Fostering Parenthood at Harvard

Daily Encounters

Freshman year, I visited my roommate’s home in Quincy, Mass. I hung out with her family, talked to Katie until 1 a.m., and then went to bed in her room. All was calm until 5 a.m., when I awoke to the confused face of five-year-old Alex, lifting my covers.

“You’re not Katie!”

“No, I’m Ari. Hi Alex.”

Alex climbed into my bed. “Hi Ari!” she giggled. For the next two hours, Alex played hide and seek with my body, sang songs and jumped on me. When my eyelids closed, she helpfully opened them for me manually.

“Don’t worry Alex. I’m awake.”

At 7:30 a.m., Mrs. Lynch stuck her head in.

“Alex, have you been bothering Arianne?”

“Nooooo.” She bounded out of the room.

Alex is an adopted foster child. In addition to their own five children, the Lynches have cared for numerous foster children over the last decade, one of whom was Alex. Kids like Alex usually don’t have a fighting chance in America because families like the Lynches—two Ph.D parents who care about local children—are rare. We are something of a study in how non-Lynches come about.

We are a school of 6,400 undergraduates, many of whom are not aware of the foster care system at all, and don’t see foster care as part of our future. Charity Bell is one of the exceptions, a 28-year-old student at the Kennedy School of Government and an emergency foster care parent. Bell has cared for 45 babies in the past five years, and can regularly be seen around campus with a baby in tow, who she brings to class. “It was most stunning for me to get to the Kennedy School and realize how little people knew about foster care, that there are kids out there with no place to go,” she says. “For us, for future leaders not to know about this, is disgraceful.”

Much of our failure stems from misinformation. Only one of the 10 students I asked knew what foster care is, a temporary care situation for a child in need, with a variety of scenarios. For example, when I was in preschool, my single mother became very sick with a kidney ailment (exacerbated by my jumping on her kidney that morning), and had to go the emergency room. Her friends were at work and couldn’t take me. The doctor threatened to call Social Services, because a hospital is “no place for a small child.” I was little, friendly and had a sick mommy. Twenty-four and 48-hour foster stays for children like me are not unusual.

The lack of information, of course, extends far beyond Johnston Gate. Unlike family and community-based cultures where extended family members regularly care for children whose parents can’t, America is the Land of the Nuclear Family—it’s each for their own, which means that if you can’t take care of your kids, no one will. Individualism and ambition do not involve other people’s children.

But when we mailed in that Harvard acceptance card, the chances that we will ever be foster parents decreased greatly. “As income level and education level increase, the likelihood that you will be a foster parent plummets,” says Bell. The Department of Social Services (DSS) struggles to recruit parents with socioeconomic and educational resources. Though good and bad parents come from all facets of society, the recruitment attempts should resonate at Harvard, where every year 1,600 students graduate, a group that will have the most socioeconomic resources to deal with foster children in the future.

In the meantime, there are a number of ways to support foster care families without being a foster parent. “I don’t see being an undergrad at Harvard as a good time to be a foster parent,” says Bell. (Amen.) “My recommendation to students is to continue for now what you can to support foster care, because there’s a lot you can do without being a foster parent, and to think about when you will be ready. And you will be ready one day.” Foster care programs with student volunteers abound, including “respite care,” which offers foster parents a temporary break. There are also organizations that offer academic tutoring and lessons in everything from painting to ballet, in addition to support groups where foster children can bond with each other. And DSS is always happy to accept an extra package of diapers or formula, two of the details that are frequently forgotten in transit. A call down to the DSS will connect you with any of these programs.

In 10 years, most of us will have resources and/or children of our own, and welcoming one more into the flock (or the mansion) won’t change anything, except the life of that child. The training course required of all foster parents, if nothing else, will make you a better parent. So stick a crib in your apartment or make that extra bed, and prepare for cute company.

Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is a women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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