According to the Administration for Children’s Services, close to 17,000 of the city’s children are in foster care rather than living with their own parents. Some are placed with aunts and uncles, or with grandparents, but more than 11,000 live either in group homes or with foster families. The system itself can be overwhelming – adding stress to the lives of birth parents, foster parents and foster children. Brooklyn resident Sarah Gerstenzang has first-hand experience with the stresses and joys of the foster care system, having taken in a foster daughter in February of 2001. She chronicles her experiences in a new book, Another Mother: Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System, published this March by Vanderbilt University Press.
Gerstenzang, 42, is a social worker, and says the present focus of her career was informed by her experience as a foster mother. She serves as assistant project director of the Adoption Exchange Association, where her primary project is AdoptUsKids. Before that she worked as a senior policy analyst at Children's Rights. In “Another Mother,” she gives insight into the strengths and flaws of the foster care system, along with stories of the personal and social hurdles she faced as a white, middle-class parent of a black foster daughter. City Limits met with her in her Park Slope office for an interview.
Tell us about the night your foster daughter arrived.
Gerstenzang: It was definitely one of the most exciting nights of my life. I was on the precipice of a whole new phase of my life. It was something I’d thought about, but had never taken that next step. My husband and I had been thinking about being foster parents for many years. It took us about a year to get licensed, only because I was finishing up a few classes and we put ourselves on hold a bit. Otherwise, it would have taken six months. We received a few calls about children who ended up with other families, or there were children who were too close in age with our birth children. We put ourselves on a list on December 15, 2000 and our foster daughter arrived to us February 28, 2001. It was also kind of a funny thing because we told the agency we’d like a child between the ages of birth and two years, and people always say, “Oh, we have no newborns coming into the system,” and here we got a five-week-old baby.
In the book, you often refer to foster parenting as a predatory endeavor. Could you explain those thoughts and feelings?
It’s very hard. I think the best thing for children is to grow up with their birth parents. In an ideal world we’d never have foster care, and so foster parents are profiting in a certain way, and that’s a sad thing.
From the attachment you get?
Right, you’re enjoying this child. Parenting can be tough, but it’s very rewarding to watch a child grow up over time, and their birth parent is missing that – and it’s sad. Some people make the decision to place their child up for adoption, and that feels right for them. But in this situation, maybe some birth parents would choose adoption if they were supported in the same way, but they’re not. They’re kind of dragged into this whole thing. Sometimes their kids are pulled away from them in the middle of the night or whenever, and they’re passively making that decision. Our foster daughter came to us in the night, and I wonder why. It’s just awful to think about.
You describe the other potential foster parents you met: “There were not many suits and ties, but the room struck me as full of ordinary people, not the maladjusted, ‘in it for the money’ types frequently portrayed in the media in the occasional foster care scandal.” What are your thoughts on the media’s portrayal of the foster care system – parents, children, and staff?
I think the media focuses on the negative. I think The New York Times in the past year has been quite supportive, especially since Nixzmary Brown died. I think that there’s been a lot of effort by Mayor Bloomberg and the Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner John Mattingly, and the Times has focused a lot of their stories on what that reform is going to look like. But, too often the headline reads, “Foster Child Strangled,” or something awful like that. You can almost imagine it. They don’t focus on the positive examples.
Even the use of the term “foster child” is very negative. We need better language around these situations, and I think that a lot of kids in care feel very stigmatized – as if somehow it’s their fault. The term “foster child” is their legal status. It has nothing to do with them personally. I could have been in foster care. You could have been in foster care. I think that we don’t focus on the system enough, and that stigmatizes the children. People tend to separate them as if they’re not human. They’re just children. I wish the media would do a better job focusing on the positive. But I realize the sensationalism, and the desire to hear the negative. The actual rates of foster parent abuse are extremely low, but that’s not the perception.
Did you have perceptions before entering this system?
I came in with a blank slate. It was something that always appealed to me, so I guess I had a positive view.
At the time, you were earning a Master of Social Work at Columbia University; did you have a lot of information on foster care from an academic perspective?
I had classes on child welfare in general, but schools of social work don’t focus classes on foster care or adoption. I think a focus on the foster care system would make for an interesting class, and maybe there are schools that teach that. I was surprisingly unknowledgeable about foster care, I guess. My education really came through our experience, and then reading up on areas that impacted us.
You write, “The foster care certification process felt removed from what we would be expected to do in the caring for children. It seemed to focus on keeping bad foster parents out, not necessarily getting good ones certified.” Can you talk about the certification process, and your thoughts on its effectiveness?
