Author Archives: senoch

Dear Prospective Foster Parent,

happy-family-images

I am writing to offer some advice for you to consider as you contemplate signing up to be a foster parent. Let me start by telling you a short story. At the beginning of the year I took 8 year old twins to have transfer physicals at a local pediatrician’s office. A transfer physical is required every time a child moves from one foster home to another and this was their fourth set of transfer physicals in the seven short months I had been on the case. These children, while utterly adorable, are a force to be reckoned with- bundles of nonstop energy in motion. As it turns out, energetic twins in motion will stay in motion, especially in new locations where there are magazines to read and then discard on the floor, office supplies to borrow from the receptionist (when she isn’t looking), and snacks to munch from new friends who weren’t really intending to share. It was a bit chaotic but we finally got called back into the room. When it came time for the actual physicals the room was suddenly quiet, but not a particularly satisfying type of quiet as it came from their anxiety about the potential of “getting a needle.” Once assured that it was just a quick check-up they immediately perked back up and reverted to their mischievous selves that warranted the doctor uttering the phrase “don’t touch that” approximately one hundred times in twenty minutes.

As the twins started to put their shoes on to leave one of them turned to me, face glowing in pride, and shouted, “Ms. E, I figured it out!” “What did you figure out?” I asked as I tried to wrangle the other child’s foot into a boot without losing an eye. “When we are bad we come to the doctor and then you take us to another home to see if that person thinks we are good or bad!” The words were said with such glee in the discovery that they had figured out the pattern- it was heartbreaking, mostly because it was true. Four sets of foster parents had decided over the course of seven months that they could not keep the children in their home, so four times they had their possessions packed up and delivered to me at the agency, I would accompany them to their transfer physical, buy them lunch, and then take them to a new home full of strangers.

Now I don’t mean to start this letter on a negative note. I don’t write these words to pass judgment on the parents who could not keep these children in their homes. I write this because I have seen in my time as a case planner that there is an increasingly common trend of foster parents putting in their “ten day notice” without really trying (in my opinion) to preserve the placement. I urge you to consider with utmost care what you are capable of doing and how you will cope with a foster child who is not perfect because I am here to tell you a not-so-secret secret: NO child is perfect. Regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sexual-orientation or even placement into foster care: every child presents unique and often frustrating challenges.

messy baby

I understand that what I am asking of you is impossible: I want you to love that child in your home like your own but with an understanding that they could leave at any moment. They could go to a relative who you don’t like. They could go to a grandparent who has very little money or a recovering parent residing in a shelter. You might not approve of the circumstances and no matter what it will probably break your heart because you did what I asked of you- you loved that child like your own. It is a heavy emotional price to pay if you want to be a foster parent, but I assure you the investment is worth the pain. The love, time, and energy that you put into raising that child, no matter the duration of time, will always be with them. What I ask of you is that you remember that no child is perfect and it will take time for a child to adjust to your home. Being a foster parent does not mean that you are “saving” a child. Children and youth might not be happy with you by no fault of your own, almost all children want to be with their family, even in cases of severe abuse and neglect. Their biological parents will not be perfect, just like you yourself are not a perfect parent. Their faults as parents might be more substantial but try your best to not be judgmental. Almost all parents with children in care (I would say at least 99.99%) love their children and want to protect and provide for them. They might not express their love the same way you do, but at the end of the day the children love their parents and, usually, want to go home.

I write this so that you will know ahead of time what to expect, but don’t be discouraged! Children are so wonderful, they love freely and without conditions, they will love multiple parents without the constraints of labels like “biological” and “foster.” I ask that you summon as much patience as is humanly possible, and then maybe a little more. Patience will be key to preserving your sanity. Nothing in child welfare runs on time and the only thing that is predictable is the promise of change. Be patient with the child and be patient with yourself. To be a truly phenomenal foster parent you have to practice exceptional self-care so don’t feel selfish when you prioritize your own physical and mental health above other things.

