Guest contributor Jane Hall Fitz-Gibbon and her husband Andrew Fitz-Gibbon, have cared for more than 100 children in a foster care career spanning more than three decades. They developed a method, “loving nonviolent re-parenting,” to best care for foster children. “Re-parenting” represents the complex task of caring for children who have been parented already, often inadequately, and mostly involving physical, emotional, and/or systemic violence.
Jane is delighted to endorse the vision and mission of the American SPCC. She believes raising a voice in the nation against the abuse, neglect, and injustice suffered by children is a powerful and much needed initiative.
Loving Nonviolent Re-Parenting
by Jane Hall Fitz-Gibbon PhD
The shrill ring of the phone reverberated around the small house in Northern England. I quickly grabbed the receiver wondering if this would be the call I had been waiting for.
“Hallo, is that Jane?” asked the voice on the line. I quickly affirmed it was.
“This is the home-finding unit. Would you be able to take a little girl for a few days? She is fourteen months old.”
We had barely time to ensure the crib and baby essentials where ready when the caseworker arrived with the little girl. She was placed into my arms. We had received our first foster placement.
Our journey had started several months before when my husband Andy read an article in the local newspaper. Our local Department of Social Services had made an appeal for foster parents. The reporter told how desperate the town was for foster carers. Over the next few days we returned to the article several times. We decided to apply. We engaged in a few months intensive training, medicals and home visits. Ultimately, we were certified and the wait for a child began.
Little did we know that in 1982—pre-digital with no computers, e-mails, cell phones, texting and Facebook—we would begin a foster care career that would span over thirty-five years. Our journey took us to four different Departments of Social Services, across an ocean, as we welcomed well over a hundred children and teenagers into our home.
The phone call asking a foster carer to take a new child is always exciting as carers look forward to receiving another child into their home. Even so, behind the excitement lurks a sadness. We have realized that every child who needs a foster home has been a victim of violence, often in multiple forms. Over the years, we have seen and heard the most horrific results of abuse. However, in our writing we have a commitment never to share details that links the abuse to any individual child. A victim’s story is for them to share, should they ever wish to.
Beside obvious violence—physical, sexual, and psychological abuse—the act of taking a child from its birth family is a violent one, breaking essential bonds of parental attachment. This is the case, even when necessary to prevent further violence in the birth home.
Julia, who lived with us for a year often revisited the time she had been removed from her home. In her own words, she had been “tucken.” The removal had involved a police presence, and although only six years old she remembered every detail.
“The police came when I was tucken”
“My mom was crying and screaming when I was tucken.”
“I got tucken on a Wednesday.”
Violence causes trauma. Further violence in the foster care system only compounds the problem. Children whose lives have been shaped by chaos and violence require space to heal from their trauma in an intentionally nonviolent, safe and loving space. We realized that our primary task as foster carers was to provide just such a safe place to begin the long process of healing. It is easy to tear down, but quite difficult to rebuild.
Andy and I developed a method which we call Loving Nonviolent Re-Parenting. It is loving in the sense that the best interest and well-being of the child is always at the forefront of our minds. It is intentionally nonviolent to counteract the harm caused by violence. It is re-parenting because the children we care for have already been parented, often inadequately, establishing too often abusive, parent-child relationships.
Most people are nonviolent most of the time, without even thinking about it. It is simply how civil society functions. However, to be intentionally nonviolent adds another element. Intentional nonviolence requires a commitment to refrain from violence, even “as a last resort.” Words and phrases need to be chosen with care, and spoken with calm and quiet voices. Actions need to be moderated with care and attention. We remind ourselves that our children in our care have often only known violence as a way of relating.
Eleven-year old Lacey had stolen a watch from another child. When discovered we had talked to her about how stealing was wrong and made her return the watch. We knew that it was a conversation we would need to have many times as stealing is a hard habit to break. After the next visit with her biological family, her birth father took us aside. Lacey had told him about the stealing. “Next time, don’t bother talking to her, just give her a good spanking, that’s the only language she understands,” he scolded us. We decided to show Lacey a different way.
