Another Place at the Table by Kathy Harrison

Nonfiction — print. Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2003. 242 pgs. PaperBackSwap.

For more than a decade, Kathy Harrison has sheltered a shifting cast of troubled youngsters — the offspring of prostitutes and addicts; the sons and daughters of abusers. She and her husband are devoted foster parents listed on the emergency hotline meaning they are willing to take a child into to their home day or night, vacation or workday, but Harrison serves on the front lines – the stay-at-home parent who stays up all night with crying babies and who monitors the behavior of children who are sexual predators. All this, in addition to raising her three biological sons and two adopted daughters.

Although I’ve always wanted a large-ish family, I’ve also considered growing that hypothetical family through adoption of former foster children. I don’t know if I’m equipped to be a foster parent given the constant flux in family dynamics, and reading Harrison’s book shows just how difficult this life can be — monetarily, emotionally, physically. At one point, Harrison’s family has two foster children — a boy and a girl — who are sexual predators due to learned behavior in their prior, abusive homes. Harrison characterized the boy, Danny, as a child incapable of change, and she writes frequently about wanting to remove the child from her home whilst she believes the girl, Sara, wants to overcome her highly sexualized, learned behavior. (When Sara first moves into their home, she tries to touch and flash Harrison’s husband.)

Danny moves to another foster family where he abuses the foster mother’s two-year-old niece; Sara abuses two other female foster children in the Harrison household. I bring this up not to highlight how difficult it would be to be a foster mother in this situation, but to point out how Harrison blames Danny’s other foster mother for the situation whilst saying how much she tried to prevent Sara’s behavior and should not be to blame. I understand her defensiveness because foster parents are so readily vilified yet I could not overlook how Harrison was willing to vilify another foster parent. It’s good that Harrison can recognize there are bad foster parents in the system, but much of her skills and knowledge about being a foster parent is learned on the job and she needs to recognize that.

There are several moments of very refreshing honesty. Harrison writes about being jealous of how her foster child was pulling away from her as she tried to reconnect with her birth mother that she goes so far as to buy a plastic, princess crown and try to bribe the child’s affection back. And she writes extensively about how she and her husband struggled with the decision to adopt one of their foster children. The little girl, Lucy, had lived with them for years but Harrison explains how Lucy never felt like “her” child after all those years. Given how much Harrison struggled to say no to accepting children into her home — the timeline is a little convoluted, but it appears that the family had upwards of nine children in their home — I found it refreshing that Harrison would be willing to admit that and help Lucy find an adoptive family where she would be the only child and clearly cherished. Certainly an important read for someone considering foster care or adoption.

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