I just finished rereading an amazing memoir by Foster carer Cathy Glass. I think this was actually the first book of hers that I read. Back when I had to sit and run a book through the scanner page by page. Not doing that anymore ever LOL!
This book centers on ten year old Donna. She is brought into care due to severe neglect of her and her siblings, Warren and Jason, and an older sister Chelsey. Social services had been trying to work with the family for three years. No matter what they did the mother Rita could never keep the place clean or have any food. She drank and did drugs. Donna’s father was a kind manand the one person who Donna felt connected to, but he had schizophrenia and it was not well managed. At times Rita would purposely hide his medicine. But more often than not he just forgot to take it.
The siblings had been placed together a month before Donna came to Cathy’s. Cathy was contacted by Jill her link worker, saying that Donna might need to be moved due to sibling rivalrybut that their social worker, Edna, would try to mediate things.
Later that same day Edna called and said she needed to move Donna right away. Donna appeared at Cathy’s door walking hunched over, made no eye contact and looked like the saddest child Cathy had ever seen. For her first weekend at Cathy’s she was completely mute. This was very unsettling especially for Adrian and Paula, who were six and ten. Cathy was extremely concerned about this as it hadn’t been mentioned, her silence, but she was going to seek guidance if things didn’t improve by that Monday. Thankfully on the third night Donna did haltingly start to speak. The first thing she said was she blamed herself for she and her siblings being brought into care. That her mother had said this would happen if she didn’t keep the house clean. Cathy tried to reassure her but knew that the emotional damage for feeling so responsible at just ten would take a long time to undo. She had no idea what Donna was really keeping inside.
It turns out that Donna was emotionally abused and degraded at every turn. She was made to do all the housework and looking after her younger brothers. They were given permission by her mother to hit donna if she didn’t clean properly. And they did. Her mom and sister also hit her.
Cathy couldn’t believe a mother would do that to her child so she could then go drink and just not care about her children at all. The previous carers had noticed Donna washing her hands a lot and wondered if it was maybe OCD. Cathy discovered that it wasn’t that at all. It was her mother telling her to scrub off her skin color, as she’s mixed race. Which gave Donna horrible self-esteem issues around her race/ culture though she loved her father and grandmother who was from Barbados.
The most worrying issue with Donna was her bullying of Adrian and Paula. She’d order them around siverily and hit Paula during her first week or so there for not brushing her teeth the way she wanted. She also somehow found a way to be in charge of them in their play. Cathy knew that this was coming from her own experience of being bullied, and being in a completely aggressive family, where all communication seemed to be through emotional and physical violence. Cathy had to be constantly watching Donna and at times having everyone play separately.
There was little Cathy could do to work on these issues besides her own instincts and talking with Edna who was an amazing social worker. Donna couldn’t get therapy until after the court hearing which would determine whether she was able to go home to her parents, go to long term foster care, or adoption.
Having contact with her mother and siblings three times a week also did not help matters. At first Donna seemed so depressed and down on herself it was hard for her to appreciate new experiences or see anything good about herself. As time went on Donna became more relaxed. Was involved in healthy family life, and eventually as in a vacation they took months in to Moroco really had a good time.
She also started to do really well in school. Cathy and her teachers felt that many of Donna’s learning problems were due to her horrible home environment. Cathy helped her constantly particularly in math, which Donna was able to really master it just took awhile.
The more Donna was in a healthy home the more she reflected on her life before coming to care. And the more themean comments and looks from her mother hurt.
At one point Donna went to contact and her father was there in a schizophrenic episode. He was taken out by ambulance which was very traumatic for everyone. She came home and exploded in a rage venting her anger on her room, throwing anything that could be thrown tearing down curtains and ripping apart her bed sheets. Cathy was shocked but also not that surprised when you consider everything Donna kept inside. She reflected that had Donna directed her anger towards another person she could have done real damage.
It was that night that Donna was able to be vulnerable and talk about more of the things that had gone on at home. Including her mom telling her she didn’t want her and basically that she’d tried to end the pregnancy.
This was crushing to hear and it made Cathy want to turn back time and Give Donna her whole childhood back.
The anger episodes continued however much Cathy tried to prevent them. Again there was no therapy option which is really bad if you think about it. Things ended in an incident where Donna was very physically aggressive to Paula. Cathy almost thought about ending the placement. But Donna gave an extremely heart felt apology and realized, in her 11 year old wisdom, that she needed to stop expecting her mother to love her. Many adults with poor childhoods and family situations can’t come to that conclusion!
After that the bullying and anger episodes stopped. The court hearing came and went. Donna was placed in long term foster care. With a single carer with grown up children, who was also mixed race. She could be in a position to help Donna integrate her cultural and racial identity and also continue the work Cathy and her family had been doing. Cathy and her kids were really sad to see Donna go but they knew it was on the best of terms and were so proud of how Donna was able to build a new life for herself.
This story highlights the damage siblings can do to one another when placed together. Though it would seem ideal for siblings to be placed together, care needs to be taken around how they might trigger one another or stop one another’s healing. Donna could not have done any of the emotional work she was able to do if she was with her brothers. It also highlights the importance of watching out for younger children in the home as they can become targets of the child’s misplaced feelings of rage. Not only did Cathy and her family, as always, do amazing work but Donna really was able to take it in and turn her life around. Rising above the person her family tried to make her be, basically a big nothing and being able to be who she wanted to be express herself and have her own dreams and family.