Tuesday, October 14, 2014

One more kiss, one more nibble, one more hug

I have those days where I hate dropping my kids off at school. I linger. I dawdle. I lollygag. I ask for just one more hug, one more nibble, one more kiss. I kiss their noses and stand in the doorway unsure of my ability to actually turn around and walk out of the building. I don’t know why they happen or what causes the anxiety inside my head to build up to such a crescendo that I almost can’t bear it, but it does happen, and I find myself turning around one last time to call their name. I sign “I Love You!” to them and blow a kiss before I finally leave to head to work. Usually, on those days, I fidget on the drive to work. I fret. I think about what happens if that Mack truck coming towards me blows a tire and flattens me. Will my kids remember me? Will they know I love them? Will Evan raise them to be kind, loving, happy, secure little people? I hate those days – bloody hate them with a passion, actually.

Most of our adult anxieties can be traced back to our childhood – something happens to us along the way that plants a seed of doubt about some aspect of our lives, and the right growing conditions allow that seed to grow into a full on adult-sized plant of doubt or anxiety that we then spend the rest of our lives trying to prune back or pluck out of existence. For me, abandonment was a prominent theme of in childhood – lack of stability, fighting between my parents and everyone else, my mom using me as a pawn with the rest of my family, my brother and sister being kidnapped, my mother’s inability to keep a job or house for any length of time, moving from school to school – all of these things shaped in me a lack of any sense of permanence. I either tried desperately to glom onto anyone who came into my life or I feigned indifference and an unwillingness to commit in the hopes that I wouldn’t have to eventually lose them.

So now, as an adult, I have things that I’m desperately in love with – my munchkins, my husband, what’s left of my family – and I’m still terrified of losing them, though my methods of coping aren’t the same as when I was eight or fifteen or twenty-five. I sometimes don’t feel like I deserve them; that I’m worthy of the unconditional love those little people give me each day or the affection my husband shows when he’s being a sweetie or the sense of belonging that comes from being a family. I feel sometimes like it’s this grand joke the universe is setting up giving me things that I am so fond of now; that the joke is that the rug will be pulled out from under me and I will lose them just as I did when I was a child. And it’s hard to go day by day thinking that way.

Everyday parenting decisions are so much more difficult when the internal argument for allowing my kids to do or not do something deals with the legacy I’m leaving in their little minds rather than is it the right thing for them to do developmentally. Having the conversations with my family about how I feel about this or that is so much more difficult when those conversations are tempered with all the icky feelings of things in the past – what happens if we start the conversation and something happens to us in the middle of it and the conversation is never completed? And don’t even ask me how interacting with a spouse that both makes me weak in the knees and want to kill him simultaneously is made more difficult when being afraid that the wrong fight at the wrong time will make our relationship come to a screeching halt.

My adult life has been a series of missed opportunities to set right the craziness of my past. My dad died last year, and though I hadn’t spoken to him since I was in my late teens, there was a profound sense of loss that came with that phone call. I don’t have many memories of my dad – and the ones that I do have are really a mixed bag of sweet and sour – but like most other humans, I’ve been conditioned to feel like a dad matters. His death closed a door that, while in reality had been closed since I was a very young child, had remained open in my mind – always with the possibility of the fairytale ending that so often happens in sappy romantic comedies. Reconnecting with my sister(s) has kind of been the same way – on the one hand, my relationship with Amy is so full of promise and possibility because each of us has come so far in overcoming the crappy childhoods we had but we are forever tied by a sad shared thread that connects us to so much pain and bitterness too. How do you create a relationship that’s full of the sweet when it’s born of such bitter? I don’t know, but I’d like to think she and I will figure it out along the way. My aunt passed this weekend, and though I’ve only had one conversation with her in my adult life, my child’s mind still remembers her laughing and calling me honeybun, and so it feels painful to know that there will never be the opportunity to figure out the whys and whats behind the isolation in that relationship. It’s a weird, complex feeling to know that there was a reason behind so many of these people leaving my life over the years that was beyond my control – one that brings with it so much guilt over what my devotions and attachments should be when the understanding is so far beyond my grasp.

