Tag Archives: foster care

Fairy Tales and Sad Tales

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

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The Constant Fight Between Following Rules and Doing What’s Right

thetimeisalwaysright

I look at the clock and see that it is 11:55 AM. I am preparing for a six month Family Team Conference at noon; it’s the second FTC that I’ll have with this particular family since I began at the agency. Our goals for the second conference are very much the same as those of the first: Julie* is expected to maintain contact with the agency, complete a drug treatment program, and consistently test negative for drugs. Before I started working here, Julie had already been in and out of several drug treatment programs; in fact, her son was placed into foster care after she relapsed and left him alone at a mother-child treatment facility. Since I have known Julie, she has been in at least six different drug treatment programs—and I have only been here for seven months. The FTC will begin in five minutes and I still have no idea if Julie will show up.

I have not seen Julie since our last conference, and I have only spoken with her on the phone a few times. She will usually call me after she has settled into a new treatment program, and I am always relieved to hear from her. Her phone calls mean that she is not lying in a gutter somewhere in the streets of New York City. When Julie calls, I tell her how great it is to hear from her, how proud I am that she is so proactive about getting herself into treatment. I remind her to call me if she ever needs help, or needs someone to talk to, and offer my assistance if she needs help being referred to services. I also remind her to keep me updated on the progress of her treatment so that I can make sure that her positive progress is documented.

Julie is the mother the whole world loves to hate. She is the mother who struggles with a drug addiction, who takes the blunt force of judgment and criticism from people who refuse to understand why she would continue to use drugs if it means never seeing her son again. Julie tries. She tries so hard, and she is an amazing person and mother. She is incredibly sweet and soft-spoken; she is honest, resilient, loving. She talks about her son and her face lights up; she would give him the world if she could. But Julie carries a monster on her back, and every day she faces the challenge of throwing that monster off of her shoulders knowing that it will be anything but easy. She knows that pushing that monster away means having its claws dig deeper into her skin, holding her clothes until she is numb, until even the thought of pulling away feels far more excruciating than anything that monster could put her through. And so Julie stays, wrapped tightly in the arms of a creature that won’t let her go.

The conference begins 20 minutes late, and eventually, Julie does show up. She looks terrible; her clothes are dirty, her hair is a mess, and she says she is sleeping on the streets and hasn’t showered in over two weeks. She also says that her Medicaid has been turned off and she has been turned away from hospitals, shelters, and rehabilitation centers while struggling with symptoms of withdrawal and not a single item of clothing except what she has on her back. Julie cries and says she gives up.  I don’t blame her. But while I fight back tears and try to tell her that there is hope, I also know that I am about to remind her that we need to begin filing a Termination of Parental Rights because her son has been in foster care for too long and on paper, she hasn’t made any progress towards getting him back.

I ask Julie to come to my office, hoping that I can help her with any of the issues she brought with her to the conference. I speak with my supervisor and learn that there is very little that I can do; I can send Julie to the Medicaid office, send an email, make some phone calls, and ask around the office to see if anyone has clothes that might fit her. I direct Julie to a drop-in shelter so that she at least has a place to sleep, but I know that she will walk away feeling just as she did when she walked in—hopeless. And suddenly I see the one thing that I can fix for her right now, and I offer to take her to Target to buy some clothes.

One caramel frappuccino, some basic clothing items, and a grand total of $130 later, Julie is finally smiling. Before she leaves, she tells me that she can’t remember the last time someone did something nice for her without expecting something in return. She hugs me and walks away. I feel good, knowing that if nothing else, someone was kind to Julie today. As I walk back into the agency, I am confronted by a few coworkers who ask where I had gone with Julie. It is quickly brought to my attention that caseworkers are never supposed to go shopping with parents, and I am told in whispers that I “really should not have done that.”

