Home, or Homeless, for the Holidays

Susan Kellam
December 12, 1999

This article first appeared in December 1999.

Holiday Miracles
A Foster Sibling's Christmas
Mixed Memories
What You Can Do

Louise Scott was heading home for the holidays, or so she told the other recruits in her basic training unit in Georgia. She conjured images of a crackling fire, overstuffed arm chairs and a fat turkey with cranberry sauce. In reality, the cocky 18-year-old holed up by herself at the nearby YWCA.

Thirty-five years later that holiday season still haunts Scott: "I created a fantasy family, told everyone about them. There would be this home to lay back and relax after weeks of tough basic training. Then I suddenly realized that I didn't have a home to go to."

Just the smell of a roasting fowl on a cold afternoon, with those subtle hints of sage and garlic, instantly recalls the Norman Rockwell family: smiles all around the table as a full-bodied maternal figure proudly carries in her culinary masterpiece. This is home. This is the holiday table.

Yet many former foster youth never sat in that classic American dining room. They understand neglect and abuse better than any annual spirit of family and sharing. And when those green and red tinseled-decorations get hung on every street light, Christmas becomes downright hard to take.

That's how Scott felt. Only a few months earlier she had bid a firm farewell to her last foster mom in her haste to break free of the Virginia state foster care system and join the military. Foster wasn't really family, she concluded.

Then Scott started getting lonely at the Y. She jaunted off to the Non-Commissioned Officers' Club on Thanksgiving eve, surveyed the unfamiliar crowd, slowly selecting a solitary seat with ebbing confidence. When a fellow recruit approached her, a smile softened Scott's face. The two girls would be heading out to Germany together in the new year. Come home with me now, the friend implored.

"I did spend Thanksgiving with her family," recalls Scott. "They made me feel as if I belonged, whether there were blood ties or not. Suddenly I realized that I needed to give a little bit. And I asked to make a long-distance call."

Scott phoned the woman in Virginia—the one she had fled from in her hasty emancipation from the child welfare system—and asked to come home for Christmas. Which she did, that year and for the 30-some years that followed.

Mixed Memories
For Terry Harrak, the final holiday preparations for this Millennium begin in early November, stirring a potent mix of emotions in the 20-year old. Except for very early childhood memories, of tempting Santa with decorated sugar cookies, Harrak has no joyful family album.

"Christmas is going to be really hard for me this year. I'm thinking about volunteering at a hospital or homeless shelter," she announces.

Harrak is still bruised from being bounced out of the foster care system at age 18. Though she landed at a program designed to prepare adolescents for independence, that too is nearing an end. "Everything has a time limit," she sadly comments.

Except the holiday season, of course, which unfolds anew year after year, bitterly reminding Harrak that she hasn't got a true home.

"I'm housed, sheltered," she says, "but, as far as I'm concerned, I'll be homeless for the holidays."

Amy Clay, equally weighted by lumps of coal in her young collection of Christmas-pasts, has only learned to appreciate the holidays by watching other families. Last Thanksgiving, as a freshman at George Washington University, her friend Nick insisted that Clay spend the holidays with his clan. "It's the first time I watched a whole family interact and thought: wow, awesome!"

Now the healing process is beginning for Clay, who says she spent a lot of time last year just learning to trust in continuity. It used to seem that every time you left a foster home, or a new friend, or a family member, they would be gone—pouf—out of her life. She's slowly starting to understand that some things, and people, will actually remain.

Of course, there's plenty she would like to forget. Like the Christmas when she was a sophomore in High School and tried repairing a frayed relationship with her biological mother—a woman she hadn't lived with since infancy.

"My mother went off and got drunk, leaving me with my half-siblings. When I confronted her, she had my step-dad drive me back to the foster home," she recalls. When the foster parents finally returned, late on Christmas night, Clay wound up in an argument with them as well. Eventually she just walked the streets of the dark neighborhood alone.

Holiday Miracles
Eileen McCaffrey directs the Orphan Foundation of America a nonprofit children's advocacy group in Vienna, Virginia which provides "a voice for children who have no voice."

Several years ago McCaffrey and a friend decided to throw a "blow out" Christmas for her former foster son, David, by reuniting him with a cousin and a younger brother for the holiday. The three boys hadn't spent any time together since they were nine (David and his cousin) and five (the younger brother). That was the year they got picked up as neglect cases on the streets of Washington, D.C. and sent to group homes and residential facilities in three separate states.

The boys were 16 and 11 when McCaffrey devised her reunion scheme. She bombarded the house with Christmas cards addressed to the kids, over 50 of them, which the boys taped on every spare inch of wall space. Batch after batch of cookies emerged from the oven. Of course, presents arrived too.

For meals, McCaffrey prepared ham and French fries, pork and French fries, turkey and French fries.

The best part, McCaffrey recalls, was listening to them in bed at nights. "They laid there for hours telling those 'remember when' stories. Horror stories, really, but even the worst stuff from their early childhood just sent them into peals of laughter."