I commend you for considering this adventure because it is not a small commitment, children are precious but their needs are many. You will be busy with appointments and visits and meetings and you will feel exhausted and discouraged. And perhaps on that lowest of days you will come home to crayon mural of expletives on your newly painted wall or the leftover ashes of a joint in your mother’s antique ceramic pot. You might say that this is not for you, that this child cannot possibly stay one more day. Try to remember when you were a child or a teen, I am sure you did a few things that drove your parents crazy. And if you were somehow an angel in your childhood I am sure you had friends with rebellious streaks and their parents, while tempted to ship them to a circus, kept them because they were their children. I ask that if you truly want to be a foster parent then you commit to have this level of love for a child, a type of love that prevails over a storm of negatives when the positives can be few and far between.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for support and additional resources, don’t think that you are alone. As a case planner I know and love the children but I am not raising them 24/7- you are the one doing morning and bedtime routines and everything in between so you might feel like I don’t really understand when you tell me what is going on. Try joining a support group for foster parents so you can vent to someone who actually understands what you are going through on a daily basis, someone who might have also scrubbed some curse words off of furniture or waited up for teenagers who don’t mind curfews. Other people who have practice in negotiating the tumultuous waters of foster care and the extensive responsibilities and requirements you face. Build up your support network so that your friends and family can learn how to better help you and the child get everything done. Find someone to remind you on a daily basis how strong and wonderful you are. But please, unless there is a safety risk to you, the child, or your family, please don’t send a child back to the agency because they “aren’t the right fit.” Children are not puzzle pieces, there is no such thing as a perfect fit.

sun after storm

Please try a little longer, because the sunshine might be right behind this passing storm cloud but no one, not even the child or youth themselves, knows that it is so close. I ask you the impossible: love that child like they are your own and pour every last bit of your love and devotion into a child that you may never see again if/when they leave. You could be the one to help a child discover their true potential, to give them stability they might have been missing, you could help lead them to the sunshine, whatever that light may be. Just be prepared for the storms, and please don’t throw in the umbrella too soon because every day in the life of child is precious and they deserve someone who will be around regardless of the weather.

 

Sincerely,

Your future case planner

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

It Takes A Village

Musings on Terminology in the Foster Care World

famhandprint

I recently had the privilege of supporting a birth parent on my caseload as she surrendered her parental rights so that her two year old daughter, A, could be adopted by her foster parents. The Judge explained the proceedings to A’s mom to ensure that she understood the finality of her decision and asked for a final verbal confirmation. A’s mom had an opportunity to speak through her attorney and expressed her gratitude for the foster parents and their ability to provide the stability she would not be able to offer her daughter. After this the group scrambled to find a pen, because somehow, between three attorneys, one Judge, and a case planner, nobody had a working pen. One borrowed pen later A’s mom signed a series of documents and all legal ties were severed between a child and the woman who gave her life. Twenty-four months worth of court dates, meetings, treatment referrals, and family visits culminated in a fifteen meeting hearing. It was beautiful and heart-breaking all at once and I left the court room in total awe of A’s biological mom and the strength and courage it must take for a parent to make that kind of sacrifice, the epitome of a parent wanting what is best for their child. A’s mom never completed a single mandated service and did not frequently visit but she loved her daughter dearly and wanted to give her the best quality of life possible, even if that meant asking someone else to raise her baby.

Since this hearing I have spent a significant amount of time processing the role of language in foster care, especially when it comes to engaging birth parents in discussions concerning permanency options for children other than reunification. Words have a significant amount of power in our world, often times more than we realize. There are many terms in foster care vernacular that could benefit from an updated label but none more than the term surrender. When I first started reflecting on this issue I typed the word surrender into google and found the following sentences presented to give the definition:

