Our three foster children were reunified with their mom last Wednesday. This was our first placement after graduating and completing all the requirements in November.
I remember in December, waiting impatiently for the call from placement, having no idea what to expect. I also remember finally receiving the call, on December 31st. New Years Eve. I was at Publix, getting groceries for New Years Day dinner. I walked around the store after getting off the call, filling the cart to overflowing with kid-friendly food. Treats. Stuff we would never usually buy. Our three children came that night – an 18 month old boy, a 2 year girl and a 5 year old boy.
Fast forward three months, and I can finally relax and say “We did it.” For anyone who’s been following my blog, or Facebook posts, you know that we struggled. I honestly didn’t think I could get up each day and do it. But, somehow, we did. For three months, we tried hard to make a difference in these kids’ life, and to help their mom. We made a lot of mistakes, and honestly I’m not sure that in the end we did the right thing by keeping the children when we knew we were over our heads. Our friends told us “Yes.” That the consistency we provided them was worth way more than feeling like all we were doing with them was surviving.
Along the way, I learned a few things about the system, and ourselves. Perhaps another new foster parent might come across this one day and know they’re not alone.
1. THIS WILL BE MUCH HARDER THAN YOU THOUGHT. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I may have envisioned fun-filled evenings around the dinner table while we regaled each other with cute stories of the day. Didn’t happen. Really, every day was survival for us. I know it’s not like that for all foster parents, but that was our reality. It was not fun. It was not joyous. And we honestly didn’t feel like it was rewarding until the very end.
2. IT TAKES A VILLAGE. I wrote about this in a previous post, but we really called in the troops to help, and the troops responded. We had friends donate beds, furniture, clothes, shoes, toys, food, emotional support – you name it, it was given to us. Many friends- new and old – send us money and gift cards. I honestly lost track, but it must have been close to $1000. Every cent was spent on the kids – clothes, an educational tablet for the 6 year old, gas for all the driving around, and we still have more! A good friend of mine who lives in the DC area sent the sweetest note along with a hundred dollar check. She knew I was struggling emotionally and urged me to use it for babysitting. But since the kids have gone back with their mom, I actually used it to buy Easter baskets for all the foster kids!
3. PEOPLE WANT TO HELP. This goes along with #2. Fostering is intense, and can feel overwhelming. Not everybody is able or has the desire to be a foster parent, but people really do want to help in small, tangible ways. Just ask for help. I really got over my shyness with this one fast. There’s no reason to be a martyr. One of the kindest things people did for us during this time was to come over with dinner. There were a group of about 6 different couples that would rotate and bring us food – often making two different meals for the foster kids (who didn’t take too kindly to anything more exotic than a chicken nugget), and a vegan meal for the rest of us. These friends would stay through the evening until we got the kids upstairs to bed. That help was a godsend. We knew we weren’t doing it alone.
4. DON’T BE AFRAID TO CREATE A SCENE. I’m very non-confrontational. And I have this annoying quality of liking to be liked. And I usually am – I’m relaxed, easy-going, nice. I don’t have a strong personality. But, I had to put all that aside when I became a foster parent. The system is flawed. You think you are going to work with a system that has these children’s best interests at heart. And on the macro level, they do. But at the micro level, in many decisions made every day, they don’t. Placement workers need to get kids in a home – any home, and the structure isn’t in place to really try to make good decisions about fitting children with the right family. In our short three months, we managed to piss off placement and I’m pretty certain they think we’re annoying foster parents who won’t just do the job that they signed up for. It frustrates me, but really…we’re in it for the children, NOT to impress agency workers.
5. WORKING WITH THE WHOLE FAMILY IS INCREDIBLY REWARDING. Ok, this is a long one, because it’s so important. In social work school, we learned about PIE. Person in the environment. As a friend of mine said, I put every cent of that MSW to work when working with this family. Very early on – like the first week – I decided I didn’t want to go to the visitation center to drop off the kids for their visits with mom. I’d rather be there. To work with the entire family, instead of just the children. I knew their mom didn’t have a car, and how hard it must be for her to get to the center. So, after meeting her at a park a couple of times, we began inviting her into our home. Three nights a week, for about 12 hours a week, she would come over to eat dinner with the kids, do homework, play, and do the bathtime and bedtime routine. It was a lot of work doing it this way, but it was the right thing to do.
I got to know this whole family, and was able to advocate for the mom, who honestly needed help infused into her home – not pejorative actions taken against her. As I said to the caseworker a number of times “We can barely do this ourselves – and we have a huge network of support, the benefit of stable jobs, and not much stress in our lives. I have no idea how she can possibly do this on her own.” Getting to know the mom as well as I did qualified me to make a recommendation to the judge. Based largely in part to my testimony, we were able to get these kids home to their mom a month earlier than they would have otherwise.
6. BABY GATES ARE GODLY INVENTIONS. I felt like my family was hijacked for the three months that the children were here. Our quiet, joyful home became obnoxiously loud and filled with fighting toddlers and ubiquitous time-outs. In a fit of despair, I parted with the best $50 I’ve ever spent and bought the tallest child gate you’ve ever seen. As in a Great Dane could not get past the gate. The three year old wreaked havoc at the beginning, running around the upstairs floor screaming her head off, waking up our twins. She overflowed our toilet, and generally destroyed upstairs and my sanity until a friend said “Why don’t you try a tall babygate?” Amazon prime couldn’t come fast enough.
7. IF A PLACEMENT IS NOT WORKING OUT FOR YOUR FAMILY, IT’S OK TO SAY NO.
I alluded to this above. I’m honestly not sure that in the end, it was the best thing for us to keep the children. If it’s too much, it’s ok to say no. Like many things in life, learning when to say no is often harder than knowing when to say yes.
8. FOSTERING CAN BE HARD ON YOUR FAMILY I guess I expected for fostering to be a strengthening experience for our family. And maybe in the end it will be. But in the short-term, it was very hard. Our nerves were shot, and Stephanie in particular had a really hard time with all the screaming. At the end, I knew the kids either had to go back to their mom, or go to another family, because it was hurting our family. And that’s not ok. Steph and I have a responsibility to take care of our family first, so that we can help others.
9. WHAT SEEMS LIKE A DROP IN THE BUCKET IS NOT. It’s hard not to get overwhelmed with the need. I have always been passionate about children – I did my undergrad thesis on the effect of media coverage on the reporting of child abuse. I worked in a therapeutic child care center in uptown Manhattan. But how do you stay energized to do something good when there’s so much suffering around? It just seems like a drop in the bucket sometimes. But it’s not. These are people’s lives. These are children’s lives. These are families that can make it…or not. And you have a chance to help. It doesn’t get much more meaningfull than that.
10. FOCUS ON THE SMALL THINGS
This placement really rocked our world. Most times, it felt too hard, unrewarding, and that we were just barely surviving. How was that good for the kids? But I had great friends point out that just by providing stability, we were doing good things for them. It’s too easy for me to remember all the screaming and time outs and general ugliness. I need to focus on the good stuff, like how B started talking more the longer he was with us. Or how Spitfire T would talk in a voice like she was a three pack a day smoker. And how she called Steph “Miss Toe-fan-ee”. Or how the 5 year old did so much better behaviorally when we instituted a rewards chart. When everything seems overwhelming, it’s the small things that count.
That’s our journey so far. When the children went back to their mom, we knew we needed to take a long break. The long break turned into two weeks – we have a new 17 year old foster daughter coming to live with us on Monday! Though Steph and I both still have PTSD from our older two being teenagers, we’re excited for the chance to help love and support this girl. I won’t lie, though. We are hoping for it to be a bit easier this second time around.
Note: For anyone interested, here’s a film told from the perspective of a young girl being removed from her home.