“Whatever you do, don’t start buying them things.” It was the second day of our training, a dozen earnest women determined to rescue children from the foster care system. The instructor was stern. “Your job is to build a trusting relationship, not be Santa Claus.” I wrote Don’t be Santa Claus in my notebook.
Once trained and sworn in, each of us was assigned to a foster child. Our job was to advocate for whatever would get the child safely reunited with their parents and help them be healthy and reasonably happy in the interim. But we weren’t supposed to be their best friends, the instructor stressed, we were their advocates. I wrote Don’t be best friends, be advocates in my notebook. The key thing, he added, was to make the system do its job, not do everything ourselves. I wrote Make the system do its job in my notebook.
I was assigned to a 13-year old girl who had been in foster care for two years. She was thin and wiry, tense but friendly and open to the idea of having an advocate. She was always hungry. So every time I picked her up to talk or to go to a meeting – school, therapist, social worker, the meetings were endless – we’d stop for chicken nuggets and iced coffee, double vanilla. I didn’t consider this being Santa Claus but some might have seen it as a slippery slope. I saw it as wanting her not to hate being with me.
She texted me when she wanted something. Most often, she wanted to move or change schools or see her mother. She pined for her old neighborhood and her friends from grade school and nothing would quiet her deep and constant yearning for her old life. Meanwhile the experts in the system insisted on treating her problems as if they had sprouted organically rather than stemming from the separation from her family.
She had a gift for the subversive and at times it was hard not to admire her creativity and pluck, always bending the rules, causing consternation amongst the adults, sometimes including me. But I was clear on my mission. My job wasn’t to love her, it was to help her get out of foster care. It was exhausting. I tried, first one approach, then another, always at the last minute, something would foil reunification with her mother and we’d be stuck again at the drive-thru window, more nuggets, more iced coffee. This went on for months.
One very cold and wet day in mid-winter, I arranged to pick her up from school. She was waiting outside when I pulled up, her hands jammed in the pockets of her hoodie.
“Where’s your coat?” I asked.
“I wasn’t there when they went to get coats,” she answered.
What did that even mean? She wasn’t where when they went to get coats? I texted the group home supervisor. It was true. There had been a time established when all the group home kids were going shopping fpr winter coats and she hadn’t shown up. Hence, no coat. It was explained to me that not having a coat was the consequence of not showing up, but maybe they would try to get her a coat later even though it would make an extra trip for staff.
We went directly to the department store and I bought her a coat and then a hat and gloves. It felt great to watch her shopping, trying coats on until she found the right one. “This makes me feel rich,” she said. In the parking lot, stepping around piles of slush, I wished I’d bought her boots. I wanted her to walk around looking like somebody cared if she was cold. I felt like Santa Claus and part of me wanted to swear her to secrecy. Don’t tell anybody that I bought you a coat. I might be disbarred or whatever it is that happens to an advocate that starts acting like a friend or, worse, like a mother.
She lost the coat not two weeks later. It irked me that she hadn’t taken better care of it, left it somewhere at school and it wasn’t there when she went back. It was a kid thing, not a foster kid thing, she’d just plain forgotten her coat. Still,the loss of the coat seemed a metaphor for our whole effort – so often coming close to getting her back with her family and then losing at the last minute – and I wondered about my judgment buying the coat in the first place. Maybe the instructor was right, Don’t be Santa Claus, Make the system do its job. But what he said felt hollow to me and detached. He hadn’t been there when she was standing in the cold in her hoodie.
I had to buy her that coat but it was the only coat I bought her.