1 The enemy finally surrendered after three days of fighting.

2 The gunman surrendered and was taken into custody.

3 The troops were forced to surrender the fort.

strength

Those examples do not evoke a sentiment of strength and sacrifice but rather an idea of weakness and lose. When a parent is presented with the option to surrender their parental rights I believe that many are intimidated by the terminology (and the word’s negative connotations) and refuse to even entertain the arrangement because it seems like they are giving up on their children. Although not everyone will understand or properly appreciate this statement I can tell you that 100% of the parents I have worked with love their children. Love is not the problem for a majority of cases in foster care, and it is no surprise that parents who love their children do not readily jump at the idea of signing papers that allow a Judge to terminate their parental rights. I would love to see a new term for this action that focuses on the parent’s strengths and what they are giving their child instead of what they are giving up. This does not negate the fact that a very serious discussion needs to occur so that parents completely understand the legal implications of their actions, but I think it would be beneficial for families navigating the foster care system if the lens could shift from a perspective of shame and guilt to one of empowerment and love.

While a non-voluntary termination of parental rights is usually not conducive to a continued relationship, conditional surrenders can allow parents to maintain a relationship with their child after their rights are terminated. While this situation presents its own unique set of challenges, it is, in my opinion, the best of both worlds for a child who cannot be safely reunified with their parents. This arrangement allows for the child to be raised in a safe and stable home while also benefiting from a connection with their biological families. You can NEVER have too many people loving a child. When it comes to establishing permanency there is no room to be selfish and if a child calling two people mom is the biggest concern in a parent’s world then it is time to re-evaluate priorities. If it takes a village to raise a child then we need to start empowering our birth families to feel comfortable inviting new people into the village because raising a child is hard work and not everyone has the resources, skills, and support to do it alone.

peopletree

It has been about a month since the surrender in court and tonight I visited A in her foster home. She is a bright, energetic, and slightly bossy toddler who loves her foster (soon to be adoptive) family very much. A showed me her new Christmas gifts and ordered me to drink imaginary tea that she brewed in her new play kitchen. Her birth mother did not attend the scheduled holiday visit that A’s foster mother arranged. This does not surprise me, A’s mom has her own hurdles to jump over on her road to recovery that may take some time, but the important thing is that the lines of communication are open and the seeds of the relationship have been planted thanks to the conditional surrender. After seven non-voluntary terminations of parental rights A’s mom was able to make the choice to give her daughter a more stable childhood while also remaining in her life. A’s foster mom texts A’s birth mom pictures and messages and is open to future visits, even though she knows not all of them will happen.

The foster care system is designed to support our children and families and I would love to see that sentiment reflected in the terminology. When I look at A running around, doll and tea pot in hand, it is easy to see the positive benefits of her mother’s decision. They say it takes a village, and A’s just got a whole lot bigger.

familystring

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Redefining “Adulthood”

“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”

-Mother Teresa

 

I had high expectations for my new life in NYC. Much like the heroines in the romantic comedies that fill my Netflix queue, I imagined that the city would transform me. Surely I would be absorbed into the vibrant ebb and flow of the concrete jungle, experiencing just the prescribed amount of triumph and heartbreak before emerging a stronger and more confident woman. I have lived in New York City, splitting time between Manhattan and Brooklyn, for a grand total of 29 days, and I am already a different person, but not in the ways that I anticipated.

move to ny

The dream: move to NYC and grow-up

In the years since I graduated from college I have wrestled with the term “grown up,” trying to decipher what exactly it means to be a grown up and how I would know when I was finally a fully functioning adult. After four years of college and two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda I could certainly see growth in my character and development, but based on my deep love of children’s movies, a lack of crystal clear goals for my future, and a propensity for allowing my bank account to hover just above the minimum, the elusive label of “grown up” seemed to be still out of reach.

adulting

that’s a lot of steps – maybe I’ll just wing it. Everyone’s doing it, it can’t be *that* hard.

I was thrilled to accept a position with Children’s Corps because I am passionate about working with children and the program offered me an opportunity to try to change the world for the better. I also viewed NYC as my opportunity to live independently in an environment that would push me to confront all of the boundaries preventing me from making the grand leap into adulthood.

