The Power of Promises in Foster Care

“Do you promise?”

Three words, that when spoken by a child, cause discomfort to creep into the heart of a parent.   I think when most of us make promises, we intend to keep them. However, there are always lots of mitigating factors that can change things, right?  I mean, yes I plan on taking you to the pool today, but what if it rains? What if between now and then you throw a temper tantrum about me not letting you eat ketchup directly from the bottle?  What if your older sister suddenly needs me to take her to work? What if the pool is closed down for 24 hours due to fecal contamination? (that last one…real life one day earlier this summer)

Keeping promises is dicey stuff.  That is why I try pretty hard to never use the words “I promise” with my kids.  In fact, my yeses honestly probably sometimes sound like the disclaimer at the end of a pharmaceutical commercial:  “I am currently planning on taking you to the pool, assuming that you have made your bed, you haven’t left the aftermath of your peanut butter and jelly snack all over the kitchen, there isn’t an active lightning storm, flesh-eating aliens haven’t inhabited our home, and the surgeon general hasn’t released a statement about the dangers of pool noodles by then.  

But here’s the question:  Is a promise only a promise when the words “I promise” are used?  What if a child perceives the implication of a promise? On one hand, we can’t be held responsible for that . . . right? On the other hand, when you perceive that another person is making a commitment to you and breaks that commitment, it can have a profound impact on you — whether or not they ever said “I promise.” We may not be officially responsible, but we still have another human on our hands that has been deeply hurt and their trust in us has eroded a little (or a lot). The bottom line is all kids are deeply affected by broken commitments whether perceived or real.  But for kids in foster care the implications are much farther-reaching.

The broken promises that kids in foster care are dealing with are much more profound.  It impacts where they live, how long they live there, where they go to school, who their friends are, whether they even have friends at all, and ultimately every promise, broken or kept, leads them to discover their own answer to this very important life-defining question:

Can I trust anyone?

Jaimie Lynn Moore entered foster care at around three-years-old.   Her first memory of entering care came when her parents were involved in a police chase with her in the car.  When they were eventually pulled over and her parents were held at gunpoint, Jaimie was shuffled to the side until a social worker showed up.  Jaimie was told that she needed to say goodbye to her parents. This is how she describes it:

“I ran to my mom and I threw my arms around her and she didn’t hug me back . . .I know now it’s because they were cuffed, but at the time I just thought, why is she not hugging me? What did I do to make all of these people so mad and pull out these guns? And I just thought everything was my fault and I didn’t understand. And then I got taken away.”

Jaimie grew up going in and out of different placements.  As a teenager she was placed with a family that was planning to adopt her.  Jaimie felt like all was going well. Then, at the end of the 6-month “trial period” they suddenly let her know that they would not be adopting her.  It was devastating.

Jaimie aged out at 18.  She got a job as a checker at a grocery store and was doing what she could fulfill her dream of going to college.  Jaimie shared:

I graduate from high school and I start college and I realize I still don’t have anybody. There’s nobody to call when I have questions. There’s nobody that loves me. There’s nobody that wants me around. I realized that that was always going to be as hard as it has had always been. It wasn’t going to go away because I was a grown up and I just . . . gave up. I was like, well, there’s no point.

There was a lady who regularly came into the grocery store where Jaimie worked and had a habit of talking with all of the high school and college kids working there.  Over the course of many months, she got to know Jaimie.

One day, this woman brought her kids into the store with her.  Jaimie noted that the kids didn’t look alike and asked about it.   When the woman, Julie, shared that her kids were adopted, Jaimie mentioned that she had grown up in foster care.

Almost immediately, Julie knew that Jaimie was put in her path for a reason.  She went home and talked to her husband about adopting her. By this point, Jaimie was 19-years-old.

They invited Jaimie to hang out multiple times and then decided that they were going to talk to her about adoption one Saturday night.  They invited her over and laid everything out. Jaimie wasn’t 100% sure what they were asking and more importantly why they were asking.

Jaimie asked them why in the world they would want to do this.  Julie, took Jaimie by the hand and led her to their dining room.  She took her to the chair Jamie had been sitting in at dinner that week and said “This chair has been empty since we bought this table and since we built this house…and you fill it.”

That was eight years ago.  Jaimie has since graduated and was married to a Marine named Christopher this past year.  She had a dad to walk her down the aisle. When asked about her wedding day, Jaimie shared that she had learned to block big days out of her memory because she did not want to look back on them and remember it as a bad memory. Her goal for her wedding day was to try and remember everything:

“So, I had to constantly tell myself, okay, Christopher is not going away. Christopher doesn’t break his promises like other people do, and so I can I can be present here and I can remember this.”

Broken promises destroy.  Promises kept heal.

Jaimie and Christopher recently purchased a house and this is what she shared on Facebook the day they closed:

I have moved forty times since I was three years old.  Before that I can remember wandering around the streets with my birth parents looking for a place to sleep at night.  There were so many times as a child that I wondered where I would be living the next day. So many times that I was told I was home, only to have it ripped away shortly after.  Today, thanks to Jesus, Christopher, and hard work I will move for the last time.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  John 14:27

NOTE: An extended version of Jaimie Lynn’s  story is featured in episode 11 of the Foster Movement podcast. It’s available for download from iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Overcast.  

This article first appeared in CAFO’s regular Foster Movement column of the Fostering Families Today magazine (September/October 2018 issue).  To see a preview of the magazine and learn more about how you or your organization can subscribe to this great resource, click here.