I was exhausted by the time I reached the security checkpoint. I had spent the weekend on the East Coast, and I’d just sprinted across the airport terminal to catch my flight back to Lexington: a flight that was leaving in less than 30 minutes.
I flashed my I.D. and my boarding pass, removed my shoes and emptied my pockets, hoisted my suitcase onto the conveyor belt, and stepped through the metal detector. I gathered up my belongings and glanced down at my cell phone to check the time, and that’s when I saw him: a stern TSA agent making his way toward me.
“Sir, I need to check your bag.”
My skin grew hot, my voice cracked, and beads of sweat dripped down my face as he rummaged through the contents of my carry-on. I desperately attempted to muster up everything I’d ever learned about appearing cool, calm, and collected, but I failed miserably. Once the man in uniform had deemed my luggage to be safe, I stuffed my clothes and what was left of my pride back into the suitcase and raced off toward Gate B23.
I reached my gate just as the flight attendants were closing the cabin door and running through their speeches about seat belts and emergency exits. I climbed over the other people in my row and collapsed into my seat, feeling embarrassed, frustrated, and totally vulnerable.
Yet this is how foster children feel all the time. Currently, there are over 400,000 kids in foster care in the United States. That’s twice the number of passengers who travel through our country’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, on an average day.
When a child steps through the doorway of a foster home for the first time, he is usually clutching a suitcase filled with clothes, some pictures, and maybe a few toys. But he also comes with another piece of luggage in tow – one he doesn’t even realize he had packed. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network refers to this extra baggage as “the invisible suitcase”. And this child carries his invisible suitcase around with him everywhere he goes. Over the past six years, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons about these invisible suitcases – and how to unpack them – as I have counseled foster children and the families who care for them.
Some foster children are removed from their families due to abuse or neglect. Other families voluntarily turn over their custodial rights to the state because they are unable to care for their children. Whatever the reason, removing a child from one home and placing him in another is traumatic for everyone involved: the child, the biological parents and siblings, and the foster family.
I’ve stood in a police station in the middle of the night and watched a teenager twice my size crumble to the floor after a social worker told him he was being placed in foster care. I’ve been called in to de-escalate an elementary school student who tore his classroom apart and screamed obscenities after his teacher asked him to draw a picture of his family. And I’ve sat across from dozens of foster children in my counseling office as they begged to know why this happened to them and what they did to deserve this.
Foster children experience and express a wide range of emotions following removal and placement – confusion, anger, and fear, to name a few. Some dream about returning to their biological families, while others pray they won’t ever go back. Digging through the myriad of feelings stuffed inside their invisible suitcases can get messy.
Because their emotions are so overwhelming, many foster children, particularly kids who have had multiple placements, erect fortresses around their hearts to prevent anyone else from getting close – and potentially hurting them again. Much of a therapist’s work with foster children is about rebuilding their ability to trust and offering support as they unpack the feelings in their invisible suitcases. And it’s not only mental health professionals who shoulder this responsibility. The charge also falls on the foster family, the school system, and everyone else in the foster child’s life.
As foster families help children unpack their invisible suitcases, they are often forced to confront discrepancies between their expectations and how foster care actually plays out. Foster care can be an emotional roller coaster, as families ride out the twists and turns of behavior issues, school meetings, therapy appointments, contacts with biological parents and social workers, and custody hearings. Phrases like “disrupted attachment” and “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” quickly become staples of their vocabulary.
People choose to become foster parents because they want children to feel loved, valued, and accepted. But what many of them don’t anticipate is the mixed feelings they can experience toward the child placed in their care. Foster families may become very attached to their foster child and then may go through an intense grieving process when that child is sent to another foster home or reunited with his biological family. On the other hand, foster families may sometimes deeply resent their foster child for the disruptions he has brought into their lives or feel completely blindsided by the child’s emotional and behavioral struggles.
Helping foster children unpack and sort through the feelings, questions, and beliefs inside their invisible suitcases is challenging. It’s important for those of us involved in foster care to remember that there are no easy answers or quick fixes to the complex issues that these children face. It’s unrealistic for us to expect that we will mend every broken heart or repair every shattered dream of the foster children in our lives.
But as we dig through the mess, we discover that tucked somewhere deep inside these invisible suitcases is hope. And that hope is the greatest gift we can possibly give foster children. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky idea that, if they just hang in there, then the psychological trauma they have experienced will be erased from their memories and their emotional pain will magically disappear. It’s the hope that God sees every tear they shed and that He hears every prayer they whisper. It’s the hope that He can redeem even the most desperate circumstances. It’s the hope that His light can – and does – shine into the darkest corners of their invisible suitcases.