Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Reunification

A lot of people don't know that the goal of foster care is reunification - the family being reunited. This is something stressed over and over again during the training and by workers involved throughout the process. The whole point of foster care is to remove a child temporarily so a parent can focus on doing whatever needs to be done to parent successfully. Then the child is returned.

Sounds simple, right?

Since becoming a foster parent, I've found that many people have incorrect assumptions about the foster process. Some people think that if a child is taken away, he can never go back. Some believe if you take a child in, you are automatically planning to adopt him. Some even believe the kids in foster care are given up or abandoned by their parents, rather than forcibly removed. (It *is* true that a tiny percentage of kids in foster care were abandoned, but the overwhelming majority are removed against the parent's wishes.)

At first, I wondered how people could have so many misconceptions. How do people not understand how this works? Why don't they get it? Doesn't reunification make sense? Then we went through a long, painful process with our first foster placement and I realized something important: Nothing about this makes sense.

In a perfect world, kids would always be able to reunite with their parents. Scratch that, in a perfect world, kids wouldn't need to be removed from their parents in the first place. But this isn't a perfect world, and reunification is not always the answer.

Now don't get me wrong. I believe in reunification. I believe parents should be given the chance to parent and families should be reunited whenever possible. I do. But the truth is, successful reunification is rare. The reasons why would take another whole post (and I might do that one day), but sometimes one of the biggest barriers to successful reunification is the fact the child has been taken to begin with: Once the child is gone, the parents lose the motivation that was keeping them afloat. Once the child is gone, they start to sink. Once the child is gone...chances go up that he's never coming back.

If this all sounds rather bleak to you, that's good. Foster care should never sound happy - there's nothing joyful about families disintegrating. About trauma. About loss. And on one hand, bleak is about the only word I can think of to describe this whole foster care business.

But.

On the other hand.

Is hope.

Every time a child is removed, every time a parent says they will do whatever it takes to get their kid back and then disappears, every time the system bounces a kid around trying to find something - anything - that will help him, there is hope. Hope that this time it will work out. Hope that the systems in place will do what they were meant to do. Hope for reunification. Hope.

No matter how many times promises are broken, families are left in limbo, kids are jerked back and forth in a terrible tug-of-war...I still have Hope. And I don't think I could keep being a foster parent, keep caring, keep getting up every day, without it.

"We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield." Psalm 33:20

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A broken Christmas

It was one week before Christmas, 1994. Multi-colored strands of lights blinked in the windows. My mother's tree, with its white lights and crystal snowflakes, graced the living room, while the tree in the family room that belonged to us kids...well, let's just say what it lacked in beauty it made up for in enthusiasm.

My siblings and I were eagerly awaiting the big day. The excitement was mounting. Just like every Christmas before.

But this would not be like any Christmas before.

Our farm did not see much traffic in those days, situated as it was on the outskirts of a tiny, one-horse town. It was a quiet night as we ate dinner. Then, a blast of frantic honking cut through the peace. Beep, beep, beeeep. Strangers driving by had been able to see from the road what we could not from our dining room. The house next door was enveloped in flames. The house I had visited a thousand times. The house where she lived.

I stared wide-eyed across the yard at the unholy firelight and knew in my heart she was in there. Her mental health had been holding her prisoner in that house for years.

For a moment, we all froze in horror. Then, mayhem ensued. 9-1-1 was called. Boots were hastily pulled on. My father dragged a hose from the garage in a vain attempt to contain the blaze while the rest of us stood in the yard in the freezing cold darkness waiting for a fire truck we knew would be too late.

I won't bore you with the details. All you need to know is that at some point, after what felt like hours, an exhausted and filthy team of firemen wheeled a sheet-covered figure from the house on a gurney, staked CAUTION tape around the property, and slowly drove away.

We woke up the next day to a different world, the blackened shell of a house next door like a terrible mouth gaping open. "Merry Christmas," it mocked. "Joy to the world."

But I didn't care about Christmas anymore. Grandma was gone.

The next couple of days dragged by in a sluggish whirl of well-wishers, ham and potato casseroles, and stoic relatives, capped off by standing at Grandma's open grave in the pouring rain watching my father's broad shoulders shake. I had never seen him cry before. Never felt like this before. Never faced death before.

