A foster child's life is rarely easy. There is a lack of permanence, an uneasy sense that his or her circumstance could change at a moment's notice, an implicit understanding that the child is dependent upon the kindness of strangers. I know this because I was a foster parent in Virginia for 12 years and took in children who had been neglected, abused, beaten, shamed and sometimes just overlooked. They arrived in what they were wearing or sometimes with a small bag of clothing borrowed from the agency's clothing closet.
Buying each child new clothes was not only a nice thing to do, it was also frequently critical. One third grader arrived wearing shoes so small that her toes were red and pinched. The county reimbursed me for most of the clothes and it was a joy to see each child's face as he or she was presented with a wardrobe individually selected. It showed that I cared, and reassured the child that his or her clothing would not scream, "hand-me-downs!"
Perhaps that's why I am horrified by a new budget proposal by Michigan State Sen. Bruce Caswell which would force the children in that state's foster care system to purchase clothing only in used clothing stores. Now I'm not knocking secondhand clothes. I bought many of my daughter's clothes at a great consignment shop until she was six, and she always looked beautiful. I continue to buy some of my own clothes at such shops -- who doesn't like a bargain?
But we are talking about children whose lives have been up-ended. These are children who leave their family's homes with little or no notice and arrive at a stranger's home empty-handed. How can anyone suggest that they be denied the small pleasure of new shoes, a new jacket, new jeans -- something with a price tag, something that is theirs first?
Republican Caswell justifies this plan by saying, "I never had anything new. I got all the hand-me-downs. And my dad, he did a lot of shopping at the Salvation Army..." His plan would provide gift cards to foster children that could only be used at places like the Salvation Army and Goodwill. Senator Caswell, if you are attempting to replicate your experience for Michigan's foster children, perhaps you should start by giving each of them a father. (The good state senator from Michigan has now backed off from his plan, having heard an earful from his constituents.)
Some children are lucky enough to live with loving parents and to belong to a close-knit family. Foster children are not in that number. Statistics show that many of them will end up homeless or as high school dropouts. Is it really necessary to make their situation worse? Shouldn't we be working collectively -- as communities, as Americans -- to improve their lot in life rather than placing more limitations on them?
I propose that Sen. Caswell balance the Michigan state budget on the backs of people who are most able to bear the burden. As for foster children, let's buy them books and shoes and therapy. Let's do what we can as a nation to ensure that every child is loved and nurtured. And if there are gift cards involved, let them reflect the needs and desires of children whose needs and desires are too often ignored.