“My People”: Fostering and Language

My People: Fostering and LanguageBy Garet MacCallon

To say today marks a major win would be an understatement. When my wife and I ventured into fostering five years ago, I never thought being called “my people” by our 17-year-old foster kid while on the phone with her biological mom would feel like a lifetime achievement, but it did. Successes show up in tiny, unassuming ways for kids that have been in and out of the system for years. It is not a light bulb moment or even a huge hard-won battle, but it is the small, often overlooked changes that let you know you have affected someone’s life forever.

As a teen who had been kicked out at 16 by a parent with an abuse problem, I eventually found passion in helping others. I graduated high school and college on my own to become a paramedic. My wife became a mental health professional with her master’s degree right before we married and has 15 years of experience in various roles within the child welfare system.

We believed in reunification and wanted to provide children with a safe nurturing home until they could go back to their family. We believed in hard work and sacrifice. We foolishly thought we were well-prepared and equipped to foster; but boy, were we wrong. Nothing short of living through this experience could have prepared us for just how unique, complex, and beautiful every foster placement would be.

We were ready for the anger. We were ready for the tears. We were ready for the trials.

We were NOT ready for the mistrust.

We found ourselves outsiders to their experiences and existences in our own home. We had always believed in asking the kids in our care, “What do you want to call us?” or “What should we call you?” We thought this made us open and contemporary to all their needs in this matter. What we came to learn is we needed to be the advocates of the language in our household. By spearheading terminology and language we could shape, impact, affect, improve, or damage the fragile trust we had worked to build.

Children who have the ability to communicate or know their preferences should always be respected in these situations. However, for kids who are younger or don’t know how to handle their new world, it is our job as the caretaker to advocate for them in this matter. It is imperative to continually solicit children and to consider where the child is in their journey of separation of their biological parents. What became apparent to us is that by being the advocates of the language and how we refer to or address the kids in our house affected every aspect of our own actions as well as their own actions. We internalized this language. They internalized this language.

When we embraced how vital the way we thought about and addressed the children in our care was, we made true headway. We had to ask, own, implement, and ask again. This was an ever-evolving process that changed day to day and morphed over time. We had to live, eat, sleep, breathe, and become the language we utilized and received while managing not to take it personally when past experiences found their way to the surface with our foster children. Being clear, accurate, respectful, and flexible allowed the children who had experienced abuse and neglect to feel heard and build trust.

We constantly strive to grow and learn from our experiences and mistakes. Each child is unique with different needs and wants. Watching one foster relationship evolve from being called “the people I stay with,” “the foster family,” “the foster parents,” “my foster parents,” “my foster family,” and finally to “my people” is the manifestation of trust being earned. Having another relationship transition from the weary looks of a 2-year-old with no verbal language while being dropped off in the middle of the night to months later calling my wife “Pasha” as his own sweet nickname for her is the greatest win.

It is a daily, sometimes hourly, reminder to be patient and deliberate. Be patient with the children, be patient with their evolution of language and trust, and be patient with myself. Be deliberate with my language, actions, and feelings. There will be great days and hard days. Fostering or adopting is definitely a marathon and not a sprint.

About the Author: Garet MacCallon started working in the medical field over 16 years ago running 911 on an ambulance and eventually neonate Life Flight as a paramedic. She then transitioned into a Clinical Supervisor role working her way up to Clinical Manager, Office Manager, Practice Administrator, and Regional Director of multisite medical practices. Garet completed Paramedic and Paramedic Instructor programs at UTMB/GC.


Read more:

Real People With Real Stories: An Interview on the Adoption Experience

The Fictive Language of Adoption

It’s All About Respect: An Interview on Open Adoption With Joyce Horn

Words Matter: A Guide on Adoption Language