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Not A Stranger's Home

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They knew that the boy's toughness was just a front. John was having a hard time at home. He had been in and out of foster homes for years and now was living with his biological mother again. To help him through the rough times, the couple started inviting him to spend a few weekends at their house. The country home, with the woods to explore and dogs to play with, was a wonderful haven for him.

In the summer of 1987, the Caincrosses took John to a Cincinnati Reds game. It was at the game that John expressed, with one question, both his fear of losing his home and his affection for the couple: "If I need to go into a foster home, could I live with you?''

It was unlike John to reveal such apprehension, and so Deborah Caincross knew he was really worried. "I said, 'Well, I don't know, but whatever happens we'll always stay in contact,''' she recalls.

Shortly afterward, while Caincross and her husband were out of town, the welfare agency removed John from his home and found a temporary foster placement in another county. Although Caincross did not have John in her class, she kept her promise about staying in contact with him. And he kept returning to her house for his monthly weekend visits.

Then in May 1989, a hearing was set to determine John's future. His current foster mother was pregnant and didn't think she could handle both John and her new baby. When Caincross took the stand, the judge asked her where she thought John should go--with his father, who was suddenly expressing an interest in getting John back, or a new foster family? John's own tough-edged voice echoed through her head: "If I get put with people I don't know, I'm running away....''

In a burst of tears, Caincross found herself responding that John belonged with her. "It's hard to say to someone you've known so long that you're going to have to go live with someone strange. How could I say that?'' Caincross recalls asking herself.

That evening, she talked it over with Ken. "He was much more ready to do it,'' she recalls. "My husband sees a lot of himself in John. He was forced to grow up early because his mother was ill from the time he was really young. He was an only child-- always feeling like he had to put on a tough front. So I think he saw a parallel to John, and it made him want to intervene.''

But there were serious considerations. Ken was a full-time student, making the transition from army to civilian life. How would they afford to care for John on Debbie's salary? They knew that the monthly stipend from the child welfare agency would not cover all John's expenses. And the judge had made it clear that he was seeking permanent foster care for John, which meant that the Caincrosses had to be willing to care for him until he turned 18.

Caincross already had three children from a previous marriage to worry about. She wondered how her children, who divided each week between the Caincrosses and their father, would react.

And then there was John's behavior to be considered. Over the years, John's ability to get along with peers had deteriorated. He had become more hostile and aggressive. He had been tested and transferred to a program for emotionally handicapped children. Caincross knew how challenging it would be to deal with John's emotional unpredictability. "I had to spend days with John, and I knew how difficult he could be,'' Caincross says. "I'm not sure Ken understood that, because when John came on weekends it was honeymoon time.''

One plus, Caincross says, was that she had recently switched jobs, from classroom teaching to an administrative post in her school system's department of special education. She was spending her days with other teachers, administrators, parents, and schoolsupport personnel coordinating the referral and evaluation process. "In my mind,'' she says, "my becoming a case-conference coordinator was crucial because I was no longer with kids all day.''

She sat down with her own children and tried to explain the situation from John's point of view. She remembers saying: "You have your bed and your things and your clothes, and you know they'll always be here. His are boxed up, and he doesn't know where they'll be.''

"We talked about what it would be like to have to move into a complete stranger's house,'' she says. "And they were pretty sympathetic.''

Caincross called the judge, and a month later, John moved in.

The first conflict came a few months later when a "territory problem'' erupted. Ken built shelves in the room John shared with Caincross's son Kevin. The boys fought over who was going to get which shelf. "My youngest son packed up all his things in boxes and said he was moving out,'' she remembers.

Caincross told him about her own childhood experiences of learning to share with new step siblings, and then gave him some time to think about it. After a while, he unpacked his boxes, but the experience shook her. "I had this momentary ache,'' she says. "I didn't want John's coming here to be at the expense of my own children's comfort. On the other hand, maybe my children were too privileged; maybe it was good for them to learn these lessons.''

Things improved. Her own children were adjusting. John enjoyed playing with the family dogs, splitting wood, and hunting and fishing with Ken. Friends noticed that John was even starting to act and talk like Ken. They were becoming a family.

Then one day they learned that John's biological mother wanted him back. Although the Caincrosses had assumed that John had been placed with them permanently, they learned that the court could change his placement. "The hard thing about being a foster parent is that as soon as you get settled in, something can happen and you're all in limbo again,'' Caincross says.

Recently, the mother was granted longer visitation periods with John. She is trying to demonstrate to the court that she has changed and can care for him, Caincross says. She wishes that John hadn't been told about the possibility of a reunion unless it was definite. "They shouldn't allow children to be yo-yoed around,'' she says, adding that it is not clear whether John's real mother will be rehabilitated.

Perhaps most painful is John's reaction. One afternoon, after his weekly visit with his biological mom, he casually dropped a bombshell. "He said that he wanted to tell the judge that he wanted to live with his mother,'' Caincross recalls. Although she tried not to show it, she was hurt. "I thought, my gosh, he's happy here. We get along, and the quality of his life has improved so drastically. Doesn't he realize that?''

Most often, foster children don't realize such things, says David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League. No matter how loving the foster parents have been and how neglectful or abusive the biological parents have been, the desire to be with biological parents is so strong that children almost always want to go back home. "However messed-up the child's family is, the child will still want to connect with them,'' Liederman says. For foster parents, this rejection is often painful and difficult to endure.

The ordeal has been easier for Ken, Caincross believes. Since John's father has dropped out of his life, John can accept Ken as a father figure. But it's different for her, she says, because John's mother is "still in the picture.'' Caincross does not try to take his mother's place. But, she says, "It's hard because, at the same time, I kind of need to, because John needs to be mothered.''

In the meantime, the uncertainty has had a negative effect on John's behavior. During the past few months, he has been more difficult than usual. Caincross knows that the stability and love that they are giving him is making a difference in his life right now. But all she can do is hope that their dedication will have a lasting influence.

Not long ago, Caincross was given a glimpse of how much John appreciates her. She went into the boys' room for their ritual bedtime talk. From the top bunk came the voice that Caincross and her family have gotten to know so well: the voice of a little boy who is always trying to act tough. "You know, Kevin,'' he was saying to Caincross's son, curled up on the bottom bunk, "I think you are one of the luckiest kids I know. Your dad really wants to be with you...and, I really hate to admit this, but you've got a pretty great mom.''

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