About a week ago, I mentioned that part of our foster care training included a discussion panel of prison inmates, all of whom either had kids in foster care or had themselves been a child in foster care. It was absolutely fascinating, and definitely moved me. I got lots of emails asking me to write about it, but it’s taken me a while just to digest it all.
At first glance, I don’t have much in common with prison inmates, right? I mean, in all seriousness, I’ve never even smoked. Not a cigar, not a cigarette, not even once. I’ve been offered drugs only twice in my life, but never done them. None of my close friends have ever done drugs. I grew up sheltered at a private Christian high school and went to a private Christian college. I did have one year of teaching, my first, wherein 90% of my students were on drugs at all hours of the day. I had to confiscate a few cigarettes from junior highers in class. One of my students was in and out of juvi most of the semester.
But it’s safe to say I didn’t have a context for this experience. And yet, I was shocked because of how it touched on and related to so many aspects of my life thus far.
How does one begin?
A large transport van pulled up into the church parking lot. 4 inmates dressed in blue filed in. One by one, they told us their stories, not in an effort to make us feel sorry for them, but just to explain where they were coming from. We could tell that they were used to talking in front of crowds. Apparently, they come once a month to these trainings, along with speaking openly at high schools around the county.
The first story was easy enough for me to listen to. She was older, and her kids were grown and about to graduate from high school. She had missed 90% of their lives while behind bars. She seemed tough, but honest. She never blamed anyone else for her mistakes, and in the end she said that after nearly 2 decades of prison, she was finally able to say that she would never touch drugs again, and that this was a very recent resolve. Our moderator later said that this was the first time she’d heard this woman say she was done using.
The second was harder for me. The girl was middle aged, sweet but definitely the “Miss Congeniality” type. She explained how she had moved from the Central Coast to Sacramento and got sucked into the seedy drug scene. She said that going from her sheltered life to such a big pond was what did it for her. I couldn’t help but think of our first foster placement who is currently placed up in Sacramento and has recently been experimenting more with drugs. It made me feel sick to hear this woman say that Sacramento was the absolute worst possible place for her to be during her rebellious years.
Then came the third. She was only 22, already finishing a 3 year sentence. Her experience sounded so much like our first foster placement that I felt like the air had been sucked out me. She went from knowing nothing about drugs at 15 years old to being arrested for dealing meth and heroin at 18. She talked about bouncing around from group home to group home, unable to stay anywhere for long, acting out as a way to fill a void inside her. The comparison to our first foster placement was so uncanny. She even looked like she could be related to her.
And then the fourth. She was MY age and had two kids, both of whom were living with their bio father. She was so high when her kids were taken by CPS that she didn’t even know they were gone for days.
Once the stories were done, the Q & A began. I waited until a few questions had been raised and answered, took a deep breath, and raised my hand.
I directed my question at the 22 year old. I briefly described our experience with our first foster placement, then said, “I know that one can always look back, hindsight being 20/20, and wish there had been something someone who could’ve said something to get through to us and change our course. But really. IS there anything anyone could’ve said? What would you tell someone, another young girl in your position, to keep her from ending up in the same situation?”
Her answer surprised me. She didn’t talk about magic solutions. She asked if we still kept in contact with her.
I said yes, barely, but that she told us she’d “moved on” and didn’t care about us that way.
This 22 year old looked me right in the eye and said, “She does care. She’s pretending that she doesn’t, but she does. She wants you to reject her because it feels normal.”
A wave of emotion hit me. I knew the words were true, deep down, but hearing someone say them hurt.
Suddenly, I found myself pouring my heart out in a room full of strangers.”B-but we needed time too. It’s hard to be there for someone when your heart hurts too. I mean, I couldn’t even go in her room for weeks after she left because I missed her so much. It felt like she’d died.”
I’ll never forget it. Even Jesse noticed how zeroed in we both were. This girl’s eyes softened, her voice was quiet, and she was staring at me so intently. “Does she know how much you hurt too? Does she know how much you miss her? Have you told her?”
