This week’s Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define FamilyTM” series installment features an interview with Mary Keane, age 65, of New York City, who found her interest in supporting teenagers in the foster care system snowballed from one youth to taking in almost two dozen. At age 50, while going through the foster parent certification process, she moved from a studio apartment to a large Victorian house, which she spent a year renovating in order to provide a welcoming home for her new family. Mary’s commitment to these young people may be more than most people can imagine but the wisdom she gained along the way is inspirational and instructive for any current or aspiring foster-adoptive parents.
Along with her personal involvement as a foster parent, she also went on to serve on the board of You Gotta Believe, a local foster care and adoption agency focused exclusively on older youth, and ultimately joined its staff. Her example illustrates that it’s never too late to take the initiative to help kids in the foster care system.—Corinne Lightweaver, RaiseAChild.US.
Corinne Lightweaver: I know you have fostered many teenagers and you are now a social worker with You Gotta Believe in New York. What got you started in fostering teens?
Mary Keane: Originally, I wanted to foster only lesbian teens, which in retrospect would have been a complete disaster. I never would have slept and I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I would have been up all night with a house full of lesbian teens with all those hormones and stuff. But it didn’t happen. They told me they didn’t have any lesbians. I’m in NYC and they told me they
didn’t have any lesbians!
Corinne: You’ve had so many teenagers. How did you get started?
Mary: I got certified as a foster parent, and with foster parents they just call you and say we have a kid. My first kid was a 14-year-old girl coming out of a crisis unit, and they called and asked if I would accept her and I said yes.
(Story continues after the slideshow)
Corinne: What was your biggest challenge in the beginning, as you began to take in more kids?
Mary: I found out later from the kids that they thought living in my home was too good to be true and it wasn’t going to last. So they would run away before I threw them out because they believed, given their history, that I would throw them out because everyone else had done it. So when some of kids would steal and run away, I would let the agency know and they would send me another girl. And that’s literally what they did, they gave me another kid.
Corinne: Was there a turning point?
Mary: There was an incident where there was a fight with two of the girls so I called into the agency to report it. And they asked me, “Do we have to remove both of the girls or just one of them?” I said, “Why would you remove them? They just had a fight.” And they said, “We thought that’s why you were calling.” And I said, “No, I’m just calling because I thought I had to tell you.” The police were involved, so it was serious. When I went to speak to the two girls in question, they were both packing their bags because they thought the fight meant they had to leave. And I said, “No, you don’t have to leave.” I always used to beat up my little brother, but I never got thrown out of my home because of it. I told them, “You just had a fight, but you took it outside and you were very respectful. We’ll get over this somehow. We’ll figure out how to get through the fight.”
So I had the all the kids start going to therapy every week through the agency. There were six girls at the time and they just hated each other, they hated therapy, and they weren’t speaking to each other. And that went on for months. The girls had begun to take sides and there were all sorts of tensions in the house so I said everybody goes. I don’t think it was very useful, but what happened was as we began to approach the holidays after awhile, tempers just softened and they forgot what they were fighting about. They even sort of made up with each other on their own and we just went on. One of the girls ultimately went to go live with her boyfriend. This was 14 years ago.
Corinne: How did you select which kids came to live with you?
Mary: At the beginning I wasn’t picking, the agency was just sending kids. And then I sort of got involved. One girl was a friend of one of the girls I had taken in. She wanted to get her out of an unsafe place so I said okay, she can come. And after she was here for a minute I found out that she had seven siblings. A month after she came to me, her six youngest siblings went into foster care. The siblings came to me for a day or two temporarily while they were being placed. I didn’t take any of them right then because the girl had been parenting them for many years and I didn’t want her to stay in that role. So I waited for more than a year until I wound up taking four of her siblings over time. So I guess I picked those kids. Well, I didn’t really pick them as much as I thought the siblings should be together.
Corinne: Were the other siblings boys?
