Chapter 12. Foster son
While I was working with the loggers’ strike in Newfoundland, Jean went to church as usual. One Sunday, a twelve-year-old boy was in the congregation. The Children’s Aid Society had just placed Robert (not his real name) in a nearby Boys' Home, and the director insisted that his charges attend church.
Jean knew Robert from the camp where she worked the previous summer. His father had died recently, and the CAS had taken him into care, and separated him from his older brother Barry and sister Donna. He was angry, lonely, and desperate for a friend. Delighted to meet Jean again, he began visiting her every Sunday.
After my return to Toronto I took Robert on a Sunday afternoon outing. He reminded me of myself at that age, except that he was not skinny. His sturdy five-foot body was topped with a square Anglo-Saxon face, dark eyes, dark curly hair, and a winning smile. I liked Robert.
As Robert continued his Sunday visits, Jean and I grew fonder, and began to consider the possibility of taking him into our care. The CAS interviewer was polite but doubtful, despite my orphan background and Jean’s training as a social worker. We were young, married only a year, and Jean was pregnant. When we persisted, the CAS tentatively approved us, but ruled that Robert could not join us until after our baby was born. "Easter at the earliest." Meanwhile they transferred Robert from the local Boys’ Home to an out-of-town residential school.
Our daughter Ruth was born on March 13, 1960. A few weeks later, Robert joined us for the Easter long weekend. This visit went well, and on June 1, the CAS decided Robert could stay with us for the summer but must return to residential school in the fall.
Because of the special difficulties of “fostering” a teenager, I kept a separate journal about our relationship with Robert. The following excerpts are about 10% of the original.
June 3, 1960 We may have undertaken a Herculean task. Family life is difficult for Robert. He is reluctant to accept our authority to say what he must do. Robert started well, helping Jean with chores, but after only three days, he is refusing to help any more. Is he testing us?
[ There followed weeks of small crises, as Robert “tested” us, to see if we would keep him, or “send him back” to the CAS. How I recall those words from my own childhood! We weathered each storm].
August 3. Today the worst incident yet. I was mowing the front lawn when Robert came out on the upper verandah. He had tiny Ruth in his arms, and held her over the railing.
"What would you do if I dropped her?" he challenged.
Thank heavens I was self-possessed enough to reply: "I think Ruth would be happier back in her crib." He returned her there. I said nothing more.
Labour Day weekend. Robert says he does not want to return to residential school. His social worker counters: “In the agency’s opinion, Robert cannot stand family life."
September 8. The CAS has reversed (without consulting us!). Robert can stay, and attend school near us.
October 4. We have survived several weeks of Robert testing the limits of his new school life. Over the summer he was our "guest" with a deadline for leaving us, but now he must behave like our "son." We've said he doesn't have to think of us as parents but he has to behave as if we are his parents. He has made issues out of homework, bedtime hours, and helping with chores.
December 1. School term will soon end, and Robert’ s teachers say he has done quite well. He has also stopped testing us. He used to treat me like one of his friends, but now he is treating me more like an adult, with some show of respect. I have no desire to break his spirit, but I do hope I've tempered it. He has settled into a regular routine, getting himself up in the morning, doing his homework at night. He brings friends home from school, and that’s a good omen.
December 10. Christmas is a tough time of year for orphans look how difficult it remains for me. Yet Robert is showing encouraging signs: he is frequently singing or whistling. He is charming, even seductive, with Jean. We had guests for dinner tonight, and Robert behaved perfectly. He seems to realize that he does not have to compete with Ruth for our affection.
Christmas Day. We went to the McIntoshes for the usual family dinner. Time passed easily, and at 7 PM we surprised Robert with the news that we had his clothes with us. He could stay overnight at his aunt's home (with his brother and sister). He was exuberant.
December 27. I picked Robert up this evening. He was in a voluble mood, acting very much like a son: “I really enjoyed Christmas with you and Jean. It felt so strange being at my aunt's.” When we got back here he kissed Jean, played pingpong with me, whistled and sang, and generally showed his joy at being “home” again.
January 3. We have rented our third floor to Wilky, my old “delinquent” friend since 1955, and his new wife Carol. There are no locks on their rooms, and today Carol’s necklace disappeared. No one has been in the house all day but Robert.
