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Rene Denfeld Reveals the Sad Truth About American Foster Care in ‘Sleeping Giants’

In a Q&A, the Oregon author talks about draconian punishments, the vulnerability of orphaned children and how they sometimes just disappear / BY Rosemary Counter / March 26th, 2024


Rene Denfeld is surrounded by unpacked boxes. “Don’t look behind me! I’m right in the middle of moving,” says the 58-year-old Sleeping Giants author from her new home in Portland, Ore. When she’ll have time to unpack is anyone’s guess, although her three grown children recently moved out. Well, mostly – one left a cat behind.

When the empty-nester and author of three acclaimed novels The Child Finder, The Enchanted and The Butterfly Girl isn’t busy writing, she’s a foster mom (to the three she officially adopted, above, and many more) and works as a licensed public death-row investigator. “When you see cases on the news where someone’s been exonerated, I’m the one who’s gone out to find the witnesses, gathered DNA, dug through evidence and police reports to dismantle the case,” she says. She’s currently focused on juvenile cases where the state has tried children as adults. 

 

Rene Denfeld

 

Of all the people whom justice eludes, foster children are so vulnerable they’ve become invisible: In America, some 20,000 children are simply missing from the foster care system. Confidentiality laws keep their names out of the papers; there are no crying parents begging for their return on the nightly news; and details about what happens inside of child treatment centres (modern-day orphanages, as Denfeld calls them) are notoriously scarce. Unless you’re a repeat foster mom, that is.

Sleeping Giants, which had been percolating in Denfield’s mind for many years, is a fictional take on problems in the foster system. The story about what happened to 9-year-old Dennis – who lived at a fictional “home for troubled boys” in a remote Oregon coastal town – unfolds in flashbacks, as the reader learns what life was like for him at the institution run by a cruel headmaster, Martha King. In the present, the orphaned boy’s half-sister, Amanda, seeks the truth about his supposed death by drowning 20 years earlier – and who covered it up.

This reader had to routinely stop and Google whether the brutal events described in Sleeping Giants could possibly be real, but, as Denfield explains, they absolutely are based in fact. In the following Q&A, she talks about why children disappear from the foster care system in the U.S., how her own experiences inside these sad institutions inspired the novel; and how one must be respectful of victims when writing.

Rosemary Counter: This book is such an eye-opener to an issue I’m sad to say I know so little about. Some of the events, like “holding time,” felt like they had to be from a century ago. 

Rene Denfeld: Holding time” is a draconian, punitive method of treatment that sounds nicer than it is. It’s basically a physical and psychological torture that’s designed to break children down to the point of psychological collapse by physically restraining them. Some children have actually suffocated to death by this treatment. The idea is that children will somehow “start fresh” afterward, like rebooting a computer, which of course is not how humans work. If you destroy someone psychologically, they’re not reborn. They’re destroyed. Holding time has been thoroughly rebuked by scientists, and yet somehow it’s still used. 

 RC: How is that even allowed? 

RD: There are half a million children in foster care in the United States, and they have very few rights. They’re this disappeared and vanished part of the population that are very helpless. Foster kids really don’t have many advocates politically; nobody’s out there lobbying for their protection. In political debates, nobody asks “how will you help the foster kids?” In the United States, there’s not enough homes for foster kids, so they’re sent to these facilities. Some are run by some very well-intentioned people, but still they are no place for a child to live. 

RC: What kind of research did you do to know what the insides of these places are like? 

RD: A lot of what happens there is covered beneath the cloak of confidentiality. This book is inspired by my own experience and knowledge, not just as a foster parent but as an investigator working juvenile cases. Brightwood isn’t a real place, but it’s based on real places that I’ve [seen], and being a longtime foster mother I’m very knowledgeable about what happens inside these places. I’ve fictionalized it, of course, but everything is based on fact. 

RC: At the same time I was reading your book, I was reading Matilda with my kid, which of course has the cartoon-villain headmistress Miss Trunchbull. Your headmistress Martha King could have been similarly evil, but you didn’t make it so easy.

RD: It’s easy in storytelling to “other” the bad guy. They’re evil, they have no redeeming characteristics, they’re outside of society so we’re not responsible for what they do. That’s very convenient and comforting in fiction, but in real life, it’s not that simple. Good people do terrible things all the time. Martha King is basically torturing children, but she’s fully convinced she’s doing the right thing. She also has her own history of abuse, her own traumas. This is the reality for a lot of people who do harm. I’m fascinated with how much harm is created in the name of good.

RC: It reminds me of the residential school system in Canada. 

RD: Yes, absolutely. Right now in our history, we’re really grappling with the repercussions of awful things that people once thought were just fine. Slavery, mass incarceration, concentration camps, genocide – all were not just socially acceptable, but people thought they were doing the right thing. Humans have the capacity to be so blind to our own harm.

RC: At the same time, there’s so much goodness to be found. Your main character, Dennis, finds help from people you might not expect. People I assumed were predatory were not, and vice versa. 

RD: You mean Ralph, the custodian, who befriends this little boy. I also wanted to show that there are good people who work in these places. And I wanted to push back on this idea that the poor blue-collar custodian is for sure gonna be a bad dude. I don’t make those assumptions, and having done the work I do, I don’t automatically assume someone who looks the part in a position of power is going to do the right thing. Many people get away with abusive acts simply by pretending to be a nice person in public. It’s a form of public gaslighting, and I don’t think it’s rare in our culture. 

RC: You sometimes write from the point of view of Dennis, who’s just six. How hard was that to do? 

RD: Dennis is so very young, but I still didn’t want him to exist as this victim trope. I wanted the reader to be able to see inside his experiences: What is it like to be a little kid who is sent into a treatment home? What’s it like to feel completely powerless? How could you possibly escape? Especially from his perspective, I know the subject matter of my book is hard, but there’s nothing graphic or gratuitous, and I always try to be very respectful to victims. When I’m writing, I imagine myself giving the manuscript to the victim and saying, “How do you feel about this?” I’d want them to say that they feel seen.

RebeThis interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

 

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