book review: Tiney Prisoners by Maggie Hartley

I just finished reading another memoir by Maggie Hartley. This is about her fostering journey with two very young siblings.

Two year old Evie and three year old Elliot come into care after a neighbor finds them terribly neglected and starving.

When they appear on Maggie’s doorstep they are more like animals than children so incredibly terrified of the world around them.

At the time Maggie had several other children with her, Tess and Sam who she was fostering long term. Sam has developmental disabilities, vision and hearing loss. And Pete her biological son.

These children become role models for Evie and Eliot as they learn how to engage in life. Evie is very clingy and is either hanging on Tess or Maggie. She uses words like bitch in every day conversation as that’s how parents talked at home. That quickly drops off as Maggie and the family model appropriate ways of talking.

These children had no idea what a washer was, why you would wash clothes. What different foods were, or how to play. They’d just sit there and stare at toys and at Maggie and the other kids when they engaged in play. It was months before they were able to actually play like any other child.

Maggie worked very systematically on different goals with the kids. Getting them to eat, engage in every day activities around the house. Then slowly to be ok in the car, walking outside, with others around ETC.

She was gentle but persistent that these kids would engage with life and slowly dissolve their fears.

They had obstacles put in place by social services of all things. The social worker Karen was someone who seemed to go by the book and not care about the kids at all. She insisted on contact with the children’s mentally ill and a drug and alcohol dependent mother. Even though she barely showed up for contact. When she or a taxi tried to take the children they wouldn’t allow Maggie in to the room. The children then went into meltdown mode and were inconsolable.

It was no wonder that every time the doorbell rang the children would run and hide behind the heater and it would take hours to get them calm again. Every time the doorbell rang in the past it was likely a social worker coming to take them away, or the police.

Maggie fortunately had a great supervising social worker named Simon who was totally in favor of Maggie’s approach with the kids. He eventually worked to stop contact as there was no point and clearly the mother was doing nothing to work towards getting her kids back. It was at the last contact, which Maggie and Simon attended and the kids somehow made it through, that it was clear that the mother treated Evie like a doll and totally ignored Eliot.

The children’s father was in prison. It shocks me that Maggie was not allowed to take the kids to visits with the mom at social services but was expected to take the kids to visit their father in prison. At the first visit their father was in a “open prison” which I’ve never heard of. And so things were more relaxed. Eliot clearly had bonded with his Dad and had a few positive memories. Evie wanted nothing to do with him but managed to hold out ok during the visit. By this time Maggie had established a good way of getting the kids out and doing things is to carefully explain what’s going on and to make the focus something she knows they like. Like taking them to the store but having it be about shopping for favorite slippers. Or visiting their dad but having the focus be feeding the ducks at a park. This allowed them to get through their fears enough to do something enjoyable.

At the point it was decided that the children would be put on track for adoption they went to say goodbye to their father. This time due to violent incidents he was in a more hard core prison. What we think of as prison. All locked doors and huge visiting room. Maggie even had trouble there getting into a real panic while trying to keep the kids calm. The prison had kindly found a small office for them but it was way into the building. It was amazing that the kids got through that visit. And sad for Maggie to see their father break down about losing his kids.

After that things moved to getting the kids ready for adoption. They first though needed to get used to being apart from Maggie. She took great care to find preschools each tailored to the individual child’s needs for the kids. At some points she was more anxious than them but it ended up being really positive and they gained so much from it.

They were able to do some play therapy with a really good therapist named Anna. It was nice to see therapy take place before a child was placed in long term/ adoptive care. Anna was then able to write up her reports on the children’s issues and what would be best for the kind of placement they needed.

Karen rather insensitively said a month or so into the placement that the kids were “unadoptable.” Due to their emotional issues. Maggie couldn’t believe this, nor anyone else. It was through Maggie and other’s persistence and unconditional support that both kids were able to be placed in a really good adoptive family.

I was really really impressed with Maggie in this book. She really knew how to work with deeply traumatized kids. I was also impressed with the children’s ability to take in the nurturing and structure and shed their fears and attachment issues in a relatively small space of time. Sadly this is often not the case. Foster parents get kids and are totally unprepared for the types of issues they have coming through the door. So they just don’t know what to do. And they don’t have the kind of help from social services that Maggie had with Simon and Anna. I highly recommend this book. It models how to help children in a connected healthy way heal from trauma.

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