh clothing, a new suitcase, trips to Kimball's for ice cream, a visit to Old Home Day, a ride in a golf cart, a chance to go swimming: all this can go a long way toward making a child feel secure. Behind the scenes, the Hults advocate for the children by observing them carefully and keeping in close touch with the system's professionals to be sure the children are getting the services they need.
And then what happens?
The Hults are frequently asked, "Do you become attached to the kids? How can you give them up?" The mindset, Mary says, is that "when you take a child in, you are like a friend or a grandparent. You keep in mind that the best outcome for children is to be reunited with members of their real families who can take care of them." The next best outcome is for children to be adopted by caring families, who, Mary says, "are the people to really admire: they are committed for the long haul." Foster parents may stay in touch with their foster children, taking guidance from wherever the children are and whoever is responsible for them. The Hults have been delighted by many thank-you notes and Christmas cards from their foster children in the five years they have been participating. In addition, they are in close contact with the regional metro-west office of the DSS through the regional support board, of which Tim is president. In the 26 towns in the metro-west division of the DSS, he says, there are 110 foster families. He and Mary have enjoyed social times with these people and spread the word about the program by giving talks around the area. The rewards for them are impressive.
"I've become so much more empathetic with the situations people are in," says Mary. "Certainly the need [for foster families] is great. It is amazing how important families are to these kids, and how great it is to be a part of that larger family."
Tim is most impressed with "the resiliency and spirit of kids in the face of unbelievable issues, and also with the importance of moms, grandmothers — women especially, in their lives. The system itself is overtaxed, but I am very optimistic about it because the professionals have an incredible concern and care for the right outcome for the kids. Everyone is really appreciative, too, of the support from the community."
The final assessment
When asked about the challenges of foster parenting, Tim laughs and says, "It's pretty normal. It's pretty much like having kids in your house the way everybody does. This is one of the best things, of the many things, we have ever been able to do together."
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito