The room contained barely enough plastic chairs. As the latecomers filed in, Prince George's County foster home-finding supervisor Carol Siemens opened the meeting by asking everyone why they came.
"I have a 12-year-old daughter and she's been bugging me about it. This is one sure way to guarantee she'll get a sister," said a portly woman in a bright blue dress.
The woman, Laverne Thomas, and her husband Timothy were among 17 Prince George's residents attending the first of two training programs for families who want to be foster parents. The sessions are held at the Department of Social Services in Hyattsville.
The meetings allow social workers to tell prospective foster parents what they can expect when a child who has been abandoned, sexually abused, or has physical or emotional handicaps arrives at their door in desperate need of loving attention.
When Siemens asked how many members of the group already had children, nearly every hand went up.
A big smile spread across her face, as it would during many moments that evening.
As people began to talk about children, the ice, it seemed, started to melt.
"I will fight the highest mountain for a child," announced Eunice Boone, who went on to say how heartbroken she was last month when a mother took back the year-old infant Boone had cared for since the baby was six days old. The baby's grandmother is a friend of Boone's. Boone, who took care of the child as a favor to its family, now hopes to become a licensed foster parent because it's been lonely at her house since the infant left.
The blackboard at the front of the small room in the Department of Social Services said "Welcome Foster Parents" until Siemens, the adoptions and foster home-finding supervisor, erased it and chalked in a stick figure of a child.
"As foster parents, I'll bet you all thought you'd get a little child," Siemens said. But, she explained, the social workers, the natural family, the courts, and the laws of Maryland also come with the youngster.
Throughout the evening, Siemens and caseworker Cecilia Martin reminded the parents that the ultimate goal of foster care workers is to solve the problems of the natural parents, if at all possible, so the child can return home.
"So basically you're saying, try not to get too attached to the child," commented Timothy Thomas.
The consensus of the group, a few of whom had already been foster parents, was that giving up a child would be the most difficult part. But one woman, her 14-year-old son at her side, suggested a way of coping with a child's departure. "I would keep in mind that I did something for the kid. That's the only solace I could get." But she agreed with the others that "it doesn't stop the pain."
Siemens summed up the role of the foster parent: "You have to love them, care for them, and then be willing to lose them the next day."
She wanted to make sure the group knew and understood the factors that send a child into foster care. She jotted down a list that included sickness of the parents, abuse, unemployment, lack of parenting know-how, alcoholism, drugs. Each problem evoked group discussion.
Filled with coffee and doughnuts, the group watched a film in which half a dozen parents talked about how they felt when their own chldren were put up for foster care. Some said they resented the foster parents, even though they knew their children were better off with them.
"I had some funny feelings during the film . I feel like I'm trying to take this child away. I want to do this child a favor," said a woman in the audience. "But the mother sounds so sad. I'm wondering, will I be able to relate to the natural mother ? How will she look at me?"
Timothy Thomas said he felt the same way, and predicted, "If we bought their kid something they couldn't afford, like a new watch, they might have some resentment."
As the meeting neared its close, Siemens again smiled and breathed a sigh.
"I know you're all ready for a foster child. Well, we're going to give you one tonight."
"Seriously?" asked one participant who had trouble believing the placement process could be so simple.
"This child is only a paper child. You're lucky. But we'll come back next week and talk about them."
The parents then chose a child who had actually been under foster care, based on character sketches that Siemens provided. They included children who had been sexually abused, were chronic liars, or had alcoholic parents.
These examples would serve as a starting point for later discussion of how to deal with the children's behavior problems. After all had received a child, Siemens warned the group that they were "expected to give them love and patience."
"And don't be calling me up on Monday telling me you want me to move them."