Deonte was in his mid-teens when he became part of our household. He had suffered much violence with its ensuing trauma. He was an angry young man given to violent outbursts. One day after a particularly violent verbal outburst he put his face right up to Andy’s. “Go on, hit me. I know you want to. Go on, hit me.” Andy talked him down.
Violence causes much harm. It damages children in the very depths of their beings and nonviolence is needed to repair that trauma caused by violence.
Katie was only three and viewed the world through big, scared eyes. When she arrived at our home it quickly became clear that she was terrified of many things, but especially of men. If Andy even moved she scooted across the room, often cowering behind the nearest object to her. It took time, but through kindness, care and patience, Katie began to trust again. Not all men were prone to violent and irrational outbursts. A few months later we bumped into her caseworker at the mall. Katie was walking along holding Andy’s hand chattering away to him. The caseworker expressed her amazement at the change.
Kevin, an older teenager, was obsessed with weapons. We discovered that he was bringing combat knives into our home. These were not little penknives, but serious weapons that could cause significant harm if used. On one occasion, he even admitted to having a gun. We had many conversations about how we could not allow weapons to be brought into our home. His response was always the same. He needed to have a weapon under his pillow to enable him to sleep at night. Sadly, he simply did not feel safe anywhere.
These young people, and many who have lived with us, were all victims of violence. This violence can have far-reaching effects. Kevin, had been a victim of neglect and abuse for most of his childhood. Unfortunately, it had been brought to the attention of the Social Services far too late in his life. Kevin was bright and funny, we really liked him and had many great conversations with him. Unfortunately, his feelings of unsafety and bringing weapons into the home could not be allowed to continue. We had other foster children whose safety we had to consider. After a few months, it was decided that Kevin would leave our care and move to a supervised independent living project. We hear from Kevin occasionally. We were delighted to meet him when we were shopping a few years after he left us. He gave us big hugs and updated us on his life. Sadly, that had included some jail time. We learned some months later that he was incarcerated again for an incident involving violence. The childhood violence he had suffered had caused much harm, the effects of which were following him into adulthood.
Even though the stories of some of our other older teenagers have ended like Kevin’s, we are convinced that loving nonviolent re-parenting is the best way to help them. Intentional nonviolence is the best way to counteract violence.
Of course, many stories don’t end like Kevin’s. Katie lived with us for a year which enabled her to be transitioned to a lovely adoptive home where she would be an only-child. Deonte was also adopted, he gained a new family including siblings. After much work with their birth families both Lacey and the fourteen-month-old baby girl returned home. We still have contact with many of those who over the years were part of our family. Some now have families of their own. It is always a joy to hear of their lives and successes.
We can look back over our thirty-five years as foster carers and remember the hard times and the good times. Foster caring isn’t easy, but it is very worthwhile. Currently, 428,000 children are in foster care in the US. We would encourage any interested readers to take those first tentative steps toward becoming foster carers. We remain certified foster parents, but much of our time is now spent helping to train others, and writing about our experiences.
We tell our story and explain our philosophy of care in Jane Hall Fitz-Gibbon and Andrew Fitz-Gibbon Welcoming Strangers: Loving Nonviolent Re-parenting of Children in Foster Care, Routledge, 2016, and in the forthcoming Nurturing Strangers; Strategies for Re-Parenting Children in Foster Care, Routledge. I have also written about state sanctioned violence against children in US schools in Corporal Punishment, Religion and United States Public Schools, Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.
Jane Hall Fitz-Gibbon has a PhD in interdisciplinary studies. She is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for Ethics, Peace, and Social Justice at SUNY Cortland where she is the coordinator of the Welcoming Strangers project. She is involved in training foster parents and caseworkers. Jane works in crisis support at a school for children with emotional and behavioral needs. Her latest books are Welcoming Strangers: Loving Nonviolent Re-parenting of Children in Foster Care, Routledge, 2016, the forthcoming Nurturing Strangers; Strategies for Re-Parenting Children in Foster Care, Routledge ( both co-authored with Andrew Fitz-Gibbon) and Corporal Punishment, Religion and United States Public Schools, Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.