The rest of the day, I struggle with this. I struggle with the fact that so many of these families are viewed merely as clients, not as humans. Julie’s birthday is just a few days after mine and she is only three years older than me. She could have been me. I could have been her. And any day now, she could lose the one person on this earth who keeps her going and gives her hope, her son. It will be my signature, my suggestion on a page that says she no longer has the right to see his face, hear his voice, hold his hand. Still, I know that I must do what is in the best interest of Julie’s son; even if that means that he will be a part of a different family for the rest of his life. This is not the first time I will have to make a decision like this, and it certainly won’t be my last. In this job, there will always be moments when I must do things I do not want to do. But sometimes, I need to do what is right—even if it means breaking a few rules.

*name has been changed

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Celebrating National Social Work Awareness Month

National Social Worker Month

“Weaving Threads of Resilience and Advocacy: The Power of Social Work.”

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by | March 1, 2013 · 10:00 am

Of Podiatry and Oncology

illenawordle

Working in residential treatment, I often feel like my goals are different from those of my fellow corps members who work in family foster care. An institution is no place to grow up. In residential, finding a family, even if it is a foster family, takes primacy over permanency. You want your kids to get out of the system but if you can’t make that happen you try and get them at least out of congregate care. A child I wrote about a few months ago went home with a loving foster family at the beginning of the year. My greatest triumph.

The kids who come to residential are often the most troubled with the most challenging behaviors and diagnoses. Sometimes they are just teenagers and there are no foster homes accepting teens. They quickly learn challenging institutional behaviors.

All workers fear that something bad will happen to one of their kids, knowing that the odds aren’t in their favor. Sometimes I feel like I am waiting with baited breath for the next crisis or worst, the next tragedy.

I think about the boy I met the first day I came to the campus where I work. He was a baby faced thirteen-year-old who immediately tried to climb into my car. I took him to see his attorney in person, thinking that if he felt like someone was fighting for him, he might start to listen to me and to the mental health professionals working with him. I told him to be patient even though his permanency hearing had been adjourned thrice; by the time it actually happened, it was fourteen months after he came into the system. On the way back to the agency, he told me he wanted to be an architect.

Fourteen months in residential care because his sixty-seven year old grandmother was overwhelmed with two teenagers and couldn’t make them listen. They were the wrong color, the wrong income level and lived in the wrong neighborhood. ACS was called time and time again and after preventive failed to get him and his sister to go to school, refrain from marijuana use, and refrain from gang or criminal activity, he and his sister were remanded to foster care.

He didn’t really spend fourteen months in residential care. He AWOLed time and again to his grandmother’s. Once, he found me on the Metro North and talked to me the entire ride. I tried to convince him to come back to campus with me. He was too worried – grandma hadn’t picked up her phone in two days and was in poor health. He wouldn’t let me come with him to check on his grandmother and told me he would run away. I believed him. I asked that he call me and let me know if his grandmother needed help by leaving a message on my machine. He did, and came back a few days later but began to AWOL again and again. His grandmother told me that he sobbed in her arms after he realized she was alright. Mr. Tough Guy.

He usually refused to come back with me to campus. Once he got in the car and informed my coworker that he would be getting out at the next traffic light but not before giving her directions to the highway.

He desperately wanted to be home with his grandmother. He was removed from her care because he was smoking marijuana, involved in gang activity, and truant from school. In placement, he smoked marijuana, refused to go to school, and ran with the same gang. We weren’t helping him. We tried.

A new program designed to get kids out of residential quickly with intensive services began on campus and he was selected. We had a conference. We got the family to agree. He even met with the ACS worker after I promised we wouldn’t try and bring him back. He trusted me. He listened to her. That program lost funding. Court was supposed to be a few days later. It was adjourned again.

I kept checking up on him. I saw his face get harder and noticed that when I met with him outside his building, he had to tell several other young men that I was cool and to let me be. I saw his tattoos appear and multiply. I had to hand off his case to the missing child investigator. After the case was dismissed in court, he showed up on campus to go to school. He jumped up and down on the car I was driving. I told him to get off my car and he told me that it was the agency car and he would never do that to mine.

