In Part I of “Fostering in Japan,” we introduced how Melodie and her family decided to foster and how they met their daughter. This week we follow them through the process of welcoming their foster daughter home for good and the struggles, challenges and patience they went through during the “testing period” of living together.
Finally, a year ago this autumn, we received our certification to become foster parents. Almost immediately afterwards, Natsumi’s* case worker and social worker came to our house to ask us if we’d be interested in fostering her full time. Enthusiastically, we said we would. Then, we learned more about her history. She had lived in a group home for a while when she was younger, but after some abuse or neglect (we never learned the full story) she had been placed back in an institution. We also learned about her mental health issues, her learning disabilities, and that she “had a temper.” Since we hadn’t witnessed any of that, we naively believed it wouldn’t be as bad as they said. We thought that we could easily handle whatever she threw our way. The officials seemed very pleased with our willingness to take her and told us that next, they would ask her if she wanted to live with us full time.
One problem we had was that our house was cozy enough for us three, but we couldn’t supply her with her own space. During her visits thus far, she had been sleeping with me, while my husband and son slept in the bunk beds in Shinji’s* room. There was nowhere for her to call her own. She brought a few things and we set up a table, cushion, and dresser for her in my room, but at that time, that was the best we could do. We decided that it was time to buy a house of our own. Her psychiatrist recommended that she moved in with us to finish the last grade of elementary school, so that her transition to junior high school would be easier. And so, we had only six months to find a new place.
Luckily, thanks to a colleague’s help, last January we found a house being renovated five minutes away from the elementary school Shinji was already going to. In February, we got our loan and signed all the papers, and then I went to Canada for a few weeks to visit my parents. Natsumi moved into the old house a few days before I returned. We moved into the new house the second weekend of April.
Before she’d fully joined our family though, I started to notice a change in her behavior. Once, after I’d asked my husband to pass me something across the kitchen table, I heard her mutter, “Get it yourself” in Japanese. I laughed it off, but realized that her attitude towards us had started to change. I’d find her sometimes sitting on the floor with her arms wrapped around her knees looking glum. One night, she was sitting like that in my bed. I went to stroke her back and she twisted sharply away and growled at me like an angry animal. I stopped and asked her what was wrong. She said angrily, “I’m not telling you.” “Okay,” I said, “I’ll wait.”
Over the following months, her defiant behavior began escalating. We knew there would be a testing period, and I’d read that lying, stealing, and physical expressions of anger were common in foster children. However, we really weren’t prepared for the storm. When she was angry — which was often — she’d kick, punch, throw things, and scream. My husband tried to stop her by holding her, but that would only escalate her behavior. I remembered that she might have experienced physical abuse at the group home, and would have to tell my husband not to touch her at all. I would quietly pick up whatever she’d thrown down, but my heart would be racing and I was quite afraid.
One night, we could tell she was particularly stressed, but I didn’t handle it well and nasty words were exchanged. Later that evening, she stormed into my room and started threatening to hit me with a metal pole that my husband was going to put up in the closet for hanging clothes on. I was really angry and also very frightened, but sat still and silent, only telling her once: “I won’t fight with you.” She didn’t hit me, but called me a lot of bad names, and finally, she fell asleep on my bed. I covered her up and let her sleep. The next day, as with other days, I started off with a smile and an offer to make whatever she wanted for breakfast. “Tomorrow, we start again,” became my nightly mantra.
Then, money started going missing, first from Shinji’s wallet, and then my husband’s. Natsumi suddenly seemed to be coming home with snacks and drinks, saying that a friend had given them to her. When Shinji noticed the cash missing from his wallet, which he kept in a drawer in his room, my husband repaid him, and also began locking his own wallet in the glove compartment of the car. He also started keeping Shinji’s money in a safe place for him. Shinji was (rightfully) angry at us for not confronting Natsumi directly, but we knew that she would probably deny it, so we tried more indirect methods, such as holding family meetings, mentioning that money seemed to be going missing, and talking about the importance of keeping money safe. At that time, I started feeling anxious and all the turmoil in the house was making me want to stay at work for longer hours.
Finally, Natsumi took money from my wallet. I knew it, because I’d paid for something earlier that day and knew exactly how much money I had left. Indirect methods were not working and I had to tackle this head on. I called the family into my room. My husband and Shinji sat on the bed, while Natsumi stood at the foot of the bed looking at the floor. I said that money had been taken from my wallet and that I knew it because I knew how much had been in it. I asked Shinji first, then my husband, if they had done it, knowing full well they hadn’t. Then I asked Natsumi. She said nothing. I made straight eye contact with her and asked her again. Shinji was squirming around, bored, so I told him to leave the room. My husband sat silent, slumped on the bed looking miserable. I told Natsumi softly, “I know you took it. Please put it back.” For about 20 minutes or so, my husband and I sat, mostly in silence with Natsumi standing, shuffling, and making occasional eye contact with me. I said to her, “I know you have a good heart. Do good things. Give me back my money and this will all be over.”
After about 20 minutes, she admitted, “I’m sorry. I took it.” I thanked her for her apology and said, “That’s half. Now, please give it back.” More silence. I could see by her face though, that she wanted to tell just me something, so I asked my husband to leave the room. After a few minutes she said, “I don’t have it.” I asked where it was and she told me that she’d spent it at a convenience store. I told her I understood, thanked her for her honesty, and let her leave the room. She came back two more times that evening to apologize again, but the effort had exhausted me and I didn’t leave my bedroom until morning.
The next day, at work, I found extra change in the front pocket of my purse…
Advice for foster parents going through the “testing period”: Although I recommend that if you plan to start fostering you read as much as possible, you may not be fully prepared for the reality of the testing period. In other words, even if your head is ready, your heart might not be. The advice you read in books may not apply to your foster child. For example, one book recommended foster parents give the child lots of hugs, but that probably only works with very small children, not a strong 11-year-old who doesn’t want to be touched at all. However, take comfort in the fact that it will pass. Also, two videos that were instrumental in helping me see Natsumi’s side of the story are “ReMoved” and “Remember my story” which are available on YouTube.
*All names appearing in the article have been changed for privacy issues.
In Part III of “Fostering in Japan,” we follow Melodie and her family through the personal adaptation each member of the family went through as a result of their decision to foster and welcome a new family member.
Melodie Cook (originally from Canada), is an adoptive and foster mother currently living in Niigata, Japan. She is also an Associate Professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture. After adopting her son in 2009, she started an online yahoo group “adoptioninjapan” in order to connect with other mixed-race families raising adopted children. She also has created a Facebook page where adoptive and foster families can give and receive advice and support. Both groups are private, so please contact her to join: firstname.lastname@example.org.© Savvy Tokyo