from the book, Are you my Mother?
About a year ago, I witnessed what was at the time a very sad story. Jarrell* came into foster care at birth. He had three older siblings who had been in care for nearly three years, and a one year old brother who had also been in care since birth. In the previous three years, Jarrell’s birth parents had not made even minimal strides towards change that would allow the children to go home. Even at birth, while not impossible, it seemed unlikely that Jarrell would ever be reunited with his birth parents. When he was born, Jarrell’s siblings were placed in two different foster homes, and for various reasons, neither family was able to care for Jarrell. The five siblings would be separated between three different foster families.
Jarrell was placed in a very loving home with Ms. Washington who instantly fell in love with him. Before Jarrell was born, Ms. Washington had planned a two week vacation with her twelve year old son for his birthday, but the baby was placed in the home nonetheless because it seemed like a good fit long-term. So after about two months with Ms. Washington, Jarrell was placed in a respite home for two weeks during her vacation. Ms. Washington returned from vacation, and after about three months was totally enamored with Jarrell and committed to being an adoptive resource for him. A month later, there was a sudden death in her family, and she had to travel out of state to support her family members for a short period of time. Jarrell was placed in a respite home again. This time, Ms. Washington requested that Jarrell be placed with a friend of hers who is also a foster parent with the agency. She said that she had grown so attached to him, and this way she could leave knowing that he would be very well cared for and that she could call her friend regularly while she was gone to check in on him. For twenty-one days, Jarrell was placed in another respite home. He adjusted well when Ms. Washington returned, and for two more months, all was well.
Then one day I received a frantic call from Ms. Washington. She was in the hospital with her mother, who up until then had lived with her and helped her care for Jarrell while she was at work. Her mother had just had a stroke, and it was looking like she was not going to fully recover. Jarrell was home with her back up resource, but she said that she was not sure how she was going to be able to continue to care for Jarrell. Over the next few days, I spoke with Ms. Washington several times and reviewed different scenarios and options with her to help her decide what would be the right thing to do. Her mother would need a permanent full time caretaker, and she was told that it was possible her mother would not live for very much longer. She wrestled with the decision and truly put her whole heart into it, but ultimately decided that despite how much she loved Jarrell, she would not be able to care for him any longer in the way that she felt he deserved. So we began the search for Jarell’s fourth foster home. He was six months old.
The story of foster children bouncing from home to home is a common one, and it is always a heartbreaking story. but this was a baby! A cute six month old, baby who slept well, ate like a king, and was healthy as could be. It killed me to think of the injustice that was being done to this helpless little child who had arrived in the world to such unthinkable instability. It was worse that the instability happened once he arrived in foster care, not before. But there was no fault to be found, it was simply what seemed to be horrifically unlucky circumstances.
Our homefinding team found a family for Jarrell almost immediately. The young couple, Sarah and James, had become certified foster parents literally two days beforehand, so this would be their first foster child. I later learned that they had also gotten engaged just a few weeks prior to officially becoming foster parents. I called them to talk details and make sure they knew whatever they needed to know to ensure this was a commitment they wanted to make. I spoke with Sarah first, who asked me a million questions, and then said she would call me back after speaking with her partner. Then, about a half hour later, James called back and the first question he asked was, “How soon can he get here?” It was a Thursday night when we spoke, and the agency’s one car was going to be in use all day on Friday, so I explained to him that the soonest Jarrell could arrive in their home would be on Monday. James sounded sorely disappointed, but accepted the three day wait. He asked a thousand more eager questions about Jarrell, and then after promising to touch base first thing Monday morning, we hung up.
James called back two hours later with an unforgettable urgency in his voice. He said that he and Sarah had an idea, and asked, “Would it be possible for Jarrell to come today if we go with you and pick him up in a taxi? We’ll pay for it!” Four hours later, I was in James and Sarah’s living room, looking on as Jarrell looked at them, and they looked at Jarrell, and, after answering a thousand more questions, I left them to get to know each other.
That night was when this sad story stopped being sad. Nearly a year has gone by since then. Sarah and James are as committed as could be to being Jarrell’s adoptive resource, and have worked hard to make sure that Jarrell is able to have relationships with his siblings. Jarrell is walking, and talking. Despite constant efforts to work with them, Jarrell’s birth parents have more or less disappeared, and the termination of parental rights process is underway. When I visit Sarah and James’s home now and see Jarrell and his foster family interacting and going about their daily routine, it’s hard to imagine Jarrell being anywhere else. After such an unstable and tumultuous entrance to the world, Jarrell is finally settled. When I am in their living room, with toys and children’s books abounding, I don’t feel like I’m in Sarah and James’s living room, I feel like I am in Jarrell’s living room.
In retrospect, I realize–and I think James and Sarah realize too–that the urgency they felt that night when they spent an exorbitant amount of money on a cross borough taxi ride was because they knew that Jarrell was meant to come to their home. They felt it, and they just could not bear to wait any longer. To them, waiting for Monday was like waiting to cash in a winning lottery ticket.
