When I was in grad school, I worked in a Mormon foster home for one week. That was all I could take.
I was between semesters, eagerly devouring all my classes in learning to become a real live therapist, and looking for a mental health-relevant job when I spotted an ad on the school’s list serv that encouraged me to “work one-on-one with teenage clients” and “set my own schedule”. I was in.
I showed up at the foster home, a very large two story home in a nice neighborhood, and was greeted by a young couple that could only be described as “whitebread”. They had blonde windswept hair and gleaming smiles, and I was instantly suspicious of their lack of exhaustion. There were no kids in sight. The couple invited me into the kitchen and, while making me Beef Rigatoni, explained the job. They were Mormons “Although the kids don’t have to be, ha ha!”, and they had moved to North Carolina from Utah specifically to be the house parents of this foster home. One of them had an English degree, and the other had taken “a few classes in psychology”, but they assured me that the training they received from the company that recruited them was more than enough. My job would be to provide discipline and counseling to the five teenage residents, as well as helping out with chores. It seemed like an easy way to practice working with clients, and frankly I was curious about this creepy couple, their training, and their supposed non-religious ways of working with the kids.
The kids were pretty cool. Two of them seemed to be there because their parents couldn’t handle them, and two of them seemed to be there because their parents couldn’t handle any kids at all. The fifth kid, I swear, was a 15 year old blossoming gay teen who was there solely because of his sexuality. His parents were very religious and terrified of this spirited little man who liked to make hats out of his pajama pants. The Mormon couple was scared of him too, as if he was a carrier for all things fabulous.
The kids weren’t treated poorly by any means, but the house parents had found a way to sneakily get around that whole “don’t push religion” thing. The kids were allowed to read and listen to music, but only the things that were available, which were the Book of Mormon and Mormon hymns. They could watch TV, but only ABC Family. When I gently asked the kids how they felt about this, they shrugged and said “they’re easy to ignore, and they make good food”. They all seemed delightfully unmalleable when it came to religion, and I could actually see their faces blank out during times like the long pre-meal prayer. I was impressed.
I formed little bonds with them all, and genuinely enjoyed cooking them meals and hanging out with them in the family room, watching endless episodes of 7th Heaven. When they got into spats, I had no trouble strongarming the house parents and handling things myself, as I wanted to show off my recently acquired skills. By the end of the third day, I really liked it there, and took the kids’ advice, ignoring the house parents as much as possible.
On the fourth day, when the house parents angrily sent the gay kid to his room for hysterically saying the word “dick” over and over while laughing, I felt a little twinge. I had convinced myself that this Mormon couple was harmless, but their level of disgust at his obnoxious but normal behavior irritated me. I watched one of the girls gather up her Mormon hymn book to take into the rumpus room, where she planned to work on her voice. She wanted to be a singer, and she added lots of runs and trills into the dry, depressing songs. Another twinge.
That night at home I looked up the company on the Internet and found that it seemed to basically be a way for the Mormon church to make money and half-heartedly spread their beliefs among families in distress. They send young Mormon couples to fix up old houses and get them in foster care systems, and then take on as many kids as they can, as the state pays a good amount of money for each of them. I was torn, because the kids were being provided for, and nothing inherently evil was going on, but it just felt wrong. My first ethical dilemma annoyed me with its lack of cut-and-dryness.
By day five I woke up realizing that these people were gently incompetent, and was angry that they passed themselves off as mental health professionals. I fumed at the whole setup, and found reasons to hate every single thing the house parents did.
“Of course they’re making Chicken Alfredo. Fucking white sauce!”
The house parents asked me if I would take the kids to the movies the next day. When I asked about driving the kids around, as I had been taught in my internship that the state regulations for driving clients were intense and plentiful, the house parents just waved away my concerns and said that they’d never had any trouble. This cinched it for me, as driving a van of five foster kids, as much as I liked them, didn’t strike me as something one should do without signing a shitload of paperwork.
I decided day six would be my last day.
The houseparents told me to take the kids to see Freaky Friday, but once we were safely tucked into the van together, I asked the kids what they wanted to see. “TOMB RAIDER TWO!!!” they screamed, and off we went. We bought the tickets, and with our time to kill, walked around the mall adjacent to the theater. I bought them all ice cream and they acted like jackasses, as teens are wont to do. I pulled the gay kid aside while the others were horsing around and flirting with other teens gathered around a fountain, and said “Listen, I’m so sorry that you’re parents think there’s anything wrong with you, because there’s nothing wrong with you. You are an awesome guy, and you are not evil or mentally ill. Please, just keep being you, and don’t let the people you live with, or even your parents, make you feel wrong or dirty. You stay strong, and someday you’ll make your own family, and they’ll adore you. Ok?”
I was nearly crying from my little speech, which I envisioned he would keep close to his heart for years and years. Instead, without missing a beat, he turned to me and asked if he could have the rest of my ice cream. Deflated but satisfied, I herded them into the movie, and we had a blast cheering on all the cheesy action. I drove them home after the movie, dropped them off, and later that night, left a voicemail for the house parents explaining that I would not be returning as I did not feel comfortable working in a religious environment that purports to not be a religious environment. I hung up the phone, feeling a little lame about telling them off so passive aggressively.
Maybe if I were younger, I could have continued to ignore the bullshit and just gotten what I wanted out of the job, but that’s a skill I think you only really have when you’re a teenager.