Two Faces in the System

Kailey and Edward arrive at the children’s emergency shelter two days after Christmas. Kailey is eight, with blonde, curly hair. Edward is four, with deep brown eyes. The first time I come, we play outside. Kailey can ride a bike around the sidewalk loop, but Edward gets stuck and calls out “I need gas!” when he wants a push. When we are playing in the sandbox, Kailey tells me: “We’re foster children, you know.” 

I do know. 

“No, we’re not!” cries Edward. 

“Yes, we are,” she responds bossily. 

“It’s okay to be a foster child,” I say. “It’s like having brown hair or blue eyes. It’s just something about you.” 

The second time I come, it is chaos. They are only there for half an hour before they are whisked away for a parental visit. Edward is overstimulated and wants to play with the new toys that have just been donated and are still in their packaging. To him, it is Christmas all over again. 

The third time I come, we play doctor. They both die very many times, but imaginary band aids make their hearts start beating again. They like it when I lift them up on a “stretcher,” but a staff member reprimands me. “Please don’t carry them, because if you dropped them, we would have a major problem.” 

I feel guilty. “I understand. I’m sorry.”

The fourth time I come, we play Connect Four. As soon as I sit down, Edward climbs onto my lap. I am not supposed to have any physical affection with the children, but the staff members pretend they don’t see it. Kailey likes the game, but Edward doesn’t really understand it, even with my help. She lets him win most of the time anyways. 

The fifth time I come, I am told that they will be leaving the shelter the next day. We all have to ride in the car for almost an hour to pick up another resident. When we absolutely cannot play any more I Spy or Twenty Questions, Kailey talks about what she will be like when she gets older. “When I’m a teenager, I’m going to be pretty,” she announces. 

“You’re pretty now,” I respond. “But I’m sure you will be pretty then, too.” 

When we finally get back, we take the baby dolls on vacation, but Edward is tired of playing the dad. Kailey reluctantly agrees to let him be a turtle, whom we rescue from the crashing waves of the rocking chair. 

We go outside right before I have to leave. I pull them each aside individually and tell them that it has been a great joy to play with them these past two weeks. I tell each of them that they are wonderful people and that I hope their new home goes well. They hug me and cry out. “Don’t leave!” 

When the staff member is not looking, I give them each a kiss on their foreheads and tell them I love them. Edward starts to cry and Kailey talks faster about how maybe we will see each other again. I give them each one last hug and walk away from them through the three locked doors and sign-out area. When I exit the building, I sit in my car and weep. 

I weep because I know that as foster children, Kailey and Edward are the victims of an unjust, harmful system. They will move again, probably many times. Their chances of drug use, further abuse, and mental health crises are high, and their chances of post-secondary education are low. But right now, they are two children who are alone. 

            And I weep because I will never see them again. 

Sarah Rutherford is pursuing a degree in Religious Studies at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, with two minors in French and Sociology. She is active in her campus ministry, a refugee advocacy student group, and a research team that studies food pantries. She grew up in Dallas, Texas, and hopes to attend Seminary after college. In her free time, she enjoys reading, running, and long phone calls with her twin sister.