Who is the Very First Foster Child Ever? Part 3: Finding a Safe Home for Mary Ellen

In my earlier blog Who is the Very First Foster Child Ever? Part 1 and Part 2, I began telling the story of 10 year old Mary Ellen Wilson, the first foster child in the United States.  
Many historical references to Mary Ellen Wilson focus on the horrendous abuse and the court’s willingness to remove her from her parents’ custody.  But foster families know all too well that removal from the home is not the end of any foster care saga.  The true story is the one of the child’s recovery and path to permanency – a place to feel loved and safe forever.
So after the judge made Mary Ellen a ward of the state, what did the courts decide as her long-term fate?
At first, many potential adoptive families came forward, seeking to make Mary Ellen a member of their families.  The New York Times had “fancifully written” about Mary Ellen’s beauty.  Etta Angell Wheeler, a social worker of sorts, and the court were concerned that these families would not understand the special attention Mary Ellen would need due to her history of severe abuse.  A few impostors claimed to be Mary Ellen’s family members, but these were ultimately proved false.  When the judge decided to place Mary Ellen in a home not for little children but rather for young women , Etta decided this was not appropriate.  Etta convinced the judge to award guardianship to Etta’s mother, and Mary Ellen grew up in the countryside with Etta’s mother and sister until adulthood.
During Mary Ellen’s time with Etta’s family, Mary Ellen learned what it meant to be loved, how to play like a child, make friends, follow rules, and she received an education.  As an adult, Mary Ellen married and had two of her own children.  All accounts say she was good and kind to her children, having broken the cycle of abuse.
140 years later, Mary Ellen’s legacy lives on:  children have the right to be safe from abuse and neglect, and hurt children can heal and live meaningful lives.  

Brothers and Sisters Matter to Foster Kids

Your relationship with your brother or sister can be more influential than any other relationship you’ll ever have in your life.   What?!?  Really?  What about your parents?  What about your husband or wife?

November is National Adoption Month, and this year’s theme is “Promoting and Supporting Sibling Connections.”  So I researched the importance of keeping siblings together.  Here’s what I found.

Longevity.  Most brothers/sisters know each other from birth or a young age, until you die – longer than you’re likely to know anyone else.  Your parents usually pass a twenty years before you do.  Your husband or wife usually don’t meet you until you’ve already lived 20, 30, or 40 years.  With brothers and sisters, you don’t feel so lonely.

Shared Experience.  Your brothers/sisters lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, ate the same food, grew up in the same religion, lived under the same household rules… in short, they experienced a very similar life during the most critical period of your life when you are forming your identity.  They know you on a level that’s hard to match.  You feel as if someone can really “see” you.

Ally in a Cruel World.  If you have suffered from abuse/neglect/trauma in your home, perhaps you were the protector and caregiver for your brothers/sisters, or perhaps they were the ones to protect and care for you.  Either way, you may feel closer to them than you do to your parents, if they are abusive or neglectful.  If you couldn’t tell outsiders about the abuse/neglect/trauma, your brothers/sisters were in on the secret and could be trusted.  They shared the most difficult moments in your life and, unlike many others, they “get” what it means to have suffered what you went through.  You don’t feel so scared.

Source of Self Esteem.  When you suffer from abuse/neglect/trauma at the hands of your parents, you are likely to feel worthless.  Your parents may even have said you are worthless.  Your brothers/sisters love you and may have been the only immediate family that told you that you are wanted, a good person.  When you’re with them, you feel valuable and deserving of love.

So should we keep brothers and sisters together when they are in foster care?  YES!!  They won’t feel so lonely.  They will feel as if someone can really “see” them, rather than feeling invisible.  They won’t feel so scared.  When brothers and sisters are together, they will feel valuable and deserving of love.

Isn’t this what we want for our foster kids?

Who is the Very First Foster Child Ever? Part 2: Social Services and the Courts Step In

In my earlier blog Who is the Very First Foster Child Ever? Part 1, I began telling the story of 10 year old Mary Ellen Wilson, the first foster child in the United States.  


In 1873, a neighbor reported the neglect and abuse of little Mary Ellen to the New York  Department of Public Charities and Correction.  An investigator from the Department, Etta Angell Wheeler, began looking into the case.  Etta Wheeler sweet talked her way into the Wilson’s home and saw for herself signs of abuse – scars and bruises all over the young girl’s body.  The worker interviewed other neighbors to gather more evidence.  Etta was determined to help out this battered little girl.

