As my husband and I lay in bed, exhausted from putting the kids down to bed — then back to bed — then back to bed — then back to bed for the last time — we finally fell into each others arms, and chatted about the various parts of our day. Casually he mentions, “Did you hear about the kid who fell into the gorilla enclosure?”
He proceeded to show me the video he had watched earlier that day — although admittedly, it was a bit hard to find as most of the versions circulating were highly edited. Finally, he found the part where the gorilla dragged the child through a moat.
“Wow,” I said. “How terrifying.”
Naively, I thought this was the end of it.
I read on a bit, then saw that people were demanding the mom pay penalities to the zoo for damages.
“She should.” My husband exclaimed. “What kind of person let’s their kid go into an enclosure?”
And that, my friends, was my introduction into the horrible divide that has completely split this nation.
“What kind of mom does this?”
It’s a question that has demanded an answer. And not ONLY an answer, but a solution.
And as my husband and I lay in bed, we disclosed some of our own parenting experiences. And eventually, we saw eye to eye. True to form, I posted an honest, raw answer on Facebook on what kind of mom lets an accident happen. And well, let’s just say that as foster parents, my husband and I have what you might call pretty firsthand experiences of that kind of parent.
My post sparked some debate, some chatter and some shares. And again, I naively thought it was the end. And yet . . . as my Facebook feed became inundated with talk of gorillas, it became clear that nothing was cut and dry . . . and certainly the talk was not even close to being over.
This fiasco has spawned about every kind of discussion one could possible contrive from the situation:
“Why every parent should own and use a leash . . . “
“Impulsive preschoolers with an inept ability to climb may suffer autism . . . “
“Does wildlife belong in a Zoo? Find out at 5.”
“How to helicopter your child without actually BEING a helicopter parent.”
“Meg Ryan and Joan Cusack share their personal beliefs about gorilla behavior.”
“Are experts at the zoo REALLY experts? What they should have done, and why.”
“Who to sue when everyone’s at fault.”
The list, of course, is endless. Not only are we collectively trying to understand WHY this happened, we’re trying to figure out how to FIX IT. Cause let’s be honest. A child being hurt in a traumatizing way, and an innocent animal being executed, DEMANDS some sort of action, right?
One article circulating, toting a solution to THE PROBLEM, has caught my eye. I waited, and waited (and am in fact still waiting), for someone to address it. So finally, as a foster parent, I have finally decided to add my voice to the throng. Because I think this perspective is a pretty important one.
Now, why you might ask, would I need to chime in on a zoo incident as a foster parent? After all, being a foster parent does not make me:
- An expert on gorilla behavior or zoo policies.
- An expert on child behavior.
- A psychic who has perfected the ability to predict children’s behavior.
So what does being a foster parent have to do with a zoo and the death of a gorilla? Well, nothing really.
And yet 60,000 people around the world have demanded that an accident at a zoo and foster care be inextricably linked. 60,000 people feel that gorilla kid is better off in foster care than in his own home.
Who am I to argue with 60,000 people? So friends, let’s talk about what being a foster parent DOES make me:
- A mandated reporter.
- A woman who has experienced the trauma of foster care in her own home.
- An expert on social worker visits, court appearances, intense regulations, and the fear of CPS — yes, even as a foster parent.
- A mom who has physically and emotionally helped children heal from neglect and abuse.
- A mom who knows what it is like to be forever separated from a child she raised.
- Someone who has been reported to CPS.
And there is one more thing it doesn’t make me. And this is one piece of information I feel it is vital for everyone out there who is thinking of signing, or has signed, the petition for this family to be investigated by CPS.
But before we talk about the ONE REALLY BIG THING you should consider before recommending this mom be vetted through CPS — let’s talk about the problem at hand. And the solution you all want.
The problem: Mom didn’t keep her child from danger. Solution: Take her child away and place him in a safe place.
About that safe place … the foster system. How good of a solution is this really?
When there is abuse or neglect in a home, the foster system is SAFER than an unsafe home. But that does not mean foster care is SAFE. Far from it.
