The price of admission

This summer, my wife and I completed the foster parent training course in our county.  I’m not sure we will foster at this time, but it’s on our radar.  Regardless, I went through a little dip in my psyche after six Saturdays of being triggered 4 hours straight and not screaming.

Depressing would hardly define my feeling as I watched the faces of every prospective foster parent in that class admit they have never heard of the ACES study on the last day of the course – even after the facilitator specifically instructed the class to view a video about the ACES study. “How many have heard of the ACES study?” Chirp. Chirp. Un-freaking-believable. {Here’s a nice Ted Talk so you have a clue about why the ACES study is so profound and why I probably won’t see my 75th birthday.}

But that’s par for the course and I knew it would be. The problem with the people who want to be foster parents is – they are “good people.”  Which means, they believe their good intentions are all they need to do the job.

Que Samuel Jackson…

“You were saying something about… ‘Best intentions’?”

I spent a couple of weeks processing this experience and then a week out of town. Then, I read “Growing up in the care of strangers. The experiences, insights and recommendations of eleven former foster kids” written by Waln K. Brown and John R. Seita.

Along with other foster care books on my bookshelf, this will stand as an honest assessment of a truly jacked up system.

Published less than a decade ago in 2009 (which is practically yesterday in foster care literature), the  single overriding focus in this book is that the system still refuses to listen to the people who consume its product – the foster child, nor the adult survivors. (Then again, we ARE patient forever and so I suppose we’re not deemed qualified to speak of the system.)

Oh sure, you can find one or two of us at a fundraiser. We will get an award at age 18 (for existing). We clean up real nice, look real pretty.

If we adhere to the script, we get 15 minutes, a pat on the back and a return phone call the next day.  And that’s it.

Not a break up dinner.

No sympathy orgasm.

The first page which really resonated with me (page 24) is where John Seita tries to explain to you dear reader, why reading a book on foster care and foster children, doesn’t do squat for the actual people charged with caring for us.

Seita quotes a passage from Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams’ character, Sean Maguire, tried to connect with Matt Damon’s character, Will Hunting, who plays a foster / orphan.

“You’re an orphan, right?

Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist?

Does that encapsulate you?”

Well, no, and thank you for asking!!

And for relating. Sort of.  Maybe?

Now, the movie watcher is sitting on the couch thinking, yeah asshole, “does that encapsulate you?”  But what most people miss in this scene is the skill that Hunting has learned as an “orphan.”

As with real life foster care, Hunting has learned to size up the important people in his life. He had to. His survival depends on it.  And let me tell you, it sucks. It’s a skill that is draining, expends energy and causes more grief in adulthood than reward. As a foster child, it’s essential.  As an adult, it’s a burden.

Now, there are certainly kids of all stripes (fostered too) who have no ability whatsoever to read body language. But it’s been my experience that most foster kids are pretty good at cutting through the crap and can tell a lot about a person within a few seconds when they need to (such as being placed in a new home).  And those things that they cannot discern, they will test in order to learn.

In this scene, Maguire is hurt.  He’s hurt because Hunting is able  to make assessments about Maguire by examining part of Maguire’s exposed pain (a painting he made), along with other factors about Maguire which he has observed.

Maguire also doesn’t realize what Hunting is getting at with his observations and statements – I call it “the price of admission.”  It’s the cost of  building a relationship with someone who has been through the foster system.

Maguire’s painting provided a window into his soul and his pain, and Hunting picked up on that.  “Normal” people might tread lightly on that and make a soft conciliatory statement such as “that’s so beautiful” or “I am sorry for that experience.”  Foster children and survivors…  eh’ not so much.  It kind of depends on wether we trust you or not, or care about you or not, or if we are going to have to deal with you in our life on an ongoing basis.

Let me explain how this works.