There are a lot of components that are really necessary to the certification process – making sure a foster parent can cover their own expenses, performing a thorough background check, and making sure that their family life is fairly stable. So, I understand those precautions for safety reasons but, beyond that, it’s odd because when you go into foster care you’re thinking of yourself as a person who likes to parent and thinks they would be good at that. But the agency doesn’t test you on that at all. It would be like applying for a job as a journalist and no one asks you for a writing sample.
I think a lot of people are weeded out simply by the paperwork. Probably people who might have made excellent, nurturing parents. I think through the process, you really had to want to do it in the end. They weren’t saying to you, “We’re so happy to have you here, and this is so wonderful, and this is how we’re going to help you get through this part of the process.” I mean, they were okay about it, but it almost felt like this hurdle you had to step over. And that was kind of sad to me. I feel like they should make the first part of the process as easy as possible. … The majority of the other foster parents I met were very kind people. But the majority were really interested in helping kids and being a parent day to day.
You also write, “It is true too in the United States, where except via the professional roles of lawyers or social workers, foster care rarely touches the middle class?” Excluding race for now, can you describe to us the experience of bringing foster care to your middle-class neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn?
A lot of the people in our neighborhood were very curious, but also very supportive. For example, my birth children [ages 13 and 16] go to a private school in the neighborhood and I’d asked the director for a letter of reference. I’d asked her if we had gotten a two-year-old child if they could put that child into the nursery class, even mid-way though the year, so he or she could fit in. I felt that a lot of people were very supportive but the reality was that in this neighborhood I got a lot of questions from people – people who don’t understand the system or only know what they read in the paper. It was something almost exotic. Oddly enough, because she was born right here in Kings County hospital in Brooklyn. But people just aren’t used to dealing with this.
People in your neighborhood found adoption less exotic than foster care? Even adoption of foreign-born children?
I think that people felt that we had a lot of contact with the birth family, whereas with adoption you’re very protected from that. With foster care, we knew what a shelter in Brooklyn looked like. We could have gone there if we wanted to. We met her family. It’s not hidden. Aside from all that, and this is a very big piece of it – and we had a very hard time dealing with this – there’s the fact that you’re only the temporary caretaker of a child. People found that incredibly stressful to think about. It was interesting. We got to see different sides of people. We had neighbors who were very supportive who I hardly knew before, and you could kind of see how much they were rooting for you. And the teachers at the kids’ school were very excited and supportive. And I think we were very sensitive to anybody who wasn’t supportive because it’s a very stressful thing that you’re taking on. If we did it again, I think that we’d feel a lot different than we did the first time.
Aside from contact with birth family, any thoughts on why foster care doesn’t touch the middle class?
I think part of it has to do with the stigma around it. Some of the other foster parents or case workers that I met were not middle-class, or had not come from middle-class backgrounds, and they had a stronger appreciation for how hard things were for some of these kids. They knew how some kids lived in this country, and it was more personal for them. I don’t know. It’s a really hard question to answer. I wish that it weren’t true but people just don’t like to deal with their own system. It’s their own dirty laundry, really. In Australia aboriginal children are way overrepresented. In Hungary it’s gypsy children. In Canada they call them “First Nations.” In China it’s girls. Everyone has their prejudices and their stereotypes, and somehow it’s okay to take in children from other countries. Somehow we’re socialized to have these terrible thoughts. We should take time as Americans to think about why we are this way.
Walk us through how your thoughts on race evolved during your experience as a white family with a black foster daughter.
As foster parents of a young baby we thought it doesn’t really matter to us if their race is the same or different. We did feel that from the child’s perspective – and I think this really reflects the discomfort still in the States – that although lots of progress has been made, that there’s a lot of racism still. We felt like, well, as she got older, and we considered adoption, we thought about if this would be something that would really be in her best interest. Initially, we also thought that it’s very unusual to be a black person in a completely white family. We’re obviously not mixed-race. I’m very white-looking, so is my husband. You don’t see a family like ours in this neighborhood. I mean, I see white parents with Asian children all the time, but you sort of don’t even notice. It’s like, “There’s another one.” I think there are three families like that on this block. It’s very common. So, my family definitely called a lot of attention.
And we felt anxious as to whether black people would feel uncomfortable, or unhappy with us. Which is a perfect example of us really not being part of the black culture. When we actually discussed our anxiety with black people, and our fears of particularly upsetting black people with our decision, most of them laughed and told us our fears were outdated. They were much more honest and comfortable with the idea than we were, than we thought they’d be. So, in the end we felt incredibly supported and I can’t even think of an instance where we upset someone, or met any social opposition because of the race of our baby. We were very supported by the black community. We felt like families in the school and other places reached out to her, and to us, to keep her aware and immersed in the black culture so she didn’t feel like an outsider.