Foster care, and the home situations that necessitate a removal, strips a child of some pretty basic rights:
-The right to have someone who knows them and loves them inherently make decisions for their welfare. Instead of a loving parent making these decisions — a parent who knows their history, their medical background, their preferences, their typical behaviors, their personalities — there is now an overworked social worker and judge who know little about the case, little of their history, almost nothing of their medical background, nothing of their preferences, and practically nothing of their personality. Sure — a foster parent steps in and loves a child. They advocate when allowed. But they are not the ones making decisions at all on the case. Here’s truth. An entire child’s future is up to a stranger who has little to no personal experience with a child. That is terrifying.
– The right to security. A foster home is a temporary home. Sometimes because the court mandates. Sometimes because that is all that is necessary. Sometimes because a foster parent can’t or won’t adopt. The point is, the child is in constant limbo. Imagine moving to a home, where nothing really belongs to you, building deep relationships with people who could be gone and permanently out of your life tomorrow, and never knowing when or if you’ll be kicked out. A child deserves the ability to build roots, to have people that will not only love him, but be around for the long haul. A child deserves permanency. But permanency is rarely the goal of foster care. And it only is the goal after significant loss, and often, many, many placements.
– The right to have a right. The goal of foster care — or at least, the goal I thought I was supposed to support — is to honor the best interest of the child. Now, all social workers and judges will tell you they want the best interest of the child. But there is one thing that trumps best interest: parental rights. Now those of us “regular parents” should be really glad it is hard to sever our rights. I totally get it. But what is so difficult to swallow is when the right of the child goes against the right of the parent, the right of the parent wins every time. EVERY TIME. Basically a foster kid’s right is no right at all.
-The right to have access to your family. Ok, this is a big one. And by family, I’m not just talking about the parents. I’m talking about grandparents they are used to seeing every Sunday for after-church dinner. The cousins they romp in the backyard with all summer long. The baby sister or baby brother who went to a different foster home. The older sibling who was put in a group home because no foster family would take a child that age. Foster care does not just remove a child. It SPLINTERS families. And it does it again, and again, and again. Like our foster son — who lost not only his mom, but also his siblings, when he came into care. He saw them for 2 hours a week. By that time, he was well established in our home. Over a year and a half, this baby grew into a toddler who called us Mom and Dad, and his sisters, sisters. He was too young to know that he was a foster child. He just knew that we were his family. And then, one day, after a year and a half, we dropped him off — for him to likely never see us again. He lost siblings, a mom and dad, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles — people he loved wholeheartedly. He got his old family back — and lost his new one.
Now, all of this is enough for me to think very, very, very hard before I make a referral to CPS. Because foster care is not some beautiful paradise of safety and love. It’s a daily battleground. Yes, safety and love SHOULD be a part of it. Yes, healing CAN take place. But in order for healing to take place, the use of foster care at all instigates additional trauma to a child.
So, for the love of all things holy, please let us do our very best to keep kids out of foster care unless it is absolutely, beyond a doubt necessary. Because foster care SUCKS for kids.
CPS is not a catch-all solution to every parenting fail. CPS is a solution when a child is in fact abused and neglected.
Gorilla mom was distracted. At least, that is the best we can understand, not being there ourselves. Temporary distraction does not equal long-term neglect.
Would you like to see neglect? Because I have.
Neglect is when a child’s tummy is so swollen from malnutrition, that they look like one of those little African children featured on an infomercial set to Sarah McLaughlin music.
Neglect is when a child can’t sleep if they have access to food. Biologically, their bodies are hard-wired to eat as long as food is available. Because they never know where their next meal will come from. It means constant vigilance, to the point of waking up 15 times a night to eat.
Neglect is when the pediatrician says that the child is in the 2-3 percentile. But they shouldn’t be, because their head is in the 25th percentile. So they really should naturally be in about the 40th percentile, because, as they explain, “The head is the last thing to go.” Imagine a child in the position where their “head is the last thing to go.” It’s heartbreaking.
Neglect is when a child should be able to sit, and they can’t even hold their head up.
Neglect is when bones are misshapen because the child didn’t get proper stimulation, and was left laying in a crib or carseat for days or weeks at a time.
In case you want to know what neglect looks like — that, my friends, is a very real case of neglect.
Neglect is not:
Attending to one child, and momentarily taking eyes off another.
Having a temporary lapse in judgment, believing you have done everything you can to keep your child safe, and still missing the mark.
Believing that even if your child said they wanted to swim with the gorillas, the zoo enclosure would make that physically impossible.
Having more than 2 children in your family and taking them all to a public place without a leash.