I did everything I could think of to keep him safe. I hoped he would be okay. I went above and beyond what was expected, often at the expense of paperwork because that child stole a piece of my heart with his impish mischief. When I found out that he shot himself in the head, perhaps on purpose, perhaps playing with a gun, that piece of my heart he had shattered. Last I heard he was in a coma.

Broken hearts heal like skin. They harden into scar tissue and that tissue doesn’t feel in the same way it did before. I know I did everything that I could do for this child, and I still replay every moment, thinking about how I could have prevented this.

Sometimes I wish my heart hardened more. It may have been easier then when I got a text message this week informing me that a child I worked with was dead. Coincidentally, he shared a name with the aforementioned baby faced architecturally inclined gun carrying child whose grandmother didn’t know what to do.

I met this other child at a state psychiatric institution where he had been for several months. He had been in residential care since he was eleven or so and learned how to grow up in an institution. I visited him monthly and marveled at his child-like wonder. He was seventeen. Eighteen came, and he decided to leave the hospital. There was nothing we could do. His therapist reminded him that he was going from the highest level of care in the system to being on his own. He refused to stay. He refused to come back. As we walked to the bank to have his withdrawal of consent to remain in care signed, he inhaled deeply and smiled. “Fresh air” he said. “I’ve been locked up since I was fifteen.” It was a long hospitalization. He was out longer than he was in before he committed suicide.

It wasn’t my choice or in my power to keep him safe. I still feel like it’s somehow my fault. I wish there were an instrument within the system other than a competency hearing in mental hygiene court to continue to help children in care older than 18 but younger than 21 even when they don’t want help.

During training, Barry spoke about expectations. He told us that we would see a lot of setbacks and to appreciate the victories. He told us an anecdote about two friends of his who were doctors. One of Barry’s friends loses a lot of patients. The other loses none. He asked us if we thought one was a better doctor. I don’t remember what we said. He then explained that both were excellent doctors but one was an oncologist and the other a podiatrist. Residential care can feel akin to oncology specializing in patients with stage four cancer who will lose their health insurance in a few months. I don’t know what the foster care equivalent of podiatry is. There probably isn’t one – it’s all too risky and tumultuous.

I know that I am an excellent worker. I know that I do everything I can for my kids. I go head to head with attorneys in a way that leaves my colleagues in awe. I’ve gotten pretty good at manipulating the system to benefit my kids and families.

I’m a great oncologist. I don’t know that losing clients will ever get easier. I don’t know that I want it to. I don’t want my heart to break so many times that it is all scar tissue. I want to still care. I want to still feel like my world will end if something bad happens to one of my kids because I need to have that passion in order to keep at it.

That being said, sometimes I wish I were a podiatrist.

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Elevator Encounter

Image

A lady in the elevator of our new building asked me what I do yesterday. I told her the name of our organization and that among other things, we train and support child welfare workers and help kids in care get permanent and loving families.

She seemed very touched and told me that the concept of family was very close to her heart as she had been in care as a teen and had no family to speak of. She told me that in college she had panhandled for lunch money not two blocks from the downtown office building we now shared.

“I made it. It was always hard, and I am thankful everyday to all the people who helped me along the way,” she said.

She went on to tell me that she works in social welfare as well and then she thanked me for helping “others like her.”

It isn’t hard to feel good about the work I do, but this experience literally put a face on it. The gravity of how far this young woman had come and how she had struggled to do so stuck with me. I now go to work each day knowing that what I do is generating more success stories for children in care like this young lady. 

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Still here

I am approaching the 1.5 year mark as a foster care case planner, which seems like an appropriate time for reflection. I have been through some tough times, but through it all, I am still here. Same position, same location, and two of the same original families assigned to me. I have conducted late night weekend home visits, physically removed kids from being on trial discharge, been chastised by judges, spent nine miserable hours one day at PATH with a family, and so much more. Caseworkers have crazy stories.

