The Most Magical Day of My Life Was the Worst Day of Yours

Dear Foster Love,

I hope by now you know how delighted I am with every brilliant, amazing, difficult, kind, fragile, damaged and perfect piece of you. I love you in a thousand ways. I love your silly sense of humor, and your beautiful smile. I am in awe of your perfect little soul that has been so hurt but remains powerful and good capable of so much. Being your momma has forced me out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. I am proud of the things I’ve learned and done and the feelings I’ve felt since knowing you, but I have only done those things because your wonderful little self has inspired me to it.

This is where it gets tricky.

Your arrival in my world is one of the most magical things I could ever experience, but the circumstances that brought you here are among the most terrible any person could withstand. Your agony and behaviors tell a heartbreaking story. I’m so sorry, sweet little foster love. I’m so sorry that these things happened to you, and I’m sorry for the days that followed and all the things that layered trauma on top of trauma as you were moved from one home to the next. I’m sorry about what brought you here, and if I could wish it all away and erase your trauma and put you back safely in your home of origin, I would do it in instant.

But I can’t.

And I rejoice in you every day. I love taking care of you. I am happy to have you sweet baby, but I am so so sad you’re here. It’s a cruel world that made the most magical day of my life the worst day of yours, but if anyone can overcome it, it’s you.

With all my love,

Momma

Advertisements

Stop Asking Foster Parents These 3 Questions

It’s okay to ask questions. Most foster parents really want to be understood and like to educate others about the nature of foster care. That being said, please first consider your motivation for asking. Are you interested in the drama, or are you seeking understanding? If you let empathy and kindness be your yardstick for these conversations, then please ask! Here are three questions to definitely avoid (and some more appropriate alternatives):

1.  What happened to her? Social media, crime shows, 24 hour news and popular TV that glamorizes drug use and abuse have created a sense that it’s acceptable to consume the stories of other people’s personal tragedies. There are a lot of people who ask foster parents about the abuse/neglect/domestic violence/drug exposure/whatever that led to their foster child being placed in state care. Most of the time these asks are couched in a conversation to make it seem like the question is coming from a place of empathy: “Oh that poor baby! I can’t imagine what she’s feeling. What exactly happened to her?” I think if we’re being honest with ourselves, though, it is perfectly possible to have empathy for a child who has been torn from everything familiar and left with strangers without hearing the gruesome details of their trauma.

Try this instead: What happened to her?  How is she doing? This gives foster parents a place to start from that doesn’t violate the child’s right to privacy. We can tell you how the child is doing in the here and now because the present is when this child’s story merges with our own. This question gives us enough space to be as vague or detailed as we think is appropriate, and it still makes the point that you care about our new placement.

2. Where are his real parents? Ouch. I urge you to stay away from words like real and pretend when talking about kids in foster care–real does not equate to biological. Bio parents are very real parents to foster children, but so too are foster parents. Beyond that, many children in foster care imagine a fantasy version of their home of origin that could never become reality, and in so doing, reject the very real and nurturing (if possibly temporary) home they’re living in right now.

Try this instead: Where are his real parents?  Will he be able to reconnect with his family of origin?** Children come into foster care for many reasons. The most common story is of the child who is removed by child welfare for abuse or neglect, and the parents are out there somewhere trying (or possibly not trying) to make things right and get their kid back. However, children can also come into custody when their parents are deported, when their parents are incarcerated, or in some rare instances, when they are orphaned by the passing of their parents and there are no appropriate kinship homes from them. Beyond all that, children can be placed into a new foster home at any point in their journey. A foster family might get a child who is right on the brink of reunification and is spending every weekend at their home of origin. On the other hand, a family might get a foster child after parental rights have been terminated, and that child might be legally free for adoption. Regardless, whether it’s the biological parents, the foster parents, or the future adoptive parents, all of these parents are “real.” Also, phrasing the question so that it is centered on child’s outcome takes out some of that judgmental sting (there is very much an accusation implied in asking where a child’s real parents are). **Depending on the nature of the case, foster parents might still not be able to answer this question without violating privacy, but this is gentler and more respectful way to ask it.