Without being there, without knowing the mom, without knowing if this child is fed, loved, secure, and 99.99999999999% of the time, completely safe — we have collectively as a mob, decided this mom is unfit. And have demanded a referral to CPS.
Which scares the living **** out of me.
I’ve made a CPS referral. With fear. With trembling. With shaking hands I dialed the number, trying to keep my voice from cracking. Knowing that what I was doing could radically, radically change a family forever. But as a mandated reporter, I had to call otherwise I could lose my license.
And you know what? I found out later the children were taken into foster care. And I’ve cried more than once knowing I had a hand in it. I didn’t want this family splintered. I just wanted the kids to have food. To have shelter. And more than anything, I wanted that food and stability to come with and from the woman they knew as mom. Knowing that these precious kids would gain food, but would lose a mom. Yes, food security trumped the necessity of bonds. That’s why I had to call. But I’m telling you what. That was the hardest call I’ve ever made in my life.
I have been a foster parent for 5 years now. We’ve done long-term care, adoption, and respite for other foster families. During that time, I’ve reported myself 3 times to CPS. I’ve waited for investigations to come, but knock on wood, they haven’t investigated. Yet.
During this time, another foster mom has had her own children pulled out of their classrooms, asked all sorts of inappropriate questions, and has had their child removed from their home without allowing a simple good-bye. Weeks later, they were cleared of all fault. A false allegation.
False allegations splinter homes.
CPS should be called when a child is consistently in harm’s way. But man, should the call ever be made with fear and trembling. Not with a self-righteous attitude that we would never be on the other side of CPS ourselves.
But even with all of this — there is one HUGE CONSIDERATION you all should make before you refer Gorilla mom to CPS, and demand her child to be placed in foster care.
It is that all foster parents have a fatal flaw:
We are human too. Just like gorilla mom.
Remember when I said I was well acquainted with “moms like her?” It’s because I AM a mom like her.
I’m a foster parent. A parent who has dropped my baby once at the doctor’s office on his head. A parent who has had my toddler escape my grasp and run out into a busy parking lot. A parent who cut pineapple too large and has had to perform the Heimlich on my choking preschooler as a result. The mom who thought her daughter was RIGHT behind her as they walked to pick up her other daughter at school, only to turn around and find she had disappeared. The mom who had to take her kids to the emergency room twice for accidents that happened in a home she baby-proofed. . . a home a state social worker COMPLETLY signed off on as safe.
I am gorilla mom. And I’m a foster parent.
And if it were up to the collective you, as the result of my failures, my children would be stripped from their home, from their loved ones (their cousins, their grandparents), their schools, their churches, their rooms and toys and things . . . and be sent to another home EXACTLY as imperfect as our home with parents as imperfect as we are.
So we have to ask ourselves. Is demanding foster care for gorilla kid the best we can do as a society?
Is it the best we can do to take a traumatized child from the security of his home, his parents and his 3 other siblings … further inflicting horrific trauma on the psyche of a young mind?
Is it the best we can do to splinter up this family to multiple foster homes, where sibling relationships are broken, and visits rarely happen? (And goodness knows, we don’t want a foster home to take all 4 siblings because haven’t we already collectively decided that is too much for one set of parents to responsibly bear?)
Is it the best we can do to distract CPS from cases where real neglect is happening, and burden the system which can’t keep up with the children already in care?
Is it the best we can do to bully and shame a family for one mistake, and declare that one mistake sufficient to be an unfit parent?
Because if we would put on our common sense for just a minute, we would realize that in fact, this is the WORST thing we could do for this child and for this family.
So, for those of you still calling for CPS, and those of you still on the fence, ask yourself two really important questions before you decide:
- Would you want your own children to be stripped from your home, and taken into imperfect foster homes with imperfect parents and subjected to imperfect system that is hard-wired against the best interest of your child?
- If you are so dead set that foster care is the right answer for a temporary lapse in judgment, are you then willing to become licensed foster parents and open your home to kids who have been neglected or abused by everyday parenting mistakes?
Because if we all start deciding that a simple accident requires a foster care, we all better man up. There’s about to be hundreds of thousands of more kids entering this system.
And seriously, we foster parents could use as many reinforcements as we can get. Because, obviously, we can’t take any more kids into our own homes. We might end up with more kids than hands.
And we all know what happens then.