I hoped that apartment hunting would be my first successful solo venture into the adult world. I had visions of my NYC self, the epitome of maturity and independence, meeting with landlords, negotiating the lease, and securing my ideal apartment. In reality, instead of blossoming into a sophisticated adult, I often found myself playing the role of a petulant child. I struggled to manage expectations and keep a positive attitude as I dove into the chaos of navigating the Craigslist apartment market. Throughout the process I did not feel mature at all, and almost every visit was narrated by a whiney voice chattering in my head. The rooms are too small. The commute to work is too long. The owner has six parrots in the kitchen. I’ll have to harvest an organ to pay rent.

nyc-meme

Hunting for an apartment on Craigslist can be more than a little challenging.

I did eventually find an apartment, and in the process of acclimating to the city I have learned the value of HopStop and Seamless, opened a new bank account, invested in quality headphones for the plethora of train rides ahead of me, and hailed my first cab after new shoes gave me blisters. I wrote a check to my landlord with enough zeros to induce a bout of nausea and filled out stacks of paperwork for the HR department, ecstatic to see all the zeros on my first real salary. All the aspects of my “adult life” started to fall into place and yet I was lacking the epiphany signaling that I was magically an adult, somehow really making a difference amidst all the chaos, sorrow, and violence that plagues our world.

On the first day of shadowing at my agency they were not quite prepared for me, so I had a lot of quiet reflection time. My supervisor gave me a few reports to read and I devoured every word, drew family maps, and studied all aspects of the particular family described in the documents. Three children, two foster homes, an absent birth mother, and two children freed for adoption. I studied the facts, prepared a list of questions I wanted to ask my supervisor, and left that day feeling somewhat confident in my abilities to do this job. The next week I followed another case planner to visit the children, and within a few moments all of the facts and figures jumped off the papers and manifested before me in the shape of three adorable young children, running in circles around my legs and begging to play catch with their new ball. I played basketball with the 3 and 2 year olds, held the baby’s chubby hands as she gurgled and cooed in her stroller, and talked about the children’s progress with both foster moms. I cared deeply about the children when they were numbers and names on paperwork, but to have the kids right in front of me evoked a mixture of joy and panic all at once. Reading about a family, engaging myself in constant theoretical debates about how to best support the people I work with, was nothing like meeting them in person. In that moment the case was no longer theoretical and all the possible solutions I had brainstormed would need to be decided upon and implemented, with real consequences to accompany every choice. The enormity of my job, and the many responsibilities that I have in order keep these children safe and happy, all while moving swiftly towards the best possible permanency goal, was truly overwhelming.

I will be working with many children over the next two years and it can be rather intimidating to contemplate all of the work that stands before me. I don’t want children to languish in the system but I don’t want them to be rushed into unsafe situations. I want children to be reunited with their parents but that will not always be possible. I want to keep siblings together but extenuating circumstances will sometimes keep them apart. After my first visit with the children on my caseload I spent an enormous amount of time pondering how I could be most effective in my job as a case planner.I made a list of the qualities I hope to embody as I embark upon this new journey, and I realized as the bullet points spilled onto a second page that the tasks involved in this job would never be simple or easy. Luckily, I know that I am not alone. There are many other people who will come together to make decisions about what is best for the children. When I am unsure of how to handle situations or escalating stress levels, I have not only my agency colleagues to lean on for support but also the entire staff, and all the members, of Children’s Corps.

strong

It turns out that I was right to expect change when I moved to NYC, but the catalyst is not the city- the work is. I find myself constantly inspired by the families I will work with and my colleagues in the field of child welfare. For every worker I have met who is burnt out and exhausted there are ten more who love what they do and exude passion and empathy in every interaction I have observed. I am so excited to start working with families at my agency and beyond grateful to be a member of Children’s Corps. I have a month’s worth of training, enough handouts to make any tree-hugger cringe, and so much more to learn. I am working to redefine “adulthood” based on the revelation that my life will not be comprised of one great contribution, but a multitude of small efforts- some of which I will completely screw up- some that will end splendidly, and all of which will be based on a true love for the work I get to do each day.

grow up to be happy

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized