In To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, Lambda Literary Award–winner Cris Beam explores the turbulent, heart-breaking dynamics of foster families.

There are so many stereotypes about foster parents—what’s the real picture?

We have many studies about foster kids, but almost none about foster parents. Some are fantastic. The parents who talked to me, who come to group trainings, are the better ones. But I heard complaints from foster kids: “They locked me in the basement,” “They stepped on my hands,” [accounts of] molestation. Surveys reveal incredible abuse. Many foster parents are just okay.

The kids can be a handful, too.

Their parents have betrayed them and they’ve been put into a home they didn’t choose; they feel a fundamental contract has been broken. They want to control the next break, and the only control they have is to try to leave. They hope foster parents will hold onto them, but they push until the parents say: “Stay, I really want you.” There’s also guilt. Kids feel like they’ve broken something up, which turns into violence and self-harm—“I’ve left mom and dad, now all I can do is break stuff.” It’s a lot to ask of foster parents to go through those trials.

You meet an exemplary Brooklyn foster couple...

Bruce and Allyson Green were doing everything right—providing love, a good home, stability, rules. They took in Dominique, a troubled teenager who had endured abuse; she was angry and fighting with other kids. With Bruce and Allyson, she underwent a beautiful transformation: slowly I watched her soften, start to get along with people, and turn her grades around. Then after seven months, the agency called and said they had made a mistake and needed to move her to another home that was licensed to provide therapeutic help. The Greens said, “Look at the progress she’s made—you can’t yank her out!” The agency said, “We’re sorry, but you don’t have the proper licensing.”

As a writer, how did you get kids to reveal buried feelings about their families?

Time, really. I would just hang out—just sit with them in front of the TV or while they were playing with their phones. Slowly they would see that I wasn’t going away, and they would start to unfold.

What did you learn about the nature of family?

The families that really last are flexible and resilient. In foster care, you need a real openness to a changing definition of family—to inclusion of past characters, even if they’re unsavory. Because they’re going to keep cropping up. The families that work are the most supple.