He resentfully denied any involvement, but I searched his room, where I found two of Jean's necklaces (but not Carol’s). Robert “can’t explain” how one necklace got into his dresser and another into his coat pocket. Robert likes Jean and may have wanted some memento of her. But Carol’s necklace? This morning I searched him before he left for school (how embarrassing!) then Jean and I searched the whole house. I’m stymied.
February 3. Robert's attitude is almost too good to be true. Today at dinner he imagined out loud that he might live with us after marrying, in the third floor apartment.
February 22. Yesterday we ate dinner at Jean's parents. All seemed fine, but today both Jean’s mother, Anna, and her sister, Margaret report thefts from their purses. Naturally Robert denies all responsibility, and there’s no way to prove otherwise.
March 6: Oh dear! Robert may be a real con artist. His good behaviour may mean he is secretly making fools of us. Last night he was in a good mood after dinner, playing Scrabble without being flighty. Later Jean discovered that he had taken money from her purse. She said nothing until he went to have his bath. I checked his room for the money. I found none, but did discover my best sweater. Robert admitted he wore it to school, and had not found a chance to return it without me noticing.
March 13. Today is Ruth's first birthday. We celebrated with a party. Orca, Joe, and my brother David were here, and all the McIntoshes. Robert behaved perfectly, and gave Ruth his week’s allowance.
March 20. (Sunday) This afternoon Robert helped me with a political mailing, and helped Jean make dinner. To our utter amazement, he accompanied us to evening church. I happened to be preaching. That's the first time he's gone to church in a year. To add to our surprise, he accompanied us afterward, to a meeting on disarmament.
March 21. Jean and I now understand why Robert has been so amenable. Tonight he brought home his report card. It is not good news.
March 28. Robert is sneaky about such silly things. He dropped his best shoes out the window and changed outside, after Jean told him not to wear them to school. I found out when I gardened, and came upon his old shoes before he got home.
April 11. We've all returned from a remarkably pleasant five-day holiday in Quebec during the Easter school break.
May 2. A long gap. Everything has been going well. Robert is doing much better in school, and we saw him act in a school play.
May 16. Robert and I finished planting a section of garden which will be "his." As we stood viewing our work, he said out of the blue: "I consider this my real home now." No words from him could be more welcome.
July 11. Our weekend at camp went well. He played cheerfully with the other campers' small children. Perhaps we should arrange more contact with young children, rather than have him vie with boys his own age or older. We collected rock samples on the hillside, and he did his share of dish duty and garbage burn-up efficiently. When Robert is at his best, he is completely lovable.
August 30. We've just spent a weekend at an SCM conference. There were a dozen young children and Robert did a really fine job of looking after them, without prompting. At the end of the weekend the parents collected five dollars and presented it, a public recognition of his effort. We are very proud and told him so.
October 5. Jean is pregnant again and Robert’s reaction is interesting. He has bet two dollars it will be a girl. He knows I would like a boy, and I suppose he would not like a boy as a possible rival.
October 19. Robert has a new social worker and we have a new problem. I’ll call him Black. He met Jean and me to inform us of his plans, even before meeting Robert. Reading the case history file is more important than knowing the boy firsthand! He intends to arrange a meeting between Robert and a relative he has not seen for eight years.
We advised Black that his only valid roles in Robert's life were two: be sure that Robert is properly cared for under the standards of the Child Welfare Act, and be a sounding board for Robert's anger and anxiety.
October 20. Black has ignored us. He met Robert today and asked him if he would like a reunion with his relative. When Robert brought this news home, Jean promptly called Black to underline our opposition.
October 21. After talking it over with Jean, I’ve just called Black: We will not allow Robert to see his distant relative at this time. That would be a pointless disruption of our successful efforts to get Robert settled into a stable routine in high school. Black has invited me to his office to talk.
October 23. I talked with Black for an hour. He says we are the most troublesome foster parents he's ever met. His idea of a foster home is a boarding house under CAS supervision. He sees no reason to discuss his plans with us. I warned: “If you go ahead with your plans, Robert will have to leave us.”