3. Are you keeping her? *Facepalm* Please stop. This question can illicit feelings in foster parents that run the gamut from agony to confusion. There is typically a long process that takes place before a child would even become available for a foster family to adopt, and that process includes exhausting every available resource to return the child to their biological family, seeking a kinship or fictive kinship placement in the state, seeking a kinship or fictive kinship placement out of the state, and only then asking foster parents if they are interested in adopting. Even at that point, it is completely possible (and NOT wrong) for a foster family to not want to adopt a child in their care, but it’s a big decision and can be embarrassing and painful to explain. Lastly, there are foster parents who desperately hope to adopt but time and time again do not have the opportunity to, and the flippant wording of this question belies the pain of loving a child with an uncertain future.

Try this instead: Are you keeping her?  What’s her permanency plan? This is a much less emotionally loaded question. The goal of every single child welfare cases is permanency, and the permanency plan is the current expected outcome. A child’s permanency plan will generally either be reunification with their family of origin or adoption, though in some states there are alternatives, such as legal custody, legal guardianship or alternative permanency placements (such as group homes or institutions). Asking this question gives the foster parent the room to answer simply (she’s moving toward reunification or she’s moving toward adoption), but it is also possible to give a more detailed explanation (she’s moving toward adoption, and if we are eligible to adopt her, that’s what we hope to do). Permanency planning is complicated and emotionally charged. It’s made even more complicated by a myriad of other factors, like ICPC, ICWA or the placement of siblings and half siblings in other homes. Permanency planning is the subject of much worried speculation and sleepless nights for foster parents, so please be gentle and respectful on the topic, or better, wait for the foster parent to bring it up first.

4. The perfect question to ask a foster parent any time is simply this: What do you need right now? Being a foster kid is brutal, and being a foster parent is challenging in a thousand ways. Support the kids by supporting the family. I have a friend who occasionally picks up my oldest foster love from school and who regularly lets us pick a grocery sack full of amazing vegetables from her backyard garden. I have another who routinely listens to my pissed off, paranoid, confused rants about everything that’s wrong with the system without ever discouraging me or minimizing my feelings. If you truly want to know the details of foster life, start by being a friend such as these–the best way to know our story is to be a part of it.

A Battle on Many Fronts

I want to tell you a secret about foster moms and dads. But first you should know that the reaction we hear most often when we tell people that we are foster parents is “Oh, I could never do that. Love a child and then give them up? My heart would break.” Well, yes. You could do that. You could decide that the pain and anxiety and stomach churning fear of the future are a worthy trade for keeping a kid safe and loved for however long you have them.  Here’s the secret: even though we agree to these things, they are still unbearably hard. Foster parents don’t have some secret weapon against heartbreak.

At one of the kids’ therapeutic appointments recently, I was explaining our successes and struggles from the previous week. Every inch of self-love and good behavior for this child is hard won, and I count the smallest moments of joy that this kid experiences as major victories. The therapist offered a new framework for seeing foster care. She told me that this is a battle on multiple fronts. And with those words, the veil came down and I saw clearly every fight we were fighting. Every day we advocate for these kids to their schools, to the court, to the caseworkers. We fight to accrue resources and mental health providers for them. We fight their demons. We rock them for hours at night when the trauma is lurking just behind their eyelids. And then we sometimes are fighting with the kids themselves, especially fighting for them to see themselves and love themselves the way that we do.

Seeing this as a battle was helpful to me. It justified my feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion. It helped me visualize our therapeutic practices at home as weapons against the darkness; our team of caseworkers and therapists as allies in the fight. It helped me understand my own tension and occasionally grim outlook.

The problem is that when the battle is won and the dust clears, if we truly have a victory, our only reward will be heartbreak. The win will be if these children are able to return to a safe, nurturing and stable bio home. A loss would be the kids staying in my home where I could love them forever. Never has there been a more bitter victory or a sweeter loss, but that doesn’t mean I get to turn my coat and fight for the other side. My love and my heart are for these children, but my energy and my fight is for their whole family.

The reward for this work is heartbreak. Acknowledging this makes people uncomfortable. There is always an instant rush to identify intrinsic rewards: you’ll be happy knowing you helped a family, you’ll be satisfied having worked so hard for a worthy cause. I challenge you to think back to a time that you grieved and imagine when people tried to comfort you by saying that this person was lucky to have you. I always think, lucky to have me? I am blessed beyond words to have them. There is simply no intrinsic reward great enough to eclipse the searing pain of losing a a cherished child. Battles only have two possible outcomes: If we lose, we will mourn a broken up family and all of the heritage that will be lost with it. If we win, we will grieve the loss of children from our home who have our whole hearts.

As it turns out, the biggest fight in the foster care battle is the one that’s happening in my own heart.