For many foster parents like McCaffrey, the holidays are a time of preparedness, stocking up, as a family in the fifties might have done for a civil defense shelter. Rather than an atomic explosion, however, it's the sudden onslaught of new or former foster children that can shake the moment.

You just never really know what's going to happen, says Shirley Hedges, president of the National Foster Parent Association. Two years ago, for example, a 13-year-old asked to leave the home she was in at midnight on Christmas Eve. "She arrived at my home at 1 a.m., surprised to find that Santa knew she would be here too," Hedges recalls.

Hedges admits, "I always keep extra presents in the closet. And it's the same at the Christmas dinner table. There's always room for one more."

Ruth Rupert from the Indiana Foster Care and Adoption Association e-mails that "When you are a foster family the phrase 'I'll be home for Christmas' takes on a whole new meaning ? Our house has become holiday headquarters for not only our families, but for many of our foster children."

Yet, she continues, "as special as the holiday season is to us, it can be a brutal time for teenagers who are left to make it in this world alone. They need somewhere to call 'home' for all the holidays and special times in their lives."

Suzanne Stevens tells the story of Tracie, who was 16 years old when she came to live with them as their foster daughter. Tracie is 24 now, and not always very easy to track. "She moves a lot and we usually don't have a phone number to call her. But each holiday she will drop in with cards she has made for the children in our home."

Then, she continues, "last Christmas she came with a child and introduced this precious 4-month-old to her grandparents, us. Tracie told us that she wanted her child to understand what a family can and should be and that she wanted us to continue to be part of her and her child's life."

A Foster Sibling's Christmas
Christmas in Connecticut is a holiday tradition for the Duffey family. And this year Pat Duffey has asked her children, and grandchildren, to talk specifically about what Christmas means to them in an ethnic sense.

Nine-year-old Joseph Duffey competes in Irish dancing events the way other kids his age scuffle on the soccer fields. So he'll be talking about Ireland, his father, Michael, explains.

Master Sergeant Alejandro Baez Baez Ortez will undoubtedly be describing the festivities in Puerto Rico.

Michael, a young teenager when 10-year-old Alex Baez entered the Duffey home, recalls: "He was one of a series of foster kids who came into my home. Most only stayed a couple of nights. I have a vivid memory of one kid who broke my train set. He'd never seen one before and, in his furious rush to race the mechanical engines, melted all the electrical switches."

Alex, immediately different from the others, came from the inner-city Puerto Rican neighborhood in Hartford. His mother was stricken with tuberculosis and hospitalized. "He didn't really speak English, but he understood. He was quiet, passive, would hardly even eat anything except bananas and rice," Duffey describes the new arrival.

The only tension flared up over Pat Duffey's attention. "My mother spent hours with him on schoolwork, and getting him to eat. I'd always been the hot shot in the household." But Michael, and his younger brother David, eventually learned to accept this unassuming foster child, the one who simply stayed.

When Joe Duffey ran as the liberal candidate for the Senate in the 1970 Connecticut race, Alex appeared in all the family pictures. "Rumors and suspicions circulated that this Hispanic kid has just been put out there to enhance my dad's image," Michael laughingly recalls.

As the past blends with the present in a confusion of holiday seasons, Michael admits that he doesn't remember the exact point when Alex transcended his "foster" status. The Duffey's never adopted him; there were even periods of time Alex returned to his recuperating mother, now dead.

Pat Duffey doesn't think about it, she simply refers to the boys returning for Christmas as "my three sons." Alex will be there with his wife and children. "Mom will offer to take him to Christmas services. And like my brother and I, Alex goes along because she wants him to," Michael says. "And like us, he'll like the services once he gets there."

What You Can Do
Be particularly astute during your holiday preparations; watch for those around you who might require extra conjoling to admit they don't have anywhere to go this Christmas. There may be more "foster" adults in your community than you think.

Keep your antenna extended as far as possible. Check with local colleges or youth centers to see if any teenagers may require extra services or a home during the holidays. Ask friends to put the same message on their radar screens.

For the longer term, you may think about becoming a foster parent. If you're not ready to bring someone into your home full-time, consider assisting others with respite care—which gives foster families a break from the responsibilities of caring for the child. Just contact any private or public child welfare agency in your community and say that you are interested in signing up for planned temporary care of a child. You can also support foster parents by joining the National Foster Parents Association. Contact them by calling 1-800-557-5238.

Any extra gifts to donate? Contact shelters or agencies in your area that house adults and children. They'll be sponsoring Christmas dinners and would be delighted to accept from you any of the additional frills, food, or wrapped fun that could turn their table into a more colorful, festive feast.

Enjoy the holidays! Appreciate family and friends that enhance the moment. And keep your eyes open: There's certain to be someone else who would really appreciate your friendship.



Susan Kellam has an extensive 25-year career in journalism and social policy, including editorial positions at Rolling Stone magazine and Congressional Quarterly and as communications director at the American Public Welfare Association. She is currently a free-lance writer.