October 26. Jean and I have talked a great deal and we are now clear. We must give Robert a terrible but unavoidable choice: does he want Black or us to have parental power in his life? If he wants us, we must be free of CAS interference, which is only possible by adopting him. Will he agree to be adopted?
October 27. As we explained our position to Robert tonight, he withdrew into tearful silence, mumbling something about his “poor mother.” We spoke of her for the very first time: "Your mother is in a mental hospital, permanently. That's the reality. She will never be able to take care of you again. She wouldn’t recognize you.”
Robert screamed. We waited until he calmed, and I quietly summed up: "You don't have to live with us, but whatever choice you make, Robert, you do have to live with the truth . You cannot change the past. You can choose your future."
November 7 at my office. Jean just called. She has discovered that Black has been seeing Robert without telling us and asked Robert not to tell us. It is likely that Robert has been cheerful because once again he is pulling the wool over our eyes.
November 8. Jean, Robert and I had a long talk tonight about all the double dealing going on. He finally stated that he wants to remain with us.
November 9. Black is doggedly fighting to the bitter end. He called Robert to his office again, and Robert came home to announce that Jean and I are "not his lawful family." A phrase out of Black's mouth.
We told Robert he must choose adoption by us, or life with the CAS. Jean is not as certain of this stand as I am; she is preoccupied with Ruth, who swallowed some of Jean's iron pills and is in the hospital overnight.
How can a child cope with three different "families?" We can deal with Robert's memories but we have no defence against the legal power of the CAS. To allow him to stay, or to come back for visits would mean endless contests with a social worker. Robert is quite smart enough to play us off against each other. This is no way for Jean and me to spend our married life and raise our own children.
November 10. Robert has made his choice to leave us tonight.
November 14. Surprise: Black is now willing to negotiate with us. Wherever he is keeping Robert at the moment, he appears to have a miserable and dangerously aggravated boy on his hands.
I am loaning Black this journal so that he will have a counter voice to his beloved "files" as a history of Robert. Much of the writing here is not flattering to us but I feel we have nothing to hide.
November 17. Black has returned my journal, without comment. He says Robert still has not made a final decision.
November 18 (at work): I've been sitting here rereading this journal and trying to get a perspective on the last two years. For 18 months, the CAS alternated between leaving us alone for long periods and suddenly appointing new workers, each of whom interfered instead of consulting. They should have been providing regular opportunities for Robert to vent his natural anger at the failure of his old family and the stress of living in a new family. The miracle is that we did succeed in getting Robert to feel more and more at home.
One of my motives in fostering Robert was to try to relive “from the other side” the experience of my own orphan boyhood. Thank heavens, when I was a boy, I had more competent social workers.
Evening, the same day: Black has offered Robert a very expensive residential school and Robert has agreed. Black’s last words to me were "I hope you soon have a son of your own." Is that what it was all about Black wanting this boy for himself?
In February 1962, Jean received a sad letter from Robert. "I cannot blot you and John out of my life. I want so much to be your friend. No matter what I have done you must understand. Please don't blot me out of your life.” We replied with a card wishing him well in his new life.
Another letter came in June 1962:
“Dear John Lee; I have finally realized the great mistake I made when I left the only place in my life where I received all the love anyone could want. If it could be arranged I could want nothing in the world but to live there again. I understand that there is a lot of consideration needed. I realize I would have to go to school and work hard. I don't want to throw trouble into a full and happy house, but I could help around the house. I’VE HAD VERY UNFORTUNATE DEALINGS WITH BLACK RECENTLY. [His emphasis].
It was too late to take Robert back. The Lee family was indeed a “full and happy house.” Ruth was a thriving little girl, and our son Peter a cheerful baby. A teenage boy, Jack, was also living in our care, and doing well. He was a ward of the local Boys’ Home, not the CAS.
Many years passed before Robert finally explained what he meant in his 1962 letter about “unfortunate dealings” with his worker. Apparently Black was a closet homosexual, and had somehow guessed that Robert was gay too. In contrast, I was unconscious of my eventual sexual orientation, and therefore blinded myself to any signs in Robert.
[Now we return to 1965, where chapter 11 ended. Jean and I have separated and I am living on my own for the first time, as a single gay man assiduously seeking a gay partner].
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