real life

Tears for all the kids I've loved and lost

When you meet your foster child for the first time, an exchange of names is at the top of the priority list.  It is important to call the child the name they are comfortable with.

The child might not tell you right away how to address them because it is so personal.  A name is a tricky thing for a foster child.  They might love their name or hate it.  Either way, it was given to them by the birth parents and it might be the only thing they will ever get from the birth parents.  A new foster child might use their name to signify the huge change in their lives.

The newest addition to my family is 17-year-old Shelly, and she is experimenting with us calling her Rochelle.  It is important to honour their name and use it as a sign of respect for their individuality.  I confess to using a lot of “honey”s and “sweetie”s to show affection, or to cover up the fact that the new name doesn’t just jump right to mind right away!  In large families, children’s names are often part of a list when mum needs to access that name quickly.  The foster child is no exception to the name list.

An issue even larger than what to call the child is what does the child call you?  I happen to like “mum”, but my biological children hate it when a foster child calls me that.  I am their mum and they find it hard to share me sometimes.  Shelly calls me mum and that took some time for everyone to adjust to.  Shelly wants no contact with her birth family and this is her way of drawing a line between the past and the future.


Personally, I think “Mrs. McGraw” is just to much for someone who eats and sleeps in my home.  I like being called Kristen by a foster child but often this raises eyebrows from other people who hear me called by my first name by a 3-year-old.  I have heard that other foster mother’s sometimes like Aunt or Auntie which has a nice ring to it.  My name was a big issue for Diamond when she arrived at my house at 8 years old.  She stayed in the same school district and would meet me at the corner after school.  I happened to be the crossing guard for her school and this made our relationship pretty public right from the beginning.  The kids at school wanted to know why Diamond was living with the crossing guard. Diamond was a tough little gal and told them I was her mother.  That got some laughs because we were obviously not the same colour!

She stuck with this story for a long time because she wanted so badly for me to be her real mother.  Eventually she settled on telling friends that I took care of her while her mother was away. Which was true because her birth mum was an inpatient at a substance abuse facility.  That detail she kept to herself.

Diamond ended up calling me Kristen and I called her honey.

Diamond spent a year living in my home and then returned to her birth mum.  I still miss her and think about her and her beautiful name often.

Process of letting go of one of my foster kids is still in progress in my household.

Shelly left pretty quickly.  I decided that cleaning out Shelly’s room would help me move forward in the process. She packed up her stuff in garbage bags because she refused the offer of boxes or a suitcase.  On the plus side, she left with four more bags than she arrived with, but I was still dismayed at her use of the garbage bags.  As a result, the room was a mess of odds and ends that she either forgot or did not want.  So I pulled a large garbage can into the room and began sorting and pitching.


For a while, my mind was stuck on the irony of her packing up garbage bags.  Foster kids often arrive with a garbage bag of stuff.  There have been successful programs that pass out backpacks or duffel bags to foster kids to try and change this issue, but it seems to be an ongoing problem.  The reason for the prevalence of garbage bags is because foster kids often are pulled out of their birth homes very quickly and under very uncomfortable circumstances.  The child or the social worker often has little time to fill a bag before leaving the home.

Foster parents hope a child will arrive with more than the clothes on their backs, but this doesn’t happen very often.  Shelly came to us with backpack and a garbage bag that included one pair of shoes, two pairs of jeans, and two shirts.  She didn’t pack very much because she assumed her Dad would let her get her stuff as she needed it. He refused to let her have anything more and I had to take her shopping many times to fix the problem.

Teenage girls are messy and leave a lot of stuff laying around.  Shelly’s odds and ends seem to chronicle her stay with us.  There was an ipod case left on the floor.  We had bought her an ipod to listen to music because she had 90 minute bus ride to school every day.  The ipod was stolen somewhere down the line and I was left with the pieces.  There were four different bottles of hair spray that reminded me of how much Shelly liked to try out new products before finishing the old one up.  I found bags of chips and crackers unopened, but hidden away just in case.  Hiding food in the room is also a common trait shared by foster kids.  When they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, collecting food takes on new meaning.


Taped on the wall was a picture painted by my son, Nathan.  He likes to hang pictures in everyone’s rooms.  I stopped and shed a few tears over that.  I have explained to the younger boys that Shelly has moved out and they seemed comfortable with the idea.  They really liked her and she was often their babysitter.  I am sad for the end of that relationship.

Shelly has moved out and does not seem to want further contact with our family.  When foster kids leave a foster home, they are usually returning to the birth family or onto another placement.  Sometimes the foster family is able to have continuing updates and contact on how the child is doing in the new home.  Sometimes the contact ends when the child leaves.  Both options are difficult.  In my case, I hope and worry for Shelly but receive few answers.   The complete lack of information is hard for me to take.  However, I remember that too much information on the next placement is also hard to take.  I have been down that road also.


As I continue to grieve quietly for my lost child, I find comfort in the thought that we gave her a really good year.  We showed her how a loving family lives and interacts with each other.  We gave her love and trust.  I gave her all that I had and hope she takes it with her and is successful in her life.   I taught her some valuable life skills that she didn’t have when she got here.  In my opinion, these are the most valuable gifts that a foster family can share with a foster child.  People often say to me, what is the point of fostering if the child goes right back to the birth family and is back at the place they started from?  The point is that a foster family has the opportunity to break the cycle of abuse by teaching the foster child how to be a better and stronger person.

My family is now a part of Shelly’s past and memories.  Those memories will help shape the person that she becomes.  That is the work that I dedicate myself too.

Kristen McGraw is mother to five children - three are biological and two are adopted from foster care. She's been a foster parent for six years and writes extensively about her experiences at She love teaching others about foster parenting and encouraging others to become foster parents.

For information about fostering, visit Barnardos Australia.