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The girl who has no home

The first thing you should know about Crystal is that isn’t her real name. It’s the name I made up for her because I’m not allowed to use her real name, not publicly anyway, just like I’m not allowed to post pictures of “Crystal” on social media, leave her with a friend who’s hasn’t been thoroughly background checked or flip through her case file outside of the Department of Human Services office.

The newest addition to our family arrived about a month ago, only days after we contacted DHS and asked to be put back on the list. The plan, if that’s what you call it, was to make our home available for emergency and/or respite care — that is, a temporary home to foster kids for whom a long-term placement has proven elusive or whose foster parents need a break. This was a compromise, and when my wife pitched it all I heard was the word “temporary.”

The reasons for this are complicated but the cliff notes version is that I was tired of the work. The embarrassing public meltdowns, hourlong battles over meals, early mornings and late nights. No thanks, I said. But my wife is persistent and soon enough we received a call from DHS. There’s a girl, she’s 9, no siblings, parents out of the picture, extended family not a long-term option. Then a laundry list of acronyms, most of which we’ve seen before.

A placement specialist told my wife that Crystal’s most recent placement ended abruptly, that this was an emergency placement situation, and that if we said no her next bed would be in a motel room. I can’t remember every detail of the phone conversation between my wife and I that followed. I can remember the word “temporary” coming up often, mostly from my end, a general unease and ultimately a reluctant, exasperated yes.

“She will probably be the most challenging kid we’ve ever had,” she said.

We hung up. Then I shot off a text: “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Crystal made her presence known in my life before I even laid eyes on her. My wife called from the car on the way home from DHS to say hi. She was on speaker phone, and a shrill voice cut through saying, “Daddy, daddy, we’re coming home!” I’m almost certain some, maybe most, people who read that will think, “Oh, bless her little heart, she just needed love and a home, now look how happy she is.” But when somebody who’s spent even just a few weeks caring for foster children hears that, it registers as a red flag the size of Nebraska. Because I’m not her daddy, I’m a stranger. Because it means a real connection may not be possible, at least not without years of therapy. Because sometimes there’s nobody sadder than a happy foster child.

Crystal has big, bright, searching eyes, an elastic mouth that’ll explode into a toothy grin one moment and twist into a scowl the next, and chipmunk cheeks dotted with a set of dimples, all set on a spindly body rife with bony corners. Sharpen her ears and you’d have a brunette elf. The caseworker’s summary was terrifying. She wears people out, he said. We’re pulling out all the stops for Crystal, he said. She’s very intelligent — in fact, her IQ is off the charts. She’ll “triangulate” to get what she wants, work every angle, push buttons you didn’t know you had, fight even when she agrees with you just because, and she’ll do all this relentlessly. The word “temporary” didn’t come up.

The number of places Crystal called home before moving in with us exceeds the number of years she’s been alive, and it didn’t take long for us to see why. She sailed into our house like a Disney princess entering a manor in the first act (before things go bad), dishing out hugs and exclamations liberally, as affectionate as an old friend or one who desperately wants to be. We sat down for dinner and she took over like Michael Jordan in the fourth quarter. She wanted to say grace. Sure. It was everything that anybody who’s never said grace thought grace should be, with the words “holy matrimony” thrown in. Then we ate and listened as Crystal talked. She was an Uzi of introspection. If it’s in her head, it’s coming out. My kids sat quietly and listened, not because they had nothing to say but because the space between Crystal’s rapid-fire soliloquies was roughly half the length of a single human breath. My wife and I shared a look only a seasoned foster parent could decipher. It said, this is interesting. It said, oh crap.

Most foster placements have a honeymoon period, the length of which can vary immensely. We once cared for a 5-year-old boy who detonated two hours into his 10-month stay with us when we said it was time to put away the toy, we’re eating dinner. He cried himself to sleep that night curled up in a closet, refusing to move, calling for his mommy. Another boy, age 8, inspected our house with quiet disapproval and immediately swiped cash from a dresser but went days before punching a wall.

Crystal’s honeymoon period lasted two days and ended when she turned bedtime into the semifinals of the OSAA speech and debate state championships, except in this version nobody won because we were all exhausted. It’s been five weeks since that night and we’ve since learned a lot more about Crystal and how to live with her. It’s not easy or dull. It’s the opposite of both those things. She has thoughts about everything and expresses them constantly, she electrifies every interaction with the potential for chaos, she’s a black hole of attention, sucking almost all of it away from the other kids in the house.