But who could she turn to help get this 10 year old girl out of this abusive situation?  
In the early 1870s, there were no laws protecting children from physical abuse by their parents.  So Etta turned to the president of the local chapter of the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), who eventually agreed to champion Mary Ellen’s case.  [An aside – yes, there was an organization to prevent animal cruelty before there was an organization to prevent child abuse!]  
ASPCA convinced local authorities to remove the abused child from her home and to bring her case before a judge.
The chilling testimony of the little girl:

“Mamma has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day.  She used to whip me with a twisted whip — a rawhide.  I have now on my head two black-and-blue marks which were made by Mamma with the whip, and a cut on the left side of my forehead which was made by a pair of scissors in Mamma’s hand; she struck me with the scissors and cut me.;  I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by any one—have never been kissed by mamma. I have never been taken on my mamma’s lap … I never dared speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped.”

The judge decided to place Mary Ellen under the court’s custody.  But what to do with this child taken away from her family for safety’s sake?
Stay tuned for part 3.

“Choosing” our Foster Child

People always ask if we can choose which children will be placed in our home.  Sorta.  The county asked us about our preferences regarding children’s characteristics, experiences and behaviors.  Training helped us think through what to expect and our social worker talked through our rationale one-on-one.  Then she created our profile, which will be used when the matcher tries to find a good fit between children coming into care and our family.

Here’s the different things we had to think through in determining the “kind” of kid that we feel capable of parenting well.


The county offers three age brackets: 0-4, 5-12, and 13-18.  You can be as specific as you like,  though (only 11-year-olds, for example).

Sassy, our daughter, would much rather have younger foster siblings.  And, frankly, hubby and I feel much more comfortable with our current kids being older than any foster kids.  Teenagers can get into bigger trouble than younger kids when they’re misbehaving (drugs, sex, alcohol, smoking, gangs versus tantrums, bed wetting, name calling, etc.), and we’d prefer not expose our kids to the risk of a teen foster kid role modeling that kind of behavior.  So that’s 12 years as the oldest.  I really like babies, but my husband and I both work.  We’ve told our social worker that age two is our lower limit, since we wouldn’t be able to stay home with them.  But, we’d likely stretch if they needed a home for a baby and the county was ok with that baby being in child care.


Yes, you can choose boy or girl.

We don’t care about gender.  Well, Sassy wants a girl, because most of her cousins are boys, and she’s tired of being the only girl at family events.  When we adopted Silent One, we specifically wanted a boy, because we know older boys have a harder time finding a permanent home.  But in this case, gender is not a major criteria for us.

Race / Ethnicity

Options are African American, Caucasian (White), Asian, Latino, Native American

Since Silent One is the only Latino in our family, we’re eager to welcome more Latinos into our home.  I was surprised and touched by Silent One’s opinion that any kid of any color is fine – if they need a family, that’s enough for him.  Sassy says she’d rather have another kid that looks like her (white), so people won’t ask her questions about how she could be related to someone that looks different.  So our preference is Latino and white, though open to others.


Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist are the main categories.

We would be willing to take foster kids of any religion to their religious services and find someone of their faith to help guide them as warranted.  We’re also comfortable with some minor changes in eating habits, like no pork, but not drastic changes like keeping kosher or halal.

Number of kids

If I recall correctly, the form listed 1, 2, or 3+ as the options.

I feel super strongly about keeping siblings together, and it’s one of the major reasons why we decided to become a foster family.   We’re marked down as 2-4, I think, but with the caveat that we’re really interested in a sibling group rather than several unrelated children.

Health Issues

The county lists some common health issues: HIV, diabetes, sickle cell anemia.

Initially, we were fine with HIV positive kids, as we felt prepared to take appropriate precautions, administer meds, and take kids to doctor appointments. But since we want to be in a position to adopt if reunification isn’t an option, and, since we may have to transfer overseas in the future for my work, we reconsidered.  Many countries have restrictions on HIV positive people visiting.  Diabetes would be ok – we think we could get good health care in most countries.  Sickle cell anemia was a no.


The county asks if you are would be willing to parent a child with physical, mental, or learning disabilities.

