MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.
Well, Mother's Day is this Sunday. And if nobody else told you, we just did. So no excuses on the card, OK? On this day, we often try to lift up the contributions of mothers who come to motherhood through different paths. So today we thought would be a good time to hear more about and from foster mothers.
So we called Jeanne Pritzker. She is the founder of Foster Care Counts, a mom of six and an unofficial foster mom to two. Welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.
JEANNE PRITZKER: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Also joining us, Cris Beam. She's the author of "To The End Of June: The Intimate Life Of American Foster Care." And she's also a foster mom of one. Cris, thank you so much for joining us as well.
CRIS BEAM: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, Jeanne, I'm going to give credit where credit is due. We actually got the idea for this segment because we heard of your work. You have an annual day where you celebrate foster mothers.
What made you want to be a foster mom, if you don't mind my asking? And why do you feel that foster moms and dads - although we're focusing on moms today - need more recognition?
PRITZKER: I feel like they need more recognition because, from my own personal experience, when I had my first Foster Mother's Day six or seven years ago and got to meet many foster mothers, I realized that they were maybe the role models that I have been looking for, for a very long time. And I realized I wanted to be more like them.
And then I realized I wanted to do whatever I could to help them, and - especially if I wasn't going to be a foster parent myself at the moment. I could support other foster parents doing what they are giving their lives to do.
MARTIN: Cris, you know, it seems as though we have, like, two competing stereotypes about foster parents and contradictory ones, as we often do, about stereotypes. One is that they are either saints or villains, you know? Saints - they're so selfless, just, you know - you know, just laying down their lives for these kids. And villains - oh, my God, just in it for the money, you know, that kind of thing.
Now, you've done a deep look at the subject. Why do most people become foster parents, and why did you want to become one?
BEAM: You know, it's really interesting. We have a ton of research on foster kids. We know all their demographics. We know why they came into care. We know where they come from, what they look like, what they suffered. And we know virtually nothing about the foster parents from a national perspective. We only have a handful of studies. Most of the studies are very old, and they're anecdotal.
So really, we don't know a whole lot about the foster parents from a national demographic kind of picture. We know there's only been one study that looks at 1 percent of the foster parents. And we know that on average, they're a little bit older than the general caregiving population. They're a little bit less moneyed than the general population, and they generally give a little bit less attention. But again, it's pretty anecdotal. So...
MARTIN: And why did you want to become a foster mom?
BEAM: I didn't. It was a total accident. It was completely unplanned. She - my daughter was a kid in my - I was teaching high school at the time, and she was a kid in my class. And she had been in care since she was 7. And she's transgender, and, you know, they don't do a very good job of serving trans kids.
And she got kicked out of my school, and she got sent to a probation school. And nobody knew her status there except for the administrators. And one of the administrators told a guard, and the guard told some of the kids. And they threatened to kill her.
So she ran from that school, and that was a violation of her probation. So they threw her out of her group home, at which point it was deemed that she had broken the law, even though it was a violation of her safety. And this kind of thing happens all the time.
So, you know, her probation officer called me up and said, do you want to take her? You know, and here I am, a gay person thinking I had escaped the fate of an unplanned pregnancy. And suddenly, I had a teenager on my hands. And that's how it happened.
MARTIN: How's she doing?
BEAM: She's great. She's great. She's an adult now, and she's fantastic. But, you know, what they told me at the time was, well, she's almost 18. She'll be out of your hair in six months. And that was a...
MARTIN: That's a nice way to look at a kid, isn't it?
BEAM: Yeah, and that's...
MARTIN: That's a great - I mean...
BEAM: ...Very common.
MARTIN: ...What is that?
BEAM: Yeah, and that wasn't true at all. I mean, she was 17, but she was emotionally maybe 12. I mean, she'd been through so much trauma. And so she needed a lot more help and support, and so did I. And I agree with the other guests that foster parents can be amazing.
But I think that the reason that we have this sort of polarized view of saints or demons is that kids often feel like parents are in it for the money because they're sometimes trained not to attach. So kids think, why don't these people love me? Why don't they like me? Why are they acting like this? They must be doing it for the money. So it sort of becomes code.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting though 'cause we started this conversation by talking about Mother's Day. And we reached out on Facebook 'cause we wanted to hear from other, you know, moms and kids and some of the experiences that they've been having.
A number of people wanted to tell us specifically that Mother's Day is tough for their families. So I'm just going to play a short clip from Shelley Cadamy who is in Tulsa, Okla. and who is a mom of three.
SHELLEY CADAMY: It's tough for the kids because they're always looking for that acceptance from their biological mother. And so I don't look forward to Mother's Day. I try to make it as comfortable for my kids as I can. But usually, it involves at least one meltdown. And we're fortunate if we don't have to call the police on days like Mother's Day.
MARTIN: We heard a number of stories like this. And I just - Jeanne, do you want to take that one? Why do you think that is? Yeah.