Jarrell’s story is a bit like a fairy tale. If you talk to any caseworker, they will more than likely have at least one fairy tale story of a child bouncing from home to home to finally end up exactly where they belong. More often though, especially with older kids and youth, the fairy tale goes more like this: the child is placed in a foster home and at first things are okay, but time goes by and they start to act out. The emotional turbulence of foster care placement, coupled with the impacts of pre-foster care neglect or abuse, surface in the home, or in school, and eventually the foster parent decides they just can’t do it anymore. The child is moved to a new home, the behaviors escalate, they move from home to home, and years slip by. With each move, behaviors continue to evolve and escalate, and it gets harder and harder to find a home for youth labeled with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Disruptive Behavioral Disorder. They steal or a break curfew, or a fight, or a lie. They’re aggressive, or they’ll curse you out. They cycle through what feels like every home in the agency, until after their seventh or tenth move, by some miracle, something shifts. Behaviors subside, they are coming home for curfew, they are going to school and passing their classes, and it’s been months since they have gotten in a fight–it’s been months since they have been in the same home! The caseworker holds her breath as if it’s the calm before the storm. And when it seems the storm is finally about to approach, the youth confides in her caseworker that she has changed her mind, and she would like to be adopted. The foster parent wants to adopt her. The caseworker simply looks on, mystified in those first several months of home visits, as the youth and the foster parent joke with each other, laugh, smile, and generally act like family.
Of course it’s not perfect. You can’t go from hurricane season to perpetually sunny skies overnight. But a major shift occurs. Because now, when the storm comes, rather than being the end of the road for an almost-would-be-family looking on with a mix of guilt and relief as the youth packs their bags, it’s just a difficult and frustrating time within a family. It is not pain and stress free, but it is part of what it means to be this particular family, and the fact that they truly are a family is what matters most. This feels like a miracle. This feels like a fairy tale if there ever was one.
I said that nearly every caseworker will have some magical story about a child or youth who bounced from home to home until finally arriving at the perfect match, and lived more or less happily ever after from then on. This is great, but here’s the problem–the sad reality is that for every one magical fairy tale story that a caseworker has, they more than likely have ten stories that have the same beginning and middle, without any happy ending. The youth bounces from home to home, and continues to bounce from home to home, or gets stepped up to residential care when behaviors continue to escalate, often until they age out of foster care, as alone in the world as ever.
Various religions and spiritual traditions espouse the idea that as we come into this world, we actually choose our parents. We specifically and deliberately choose our parents for the lessons they have to teach us, and for the support or the challenges they provide us with– that we provide for each other, really– that allow us to continue on our journey throughout life, and our parents on theirs, on precisely the path we need to walk, with precisely the right resources we need to walk it. This idea was introduced to me for the first time several years ago, and the experience of hearing it had that rare quality of being inflamed with inexplicable enchantment and a woefully irrational but exceptionally forceful sense of truth. This concept has stayed with me over the years, and has been drawn out with a strong sort of magnetism over my time working in child welfare.
From where I stand–as a foster care caseworker, working day to day with families who have had their children removed from their care, bearing witness to unthinkable acts and long-term patterns of parental neglect and abuse—from this angle, it is impossible not to call this framework into question. It just doesn’t make sense. “How could anyone choose that childhood? How could anyone knowingly walk into that kind of pain?” But at the risk of offending those comfortably attached to a range of differing worldviews and confirming my possible insanity to a great many others, let’s assume for a moment that this concept, that we choose our parents, is more than a cute idea, but is actually a bonafide fact of human existence. If we choose our parents, how do we make sense of foster care?
The majority of foster children come into care, their parents address the circumstances that brought them to us, and the children go home. But several other children are born to parents who simply will never be able to take care of them. That does not mean that the parents will not be Mom or Dad in whatever capacity they are able to manage, but they will never be able to be full time caretakers for their children. What remains, then, is a parent-less child who has to find their way through the jungle of the world, in hope of finding their new home. For we are human, and day to day I am becoming convinced more and more that a major part of being human is needing a family. As humans, we need a family to support us, not just until we can hunt on our own, but for life. And so we find so many children around us on journeys from home to home, in search of the family that they chose but for some reason could not be born to.
Sometimes when I hear the stories of children bouncing from home to home, I am reminded of the children’s book Are You My Mother? A baby bird hatches while, unbeknownst to him, his mother is out searching for food. With no one to care for him, the chick sets off into the world searching for his mother. He asks a kitten, “Are you my mother?” and then goes about asking the same question to a hen, a dog, a cow, a boat, a plane, and, in desperation, a bulldozer. Nearly hopeless, the chick finally ends up back at the nest where his mother has just arrived, and the two meet for the first time. This is similar to the story of many of our foster children, except that their version of “Are you my mother?” after a while often sounds more like curfew breaking, fighting, cursing, and cutting class. I’d be willing to bet that if that little chick had not found his mother after the bulldozer, he too would have cursed out the next fire hydrant he came across when the fire hydrant was unwilling to take him in.
