Former Foster Child: ‘In foster care, families can always say ‘Take him back’

This is a fine pre-Fathers Day piece, which is odd since it’s not exactly about a father (, 6/18/11).

It’s about an uncle, and a young one at that.  His name is Adrian McLemore who’s 23 and lives in Ohio where he attends Wright State University.  There’s nothing strange about any of that, but he also raises two children, a 4 year old girl, A’Rayiah and a 2 year old boy, Tyiaun.

They’re not his kids, but his sister’s.  It seems that McLemore was living the life so many young men his age do.  He had a part-time job at a video rental store and attended classes at Wright State.  He had some ideas about what he wanted to do in life.

But then he got a late-night call; CPS was about to take his sister’s children into foster care for reasons that McLemore won’t divulge out of loyalty to her.  That’s when McLemore stepped in.  He adamantly refused to allow his niece and nephew to go into foster care; he would raise them himself, regardless of the hardship, regardless of the cost, regardless of his studies, regardless of everything.

That’s because McLemore himself spent 11 of his childhood years in foster care.  Despite the warnings of friends who told him he didn’t know what he was getting into, his sister’s two children came to live with him.

“I refuse to allow another generation of McLemores to be raised in foster care.”

“I will take care of my niece and nephew,” he told the authorities. “I will feed them and take them to day care. I will make sure they get their shots. I will give them a stable home. I know them. And I love them like no one else can.”

And that’s just what he’s done.  For the last 18 months, he’s established a stable regimen for the kids with rules that must be followed but with plenty of fun time too.  His sister is allowed to see them on weekends, and one suspects that the plan is for her to get them back at some point.  Until then, Adrian McLemore will be their uncle, their “father,” or, the title he uses most himself, their protector.

Who or what is he protecting them from?  Foster care.  And to hear McLemore talk about his experiences in foster care you might well ask “why?”  After all,

… McLemore has nothing but respect and admiration for the families who cared for him — the Lukes in Georgia, the Kings and Ligginses in Ohio — and though he keeps in regular touch with them, much was missing. Their homes never felt like the loving, permanent home he has created for A’Rayiah and Tyiaun. He never had the kind of precious little conversations about school and life that he has with A’Rayiah driving home after day care. He felt grateful, not attached or secure.

“You simply never know when you might be told to pack your things and leave,” he says. “In foster care, families can always say, ‘Take him back.’ Real parents don’t have that option.”

“The biggest thing children need, in addition to unconditional love, is a comfortable, safe environment, a sense of stability and permanence,” McLemore says, with all the clarity of someone who did not have these things. “Children need to know their siblings and spend time with them, not just in weekly visits with a case worker, but at picnics and in parks and with family members like aunts and uncles and grandparents. They NEED their own family.”

Those are wise words that come from experience.  Notice that McLemore is not denigrating foster care; he’s just pointing out the differences between even the best foster home and “real parents.”  Foster care is always contingent; the child can be sent away any time.  So even the best foster parents engender gratitude, but not a sense of attachment or security.

McLemore himself wound up in foster care because his parents divorced and custody of him and his sister was “awarded” to his mother.  His father served with the Air Force overseas and so wasn’t present to buffer Adrian’s mother’s bad behavior.  She had a problem with alcohol and often would simply disappear.

So it was off to foster care for Adrian and his sister.  That held until his father returned from abroad and took over their care when Adrian was 9.  His care lasted two years until Staff Sgt. ErnestMcLemore was redeployed overseas.

McLemore worships the memory of his father, who died of cancer in 2004. The two years he lived with his dad, he says, were the happiest of his life.

McLemore’s face glows as he talks of those years, of being with his sisters, of having his own room, of having a father who took them to soccer and karate and theme parks. It was, he says, the first time he had ever felt like a normal child from a normal family.

When his father went abroad, the two kids went back to their mother where little had changed.

There, McLemore said, things quickly spiraled out of control. Their mother drank. She went missing. There was often no food or clean clothes. There were endless arguments. He would run away.

But his foster families did what they could to keep him on the right track and one counsellor saw, through Adrian’s teenage anger, a truly special person.

Over the years, that person has blossomed.  Elected officials – whom McLemore calls his “future colleagues,” signalling his aspirations – consult with him about the foster care system and he tells it to them straight.  McLemore is an avid fan of foster care, but knows it must be reformed.  He knows firsthand that kids in foster care are largely off the radar of those in office.

But before he’s elected to public office, in fact before he’s even out of school, he’s got two kids to raise.  It sounds like he’s doing a great job of being a father to them even though that’s not officially what he is.  He’s their uncle, their protector.  He’s the one they live with, the one who buys their food, changes the little one’s diapers, takes them to school and picks them up, rocks out with them to Michael Jackson, reads them to sleep.

Sounds like a dad to me.

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