Fostering relationships

Craig couple spent nearly 18 years as foster parents to 69 sexually abused teens

In the winter "Mama Al" shovels the walk so neighborhood children are safe walking to the bus stop. Then, she waits with them until the bus picks them up.

In the summertime, she settles disputes, talks to them about their problems and interests and more importantly, listens.

She's had a lot of experience doing all of that.

Alice Albert is not ready to give up the title -- Mama Al -- which she earned during 16 years as a foster parent. She and her husband, Stan, provided a short-term, stable home for 69 sexually abused teens, earning them the Arizona state award for foster parents of the year and giving them an experience neither will ever forget.

Stan suggested the couple become foster parents when his son was in high school and he saw that Alice's experience working with children in the New Jersey summer theatre and the band booster program made her long for more contact with youth.

"When we got to Arizona, she was so hungry to be with kids that I said, 'let's foster,'" Stan said. "Of course, my wife had a certain knack for understanding and talking to kids."

Alice, now 75 but always mistaken for much younger, was in her early 50s when she started a second family.

"I knew it would be hard, but I came from a family where I had an uncomfortable childhood and knew how I wanted to treat kids," she said. "My heart said I knew how to take care of kids."

She had been running a household since she was 7 years old.

The Alberts specifically took on teenagers because most foster parents select younger children and "because they have harder problems," Stan said.

"One thing about teens is they are honest with you. You may not like what they have to say, but they're honest," he said.

The choice to take in sexually abused teens was particularly difficult for Stan because many were already conditioned to think of their bodies as objects and use them as tools of manipulation. Added to that, it is very common for teens to accuse their foster parents of misconduct.

"We were never accused," Alice said proudly. "Not once."

The hardest job they had as foster parents was teaching their teens that they didn't need to use their bodies to get attention.

One, a girl who worked as a prostitute to earn money for her mother's medications, gave Alice a proud moment when she sat tall while facing community leaders who had been customers.

When the girl started to sink down in her seat in humiliation, Alice told her they were the ones who should have been ashamed, not her, because even though what she had done was wrong, her reasons were not.

The Alberts were honored as foster parents of the year in 1985 -- a surprised unequalled by any other. The two interrupted a mini-vacation in Las Vegas because they thought one of their foster children was going to earn an award. During the banquet, when the speaker was extolling the virtues of the award recipients, Alice whispered to Stan, "Wow, I'd like to meet that couple."

In the nearly 18 years as foster parents, Stan and Alice never took more than two teens at a time.

"I thought they had to have privacy and their own space," Alice said.

Some were short-term placements. The longest any teen was with them was two years.

The program Stan and Alice were a part of was therapeutic fostering where the goal wasn't just to provide a "normal" home, it was to prepare them to become stable adults.

"You were always hoping you did and said the right thing," Stan said.

They started fostering through a private agency, which they said offered them extensive training and support. When funding was cut to the private agency, they became foster parents through the state, something made easier because of what they learned by working through a private agency first.

"Fostering is so hard and that's what the state doesn't tell people," Stan said. "I don't think we would've made it without all that help (from the private agency)."

The Alberts were one of 25 couples who were foster parents through the private agency and the only ones who stayed married through, and beyond, the experience. They attribute their success as a couple to communication.

"The kids constantly tried to drive a wedge between us," Stan said.

He would call each day before coming home from work to check the status of things at home so the teens couldn't play one against the other.

But that didn't make dealing with the anger or the hurt any easier.

"The thing we always loved to happen was the first time they'd get mad at us. We'd both hug them," Alice said. "They didn't expect it and they didn't know how to deal with it. Their breakdown was a breakthrough."

Each teen was a challenge, and each was a reward.

Stan's biggest challenge was returning a foster child to her natural parent -- often the person who had sexually abused her. Many times he sat having coffee with a man who had abused his daughter and who was now her legal guardian.

"I had to do it because the kids always loved their parents despite what they had done," he said. "People who are foster parents really deserve credit. It's not an easy thing and the profession doesn't always let you know that."

His heart broke the day one of their foster children turned 18 and used her new freedom to visit her father -- the man who had sexually abused her from the time she was 3 years old until she was 13.

She was also one of only two children the Alberts considering adopting themselves.

One of Alice's most difficult moments was when she had to, on the advice of a psychologist, kick out a misbehaving teen on Christmas day.

"That was the toughest thing. She cried and we cried, but it had to be done," Alice said.

She said the kids used to ask her why she took so many showers -- sometimes seven in a day. She told them it was because when she said no to something they really wanted, she snuck into the bathroom so they wouldn't hear her cry.

Alice also worked for the federal government training other foster parents. She traveled across the United States presenting classes that were sought after because Alice not only had experience as a foster parent, she was honest about life as a foster parent -- something many other professionals weren't.

Some of her best memories come from those days. One in particular brought her closer to Heaven when two nuns were a part of her class. The class, which like all Alice's teaching was reality-based, included many cuss words to accustom participants to their use. After discussing with the nuns the importance of using those words to eliminate their shock value, a signal was agreed upon that would precede the use of any foul language. Following each profane utterance -- and there were many -- the nuns blessed Alice.

"I was flying high after that class," she said.

Alice spent more than two years working with teen-aged pedifiles.

"It was so rewarding it was unbelievable," she said. "Can you tell that I loved what I did?"

She also received an award for the work she did with that program.

One of Alice's greatest accomplishments, she said, was when she was asked to write a training manual to teach foster parents how to work with sexually abused teens. That manual continues to be used by the Florida state foster care system.

Now, Stan and Alice have little contact with the 69 teens who were so much a part of their lives.

Unless the foster child initiates it, foster parents aren't allowed to maintain contact.

"They either get on with their lives or they cling to you and if they cling to you, you have to separate from them," Stan said. "The point is to get them strong enough to be adults."

Many have.

Stan has walked down the aisle 11 times to "give away" one of his foster children in marriage and 17 returned and slept on the floor of the Alberts' home as they waited for Alice to return from surgery.

It was then they said the words she still holds close to her heart: "Mama Al, you were one mean bitch, but you were fair."

The words were said with respect -- and love.

Each attributes their success as foster parents to the other.

"(Alice) had such a natural knack," Stan said. "She was so in touch with the emotional side of those young women. She had a lot of empathy."

When the couple stopped fostering, Alice said she thought she'd need counseling to deal with the quiet, instead she hit the road with her husband, whose work as a sales representative for Craig Electric Motor and Machine takes him across the state and into Wyoming. They take several mini-vacations a year in Blackhawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, where Alice nearly always walks away a winner.

Alice has defeated cancer three times and is facing -- and plans to beat -- it again. She'll have surgery this month to remove all traces and doctors have assured the Alberts that it's possible.

She's getting nervous about facing what will be her 30th surgery and the nerves have caused her to nearly lose her voice, but not her sense of humor or her pride in her accomplishments.

"We took the time to be there," she said.

"We did a good job," Stan said to his wife, the tone of his voice telling the listener all he or she needed to know to understand how they survived 18 years as foster parents and 36 years of marriage.

"We started out thinking how much we would teach them and they taught us," Alice said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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