Small Change

February 01, 1990 6 min read

One wintry Minnesota dusk in 1987, 6-year-old Ben caught Noble’s eye as she was leaving school. He was playing alone in the snow without a hat or mittens. His coat was unfastened. Although Ben was not in Noble’s class, she took him to the foster home where he was living. Throughout the rest of the year, she kept an eye out for him.

The next fall she heard that Ben had been removed from the foster home because of abuse and was living in an emergency shelter while welfare workers searched for another foster home. During a conversation with the boy’s speech therapist, Noble mentioned that she would be willing to take him in. “The next thing I knew, Ben’s caseworker was calling me,’' Noble says, laughing.

Noble, who was single-handedly raising her own 11-year-old son, Raymond, says she has always been the kind of person to take everything in stride. And so she told the caseworker that she would consider being a foster parent. A week later, Ben arrived for an evening’s visit. She agreed to keep him for a year.

He came with dirty hands, a dirty face, and a lot of fear, Noble recalls. So she scrubbed him clean and tried to calm him. She assumed that he would overcome his timidity as soon as he settled in. “I expected him to snap in right away,’' she says. “Already I was thinking of the things I would teach him--organizational skills, how to dress himself, how to take care of himself.’' But it turned out to be much more difficult than that.

Noble had not received much information from the child welfare agency regarding Ben’s abilities and disabilities. Although she knew that he was in a program for the mildly mentally retarded, he was more developmentally delayed than she had realized. At age 7, Ben was functioning at about the level of a 3-year-old. He didn’t know the letters of the alphabet or his last name. He couldn’t zip his own coat or brush his teeth. “When he first came, he would dress in shorts and a T-shirt on a winter day,’' Noble recalls. “So I’d take him to the door, let the cold air hit him, and he’d say, ‘Oh, it’s cold outside.’'

Now he can dress himself, zip his coat, brush his teeth, and repeat the alphabet. He also knows his address. And although Noble is modest about what she has achieved with Ben, her friends marvel at how he has changed. “The accomplishments are little, but definite,’' notes Noble’s friend Dennis Schapiro, who saw Ben when he first moved in with her. In the early days, Schapiro recalls, Ben would not respond to even the simplest verbal cues. If Noble called for him to get ready to leave the house, the child wouldn’t come. “It wasn’t like he was being defiant,’' says Schapiro. “It just didn’t register.’'

But Noble made her expectations very clear to Ben, and she “stayed on top of him,’' Schapiro points out. “If she expected him to find his own jacket, she wouldn’t just say it once. She kept hammering it in until he got it.’'

Now Ben looks at Noble with an enormous amount of respect, Schapiro notes. “She is more than a parent; she is his guide,’' he says. He is convinced that Noble’s 19 years of teaching experience is largely responsible for her success with Ben. “Teachers understand kids in a way that parents just learn along the way,’' he says.

Noble prefers to think that Ben would have made gains regardless of her special-education background. Good parenting comes from “just knowing what a child needs,’' she insists. “From being consistent, nurturing, fair, and firm.’'

Although there have been victories, progress has been slow, and the relationship has been frustrating at times. “I remember a lot of times when I wanted to toss in the towel,’' she admits.

She hasn’t received adequate emotional support from the child welfare agency. And she wonders if her caseworker thinks that she doesn’t need any help because of her background in special education. Shortly after Ben settled in, a caseworker paid Noble a visit. Noble thought the man had come to give her tips or advice, which she welcomed. Instead, he asked her to give a workshop on parenting skills to other foster parents. “I was looking for support, and they wanted me to give support to other people!’' she says with a chuckle.

Financial support has been lacking, too."I remember the first day I got Ben,’' recalls Noble. “They brought him with the clothes he had on his back. I had to buy him all these things that I couldn’t really afford: underwear, outerwear, shoes. It took them months before they kicked in money to buy him a winter coat. Then it still wasn’t enough.’'

But as with Deborah Caincross, the most frustrating times for Noble were Ben’s visits with his biological mother. Visitation rights were terminated last April, but during each visit, and for a while afterward, Ben regressed, Noble recalls.

Unlike Caincross, who has limited contact with her foster son’s real mother, Noble stayed with Ben during the visits. The idea wasn’t hers. One of the new goals in the child welfare system is to increase interaction between foster parents and biological parents, says Gordon Evans, director of the National Foster Parent Association. The theory is that foster parents can provide a role model of successful parenting for dysfunctional biological parents.

But Noble didn’t get any counseling on how to handle it, and the result was stressful. She often felt “caught in the middle,’' she says, not knowing when to step in and when to sit back. “The same thing happens when you are with a relative and her child, and the child does something wrong. Which one of you is supposed to correct him?’'

Despite the frustrations, Noble--like Deborah Caincross--says she has no regrets about becoming Ben’s foster parent.

Although Ben hasn’t improved as quickly as she originally expected, he has come a long way. She remembers the night she was invited out to dinner to celebrate her promotion. It was a special occasion, so she decided to take Ben and Raymond along. “Ben knew what fork to use and handled himself well,’' she recalls. “It was enough to make people say, ‘Is this the same kid?’'

Besides the personal satisfaction of seeing the difference she has made in Ben’s life, Noble values the positive effect fostering has had on her own son. Noble, who comes from a family of seven, often felt sad that Raymond had “no one to fight with.’'

“Now, he and Ben fight like cats and dogs,’' she says, laughing. “In other words, like family.’' Having a foster brother has presented Raymond with the opportunity to learn how to share and be compassionate, she says.

Ben has been a part of Noble’s family longer than she had originally planned. In 1988, she had agreed to keep Ben for a year, hoping that he would be placed in a permanent home by that time. Now, almost two years later, Ben’s future is still unknown. If, as now looks likely, all parental rights are terminated, Ben will be put up for adoption. Noble says she is not willing to adopt. Almost finished with an internship as a principal, she says she needs to concentrate on her career goals.

But she knows, better than anyone else, how important it is for Ben to be in a stable environment. And so she will try to hold on to him until everything is settled. “I’m trying to be fair to Ben so that there is closure--so that when his parents’ rights are terminated, he can go right into a permanent home instead of bouncing from place to place.’'

For now, she takes things one day at a time. It is a strategy that foster children also learn. “Being Ben’s foster mom is like a glove that I wear,’' she explains matter-of-factly. “And that is the way it is.’'

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Small Change