Debbie Ausburn of ‘Raising Other People’s Children’: “Your kids will test your commitment to them”

60–70% of second and third marriages fail, and the most cited reason in most surveys is not getting along with stepchildren. Most foster children move from placement to placement because their foster parents do not know how to help with their trauma. I would like to pass on to both stepparents and foster parents what […]

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60–70% of second and third marriages fail, and the most cited reason in most surveys is not getting along with stepchildren. Most foster children move from placement to placement because their foster parents do not know how to help with their trauma. I would like to pass on to both stepparents and foster parents what my children taught me about building a strong relationship, even when I’m their Plan B.

After my marriage, my husband’s ex-wife asked for custody of the youngest son, and we asked him his opinion about a move. He did not want to say anything that sounded like choosing sides, and my husband finally asked, “If you had a magic wand, where would you live?” The boy immediately answered, “If I had a magic wand, you and Mom would still be back together.” After a moment, he turned anxiously to me and said, “No insult, Debbie. You and the dogs would be right next door.” He and I had already bonded, and I knew that his wish had nothing to do with me. As much as he loved me, he just wanted his intact family back.


As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie Ausburn. She is a step-parent and a foster parent, now a lawyer is publishing a book titled, Raising Other People’s Children, laying out what it really takes to be a foster parent and to raise other people’s children. This is a handbook catering to foster parents and stepparents on how to be the person who’s not supposed to be there — the one that is often not needed and disregarded but has an important role. Debbie has created a movement with other parents in these roles to challenge the norm and to be the one who is not supposed to be there.

Debbie Ausburn is the author of Raising Other People’s Children and has spent more than 40 years working with children who’ve experienced trauma. Her many roles include social worker, group home parent, foster parent, and stepparent. Along with parenting seven foster, adopted, and stepchildren, Debbie has served as a criminal prosecutor, volunteer, and Board member with nonprofit organizations. She is now an attorney in private practice, counseling and defending youth-serving organizations. She says, “I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.”


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I am the oldest of three children and grew up in northeast Georgia. My parents were very involved in youth programs at our local church, including a summer camp. My siblings and I grew up helping them serve the kids in those programs. When my mother got a job at a nearby juvenile detention center, it was a natural progression to start doing volunteer work there.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or change your life? Can you share a story about that?

In college, I discovered The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The book’s grandeur and story of perseverance against all odds grabbed my imagination and never let go. I have reread it at different stages of my life and always find something new to inspire me.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Early in my career, I assisted with a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. As we were sitting listening to the case before ours, I pulled a handkerchief out of my coat pocket. It came out with a Swiss Army knife that I had forgotten about in the rush of getting to the court that morning. The knife fell and bounced across the floor. I sat frozen, with visions of arrest and lurid headlines flashing before my eyes. The attorney who was arguing the case calmly put his foot over the knife and, at the next break, handed it back to me with the whispered suggestion that I go check my coat. To this day, I do not know how I got past the metal detectors. I learned the value of (a) paying attention to what you are doing instead of what you plan to do next, and (b) always thinking through a backup plan.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

60–70% of second and third marriages fail, and the most cited reason in most surveys is not getting along with stepchildren. Most foster children move from placement to placement because their foster parents do not know how to help with their trauma. I would like to pass on to both stepparents and foster parents what my children taught me about building a strong relationship, even when I’m their Plan B.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

After my marriage, my husband’s ex-wife asked for custody of the youngest son, and we asked him his opinion about a move. He did not want to say anything that sounded like choosing sides, and my husband finally asked, “If you had a magic wand, where would you live?” The boy immediately answered, “If I had a magic wand, you and Mom would still be back together.” After a moment, he turned anxiously to me and said, “No insult, Debbie. You and the dogs would be right next door.” He and I had already bonded, and I knew that his wish had nothing to do with me. As much as he loved me, he just wanted his intact family back.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I was talking to a friend about her issues with her stepchildren and was saying many of the principles that I set out in my book. She kept saying, “That’s so profound.” I couldn’t understand what she was talking about, as I thought it was just common sense. She finally convinced me that I had learned and internalized so many of the lessons that my children had taught me that I did not realize how many other foster and stepparents had no clue what they needed to know.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I managed to stay in touch with two of my foster daughters, one of whom graduated from college, married, finished graduate school while pregnant with her second child, and has a wonderful and stable family. The other has had some rough spots, but I remain optimistic that she will find a way past her trauma.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We need more caring foster homes, and they need more support from the community. People who do not have the resources to foster children can provide respite care, help with expenses, provide transportation, and mentor children.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Setting the example of doing the right thing even when it hurts. In the context of raising other people;’s children, it most often means caring about them and providing structure even when they don’t like you. We have to learn how to continue to be there, like gravity..

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Your kids will test your commitment to them. Every child I have ever parented didn’t believe what I *told* them. They had to see it in action. A few years ago, I asked my youngest stepson when he stopped worrying that his dad and I might split up. He thought for a minute and said, “Well, you’re still here.”
  2. It’s not a competition between you and the biological parents (if it were, you would lose). Even abused children are bound to their biological parents in ways that are not reachable by logic. We cannot replace their parents; we can only help them have as good a relationship as possible with them.
  3. Every story has a villain. When children look at their lives, they think in stories. Every story has a hero who is being opposed by a villain. It’s natural for them to cast the step-parent or foster parent as the villain. Sometimes we can move out of that role and sometimes they won’t let us.
  4. Gratitude is like a decadent dessert, in that no one can live on it. If you expect your children to be grateful for your love and care, you will be disappointed. No one wants to be an object of charity, and no emotionally healthy child can be perpetually grateful. We have to be willing to make one-way commitments to our foster or step-family.
  5. Strong commitments have healthy boundaries. One-way commitments do not mean unlimited commitments. We have to set boundaries and make them strong enough to protect the commitments that we make.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” J.R.R. Tolkien. It reminds me that I cannot spend my time wishing circumstances were different. I can only do the best I can with the circumstances that I have.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn did a wonderful job keeping a blended family together, especially in the crazy world of Hollywood.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

DebbieAusburn.com

Blog: OtherPeoplesChildren.org

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!


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