She erupted during a recent dinner with my oldest son and daughter-in-law, storming through the house screaming at who knows what. My son, now 24, turned to my wife and asked, “Don’t you want to enjoy your life?”

But Crystal’s also as outgoing a child you’ll ever meet, passionate, a lover of animals and bugs alike and imaginative, both in the way she plays and the way she fights. My daughter’s doll playing sessions with Crystal bear no resemblance to any games she plays with anybody else. Crystal invents scenarios for their dolls that seemed ripped from the headlines. Kidnappings and gruesome injuries abound. A doll holding another hostage? And now she’s dead because she was thrown over a bridge? No, she swam to safety, my daughter says. Actually, Crystal corrects, she clanked her head on the way down. Instant death.

Verbally sparring with her frustrates adults and children alike, not because her arguments are often ludicrous and irrational, which they are, but because they’re also usually grounded in some obscure, fuzzy fact that can’t exactly be disproven. As a career foster child, she’s also mastered the verbal and tonal language of her trade. She knows exactly what we expect her to say and how to say it. Circumstances may have numbed her to the pain of the world, but she’s necessarily adapted by using what she has. Thus, Crystal’s brawny prefrontal cortex, which might otherwise have been put to work programming Lego robots or memorizing plot points for Oregon Battle of the Books, has instead been rejiggered into the motherboard of some elaborate survival mechanism.

Not even the most mundane request — say, a glass of milk — can pass from her lips to our ears without at least a hint of manipulation and usually more than that. She doesn’t seem to be able to turn this off, even when we call it out in real time. You can read a truckload worth of books about the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, study the neuroscience until your eyes bleed, and still not be prepared for what they look like screaming in your face, hammer in fist. It’s no wonder that almost everything she says and does seems to be filtered through a strainer of self-preservation. My own children ask for an extra serving or a hug or my undivided attention with the comfortable confidence of kids who know that, yes or no, their needs will ultimately be met. It’s the kind of faith that, after a lifetime of moving from home to home, family to family, bedroom to bedroom, Crystal, in all her clever deceptions, has learned only how to fake.

Even when she seems to be an open book, she’s not. Or maybe is, just in a different language.

“Just tell DHS you don’t want me anymore because I’m just another dumb foster child,” she said during a recent explosion. “That’s what you’re going to do anyway.” (We’re not.)

Last week, a moth Crystal had grown attached to died shortly after breaking out of its cocoon, so she organized an elaborate funeral which included flowers, a tiny coffin made of sticks and bark and a tombstone marked “Mary/Larry” with a sharpie because she wasn’t sure of the moth’s gender. The service was immaculate. But if you’re expecting a sappy metaphor here about Crystal emerging from the cocoon of the foster care system and spreading her beautiful butterfly wings, sorry. She’s one of about 8,000 kids in an Oregon Child Welfare system that is, according to a 2019 audit, severely understaffed and underfunded, and that was before COVID-19 caused a potential shortfall of $3 billion for Oregon’s current two-year budget cycle.

It’s a bleak big picture: So many foster kids, too few foster homes (that number’s actually dropping), not nearly enough caseworkers. Zoom in and you see kids like Crystal, whose prospects for a normal life, the kind without drug dependency and mental illness for instance, decrease with every broken connection. Every person who reads this could change that just a little. You can call 1-800-331-0503 or visit www.oregon.gov/DHS/CHILDREN/FOSTERCARE/Pages/become-fosterparent to get more information. I doubt you will.

Crystal won’t stay here forever and knows it. She knows it because we’ve dodged the question and because her interrogations have revealed what must be, for her, a terrible truth: we’ve fostered 13 kids, and though some have stayed for as long as two years all eventually moved on to their “forever homes.” In all those cases, family members stepped up. In Crystal’s case, the chances of that are slim to nope.

“What’s your mom like?” I asked during a rare quiet moment. “Well,” Crystal shot back, “she likes heroin.”

Yes, Crystal is much more in tune to the ways of the world than your average 9-year-old, which is why the shadow of her impending departure hangs over her like a dark cloud. She brings it up often, usually in scream form. It’s happened so many times, she wasn’t comfortable unpacking her suitcase until her third day in our home. Why go through the trouble, she said. And she may be right.

Soon enough, a state vehicle will pull up outside. A man in a suit with a big smile will knock on the door. There will be hugs and kisses and keep-in-touches, of course. All sincere. Tears will be shed. And then Crystal, master of faces, maker of imaginary worlds, lover of caterpillars, will get in the back and wave. Our life will go back to normal. Hers never will. Just another dumb foster kid.

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Joe Zavala