If I was in the same place now that I was at anytime in the first nine months or so, I would have already quit. I am strong, but not a masochist. Becoming a good case planner takes time. In the beginning, I was constantly making mistakes, even though they were mostly small ones. I would call the wrong person, forget to schedule a meeting, let foster parents walk all over me, get lost on the way to a home visit, etc. It is incredibly stressful to have so much responsibility for people you are just getting to know in a job you are trying to understand. As time goes on, some things start going well and each success makes the day go smoother.

I still make mistakes all the time, but now I know my families and my agency staff well enough that things work out just fine. I have formed a support network at work and I have good rapport with my families. My mistakes are not as stressful anymore, particularly because there are so many successes. Four children I’ve worked with have been adopted, and one was just freed for adoption through a clean surrender to a family member. Eight children have returned to their parents’ care, and two teens have been placed in the homes of incredible foster parents who are willing to care for him as long as is needed outside of a legal adoption. One of my kids has a mentor through Big Brother Big Sister. Another kid just won the spelling bee for her whole school, and she came into care because of medical and educational neglect. My work involves service providers, biological families, foster families, and other caseworkers. These successes would not be possible without the involvement of other parties. Regardless, I work hard and I care about the outcomes.
Two months ago, I received what my agency and the courts say is a high risk case. This fourteen-year old kid was arrested for stealing from his mother, who then placed him voluntarily in foster care and moved six hours away. She has not visited with him since, but he desperately wants to be home with her. He has many difficult behaviors and multiple mental health diagnoses. On paper, this kid looks like he has little hope. He is with a dedicated foster parent who works overtime making sure that he is safe and receives as many services as possible. She came into my office yesterday and said that she was thinking of giving her ten day notice for him to be removed from her home because his behavior was out of control. She explained that again this past weekend he left her house Saturday morning and came back late at night, refusing to tell her where he went. I dropped what I was doing and listened to her for an hour. At the end, she agreed to keep working with him, and it is clear that she cares about him. She even told me that after being a foster parent for eight years, I am the best caseworker she has had, because she can tell that I work hard and care about the kids. I do not take that lightly.
That evening, I received a phone call from her saying that she sat down with him, trying to figure out where he has been going. He said he went to his paternal grandfather’s house in Brooklyn, who bought him some clothes. He gave her a piece of paper on which his grandfather wrote his name and contact information, as well as the same for this child’s father, who is living in Florida. He then asked the foster mom if he could maybe go see his grandfather every weekend. I couldn’t help but cry a bit as she told me this. This kid, who the courts and the agency has been so worried about because his known family has basically abandoned him, now has potential to have family connection on his father’s side of the family for the first time in his life. Maybe he could even meet his father. Now that is a success. There is a lot of work ahead of me to engage the family to help plan for this kid, but I am hopeful. This is why I am still here.

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Adoption Stories

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Today concludes National Adoption Awareness Month.  Throughout November, several organizations and agencies launched campaigns and initiatives to  help spread awareness about the need to get more children into safe and permanent placements with families.  This month, Fostering Change for Children began a series of trainings that educate ambivalent parents and youth in care about the advantages of taking the next steps toward adoption.  We expect that by working with all stakeholders in the process, we can increase permanency rates and enhance our organization’s mission.

This month, we invited our Children’s Corps members to share some of their adoption stories with us.  The success of achieving permanency for families through adoption in such a narrow period of time for most of our members is a real feat.  The reality of the situation is that the average length of stay for youth in care is about 26.7 months -that’s more than two years without a permanent home for 400,000 youth in care. Often the process of getting a child into a permanent placement, is stalled by paper work, incomplete files, caseworker turnover and other factors that exist naturally in a flawed system accounting for the 114,000 children in care awaiting adoption, currently.

If you attended our Spring into Action Social this May, you witnessed first hand, the passion and energy Kim Spadaro, author of our first story, has for the work she does.   If you didn’t attend our last one, feel free to join us at our Holiday Social next week.  Here is an account of one of her experiences in the field.