Mary: There was one boy and I wasn’t going to take him because I didn’t want to mix boys and girls, but they begged me. He had been visiting every weekend and I was trying to find him a family with a dad. I thought he could use a male influence in his life and he wasn’t really interested in any of the families that I introduced him to. His sisters just begged me and said, “He’s not really a boy, he’s our brother, he doesn’t count as a boy.” So I wound up taking JJ. He was my first boy, and it was a completely different experience, really a joy.
Ultimately, I ended up working in the system and that’s when I got to meet kids myself, and that’s when I found the lesbian teens. And so I was finally able to identify a couple of lesbian kids that I was interested in fostering. I wound up taking them, too.
Corinne: What have you learned from being a foster-adoptive parent?
Mary: I have seen the amazing strength they have and how they overcome so much, you know, regardless of what has happened to them. They get up every day and they keep going and they keep trying. And now it’s actually 14 years since I got my first kid, so I’ve been able to watch a lot of their struggles, a lot of their successes, and a lot of their slipping back sometimes. Some of the kids are further along than others. They just keep trying.
To me, what little support they really need in a sense is about nurturing. They just need somebody to believe in them. That’s the key. Being willing to say, “I’m proud of you wherever you are and I’m proud of you wherever you’re going.”
Corinne: So how do you define success for your kids?
Mary: You know, it’s so funny because every once in awhile people start talking about evaluation of the You Gotta Believe program and whether success is measured by whether the kids finish college or is success that they do this or do that. I don’t think that’s necessarily a measure of success. I think it’s different because they may not all go to college and that’s not really
necessary. In the sense of where they start at, to me it’s that they have made progress from when they joined the family. And that progress can look like different things.
For example, some of my kids have gone to college, some of them have degrees, some of them don’t, and some never will. For me that’s not an indicator of success. If they are progressing on their track and they’re making progress, and sometimes it’s even hard to measure, but if they’re further ahead than where they started and they continue to make progress, then that’s success. So it’s not even about measuring them up against anyone else, it’s about measuring them up against their own progress in whatever they’re doing. Some of my kids have stable jobs and some of them don’t, even if they’re in their late 20s. Some of those have had a much more traumatic past, including how much rejection they’ve had, how many homes they were in, how long were they institutionalized in the big residential treatment centers, which really, in some sense, cripples them for life in the real world because it’s not a real-world setting. Institutions are totally controlled and structured and the kids have no independence to be able to make decisions, even about when they eat. So those things have major long-term impact on kids. I tell people you’ll see the progress and it may be small steps, it may be little things, but I think the progress and the growth and the healing will start almost immediately. Even something as simple as a positive answer to the question "Do you have someone you trust to go to when you need something or just to talk?" is a measure of success. I certainly don't think that the measure of college attendance and other things we usually attach to success are necessarily relevant here. Those are all good, but we are trying to change the feeling of safety and attachment with our kids, fundamental things that people from intact families take for granted.
Corinne: What were you doing before you started working in the field? What’s your position now?
Mary: I was doing health care consulting. I think when I started taking in kids, I thought I was going to solve the foster care problem myself. I was just going to be able to take all the kids. And then after awhile, I realized I wasn’t able to solve anything by myself, so I wound up getting connected with You Gotta Believe. I was speaking somewhere and the founder, Pat O’Brian,
came up to me and said, “I’d like you to get involved,” and I ultimately got on their board. When he got a federal contract and a position opened up with You Gotta Believe, I took the position. So working in the field was really continuing the idea of getting the kids out of foster care because they really don’t belong there. I am now the Senior Family Permanency Advocate and Director of LGBT Services at You Gotta Believe.
Corinne: How long did the kids live with you? What’s the oldest kid that lives with you or did live with you?