Like the little chick, our children are searching for their families, whether they know it or not, in each family they come across And like the chick who opens his eyes to the world for the first time and seeks out his mother in something so farfetched as a bulldozer, our children’s search is made all the more difficult by the fact that they have never known that for which they search–a home full of unconditional love, a family that will never tell them they gotta go, no matter what. But one can only search so far and so wide for something one has never known without giving up hope, without getting so pissed at the world, or so numb to the world, that the will for the journey is lost altogether, and life becomes no more than a constant series of reactions. The objects of this search must make themselves more easily found. They must be searching too. The journey needs to be shorter.
I always ask foster parents what made them decide to become a foster parent. Among the foster parents I most enjoy working with and most respect, the answers are surprisingly similar. It just came to them one day. Or, being a foster parent had been in the back of their mind for as long as they could remember and they just couldn’t justify not doing it anymore. Or, a foster parent recruiter stopped by their church/community center/work on a particularly auspicious day, or a recruitment flyer serendipitously fell into their hands right as they were thinking about what next step to take in their life. Anyone who knows what it feels like to truly do what you love, or to truly follow your heart knows what a calling feels like, and knows the rewards of following that calling. For many of our foster parents, they arrived here in response to a calling. Often, when I witness and hear stories of foster children who endlessly bounce from home to home, I wonder if for each and every one of these children, there is someone out there who hears a calling to become a foster parent, however irrational or out of the blue it may seem, and ignores it. And I wonder if they feel this abstract sense of something missing, a hole waiting to be filled, an odd sense of waiting for someone they have never met before to come home.
We desperately need foster parents. And what we really need is GREAT foster parents. Foster parents who understand that when their youth finally arrives in their home, they may not act as happy to be there as the foster parent may have dreamed of. Foster parents who have the patience and empathy to understand that this youth has been on quite a journey through the jungle of the world to finally arrive there, and the journey has taken quite a toll.
I asked Jarrell’s foster parents recently if they think Jarrell will have any siblings in the future. They told me, yes, he would. But they couldn’t possibly imagine having any biological children of their own, as they had once thought they might. They said that they knew that being foster parents would be an amazing experience, and they knew that every child is special, but Jarrell is just so extraordinarily special, and at this point, he is absolutely their son. They told me that if he had not ended up with them, there would have been something missing in their lives. They might not ever have known it, but Jarrell would have been missing. Yes, they said, Jarrell will have siblings, but they would open their home to any of the many other children in foster care who would arrive in their home asking, “Are you my mother?”, and they would say “Yes, yes!–well, not your biological mother, you’ll always have her, and we’ll let her be part of your life if that’s the right thing, etc., etc.–but yes! If you’ll have us, then yes.”
I have found that the greatest of the great foster parents are the ones who are here because they are wise enough to know that they are not only here for the kids. They are here for themselves as well, because they know, without knowing how, that the experience of being a foster parent will bring them endless, immeasurably wonderful gifts. They were wise enough to not ignore that voice in their head that said that perhaps someone is waiting for them, looking for them. They heard and listened to the voice that said, “You—yes you—it’s time to let me find you.” No matter how little sense it may make, no matter how many children of their own they already have, no matter that they never really planned to have children at all, no matter that they have been a foster parent already for eight years and had intended at that point to close their home when the intake worker called them with that one last request, no matter that they know absolutely nothing about foster care, or even about children, no matter that they haven’t met the “one” yet and really had hoped to have children with him, or her. The greatest of the great foster parents are the ones who find the courage to recognize, though they couldn’t possibly know it enough to articulate it at the time, that they already have children, and that their children are looking for them.
I question at times if I can really speak so authoritatively on these things that have only come into my purview in the last year and a half. But then I remember what I do every day, what it feels like when I experience those fairy tale stories, whether it is kids finally finding their new homes, or kids going back to the homes they were born into. It is indescribably amazing to bear witness to the complexity of the many lives unraveling and getting pieced back together all around me. I often feel as if I am in a movie, or as if I have suddenly woken up at age eleven, on the brink of entering the realm of reason and rationality, to discover myself in the middle of my favorite fairy tale, with a wand in my hand, a yellow brick road ahead, and a fairy companion fluttering above my shoulder armed with pixie dust. Magic IS real after all. There may not be literal dragons or fairy godmothers or trolls under bridges, but there are parents who, when hope is almost lost, somehow see the light, and are able to take their children home. And there are children who come into the world for one reason or another far distanced from the only parents who are able and meant to care for them–there are these children who search, and there are foster parents who allow themselves to be found. And when they find each other, miracles happen.
Over the last year and a half, I have met my fair share of dragons and fairy godmothers. Magic is absolutely, positively real, and I know what it feels like. But I also know what almost-magic feels like, would-be-magic, the half-magic of a child furiously searching while a would-be parent somewhere out there pays no mind to that insistent inner voice telling them they are needed. It’s heartbreaking. And more often than not it is distressingly out of my control. In times like that, all I wish is that I had my pilots license, and a plane. I would call in sick and spend the whole day flying my plane back and forth over the city, a big red banner trailing behind me. It would say, “Wake Up Could-be Foster Parents!! Wake up and let yourself be found!”
*All names have been changed