Christmas Eve arrived. The dull gray of the sky matched my mood. Dysfunctional as it was, I had had a special relationship with my grandma. I had felt...protective of her. With her, I was the grown-up and she was the child, unhappy and unsure. Unwell. I had thought she would get better if I loved her enough. I had hoped she would be happy again some day. But I could never seem to get through.

The house, her house, called to me. It drew me like a magnet, pulling me in to its soot-covered destruction. I ducked under the caution tape and slipped through the front door. It was quiet. The sharp smell of burned everything stung my nose. I didn't cry.

I saw her chair. Where she had spent most of her days and nights. Where she had watched soap operas on TV and pretended not to hear me when I'd sneak in to check on her. I stared at it. Was that where they'd found her? Why had she never turned around when she heard my footsteps? Never called my name? I had thought I could make her smile. But maybe she didn't want me there at all.

I was eleven. I knew nothing about how utterly a heart can be broken.

I wandered into another room in a daze. The carpet squished beneath my feet, saturated by thousands of gallons of water that had done nothing but keep the house from collapsing entirely. I stopped. There on the old, blue couch was a small pile of gifts. Wrapped and labeled.

My feet left dark prints as I crossed the room. The gifts seemed unharmed, a tiny piece of life and promise in the midst of despair. I saw my name.

To Katie
Love Grandma

I recognized her shaky handwriting. I sucked in a breath. She had remembered me. I picked up the small square box and the sodden red paper disintegrated under my fingers. I opened the gift.

A dainty gold bracelet, cheaply made but beautiful to me. I put it on and twisted my arm back and forth, back and forth. As the charms on the bracelet swung against my wrist, I thought of her in her chair. When had she gotten these gifts? How? I had thought she had fallen so deep into her addiction and hopelessness that nothing else mattered. But the cold piece of metal on my wrist told me otherwise.

I had mattered to her. She had seen me.

That Christmas was different than any before, tainted as it was by shock and grief, but I can see now that it taught me something. I learned that even if they don't seem to notice, you never know what your acts of kindness might mean to someone who's hurting. I learned that any Christmas can be someone's last so you should never take their presence in your life for granted. And I learned that being seen by someone else, being known, is a greater gift than anything that can be found in a box.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Are you done fostering?

It's been awfully quiet around here lately. No more belly laughs from Little Man. No more begging for cottage cheese. No more throwing balls at people's heads. Never thought I'd miss that.

Over three weeks have passed since he left, but I still hear him in the morning sometimes, babbling to himself in his crib while he waits for me to come. But of course, he's not there. Many people have asked me if we'll ever do it again. Take another placement. The way they ask and the look on their faces tell me they wouldn't blame me if I said no. If I said I was done with this whole fostering thing.

I'm not.

Let me tell you something I've learned in the past three weeks, after the loss of my foster son and the loss of a dear friend's son. It came at a high cost, and it has nothing to do with fostering. It has to do with grief, and time, and family. I've learned that those three things are more connected than I ever realized. Nothing can cause us greater grief or comfort us more in our grief than family. And the amount of time someone was part of your family doesn't change the amount of grief at losing them. Whether you had them for 5 days or 3 months, 10 years or 75, you will grieve. The tone of your grief, the look of it, the after-effects, will differ depending on time. But loss is loss. Grief is grief. And family is family.

But family means something different to me now than it did ten years ago. Ten years ago, I had never adopted a child. Never fostered a child. Never had people in my day-to-day life as close or closer to me than anyone biologically related. But now all those things are true. And my life is richer for it, but the pain is also deeper. The loss cuts even more.

Now one piece of my heart is living in another state with a new family and another piece is living in heaven. But they will always be with me. Because when you open your heart, open your home, well, this is what happens. You open yourself up for more pain...and more family. More everything, good and bad.

No, I'm not done with fostering. I dove into it head-first and almost broke my neck, but I'm going to do it again.

It's going to hurt. Choosing to love others always does. But if you try to spare yourself from grief...you miss out on life.