Wide Awake: Distressing Dilemmas
Sometimes one decision can change a life

Every now and then, I meet a person who tells me a story and it suddenly becomes crystal clear that many of us have no idea how much suffering goes on right here in our SJ backyard.

Here’s the story:

Marjorie is 7. Her brother Ryan is 8. The two live with a foster family in Burlington County. Their father is in jail for a gang-related homicide. Their mother is a drug addict, although in the past year, she has been clean in 75 percent of her drug tests. She is allowed to visit her children once a week, and she does. She always shows up, and she’s always on time.

When Marjorie and Ryan first came to their foster home two years ago, they refused to sleep in separate beds. They slept together every night for four months. I suppose that’s the only way you can fall asleep when your dad is in jail and your mom is on drugs.

With her new foster family, Marjorie is thriving. She’s doing well in school, and was recently moved into mainstream classes. And the biggest news of all: She was invited to a classmate’s birthday party – her first party invitation ever.

Ryan isn’t having such a great time. He remains in special education classes, and is considered a discipline problem. Teachers at school (and even the disciplinarian) like him, and understand he’s having trouble coping. Sometimes his behavior gets so out-of-control at home, his foster mom calls 911. On many nights, the police help put Ryan to bed.

The foster mom is tired. She has notified officials at Family Service in Westampton – the agency that connected her to the children – that she doesn’t feel she can safely care for the siblings anymore, and she’d like Ryan removed from her home. She loves Ryan, but feels she can’t parent him. There is a chance that Ryan could do better in a “more structured” home.

Here’s the dilemma: Should both siblings be moved to another foster home so they can stay together? Or should only Ryan move, so Marjorie can stay in a home where she is clearly thriving?

A key piece of information: Statistics show that 70 percent of siblings who are separated in the system are never reunited.

This dilemma is heartbreaking. The folks who manage foster care at Family Service say this is their job: heartache when families fall apart and joy when they are put back together, even in the slightest way.

After hearing the story, I presented all the information to my daughters. I expected we would have a lengthy discussion at dinner and review all the pros and cons of the difficult choice (an at-home ethics class and they wouldn’t even realize it was happening).

Instead, the conversation lasted five minutes because they – unlike me – knew exactly what they would do: keep Marjorie and Ryan together. They were certain. There was no hesitation, and nothing

I could say changed their minds. They even seemed a little perplexed at why I was asking the question. Our conversation was over before the table was set. My big teaching moment never even started.

Unless you consider what I learned.

I guess when you become an adult, you forget what it was like to live with your siblings, to have them there every day. But when your childhood is now, you are keenly aware of the importance of your brother or sister. You may never speak of it – especially if you’re a teenager – but you know.  And it comes out in odd ways, like when your mom is trying to hold an ethics class in the kitchen.

So listening to the good advice of my daughters, I hope Marjorie and Ryan get to stay together. I hope they live happy, productive lives. Their circumstances will make that difficult, but maybe their sibling will make it possible.

April 2011
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