The Betty Ford Children’s Program serves such a richly diverse group of families hurt by alcoholism and other drug addiction. Many of our courageous children live in homes where that cunning, powerful and baffling disease is still active. Others come from families where their loved one is currently in treatment somewhere in the United States. Still others live in recovering families and sometimes have never witnessed the drinking and/or drugging, as well as the havoc it wreaks on everyone in its path. Regardless of the circumstances, the program empowers youth with accurate, age-appropriate information, skill building, the opportunity to simply be a kid and hope.
He walked into the group room and cast a wary eye, especially at the few adults sitting in the circle with the other children. This nine-year-old wore a scowl on his face and herded his two younger siblings to their chairs with much skill and aplomb. He kept a watchful eye on them virtually every moment and was quite attentive to their needs, be it a tissue for a runny nose, a blue marker when they couldn’t find one, or help in opening their juice containers. I was struck by how Timmy never smiled and yet what an incredible big brother he was to Ellie and George. It appeared that he had been doing this for a very long time.
Foster Parents with Heart
Timmy, Ellie and George were brought to the children’s program by their foster parents. They were kind, caring, nurturing adults who had taken a genuine interest in these three, who, underneath the surface, desperately craved love, structure, guidance, and positive attention. Their birth parents were both addicted to drugs, and their family life had been filled with chaos, unpredictability and insanity. These three angels had been through way too much for any child to contend with and witnessed things – like violence, abuse and severe neglect – that no young eyes should ever experience. Despite all this, they really cared about these foster parents, as evidenced by the barrage of hugs they liberally doled out upon getting picked up at the conclusion of the first day.
Phil and Claire had been foster parents for years. When they took these children in about six months ago, Timmy, Ellie and George were reunited, as they had previously been split up in their two prior placements. Phil and Clare sought out our program on their own as they could see the three desperately needed coping skills to deal with Dad’s incarceration and the persistent worries that no one knew Mom’s whereabouts for more than a year. As Phil brought the kids in for our second day, Claire asked to speak with me briefly. “I don’t know what you did yesterday,” she began, “but all the kids could talk about going home was the program.” I was amazed at this because they had said so little. I don’t believe Timmy said three sentences throughout the day. He watched everything and everyone very intently, and Ellie and George took cues from their big brother. Now Claire’s eyes started welling up with tears as she shared, “Mornings are so hectic at the house just trying to get everybody up, dressed, fed and ready for school. Today when I got up they were sitting near the door, all dressed and ready.” As she sighed Claire continued, “They all raced over, hugged me and declared, ‘Hurry, hurry, we don’t want to be late.’ It was still an hour before it was time to leave.”
In group that morning, Steffie spoke about the stepdad who hit her when he was drunk. The kids got very quiet as Steffie bravely told us what happened to her and then buried herself in a female counselor’s warm embrace only to sob. When the time was right I looked at Steffie and told her that I felt sad and angry that this had happened to her. I could feel my eyes filling with tears as I emphatically stated, “It’s not okay for a child to be hurt like that. It’s not okay for anyone to ever get hurt like that.” Timmy’s hand instinctively shot in the air before he had a chance to think about what he was doing and stop himself. Now the others turned their focus and attention to this nine-year-old. “I’ve been hurt many times, too,” he began, as the words just started tumbling out of his mouth. “I’ve been hit many times like Steffie, but can I talk about getting hurt on the inside?” he asked the group.
“I’m so sorry this has happened to you,” I offered. “Please tell us about that.”
Speaking the Truth
Timmy took a couple of deep breaths, looked over at George, and then shared, “My old foster parents hurt me and George. That’s when we were split up and not with Ellie.”
“What happened?” I gently replied.
“We were having a barbeque with steak, chicken and corn on the cob. I was so excited because we never had a cookout before. George put a bunch of food on a paper plate, but the foster lady screamed, ‘Put that back. There’s not enough for you.’” Now Timmy started crying and shared, “She comes back out with a bowl of Cheerios for each of us. I wanted to yell, but I knew I’d get in trouble so I kept quiet. ‘They don’t give us enough money for you two so that’s what you get.’” Timmy talked about how he just stared at his bowl and quietly ate the cereal. “George started to cry, and she screamed at my little brother. ‘It’s all your fault. You misbehave all the time.’” By now most everyone in group was in tears.
Soon all the kids were looking in my direction. They could see that I was feeling angry, and I think they were actually glad about that. “That is not okay,” I broadcast to the group. “I want the names of those foster parents.” I looked at the other counselor, and we nodded in agreement for the group to see. “We’ll do absolutely everything we can to keep you safe and protect you.” What a group! What sharing! Such courage and strength from Timmy.
Timmy especially appeared lighter and playful throughout the rest of the program. That would not be the only time he took a healthy risk and let us a bit further into his world. As we came back from playing hide-and-seek later that day, it was George who grabbed my hand and held it as we walked across campus. At one point I looked down at his angelic face, and I caught him looking at mine. As I smiled he simply said, “Thank you, Jerry.”
Phil and Claire are such caring and nurturing adults. As for those other two, they are no longer foster parents.
The Betty Ford Children’s Program is for seven through 12-year-olds who come from families hurt by alcoholism and other drug addiction. With locations in Southern California; the Dallas/Fort Worth Metrople;, and Denver, Colorado, no child is ever turned away due to an inability to pay. For more information go to www.bettyfordcenter.org.