It wasn’t until her own twins got into trouble with the law that Phyllis decided to become a foster parent. She realized that even great parents sometimes need help and, vice versa, wonderful kids can get themselves in trouble. She learned forgiveness. The first teenage boy she fostered came to her straight from prison. He left her to attend college.
When a teen arrives in Phyllis’ care, she immediately calls him “son” and he is invited to call her “ma” whenever he’s ready. She parents each boy as if he were her son, even if it means jeopardizing her own well-being. “Once they walk through that door, they are my children. When my own children messed up, I didn’t think about sending them back. Why would it be any different with these boys?”
When one of the teens was caught smoking marijuana in the hallway of her building, Phyllis was threatened with eviction. “Family takes care of family. I’d rather move the whole family to a shelter than let this boy think I was going to give up on him over that,” Phyllis explained.
Make no mistake, Phyllis runs a tight ship. When one of the teens gets into trouble, Phyllis calls a family meeting in which they all discuss the offense and offer potential punishments. The teen gets to choose from those suggestions. This exercise holds the boys accountable for their behavior in the presence of the whole family and it builds comradery and fairness as they decide what the consequences should be. It’s easy to suggest harsh penalties for your brother, but you learn to be fair because next time it might be you in the hot seat. Phyllis has never had a teen neglect to fulfill his chosen punishment. She laughs at this and says, “I just sit back and watch them keep each other in line.”
There are six house rules for Phyllis’ family which Daniel, an 18-year old boy who has lived with Phyllis for five years, recites proudly, “1) Tell the truth; 2) No company; 3) Be on time; 4) Keep your space clean; 5) Be respectful; 6) Do your chores.”
Phyllis adds, “You will follow the rules. The rules are there for a reason. I follow them and I expect each of the boys to follow them.”
It’s easy to see why difficult teens don’t mess with her. In Phyllis’ opinion, the first rule is the key to being a successful foster parent. “These boys don’t trust. They have been lied to for their entire lives. The one thing I can do for them is to tell them the truth, even when it’s not what they want to hear and even when it’s hard, I am always consistent and I never lie. Children never forget the one time you lie to them and you will never undo it.”
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