Mary: They are all out of care and over 21 and all out of the house at the moment! Jonathan, the oldest kid that I took from care, he was 20 and a half. And two of my kids were actually out of care when I met them. I’ve actually claimed a much older person, she’s 43 now. We met when she was in her mid 30s and she decided she wanted to be loved. My last child was actually out of care at the time she joined my family. I had met her before through You Gotta Believe, but when she came to me she had been discharged from a family down south that was a complete disaster. After she came back to New York at age 21 and was homeless for awhile, she finally called me and I said, “Come home,” and that was that. I had known Jonathan for a number of years and he sort of refused to work with us at You Gotta Believe. He kept thinking he had everything together; he was going to be fine. And he had gone from a residential treatment center to what they were calling here in New York Single Independent Living Programs, where they put kids in apartments and they monitor them for awhile until they’re 21. He was there for about six months before he realized he was not prepared to be on his own. So he called me and said he wanted to work with us and by that time I told him to join the family.
The oldest kids were home until 24 or 25. Some of them would get their own place and then come back home for awhile and then go back and get another place and then come home. Some of them went back and forth. Some of them would leave, maybe lose an apartment, and then come home for a little while so they’d be in and out during their transitional stages. I recently sold the home, the big house, and moved into a one-bedroom apartment, so now there’s nobody really living with me. Two of my kids and their families are living in the same apartment complex that I do, so they’re close. One of my daughters lives around the corner. Two of my kids live about a mile away. So they’re all close. No one has left the state or the city.
Corinne: How many kids have you had total?
Mary: I claim 13 kids.
Corinne: But you’ve had more coming through?
Mary: There were more at the beginning, kids came and kids left, and I’ve lost track of them actually. I keep trying to find them. There was one in particular that really had no family and I have my kids looking for her on Facebook and stuff. I haven’t been able to find her, but I’ll probably keep looking for her because her family situation wasn’t so good.
Corinne: What do you mean by “claim”?
Mary: I’ve legally adopted about six of them so far. I’ll legally adopt most of the others—it’s just a matter of doing some paperwork and stuff. There’s only one who really does not want to be legally adopted. So usually we talk about a “moral adoption”; I “claim” them as my kids whether or not there is a legal adoption.
Corinne: How many did you have in the house at the same time?
Mary: We’ve always had at least six, and I guess sometimes there was maybe there were eight at home at any time.
Corinne: How did you pay for college for the kids?
Mary: They all qualify for federal financial aid and New York City has something else they call “My Educational Training Voucher” for kids coming out of care. They get $5,000 cash a year, a laptop, and gifts throughout the year. There are tons of scholarships for kids coming out of care. There’s so many that most of them are not even accessed. And if the kids go to a city or state university in New York, not only is the tuition fully paid, but there’s money left over so they don’t even have to take loans to manage. They get a lot of benefits and, of course, they have medical coverage. The benefits are amazing for the kids in care so I would joke that when the kids were in college they had more spending money than I did. As long as they’re adopted after the age of 14, they qualify independently from the parents’ income.
Corinne: Do you foresee yourself taking in any more kids?
Mary: No, that’s why I downgraded to a one-bedroom apartment. My adult kids still need a lot of attention and time, so I keep busy. And some of them have children themselves so I have an enormous number of grandchildren who need and want attention, too! These grandkids are actually one of the measures of the success of my kids -- that they have their own children and raise them well with a large family of supports and a grandparent who has been there since birth for most of them. So many foster youth and former foster youth lose their own children to the foster care system and it becomes a generational problem with no end in sight.
I’m also happy that my grandkids have such a relatively normal life and that they have never known anything different. They have parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and at least one grandparent, often more than one. My grandkids will never live the lives that their parents lived, with the abuse, neglect, and abandonment, and all the trappings of foster care. And just like kids everywhere, they take their lives for granted -- which is so normal. The grandkids reflect the first generation of change for these families, and I’m proud to be a part of it. You Gotta Believe is the only organization in the New York City Metro area that solely limits its practice to finding permanent parents and families for young adults, teens, and pre-teens in the foster care system.
Corinne Lightweaver is the Communications Manager at RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adopting to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns and events to educate
prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,200 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.RaiseAChild.US and click on “Next Step to Parenthood.”