Once in awhile you hear about foster children in the news. When the story is horrific, it begs the question whether God’s eye is still on the sparrow. But many stories involving foster children never hit the airwaves, like the one I am about to share.
The ABC Family drama series “The Fosters” attempts to capture the struggles that older kids confront in foster care: for example, when biological kids get preferential treatment, biological parents do no-shows on visit days, and figuring out which house rules apply.
Besides the trauma of separation from their biological parents, foster kids face another hurdle: the feeling that no one cares about their side of the story. This happened to a friend of mine. Meet Ruth Hunt.
Ruth was born to a mother with developmental delays and epilepsy and who had been raped by the ex-husband of a friend. Early on, Ruth lived with her mother in Wenatchee, but life was precarious because her mom had little capacity to gauge good situations and relationships from risky ones.
To cope, Ruth resorted to behaviors that she thought would make her the type of person others would care about. She wanted to be accepted and loved. Ruth said, “I would do anything, including lying, to get myself to that goal. And I could not let anyone see me for who I really was—a piece of trash that no one should love.”
Before going into foster care, Ruth attended the Salvation Army Church in Wenatchee. She recalls loving God as a child. In Ruth’s words, “I knew I loved God. I would talk to him when I thought no one was looking. I prayed almost every night.”
At age 11, Ruth entered Washington State’s foster care system. She lived in four different foster homes during this year. In her fourth placement, things went terribly wrong. Ruth was placed with a single man who had seven to ten foster children—all girls—living there at a time. The woman assigned to live in the home was hardly ever there.
One day, a foster girl could not find her insulin and needle for her diabetes. In all the chaos, Ruth somehow got blamed even though the police found the needle loaded with insulin in a different girl’s drawer. This girl told the police that Ruth put it there. The police questioned Ruth for several hours, from evening into the middle of the night, trying to get her to confess. After hours of interrogation, Ruth made a false confession so the questioning would end and she could go to bed. But instead of getting to go to bed, she was booked into a juvenile detention center.
Ruth remembers entering the place crying. It was dark outside. Inside were large, heavy metal doors and concrete hallways. Echoes filled the cold, sterile air. In front of a female officer, Ruth had to undress completely and put on juvy garb. She was taken to a holding cell for newcomers in an observation area. It had a thin pillow and a mattress resembling a mat. The mattress stuck to a metal frame attached to the wall. There was a metal toilet with no lid. No sink. The cell door had one small viewing window with a slot underneath to slip food trays through. Ruth doesn’t remember having a blanket to keep warm. If so, it was tiny and thin to ensure that she couldn’t harm herself.
After a brief stint in the juvenile facility, Ruth had to appear in court. She had never met her court-appointed lawyer until she stood before the judge to enter a plea. Without the benefit of a jury and trial, without a witness to say she did not take the needle and insulin with the intent to inject someone, and without her CPS caseworker’s belief in her, Ruth was helpless when her lawyer pleaded guilty on her behalf.
As a result, Ruth was convicted of attempted manslaughter and sentenced to live in a lock-up facility known at the time as Pine Crest in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Ruth had just turned 12 years old when she entered Pine Crest, where she spent several months. Upon entering, Ruth was stripped of all personal items and clothing. She was issued a prison uniform to wear. Younger kids lived on one side, older kids on the other. The atmosphere was sterile and strict. Workers wore medical scrubs. One padded room locked up kids acting out or disobeying. Schooling took place on the premises. Everywhere Ruth went, she stood in long lines and was brought back and forth by workers. For meals, all kids had to line up against the wall. If everyone was accounted for and acting correctly, then they could go and eat.
Good behavior earned Ruth the ability to go outside and walk the premises supervised.
Good behavior meant that Ruth kept in line. Following the rules came naturally to Ruth because she had learned to be a people-pleaser.
Good behavior meant that Ruth had to keep living the lie that landed her at Pine Crest.
This next part of the story is emblematic of what Fresh Air guest, Nell Bernstein, has found with children serving time in juvenile facilities. Ruth’s experience is similar to the cases put forth in Bernstein’s recent book, “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.”
According to Ruth, doctors held regular individual or group meetings. Ruth recalls at every meeting having to state her name and why she was there: “Hi, my name is Ruthie, and I’m here because I tried to kill someone.”
If the psychiatrists detected any dishonesty, then privileges were taken away. There could be no hint of innocence. For example, Ruth could never say, “Someone accused me of . . .” or “The police interrogated me for hours until I said . . .”
When Ruth first arrived at Pine Crest, she tried to say that she was innocent. The staff told her that if she said that, then she would never be allowed to participate in groups or any activities until she told the truth.
At this point in her story, I asked Ruth two questions. First, who the police thought Ruth intended to kill with the needle. Second, what it was like to have to say that she tried to kill someone when she knew it wasn’t true. After a long pause, Ruth shared that she developed a coping mechanism to turn off her feelings and not care. For her, it was as if someone else was saying it. “I became a really good actor and manipulator, trying to be for people what they wanted me to be to fit in. Like a chameleon. But in fact I became a nobody.”
Living at Pine Crest and being forced to lie about something so terribly false was the breaking point for Ruth. “Every face I saw in there, every person I met—to them I was someone who ‘on paper’ attempted to kill someone. No one wanted to find out the truth. I was just some dumb ‘problematic’ foster kid, not worth anyone’s time.”
Despite her circumstances, Ruth felt that God gave her the strength to survive.
The day came when Ruth could drop the lies. After four months at Pine Crest, she went to one last foster home in Elk, Washington. She stayed there one year. Then she ran away because of abuse.
Hutton is a place for children in need of a safe and healthy home. Here, Ruth could finally be her true self. She went to church. She read the Bible. She went to public high school. She lived at Hutton until she turned nineteen years old. She continued to receive support from Hutton until she graduated from beauty school.
While living at Hutton, Ruth asked Jesus into her heart. She was 16. When she reflects back on the years leading up to this moment, she does not remember a time when God was not part of her life. Ruth said, “Even when I was lying and manipulating . . . I loved him. Even when I was scared to death when I entered that detention center, I cried out to him and begged him to help me. He didn’t help me in the way I thought he should, but he never left me and he got me out of a very possible dangerous situation. I should have ended up in juvenile until I was eighteen for what I was charged with. But God sent me to a hospital instead, despite having no signs of mental health issues or drug history.”
From Pine Crest hospital — what Ruth calls “the mire” — God drew her to a “brick castle.” At Hutton, Ruth learned who God really is. “The God that I loved so much and for so long gave me what I desperately needed: a loving home. God gave me the most amazing place to grow up where they didn’t treat me like a paycheck or use me as slave labor. They actually cared about me. They didn’t see me as a liar or a piece of garbage like so many people did. They saw a child who desperately needed love, guidance, and a place to call home.”
Today, Ruth has cultivated a home and family of her own with a husband and three children. She thanks God for holding every broken piece together and using it for good. Otherwise, she has no idea where she would be. Reflecting back, she experienced God as the one constant.
Ruth said, “I beat the odds. Statistically, I shouldn’t have what I have or be where I am.”
Ruth’s testimony is a reminder that despite terrible circumstances that never seem to end, it is possible to encounter God’s love. For Ruth, no matter what, God always has an eye on the sparrow.