First, if a foster child or adult is in your life for any length of time, he or she will have to expose part of their life, part of their pain.  So, you are going to know that and you may (actually you will),  inadvertently use that to cause some stress and emotional pain in that foster person’s life.  It’s unavoidable.  What matters is wether or not you are aware of this and how you deal with it and how you try to avoid it in the future.  Talking about a foster person’s past with them in an open and supportive manner is not a problem. Not at all.  But making a statement such as “that’s how we do it in our family,” can be a problem (to give one of many possible examples).

Second, because you now know something deep and intimate about that fostered person, you have a bit of an advantage over that fostered person, and we humans will naturally begin to be somewhat parental, condescending, controlling and patronizing as a result of that knowledge.

Third,  now the fostered person is going to have to “balance the equation.” They are going to hunt for your pain so that the situation has some balance. And that is exactly what Hunting did in this scene.

And so now he is going to test whether or not he can trust Maguire.  Subconsciously, he knows he might pay a price for that.

Hunting is thinking, did he (Maguire) suffer (like me)? Did he hurt (like me)? More importantly, did he heal? Does he wish to inflict his hurt on others?

Or,  does he wish to make currency of that hurt to heal others?

As the scene plays out, Maguire’s character lays out his hurt feelings and in so doing, he exposes the double edged sword foster children and survivors live with. Maguire and Hunting’s conversation showcases who we are in relation to those around us.  This is more important than any training, and it’s why the lack of our presence in decision making is one of the key factors in the horrible outcomes which continue to this day.

Maguire’s character continues, from his position of being hurt by Hunting:

“Personally, I don’t give a shit about all that. Because, you know what, I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some fucking book. 

Unless you want to talk about you.

Who you are.

And I’m fascinated. I’m in.

But you don’t wanna do that, do you sport?  

You’re terrified of what you might say.


Now that we’ve laid that out for viewing, allow me to retort.

“What does Marcellus Wallace look…” wait, wrong movie.

Here’s the thing – we’re not terrified.  We actually prefer to deal with you in a raw and open and honest and direct fashion -because that is NOT how the world has dealt with us and it IS what we seek.  

Honest communication is SAFE for us!  It is one of the only safe things in our lives.  

Open and honest communication BALANCES the relationship between us.

And we have to know if you can handle it.  

That is the price of admission.

Our life in state care is one of dishonesty, of missing pieces.  Our own personal, medical, and family history are legally hidden from us.  We are literally (to repeat an overused word) – we are literally, legally, not allowed to know what is in our own case file with the state.  Those charged with caring for us lie to us on a regular basis, hide facts about our lives and then proceed to share that hidden information with strangers – but not us – robbing us of our privacy and dignity as a person.

Finding honest people on this earth is our one refuge as we go about our day. Not just honesty about the $2 you owe me, but honesty on a deep level, the willingness to be exposed.  In this scene of Good Will Hunting, Hunting is willing to take the hit from Maguire because that’s the price of learning wether or not Maguire will be honest and can be trusted.

Maguire is scared shitless that this kid can reflect his demons back at him an use them to balance an otherwise out of balance relationship.  He doesn’t understand the price of admission.

The price of admission buys honesty – in both directions.  And it’s a price that both people have to pay on a regular basis to keep the relationship going.  And yes, it can be hard.

If you ask me why Hunting did what he did, I would explain:

They sat me down and told me my parents were shit and to forget about them. That I was unclean, unworthy and unloved. Then, they expected fidelity from me.

Do you honestly expect me to allow you some quarter from your family demons when I was allowed none?  

That’s the price of admission here if we are going to be equal.

And if you can’t pay it, fuck off already!

So, about the book… I enjoyed reading it.

Finally someone (several “one’s”) put into writing one of the more urgent problems (among many) with the practice of foster care – a failure to self evaluate via the actual outcome of your product.  My apologies for getting side tracked here, but I think it is something that people need to understand. (And as always, if you can’t handle the language, grow up.)

Without the input and direction of foster survivors on decision making boards, the current foster system will continue to produce the same results. Foster care will continue along with the same horrible outcomes and a few “wonderful stories” of survivors that the system clings to to justify its actions.

If you want that to continue, do nothing.

If you want it to change – ask us for our help. 

It’s really simple.