So, we evolved to that position, but in the beginning we felt very conflicted – and now I think it’s ridiculous, actually. If we were to do it again we just wouldn’t have all that baggage which was about our own anxieties. I think there is a lot of racism still. But, I just want to be clear that none of our anxiety was about our daughter, those were our own personal issues. And now, I feel that I’m really a different person than I was before – in a great way – and so does my husband.
Can you tell us about your foster daughter’s birth family?
We don’t know her birth father. Her mother is mildly retarded. She’s very sweet. Her social skills are really good, to the point where you wouldn’t realize how poor her day-to-day practical skills are. I really have remarkably little information about her. She had a very hard life growing up. It’s heartbreaking to think of someone having so little contact with her own children. She could have done a lot better if she had a better environment growing up, like anybody else. … I never got to the point where I would say she really trusted me. She wasn’t that interested in me, understandably. I’m not sure I would have been interested in her, if the situation were reversed. … I think that if the system did a better job supporting parents, helping them make choices that are better, then maybe we could avoid some of this dragging through the mud. I’m also making judgments about her based on my parenting style, and she’s grown up in a totally different environment, so I doubt that we see the situation in the same way.
At one point you say, “I wondered how well I would do, seeing my children once a week in one of those rooms.” How are birth parents incorporated into the foster child’s life, and what are your thoughts on that process and system?
I think that it’s best for the child to stay as bonded as possible to their birth parent. I think that it would be best if we could have supportive housing where, say, families with substance abuse problems could stay with their children, while the parents are going through their substance abuse counseling and everything. You know, kids are removed because they’re not safe with their parents, and the question is – how can we keep them safe? … Another part that I think needs attention is fathers. Almost always, and this is something the media does, they always talk about the mothers and they never talk about the fathers, as if they don’t even exist. And that’s terrible for kids. And it’s sad for the fathers. I don’t see why they don’t get the same protections as the mothers in terms of keeping them connected to their children. And sometimes it’s their choice walking away, or not being around, but we need to do better and hold them accountable, and include them in on visits and everything else.
The New York State foster care standard is that families need to visit twice a month. That’s four hours a month. Each agency can make their own standards. Ours was once a week. … I’m a big believer in “concurrent planning” – bringing everybody to the table, all the members of the birth family that you can find, all the people that they know that are supportive, sitting down with the foster family, or relatives if the child was placed with relatives, and talk about everything in an open way, and say “That’s not going to work. What would be a better way? What would be a reasonable amount of visits? Let’s talk about that.” Not just have this two hours every two weeks. Settle on the most comfortable place to have visits, and figure out how to make that work. It takes a lot of money to create that kind of supportive environment, but I think that would be giving the families the best shot at staying connected with their child.
I can’t imagine how hard it must be. Parents must feel so guilty. It’s humiliating to have your children meet you in these cold sterile rooms. How would you feel in this situation – with everyone judging you all the time? It’s a really difficult, flawed system. But, one that is also really great. A lot of countries don’t have the system that we have here – no attempt at reunification, no family-style living. So, in many ways, even though people are very critical of our system and we can do better, we’re still better than a lot of countries.
You title one chapter, “Help, American Style.” Throughout the book, it’s clear that you are a well-traveled person; do you feel there is something particular to America that causes specific problems in our social welfare system, problems that don’t exist elsewhere?
That chapter is primarily comparing the U.S. system to European countries. I had spent some time in Belgium, and I happen to know a bit about the Scandinavian system as well. My sister lived there for some time. And those countries are very supportive of young families. Everybody receives the same treatment. The clinic in your neighborhood is free. I think that programs work best when it’s given to everybody regardless of what their income is. I mean, the reason international adoption has gotten so much attention in this country is because so many middle class or upper middle class people are adopting. I saw somewhere that people adopting from China have gotten New York State to speed up their background checks so that their adoptions can go forward. That’s because those people are well off, and are connected to people in government. Programs that serve everybody are better for everybody, because the quality will be better.
In the book I talk a little bit about using early intervention, which provides physical and developmental therapies for children under the age of three. Research has shown that it’s a very effective way of helping a child for its entire life, by having that concentrated help in those early years. Just the way I was treated in that system, and all the services in that system were very different. Everything that I did was a benefit to myself or to my foster daughter. The other problem was having to prove myself. For example, in WIC – an acronym for the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children – to get coupons for free formula I had to take classes on nutrition. Well, in Early Intervention I didn’t have to show that I knew anything about child development. It’s just a very different standard. And I mean everyone should know something about good nutrition, but maybe we should teach it in public school. It’s an assumption you’re making that people are poor so they’re not educated. I just think that we could do better supporting families and we would have fewer children in foster care if every child and family had access to the same support.
You wrote that WIC coupons weren’t accepted in Park Slope. Is that another example of foster care not touching the middle class?