Our house has a fair number of stairs, and we don’t have a lot of experience with physical handicaps, so we decided on mild physical disabilities.   Initially we were ok with low IQs or Downs Syndrome, but when we realized we could potentially be asked to adopt a kid after having them in our home for two years, we realized we were willing to make a short term commitment, but not a life time commitment to take care of someone who could not care for themselves.  We’re ok with mild learning disabilities as we have experience with dyslexia and memory deficits.

Mental Illness

You are asked about whether you would parent a child with mental illness or with a parent or family history of mental illness.

I’ll be frank.  Schizophrenia scares me.  I’ve met a fair number of inmates who committed crimes when their schizophrenia was not well treated.  It’s a tough disease.  Depression and anxiety seem pretty treatable.  We have experience with PTSD, generalized anxiety, and eating disorders.  Not sure how I’d feel about obsessive compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder.  We left this as “it depends.”

Physical Abuse / Neglect / Sexual Abuse

Do you feel capable of parenting a child who has been physically abused?  Neglected?  Sexually abused?

We have experience with traumatized kids.  We know sticking by a kid working through tough memories isn’t easy.  But we’re willing to give it a try.  We strongly believe in counseling and would be willing to participate in therapy as needed.

Acting Out Behaviors

The county provides a list of behaviors traumatized kids may engage in and asks whether it would be easy, moderate, or difficult for you to parent a child exhibiting such behaviors as bedwetting, crying, yelling, being quiet, lying, picky eating, smoking, and drugs.

Our social worker told us that every body has buttons that can be pushed and its best to know those buttons up front.  Tell me lies?  No biggie.  Getting up at night and washing wet bedsheets is not a big deal.  Smoking and drugs – not so keen as we’d be worried about Sassy and Silent One picking up these habits.  Yell at me?  Well, at least I know what you’re thinking.  Don’t feel like eating?  I’ll offer enough food variety over the week to get you the appropriate nutrition.  So what drives me batty?  Crying easily, uh, yeah that one’s tough for me.   Luckily, hubby isn’t phased and we can trade off.

So there you have it.  That’s how we “chose” which kids to welcome into our home.

Super Fabulous… and Foster Care

One of my most glamorous friends took me out for a martini and shared with me a very shocking, but inspirational story.  For the sake of privacy, I’ll call her Marvelous.

Now Marvelous is truly marvelous.  She’s a fashion professional and has traveled the world working for Vogue and now runs her own division in a fashion industry business.  Her conversation is fascinating as she draws stories from her adventurous life and combines it with canny insights, which I am sure is partly due to her masters degree from an Ivy League school.   Her sense of style is unerring and when I visit her house I ahh and ooo over her gorgeous artwork.  Did I mention she’s also a gourmet cook and can whip up the best Portuguese and Italian dishes? Want to know what’s hip and happening?  Ask Marvelous.  Not only does she have her finger on the pulse of trends, not only has she been to the latest “it” club, or “must dine” restaurant, she’s also on a first name basis with the owners and staff.  People love Marvelous instantaneously.  She’s smart, funny, cool, and successful.

So back to her shocking secret.  As I sipped my martini she revealed a very personal story.

Marvelous’s dad had recently passed away, and she was named executor of his will.  She was sorting through his papers, when she found documents that seemed to say she had been in foster care.  What?!?!  She had no recollection of being in foster care!!  But then she talked with her sister, and the memories came back.  Oh, yes, when she was itty bitty, Marvelous was a foster kid who was eventually reunited with her biological parents.

So what’s so inspirational about this story?  Here is someone that I absolutely admire.  Here is someone enjoying a super fabulous life.  She’s surrounded by people who love her, she has a wonderful career, she’s in a good financial position.  And that person is a foster care alumnae.

There will be days that I worry about the future of any foster children placed with me.  Just read the alarming statistics about foster kids’ odds for unemployment, criminal activity, drug use, and unplanned pregnancies once they become adults.  But a critical part of any parent’s job is to see the potential for something wonderful inside their children.  Thanks to Marvelous, I will have the faith to envision a beautiful life for children in my care, as I have proof that a rocky start, a stint in care, and reunification can ultimately have a happy ending.

If you have any stories of foster kids growing up to do wonderful things, please share them!  Let’s dream beautiful dreams for our kids.