A two year old enters care with her two older sisters. They are placed together into a non-kinship foster home. Their mother visits consistently and is planning to have them returned to her care. This was 11 years ago. By the time I got the case in 2012, these three sisters have gone through countless foster homes, traumatizing experiences, and are all separated. Instead of being returned to their mother’s care, they have been lingering in foster care for over a decade. Their mother was not successful in planning for her girls and unfortunately was deported a few years ago. The two oldest girls never wanted to be adopted because of their strong loyalty to their mother and their mistrust of foster parents. They are going to age out of the system in a few years. The younger sister, now 13 years old, will be adopted next month. She has been through at least 10 foster homes, some kinship and some non-kinship. She has gone into a crisis residence center in order to stabilize her moods. She has suffered through serious trauma in her life and she has come out on top. In only a few short weeks, she will be adopted by a foster parent who she truly loves and loves her in return. She has found a family that has accepted her and her flaws and works towards coping with the loss of her mother. This family encourages maintaining the bond between sisters. This girl finally found the right fit for her and after 11 years, finally has achieved permanency. I have only worked with this family for a few short months, but I will never forget the smile on this girl’s face when I walked into her home and told her that there is an adoption date scheduled and she will permanently be a part of this family. 

Our next story comes from Jackie Edwards, a Children’s Corps member who has been in the field just three months.

There are usually two sides to every story, two perspectives if you will.  Occasionally these perspectives are essentially opposites of each other as is often the case in foster care.  For example, there is nothing much more heartbreaking than seeing a day old infant completely abandoned by his parents.  It is easy to question how they could leave him. “Didn’t they love him?” “Don’t they care about him at all?”  This is where the other perspective comes in and with that, a story about one of my clients who was in that very position.

Baby Boy L.  was born full term in a hospital and his parents left him there, knowing it was a safe haven and their beautiful son would be safe and well cared for.  At two days old Baby Boy L. went home to loving parents who were able to provide for him and make sure he was safe and healthy.  He went home to an entire extended family that immediately fell in love with him, a family that would move heaven and earth to keep him in their lives.  Now at nearly 18 months, Baby Boy L. is living with the only mom he has ever known, the woman who has raised him his entire life.  He is happy and thriving at home and all because a woman who was struggling in her own life knew she would not be able to care for him the way he would need her to.  “Is this story heartbreaking?”  Absolutely, but it is also inspiring.  The beginning of Baby Boy L.’s life was rocky, but today he is being adopted into his own loving family.

The children in foster care have some of the most horrific stories you can possibly imagine.  From neglect and inadequate guardianship to serious physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, our children have experienced more than most ever would (or should) in their short lifetimes and it is there that we must begin the process of finding a way to get them home.  Some cases are so horrific that from day one you know that the children will never be able to go home again and so you must find a new home, a new family for them.  

Imagine for example, three children sit at home with their mother on a cool winter evening and suddenly, their estranged father breaks in and brutally murders their mother.  Now you have  situation where three children are without their mother and their father in jail because of it.  Where do the kids go?  How can they ever cope with the fact that their mother is gone, at the hands of their father, viciously, in their presence?  It was sudden, unexpected and violent, but their lives must go on.  Despite everything the children are lucky enough to have grandparents who are living close by and who are willing and able to take the children in.  They kids will be able to stay together with their family, who understands what they are going through and can support them through everything.  The children will be adopted by the very same people who were helping to raise them before the tragedy.

The world of foster care is often surrounded by heartbreak and chaos and it is easy to miss the beauty.  There are foster parents who open their home to give a child a safe place to sleep, who drive their kids all over the city for appointments and visits, and who love the children placed in their home as if they were their own.  But most of all, it is an incredibly inspiring experience to speak to foster parents who feel that they are simply called to adopt.  

Kim, Jackie and several of our other corps members will be at our next event to share plenty more stories with you.

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