Exactly. I’m sure if you went to another neighborhood in Brooklyn that WIC would be accepted in every corner store. I’m guessing that the clinics would accept Medicaid. That’s the population they’re serving, but wouldn’t it be good if there were more of a universal system, so that you didn’t have to live in a certain neighborhood to use your health care coverage. I can understand why some doctors and pharmacies don’t want to have to use Medicaid because I’ve heard that it’s difficult or costly compared to private paying patients with private insurance.
But that’s not what you experience living in Europe at all. I’ll give you another example, I once went to New Zealand where my sister lived for a few years, and my daughter had a urinary tract infection. I got off the plane and took her to the doctor, and the doctor said, “I can’t charge you for this visit, here’s your prescription.” I told him that I have insurance and that if he gave me a form I could submit it. He said, “We never charge for medications for any children, ever. I wouldn’t even know what the cost would be.” Can you imagine that? They cared that you had a child and that that child was well cared for. That was just the standard for everybody.
You have strong feelings about the foster care stipend. Can you explain your feelings and the system to us?
The stipend is given to foster parents to help cover the cost of the child and their care. It’s not enough money for all of the expenses. The reason I have strong feelings about it is because I think that many people assume that it’s a payment to foster parents. Foster parents are volunteers. As further evidence of that, foster parents have no protection – they get no benefits, no retirement, no social security, no health insurance or anything like that. If you work as a foster parent for 30 years, at the end you have absolutely nothing. I can’t think of any volunteer position that is as demanding – and rewarding – that’s still a volunteer position. I was shocked by the amount of people I met that thought foster parents were paid.
For example, for our daughter we got about $500 per month, and people would say to me, “Well, what if you took in 10 kids?” First of all, you have to pay for clothing, food, and diapers. Also, I can’t imagine taking care of ten children! … I think foster parents should be reimbursed for the full amount of taking care of the kids. But birth families have no help and they’re in much worse circumstances. It’s a very difficult and tricky issue, but at least we should call it for what it is and be honest.
In March, Mayor Bloomberg announced financial reform for the city’s foster care system, increasing spending per child while also attempting to decrease their time spent in foster care. (See Foster Care Management Made Smarter, City Limits Weekly #580, March 26, 2007.) Do you have any thoughts on this proposed reform?
I don’t know enough to know how well it’s going to work. There’s been criticism for a very long time regarding agencies getting paid for each day a child is in care, it’s like rewarding the system for keeping a child in care. You don’t get rewarded for how many kids go home. … The average stay for a child in foster care awaiting adoption is almost five years. That’s appalling. That’s from birth to the time of kindergarten, or from 5 years old to 10. It’s just unacceptable. And I know ACS Commissioner Mattingly is very compassionate towards families and towards kids. So, I applaud Mayor Bloomberg for actually seeming to be concerned about the social welfare system, and that they’re working on new solutions. I hope it works.
Do you have hope for the foster care system?
Sure, I think a lot of good things are happening. There was a time when foster parents were excluded from adopting. These poor children and families were ripped apart, and then if the child was placed for adoption there was no permanency with that foster family they had bonded with. Now, a child that lives with a foster family for a year, that family has first rights to become the permanent family for that child. The federal government is now tracking outcomes for children, which is great. And each state has to have what they call the PIP approach – Program Improvement Plan. Which is trying to say, “We did very badly on these measures, here’s what we’re trying to do to improve that.” So, all of that is really good news.
It’s never going to be a system that’s easy. It’s never easy when strangers get involved. All families have difficulties. I could tell you stories from my own family, and many people I know. … We do have a system where people are trying to build in more support. And there’s a movement for more involvement from the people affected. That’s sort of the big mantra now, so there are youth advisory boards made up of kids who were in foster care. They can express their perceptions and thoughts on how things can be made better. They’re trying now to have youth attend court proceedings as well. That’s just an example of how uncomfortable and awkward it is for everybody. You’d think it would be common sense to have children attend their own court hearing. Can you imagine having a court date and you didn’t go? Other people went as your representatives, but you didn’t know them that well? But people don’t really want the real players there because it’s so awkward to talk about how poor some of these parents are, and that their kids have to hear it. Well of course the kids know this. They remember what they went through. So, now people are saying that’s crazy, lets get all the players who need to be there and then we can talk more realistically about what the issues are. We still need to do much better. My husband and I have also become almost second parents to a girl who grew up in foster care. She’s now twenty-three.
We would definitely be foster parents again. It’s definitely difficult but it’s a valuable thing to do with your life. You feel powerful because you’re doing something good. If the child went home, you know, to be that intermediary, you could make all the difference by making that a positive experience for the child and family. If adults don’t bear that brunt of all that stress, then the child does.