“I wish I could be your foster boy.”
The words almost brought tears to the man’s eyes.
Mostly because the boy who spoke them was one of 21 children released from the Branch Davidian compound during a 51-day standoff.
The boy, about 10 years old, said this to a man who works with some of the children.
Last week, they were looking at snapshots of the man’s foster children.
“He asked me if I had any kiddos,” said the man, who asked not to be named. “I said, ‘My three kids are grown, but I’ve got my foster kids.’ So I was showing him pictures.”
The boy’s unexpected remark burned itself into his memory.
Like many who have followed the siege that ended Monday in a deadly inferno, his heart went out to the children — including the 17 believed to have died in the fire.
Bob Boyd, program director of Child Protective Services in Waco, said of the 21 surviving children, 15 are in state custody. Ten of those are at the Methodist Home and could be placed in the next few weeks. The other five are with relatives.
Of the other six, four were released to legal parents unaffiliated with the cult, and two were released to the custody of the British court because they are British citizens, Boyd said.
These survivors must deal with the loss of parents and playmates alike.
Left shattered by the conflagration are their sense of stability and their families.
For example, the Schroeder family was ripped apart.
Michael Schroeder, 29, died in the Feb. 28 shoot-out. Kathryn Schroeder, 34, left the compound and is now in McLennan County Jail. Her four children were also released from the compound. The three oldest are in the custody of their natural father. Michael was the father of the fourth, who is with relatives in Florida.
Norm Fluet, a local child psychologist, said surviving children could experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks.
“I think they’re going to have a rough time,” he said. “Can you imagine how traumatizing it would be to see their very home going up in smoke?”
Jack Kyle Daniels, president of the Methodist Home, said the children there did not watch televised reports of the siege and inferno.
“You have children who have been through a traumatizing event and what did the news start with every day? It started with the shooting,” he said.
Instead, childhood trauma specialists held regular meetings with the children to discuss the day’s events.
He said the children were told Tuesday morning about the inferno that is believed to have killed more than 80 cult members, at least 17 of those children.
Daniels said the children at the Methodist Home range in age from 6 months to 13 years old.
The foster parent who works with them said the news hurt them deeply.
“Just deep grief, deep sadness,” he said. “They didn’t ask an awful lot of questions. But they’re very torn up.”
One made a remark disturbingly bleak for a child barely 12 years old.
“One said, ‘You know, things will never be the same again,’” he recalled.
But the children also have shown a surprising resiliency.
“What we’ve got here is a beautiful bunch of kids,” he said. “We’ve all fallen in love with them. They’re bright. They’re dog-gone bright. You can see the wheels just turning round and round with every new concept.”
More than anything, the children need affection.
“Just a great deal of love, a great deal of stability and someone to listen and listen and listen,” he said. “I’m just offering them whatever I can, a friend, a shoulder to cry on.”
Fluet said such nurturing is critical.
Children typically don’t understand the concept of death until they are 8 or 9 years old, he said.
“It’s really kind of a tough issue,” Fluet said. “They were indoctrinated with this belief that they aren’t dead in a physical sense.”
The children also may feel a sense of guilt that they survived, he said.
Caretakers should develop a sense of stability and routine for the children, encouraging them to get involved in school and other activities, he said.
“They should respect the mourning period, but you don’t want them to languish in grief,” he said. “These kids need predictability. Their sense of stability was disrupted. They need stability and nurturance so they know there are things they can count on.”
For now, the Methodist Home may be one of those things.
Daniels said his staff has developed a routine of school, recreation and therapy for the 10 children there.
“These children have been through a traumatizing event,” he said. “We’re trying to meet their needs and help them assess what happened.”