And I realized I hadn’t told her. I realized that to be vulnerable and tell her how much she had hurt me was the farthest thing from what I wanted to do. I realized I didn’t have the kind of honesty or courage to do so.
I couldn’t believe it. In less than 2 minutes, this young stranger had diagnosed a vital part of the equation. She wasn’t trying to help fix some girl she’d never seen. She was trying to help fix me.
I think this was the main thing that was apparent to both Jesse and I throughout this afternoon. These inmates weren’t giving mushy devotionals or scare stories, they were deep. Their pain had broken right through the B.S. and carved out an understanding of life and it’s value that many of us never have the time to realize.
But they also had hope and they had love. They cared for every single one of us in that room, as inane as some of our questions must have sounded. They had been through the system, and they wanted to help us make it better. A few of them even talked with Jesse for quite a while afterwards during the lunch hour (unfortunately, I had to leave and find gluten free food, which kills me, looking back!).
Overall, there were a few key points that stuck with me over this past week, things that the women said to help us not only understand and humanize the birth parents of our foster children, but also to help us make the kids themselves feel comfortable and safe.
1. Drugs are almost always a part of the story. No one wakes up one day and says, “I want to be a bad parent” or “I want to abandon my children with scary strangers today.” It happens gradually, as things get worse and worse. Many of these women were clean for a few years, had one relapse incident, and were back to their worst addictive state within days. Many times, when their kids got taken, they grieved for what felt like a few days, woke up from a few benders, then realized a whole year had gone by and they’d lost custody forever.
2. Deciding to be clean isn’t something that prison forces on you. All of the inmates said that it took them close to a year of being incarcerated before they stopped doing drugs. They had just as much access to drugs in the prison as they did on the streets. The fact that they were all currently clean was because of a choice, not a forced lifestyle change.
3. Prison was, in some ways, the best thing that ever happened to them. Many of these women described childhoods full of upheaval, family changes, huge unknowns. Prison was predictable and finally gave them the peace and structure they had been seeking their whole lives. It wasn’t until they were in the safety of prison that they were able to process the trauma they’d incurred throughout their lives.
4. These women weren’t trying to say that their pain was any greater than anyone else’s. They just lacked the support system and training to walk through it. Instead of processing the pain of what had happened to them, they ran from it time and time again, ruining relationship after relationship, sleeping with guy after guy, resorting to drugs to dull the pain. One actually said to us all, “Look, our pain is just as great as what you guys all have. We just don’t know how to deal with ours.”
5. Rock bottom doesn’t change anything. Many of the foster parents in the room kept asking the inmates, “When was your “rock bottom”? We keep wondering when “x” will reach rock bottom and turn around.” But these women stressed over and over again that rock bottom is actually one of the worst things that can happen. Rock bottom makes you use again, because you feel helpless and without hope. Reaching rock bottom just means that there will just be more rock bottoms to come. It takes a choice, and until that choice comes about, no bad situation, no penalty is bad enough to inspire change.
6. Along the same lines, these inmates encouraged the foster parents in the room to draw hard and fast lines with all the birth parents. “Don’t believe any of their lies,” they said. “They will say and do anything to manipulate more visits, few restrictions, etc. Believe us, we were those parents, and we did lie and do everything in our power to cheat the system.” They wanted to give foster parents the freedom to protect the children, first and foremost, even if it meant acting insensitively towards the birth parents.
7. As each of the women listed bad experience after bad experience, bad foster home after bad foster home, they always were able to recognize that “one” person who made a difference in their life, despite the fact that they ended in prison. They knew when they were part of a family who was in it for the paycheck, and they knew who truly cared about them. One big piece of advice they gave was to go to great lengths to treat any foster children like a part of the family, giving them both the perks and negatives. Even making a kid eat their vegetables or punishing them similarly to what one does with their own kids helps them feel less and less like an outsider.
There isn’t much else to say for now, other than it made a huge impact on me. I learned so much about the courage it takes to open one’s heart up in a room full of strangers, many of whom are probably judgmental, and demonstrate complete honesty and caring.
It makes me wonder about what it would take to produce this kind of open honesty on my own, without needing prison walls to hold me in.