PRITZKER: Well, I think it's like any other occasion or event that has so much expectation attached to it, that if - and so much media explanation of what it should be like - that if and when it doesn't turn out that way, it could be extremely disappointing.
And that is frankly one of the reasons why we created Foster Mother's Day and why we hope that eventually Foster Mother's Day will be all over the country so that on this day, rather than being a day for kids and parents to dread, it could be the day that they really look forward to because it's the most wonderful day of the year for them.
MARTIN: You were also telling us, Jeanne, that that's the - that - that in a number of the mothers who come or the families that come to your event, that's the - many of them have told you that's the only appreciation that they ever get.
PRITZKER: And the best day of their year.
PRITZKER: And that's where I got that from, straight from them. For a lot of those people, the event that we create - and I think it's the best day for a lot of people. We usually have around 300 volunteers. And for them, some of them, it's the best day of their year, too, because we just put together people who want to help and people who want to be celebrated with the most amount of fun, joy, excitement, laughter, sharing, shopping, exchanging, entertaining ever.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us...
BEAM: I think...
MARTIN: I'm sorry, just let me just jump in to say if you have just tuned in, we're having our weekly parenting conversation. In advance of Mother's Day, we are talking about the experience of being a foster mom with Jeanne Pritzker of Foster Care Counts and Cris Bream (ph) - Beam - sorry - author of "To The End Of June." Cris?
BEAM: Yeah, no. I think that genius idea of having a Foster Mother's Day is really, really smart because I think, in many ways, foster care is set up as this sort of either-or paradigm. I mean, kids have case goals, and it's always either you're going to go home to your biological parent, or you're going to be adopted.
And even if a judge has terminated a parent's rights on paper and a child has been adopted by a foster parent, it doesn't mean that the parents' rights have been terminated in the kids' hearts. So it can be really confusing for child when there's Mother's Day, and the child is supposed to celebrate their, quote, "new mom" that's still - the child is still really - is it still really attached. And it's a complicated holiday, and they need sometimes a new way to think about this other parent.
I mean, with my daughter, for example, she never wanted to be adopted, even though her mother's rights had been terminated. And people always ask, you know, why didn't you adopt her? Don't you want to adopt her? And, yes, of course I do. But I never want to push that pain on her because for her, that symbolizes giving up hope, you know, that her mother will ever change.
MARTIN: You know, to the point that you made earlier, Cris, about the very polarized opinions. That's exactly what we heard on our Facebook page. I heard - we heard some very painful stories about foster kids - kids who had been fostered. And one wrote in to tell us that foster moms are not always the angels people make them out to be.
MARTIN: And this person specifically did not want to post publicly because she said, everybody - people are so happy-clappy about fosters and saying, I was removed from the home several times. I say foster whatever because there is no way on God's earth I would ever call any of these women mom.
MARTIN: And some very negative experiences. But on the other hand, I want to play a comment from Dawn Boulton from Trumbull, Conn. about her foster mother, Lynn (ph).
DAWN BOULTON: Lynn was able to be my mom. You know, she was able to be that shoulder to cry on, and she continues to be that person today. I have since become a teacher, wife and mother. Lynn has shared each of these milestones with me.
She cried at my wedding, and held my son at his birth. I feel so lucky she opened her home and her heart to me and put up with all of my teenage angst before I finally flew the nest.
MARTIN: And you can hear, you know, the emotion in her voice, you know, all these years later. So I - we have about a minute and a half left. I'd love to hear a final comment, you know, from each of you. Jeanne, do you want to start?
PRITZKER: Well, I think that for everybody out there who is not a foster parent but loves kids and feels an obligation toward making sure that any child in our country gets the best opportunity that they can given their circumstances, there's so many things that we can all do individually - little things, medium things, large things - to help these kids move along their journey.
On our website, which is www.FosterCareCounts.org, we have ideas of ways people can get involved in - on all levels...
PRITZKER: ...From being a mentor, to buying a computer, to sending a gift certificate to...
MARTIN: Got it.
PRITZKER: From one to the next. So anybody who wants to make a difference can definitely do so, and I would encourage it.
MARTIN: Cris final thought from you has to be brief, I'm afraid.
PRITZKER: I'm sorry.
BEAM: I think that foster care is not a static thing. We tend to think of it as a broken system, and yet it's changing all the time. And I would encourage people to learn more about it. It's always changing.
MARTIN: Cris Ream (ph) is the - oh, I'm sorry - Cris Beam is the author - forgive me - is the author of "To The End Of June: The Intimate Life Of American Foster Care," a critically acclaimed work. She's a foster mom of one, and she was kind enough to join us from NPR New York.
Jeanne Pritzker is founder of Foster Care Counts, a mom of six and she's also fostered two children, with us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, Calif. Thank you both so much, and happy Mother's Day to you both.
BEAM: Thank you.