Mom, For Now

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Occasionally, he came to her for advice; sometimes, however, it seemed what he was after was the kind of advice one gets from a mother, not a teacher. For example, when he had to attend a formal sports banquet, he asked her what she thought he should wear. She helped him match a tie with his suit and paid him to do a few odd jobs for her so that he could afford a new pair of shoes.

In a short time, Tony became special to her. "He stood out because he was always on time, always prepared for class,'' she recalls. But she knew from his test scores that he had to work harder than the average student just to keep up. And she knew that he was vulnerable. "My single thought at the time was that Tony needed a mother,'' she says, "and that he seemed to gravitate toward me in that way.''

The day after he failed to come to class, he returned, and it was then that he finally opened up to her. He explained that his mother was being hospitalized for a mental illness and that welfare officials were talking about placing him in a group home. Copley says she could tell that Tony was making a real effort to be brave. But she noticed tears welling up in his eyes.

Gently, she asked him if he would like to come home with her until things were settled. He broke into a smile, she recalls, and said, "Yes, ma'am, I would.''

Copley made the offer spontaneously, before she had a chance to check with Ron, her husband of 23 years, or their own two teenage sons. She says she was confident that they would agree to the idea.

Just two days earlier, Ron called her because he was concerned about a little girl that he had gotten to know through his work as a homicide detective. He and Mary had agreed that they would take her in, if necessary.

The first chance she got, Copley called Ron to tell him about the situation. As she predicted, he was not at all surprised.

She contacted the local social-services agency to find out more. She was told that there was no way of knowing how long Tony would need her help. His mother might never recover, they said. But she and Ron accepted the open-endedness of the situation and agreed to care for him for "as long as it takes,'' she recalls. Because it is difficult to find homes for teenagers, Tony's caseworker was delighted to have such a caring and qualified volunteer. Two weeks later, Tony was ready to move in.

With Tony about to join the family, she began to ask herself what needed to be done. Since Tony had often told her stories of being hungry, one of the first things she did was to stock up on groceries. She had found out that his favorite treat was Oreo cookies, so she bought a three-pound bag just before he arrived. "By the time I got home from work, the cookies were gone,'' Copley recalls. "When I asked about it, Tony looked at me very sheepishly and pointed to his stomach. From that day, I knew it wouldn't take him long to fit right in.''

Not only did Tony have to adjust to a new home, but he also had to change schools. Like many teachers, Copley lives in one county and works in another. So when Tony moved in, he had to transfer to the school nearest her home. Copley was disappointed because he had been doing well at T.C. Williams. She wondered how carefully his progress would be monitored at the new school. But Tony, she says, didn't seem concerned. Living with the Copleys was more important to him than staying at T.C. Williams.

He adjusted quickly. Within a few weeks, he was playing sports and introducing Copley as his mom to his new friends. "Tony is just one of those kids who blooms where he is planted,'' Copley says affectionately. "He took to it like a duck to water.''

At home, he started taking out the garbage and helping Ron get dinner on the table. In fact, he was settling in so easily that it made Copley nervous. Tony didn't seem to miss his mother. "But after I got to know Tony I learned that he could only handle one thing at a time,'' she says. "While he was with me, I was his mother.''

Tony's biological mother did not recover during his stay with the Copleys. Occasionally, he did visit with her and nearby relatives. Although the visits depressed Tony, they weren't as stressful on the foster family as home visits were for Deborah Caincross and Mary Noble. "Tony's mother was always very appreciative of what we were doing for Tony,'' Copley says.

Also, unlike Caincross and Noble, Copley received lots of help from the social-service agency. Tony's caseworkers made regular visits. "If I had to make a decision regarding Tony,'' she says, "I knew I could always call his caseworkers-- day or night.''

Copley's biggest frustration was dealing with Tony's learning disability. Because he had difficulty handling more than one instruction or piece of information at a time, every task had to be broken down. She needed to spend 1 1/2 hours each night helping him with his homework just to keep him on schedule.

Copley's background in special education helped her understand and respond to his needs, says Randy Harris, one of the social workers involved in the case. Not only did she tutor him at home, but she also cut through the red tape at his new school by getting him into a special reading program. "It helps to have someone who knows the school systems,'' says Harris. "As social workers we sometimes run into difficulties getting special services such as testing, therapy, and tutoring. But teachers know who to contact; their peers listen to them and get moving.''

For his part, Tony has helped make Copley a better special-education teacher and supervisor. "Before Tony came,'' she says, "I thought I knew how parents of learning-disabled children must feel. But it was not true.'' Observing how Tony's learning disability affected his social and decisionmaking skills at home has helped her better see the "whole picture.''

Although her responsibility for Tony technically ended when he graduated from high school, that turned out to be when he needed her most. At the time, Copley's oldest son was in college and her younger son, Sean, was deciding what to do after graduation. Like his foster brothers, Tony wanted to go to college. But it was an unrealistic wish, Copley says: Tony's learning disability was too severe.

"Believe me, if there was any way, we would have sent Tony to college, but he just couldn't handle it,'' she explains. In fact, she says that one of the most difficult parts about being Tony's foster mother was "telling him that he needed to think about something else.''

So Tony stayed on with the Copleys until last year, when he was 21, trying his hand at several jobs in the area. Then his biological sister called and persuaded him to rent an apartment with her in Alexandria. Their mother was living on the streets in nearby Washington, D.C., and Tony's sister wanted to bring her home.

It was then that Copley had to let go. It was harder than saying goodbye to her own boys when they left home, she says. In the five years that Tony was with them, she loved and worried about him even more than her sons. She wasn't upset that he was rebuilding the ties with his biological family. "I have always hoped that the three of them could work it out,'' she says. But she worried that Tony might be getting in over his head--taking on too much responsibility.

At first, Tony called or stopped over to the Copley house regularly, but it's been a while now. She has tried to find out how he is doing, but she is aware that she needs to let him be on his own right now. She knows he needs to learn to make his own decisions-- even if they turn out to be mistakes.

"I have to remember that he can only take one situation at a time,'' she says. Now that he is with his mother, he does not seem to miss Copley. It's a part of Tony that she has learned to accept, Copley says.

Above all, she is confident that they will never lose touch for good--the bond between them is too strong for that. Says Copley: "Deep down he knows that we're here if he needs us. He's made some mistakes; he'll make more. I hope the love we've given will give him the confidence to pick himself up after the mistakes.''

Vol. 01, Issue 05, Page 1-24

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