By Emma Margraf
I might have shown more empathy. I might have been contrite. Parents should fall on their swords for the sake of their children but that’s not what I did. I stared at the stained, varnished surface of the table in the courtroom, calmed by the pot candy I’d eaten on the drive to the courthouse that kicked in just as our case was called. Now my long time foster daughter Jane, the plaintiff, and I, the defendant, sat at identical varnished tables.
Jane’s girlfriend’s mother, a woman I hardly knew, was sitting next to Jane and whispering in her ear. My own mother hadn’t liked Bella’s mother since early on. At 19, Bella lived at home, and when she went out of town her mother called Jane to come over to their house anyway because she said she was lonely, and missed Jane. They had ice cream. My mother thought this was weird, but I shrugged it off. I didn’t want to judge.
My father is a sailor, and I grew up on boats. In our parts of the water you spent a lot of time submerged in fog. You can find yourself completely without sight, the fog so thick that you can only see a few feet in front of you. To get where you need to go you rely on GPS systems and foghorns. The foghorn is a required element of boat life; ships sound them on a regular basis to warn other vessels of their presence. Large ships are a huge danger to smaller boats in the fog; but when you hear the sound you know where to avoid going. They are loud, they are startling, but you should always expect them as possible. That was never easy for me. Even in deep fog, I was surprised to hear them.
This woman and her daughter appeared right before my relationship with Jane fell apart. This woman had never asked me a question, listened to the story of how I’d gotten Jane at 13 with no clothes or life skills and then raised her as family. This woman had never spent any time at our house, been invited to the Thanksgiving dinner we threw every year for a large group of friends, or seen the vegetables and herbs Jane and I planted every summer and fall. She sat in court and talked about me with authority she gave herself:
“She’s controlling, she’s demanding, she only wants Jane to clean her house–”
The judge interrupted to ask the girlfriend’s mother how long she’d known Jane:
“Oh since she and my daughter started dating.”
“And how long has that been?”
“Well, I don’t really keep track, I don’t check her calendar”
“Yes but we don’t need an exact date, I’m just looking for an approximate amount of time”
“I don’t know, I mean I think they met close to the holidays, and started dating maybe in January. Jane has spent a lot of time at my house, she’s there nearly every day I mean I like to think that my house is better than the dorms–”
“So, you’ve known Jane for 4-5 months. Does that sound right?”
“I suppose, but she’s at my house every single day”.
“Have you been present for any interactions we’re talking about today?”
“Well I see her everyday …”
“But have you been physically present, is my question.”
“Well I saw the bruises from the kidnapping!”
“Were you present for that incident?”
“I had client meetings …”
“So you were not present?”
“No, I mean but I was there right after.”
“So you did not witness an event.”
“Well you see—“
The judge held up her hand with a stop motion and said, “That’s ok, I’ve heard enough.”
The narrative of the evil foster mother is an easy one to spin. What is mostly known is the neglect and trauma that makes the news — children are bounced from one home to another with no one to look out for them. We talk openly about how it would be a shame for a child in crisis to end up in foster care. We all know what happens there. However, it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t working on the judge, who, outside of a courtroom, might have been one of the many who overly praised me for what I did with Jane. It was a common experience I’d had with outsiders; they’d heard so many horror stories and here I was with Jane, defying the odds. Most foster children don’t graduate from high school. Jane did. She was the only one of the foster kids we knew locally who went to a four-year college. She was one of forty in the state who received the governor’s scholarship for foster youth.
When Jane was thirteen she told me she wanted my help to get off of medication, out of special education, and to have a better life than her parents did. I promised her I would help, and I used that promise as an excuse to ignore anything that I didn’t want to pay attention to. That worked for many years, until Bella’s family appeared.
Jane always wanted more attention than I gave her, but I don’t know if it ever would have been enough. I kept close track of homework, stayed very engaged with how she spent her time and the people she hung out with, and signed her up for as many opportunities to learn, grow and explore as possible. Those were my main skills. She told me once that the only thing that I did that was motherly was cook – she expected and wanted to be taken care of, and my main goal of motherhood was to give her everything she needed to be able to live on her own and by her own terms. That’s what I’d needed growing up so that’s what I tried to give Jane. She said she wanted that, but maybe she was saying what she thought I wanted to hear.
While listening to Bella’s mother talk I thought about the number of people in my life been trying to talk me into some kind of intervention. These people are clearly crazy, they said. It’s like she’s been kidnapped, they said. There’s got to be something you can do. Maybe they were right, and a better parent would have been able to get through to their child and convince them they were under the influence of bad people. Many would have tried. I didn’t.
When it was my turn to talk, I could have let Jane off the hook in some way so that if one day she realized what had happened she wouldn’t feel as guilty about it. There had to have been some words that would have let Jane know that this wasn’t necessarily the end of our relationship. She was a traumatized child. She deserves to know there is a way back. But when it was my turn to talk, I explained that Jane had signed herself back into foster care when she was seventeen and a half in order to live with me, and that I had been her foster mother until she graduated from high school in the spring of 2015, at age 20. I said I’d never physically hurt her, and I never would. I said she didn’t have to talk to me if she didn’t want to. I said that my family and I considered Jane family, but that we would respect Jane’s choice to leave it if that’s what she wanted.
For the last eight years, I’d been to every parent teacher conference, followed every homework assignment, and signed every permission slip. I picked her up when she was sick, suspended, or stranded. I taught her to count money, tell time, and tie her shoes. I found a swimming teacher she loved and she became an excellent swimmer. She had dinner with my mother and stepfather every Friday. For almost eight years I’d stressed, advocated, pressed, and cooperated in order to get her what she needed and there had never been a problem I couldn’t solve, until today. Kids in foster care lash out – this is something everyone who works with them knows. I thought we were different.
As Jane left the courtroom, I lifted my eyes from the varnished table and watched her go. She had freshly cut hair, new sandals, and a new dress I’d only seen briefly when she walked in. With the exception of my sister’s wedding, it’d been years since she’d been willing to wear or buy a dress at least anytime I’d taken her shopping. I wanted to jump up and tell her she didn’t have to wear what others picked out for her, that she should make her own choices, and that I desperately hoped she would stay in school. I didn’t move or make a sound.
Maybe she was a dress wearer now. Maybe she’d be ok without me. I couldn’t think of anything I could do about it in that moment, and so I just watched her go. I knew this could be the last time I would ever see her. If that was true, I wish I could be sure that she was wearing an outfit that she picked out on her own.
Emma Margraf has been a freelance writer for a number of years, and is currently halfway through an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University. She works for the state government in Washington now after many years of political and nonprofit work. Emma lives in Olympia, Washington in a 100 year old house with a yard and a hammock.