The new foster daughter turned the couple's life upside down. She brought with her not only great happiness but also difficult moments. The little girl, who had gone through some stressful experiences, sometimes channelled her emotions into anger. "She was too small to have words for expressing her emotions or dealing with her experiences."
On the other hand, occasionally Soile could express her feelings much better than anyone could have expected.
"When she was four years old she saw Simberg's painting of the wounded angel being carried by two little boys and she said to me: 'Mummy, that's me.'"
Not an easy path to motherhood
Linna tells the story calmly and quietly. She is a teacher by training, which has given her the tools for dealing with a troubled child. But sometimes it is clear to see that the path has not always been easy.
Being a foster parent has been a learning curve, she says. To cope with it, they have had to work continuously on their own attitudes and emotions.
"It's a demanding task to arouse feelings of love in a child who has learned not to rely on adults. There are times when you can't help feeling pangs of pain over your own childlessness. A foster parent has to learn to accept that the child's biological parents are involved."
Soile is now an 11-year-old schoolgirl. A couple of years ago, the family expanded when they received twins Aada and Veeti, now three, who had been fostered by another family.
As foster parents, the Linnas have occasionally gone against advice given by experts. Families are often told not to form too strong ties to their foster children and to keep their distance from the children's biological parents, says Marja-Riitta Linna. When she was given guidance on fostering, she was told that foster parents' relationship with the child's biological parents was often strained.
"We were told to bear in mind that we were there for the child."
When Soile had just come to live with them, her father asked if he could stay with the girl over the weekend. "I thought about it for a minute and then said it was okay. I was told off by social workers but I think I was right to rely on my instincts. That weekend helped forge a strong trust between all the adults involved."
Soon other parents also visited their children. The visits by the children's mothers went well and soon after, one of the mothers phoned her to ask if she would love the child like her own. "That phone call must have been difficult for her. For me, it was like a gift. I promised to do so."
Now the Linnas sometimes spend weekends with the children and their biological parents. Their doors are always also open to other people close to the children. When Linna was growing up, her own family welcomed other people to their home. They had a foster girl living with them, along with "several grannies and granddads".
"Responsibility over people who needed looking after was rooted in me early on."
She and her husband decided to foster when they learned that they could not have children of their own.
"We always dreamed of having a large family. Now we have that and plenty of life around us."
Sharing the wisdom
Now Linna and another foster mother, Taina Koponen, want to make all the knowledge and wisdom they have gained from their experiences in fostering available to other people. Working together they have developed a Keinu model, which is aimed at ensuring a good start to a foster relationship. "The model puts the child to the forefront in child welfare work and guarantees that what is best for the child is done in fostering."
In the Keinu model, the child's families and all family members are given an opportunity to talk about and work through their emotions and feelings. The model employs methods such as art therapy. "These methods allow people to work through even some very painful feelings in a gentle manner."
When a child goes to a foster home, she suddenly has two sets of parents and has to create a new family identity, explains Linna. "In a situation like that, the child needs all the familiar adults there to support her. If she's not allowed to form strong emotional bonds with the foster family while maintaining her relationship with the biological family, she will be balancing between the two, like on a seesaw."
In the best-case scenario, the child gains a new family she lives with, along with an extended family with people from both the biological family and foster family that she has strong emotional bonds with.
Currently, Linna acts as a project manager for the Keinu project at the Finnish Family Services Association and travels around Finland with Koponen to talk about the model to foster parents, biological parents of foster children and child welfare professionals.
Linna says that her own family will not grow anymore. "We have made a commitment to be available to these children for the rest of our lives."
Jaana Laitinen – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT
Image: Petteri Kivimäki