“You know, Mrs. Buckman,” Tod said to his girlfriend’s mother, played by Dianne Wiest, “you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car — hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”
That line ran through my mind a lot last year as I took classes to become a foster parent. I was appalled by the stories the instructors would tell us about abuses and neglect by many butt-reaming assholes pretending to be parents right here in our own community. Part of me wanted to think these tales were exaggerations and didn’t really happen, but sadly I knew these were no lies. Just this week, I found out just how true and tragic they are.
But let me back up: About two years ago, my girlfriend and I decided to begin the process of becoming licensed to be foster parents. She had experience with this as her mother did foster care, and I had sympathy since my mother was adopted. With no children of our own and a lot of extra space in my house, it seemed like a good idea. So we contacted Washoe County and began the process. It involved 27 hours of classes, during which we learned all about the types of problems that prompt social workers and law enforcement to remove children from their homes, from neglect to severe abuse. Trust me, the word “severe” is not severe enough to describe what some of these children endure.
As part of the classes, we received thick binders full of papers telling us all about how to handle various issues with the children, what we can and can’t do under the law and where to turn for help if we need it. And help we will need, the instructors told us. All kinds of problems are possible, from behavioral to emotional to developmental: stealing, running away, drugs, self-harming, public masturbation, destructiveness, failure in school. These problems can result from a variety of abuses, some of which started before the children were born if mom did drugs, and then all of them were removed from their homes because of something their parents or guardians did to them post-womb. That is what is most horrifying: the thought of what many of these children — children — have been though. Things that no person should ever experience, things that most of us see on TV or read about but never actually come into contact with. Things that I once thought didn’t really happen, things that were just fictional stories invented to shock us. Things I never would have imagined much less known about in my own carefree childhood.
Beaten with belts. Raped with knives. Forced to defecate in their own bedrooms. Deprived of food, clothing, bedding and medical care. The list goes on.
We finished our classes more than a year ago, but weren’t quite ready to take the final steps in our application to be foster parents. Earlier this year we decided we were ready and started our final paperwork. This entailed having an investigator come to our home three times, ask us all kinds of personal questions and inspect the living conditions. On the third visit, we were able to read the investigator’s report on us — it’s strange to see one’s life summarized in a dozen or so pages, much like seeing all one’s possessions fit into a single moving truck — which included a recommendation for approval of a foster care license. Then the licensing worker came out for one last inspection to make sure we had our fire extinguishers in place, covers on our electrical outlets an all the other little details were covered. Once she issued us our license, there was a final visit from yet another county worker who spent almost two hours going over each page of our foster care contract.
Now, I’ve had quite a few friends become parents the old-fashioned way and they didn’t have to go through any of this. They lit some candles, put on some soft music, poured some wine, went to work and nine months later had a child (sometimes skipping the first three, fun steps). But some of them could have benefitted from some pre-offspring instruction. Had this been required as it was for my girlfriend and me to be parents, I am sure some of my more reproductively traditional friends would still be childless. Even those who are wonderful parents would say they could have avoided a few hiccups with a little more counseling. Even our own moms and dads hold back a some secrets for the sake of their own amusement while watching us suffer like they did as novice parents. But between simply educating new moms and dads and keeping children out of the hands of people who simply should never have them, I can’t argue with the idea of licensing people to be parents. Who knew such words of wisdom would be uttered from the likes of Keanu Reeves?
On Friday, we received a call from county social services about two children in need of a place to stay. They have been subjected to some awful things for much of their young lives. Surprisingly, they are as happy and bright-eyed as 10- and 11-year-old children should be. We met them that afternoon and were smitten immediately. They could be living with us as soon as Monday. I wish I could sweep away all the terribleness they have suffered, give them back their innocence and make it as though those things never happened to them. But first, we will concentrate on providing them a normal kid’s life. They want to play soccer, swim in the lake, have birthday parties, ride in a plane and get a zebra. We’ll work on those first three and see about the plane and the zebra later.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to do some studying before becoming a dad.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.