On June 6, 2019, I shared the keynote address with State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) at the Children’s Study Home Annual Meeting. Rep. Farley-Bouvier shared some information about the Foster Parents Bill of Rights, and her legislative advocacy at the state level. I talked about the challenges of being on the front lines of foster care, and how important the work we do is. The full text of my speech appears below.
Dr. Marianna L. Litovich,
I want to thank Rep. Farley-Bouvier for her tireless advocacy and legislative efforts and that lovely introduction. I also want to thank the Children’s Study Home, and Leslie Fisher-Katz in particular, for inviting me to share some thoughts with you tonight.
My partner, Kelley, and I have been foster parents for almost 11 years, and have welcomed a total of 15 children into our home – 14 through foster care, 1 by birth. We have four children right now: three boys and a girl; two are dark-skinned, two are light-skinned; three share my last name, one doesn’t; they all keep me up at night with worry as much as they fill my heart and life with joy. And always keep me on my toes.
If you had told me 25 years ago that I would have this kind of blended family, with a few forever children and some “for now” children…. I would have said, “I know. That’s my plan!” Because, like most of us involved in child welfare, this was a calling for me. And from a very young age, I knew I wanted to build my family through foster care. But more than that, I was devoted to the idea of being a foster parent before I even knew what foster care was.
We all find our way to this work through passion. With an ache in our hearts to make a difference, to make the world better and easier for the children who need us most. Foster parents, adoptive parents, residential program staff, front line social workers… We all have that drive in common, that gets us in the door. And a boldness, brazenness, and a little bit of craziness that tell us we can make that difference.
When I started down this road I assumed patience, love, and a healthy dose of humor would be enough to carry us through the experience of caring for children who’d experienced abuse and neglect. All those stories about the horrors of foster care you sometimes hear about? I was convinced that wouldn’t be our story. And sure enough, our first few years as foster parents were amazing. We had an awesome little guy we adored, who was easy and sweet, we had a great DCF team, our first adoption happened in less than 18 months. We coasted along, certain that our easy experience meant the system wasn’t really as harsh as other people made it out to be.
I lived in that blissful ignorance for about 7 years. Until our own experience started to go south. We began being treated differently. We started feeling taken advantage of, unheard, disrespected, even lied to. And I started realizing that all the horror stories we’d heard about had nothing to do with foster parents partnering poorly with the foster care system, and everything to do with a system that does a poor job of balancing: Balancing the rights of birth parents with the rights of their children. Balancing the need to ensure safety today with the need to set children up for success tomorrow. Balancing the need to manage crises and maintain confidentiality, with the need to partner effectively.
The more time went on, the more disillusioned I became. I fantasized about walking away on more than one occasion. Every interaction with DCF made me brace myself for the resentment that would soon follow. And that is not sustainable. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t alone. It was around that time that I founded All Our Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and advocating for foster and adoptive families in Western MA, to make it easier for families to remain committed to foster care.
Every year we ask families, “what’s hardest about being a foster parent?” And, really, you could substitute that title with anyone who works on the front lines of child welfare, including staff in residential settings. What’s hardest? Caring for children who’ve experienced trauma? That’s hard. All of the uncertainties? That’s hard. Saying goodbye to a child you love so much, who’s maybe going someplace you might not be thrilled about sending him? That’s really hard.
But those aren’t the most frequent responses we get.
What’s hardest? Bumping up against a very broken child welfare system. I don’t have to tell you all the ways that it’s broken. And the fact that children can sometimes feel like an afterthought in a system that works as hard as possible – and appropriately so – to strengthen birth parents and reunify families. When your goal is to make a difference, sometimes it can feel like the system is making it harder, not easier, to do good. And yet, there are those other times.
And I’m reminded of the story of the little girl on the beach covered with stranded starfish at low tide. You know this story. She’s picking them up one by one, tossing them back into the sea. And an old man comes up to her and says, “Little girl? What are you doing? There are miles and miles of beach! You can’t throw them all back! You can’t make a difference here!” She throws the next one back and looks up at him and says, “I made a difference to that one.”
And without sounding too Pollyanna-ish about it, the kids we love and care for are the stranded starfish of our society, who have come into our lives by circumstance, not by their own fault or shortcoming. We agree to care for them and help them heal from the kind of trauma most of us can’t even fathom. It’s not a role that a lot of people get to have. And it isn’t easy. If it were easy, everybody would do it. You can’t be just anybody to do this work. You have to be someone special.
Because the work is difficult. Our lives can feel like riding a rollercoaster with no seatbelt. The frustrations and heartbreak can feel overwhelming. But if you’ve never experienced the privilege of being a part of these children’s lives, it’s hard to understand how completely amazing it can be. To see a child who’s lost everything that is familiar, who has experienced a level of adversity most of us will never know, play and giggle and laugh like the carefree kid they’re supposed to be. Or make friends at school. Or meet developmental milestones they weren’t able to meet before. Sleep through the night without nightmares. Those of us who know the intense privilege of helping a child achieve those goals can tell you the pride, joy, fulfillment… it’s intoxicating. Unlike anything else. But it isn’t for everyone.
You have to be able to look out onto a landscape littered with stranded starfish, and say to yourself, “I know this system is failing so many, but today, I’m going to make a difference to this one.” And for making that choice, I cherish and applaud each of you who’s in these trenches with me. To those who have accepted this challenge, who have answered the call of children in need, I encourage you to continue to be fierce and brave in your love and advocacy. On days when the system beats you down, reach out for support. On days when you feel like walking away, remember: “The fact that the child welfare system is terribly broken is a compelling reason to engage it, not a legitimate justification to avoid it.” Because even in the darkest moments, I do believe we ARE making a difference, and we’re not doing it alone.
People are paying attention in more meaningful ways. The legislature, the media… I have never been more optimistic that meaningful reform is coming. It’s not going to happen as quickly as we want. But we have the public’s attention in a different way. And this is helping us hold decision makers more accountable. In the meantime, AOK and other organizations, have helped to connect foster and adoptive families and strengthen our community, raise awareness, and engage the public to become involved.
And we do need everyone involved, whether you personally answer the call or not. Because they are all OUR kids. You don’t have to be the one throwing starfish back into the sea to make a difference. There is still a seat as this table for you. The support you show our families, our community, the child welfare workforce… That support makes a huge difference in our ability to wake up in the morning and listen to that glimmer of passion in our hearts that says, “There is a time and a season for everything, but you’re not done with this work quite yet. There are more starfish, and you know you can’t look the other way.”
Is it hard? YES! But almost anything worth doing is going to be challenging.
The burden is on all of us. Because together, we CAN reach every starfish. We can make sure every child has the support and family they need to succeed. We can create the kind of community that holds each other in times of crisis and celebrates each other’s success. We can make sure that child welfare remains a priority and that those who devote their families or their profession to foster children have the respect and support we need and deserve. We can be the voice of the voiceless, and fight to improve a system that is only as broken as we allow it to be.
Because when we all work in service of the passion that brings us to this room tonight, and in support of each other, I have no doubt that our resolve will be unwavering. Our spirits fulfilled. And the future of our most vulnerable young people, bright.