And for the rest of my family who has scattered through time because of pain and torment created by my parents – how do I fix that? How to I set right what someone else broke? Is it even possible to fix something I had no control over being broken? Is there a way to take all of the fragmented memories of a child’s mind and sew them up into a quilt of comfort in adulthood – one that will protect against the bitter cold of fear of abandonment? I don’t know. And that makes me feel so helpless at times. My friends and mothers-in-law have commented so often that I stay so busy and I’m always doing something with the kids. My aunt says I don’t know how to be still – and she’s right – and they’re right. I am and I don’t. I have no idea how to be comfortable in my own skin or in my own headspace so I stay busy.

I hope that the things I do with my children will keep them from feeling disjointed and uncomfortable when they’re my age, and that they will figure out they’re truly, deeply loved. I hope the one more kiss and one more nibble and one more hug rituals will allow them to never feel the fear of losing someone they love without knowing whether that person would have gone to the ends of the Earth and back for them. I hope that my scattered family will realize the memories they have in my head are too few and far between, but are mostly sweet and poignant and that I want more of them. I hope my husband will know that I love him beyond words even though I really seem like I’m fussing at him more often than not. I hope that the anxious days will eventually be fewer and farther between – or that my coping mechanisms will be easier to employ. But most of all, I hope that no one else ever has to have a missed opportunity to tell someone they love exactly how they feel.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Have I mentioned I hate giving speeches???

Hi! My name is Heather Rosenberg and I’ve been a foster parent for a little over five years now and an adoptive parent for going on three. I’ve been on our board for almost four years now, two of them as the vice president and a year and a half as a general board member. While I was trying to come up with witty and important things to tell you all about why I wanted to run again for an office of the association the only thing that kept really coming into my brain was how much I’ve hated elections ever since I was in middle school which is odd considering I eventually went on to do my graduate work in Applied American Politics and Policy and studied elections. You see, there comes a point in the history of every association where growing pains start to develop – and suddenly the status quo is no longer working. The increasing needs of the members of the association begin to take on a life of their own and start to push the direction of the association in directions no one really foresaw in the beginning – this is normal – it’s a real phenomenon in body of research on associations.

We’re at that point in our own association – and this is actually a great point to be at when you look at how things go from here! We’re no longer the tiny association trying to get by with a handful of people showing up at random meetings. Now we have a dedicated group of parents who come each month and a contingent of new families who are added at the graduation of each MAPP class – and they come to us excited about this journey and excited about the idea of making a difference in the lives of the kids who come into our homes. We have some pretty awesome relationships developed with our partner agencies and we’re looked to by other community partners for information about things our families need to support the kids in care. This is an awesome place to be – full of promise and potential. But the next two years are critical for our association in that we have to harness the momentum and energy we have in this room right now to help solidify the association as the go to place for information, resources and help on all the issues our families face. In order to accomplish this, we need to be more organized than we have in the past which means we can’t just fly completely by the seat of our pants anymore.

As an association there are things we should be doing to help our families. We should have meetings – we do this monthly right now and offer two hours of training – but we should also have opportunities to gather for support and rejoicing and fellowship and friendship – we’ve not done a great job of this recently and we need to fix that. We also need to develop avenues of support that transcend physical meetings – it’s great that we come together once a month to meet, but what happens when you get a placement in the middle of the night and you need help meeting the needs of that new child or children? Having a strong network in place of families who can step in to help fulfill immediate needs is a critical function of our kind of association – we should be developing this avenue of support for our families and helping to facilitate strong relationships between families so that there’s never a family who has to say no to placement because they don’t have the right resources available when placement calls.

We should have a strong network of people who can help with individual case work needs for those times when the system breaks down - because we all know this happens on occasion. We’ve seen that happen recently with the Medicaid MMA rollout, or with some changes at the ELC offices, or even when wonky things happen with your individual cases. When those kinds of things happen, there should be people at the association who can help get the system moving again. And the biggest issue of all for me personally, is the association should have a strong voice when dealing with legislation and rule making that governs the practice of child welfare – we should be the first folks the legislature, cabinet, governor and agencies try to tap into when considering changes to how we handle kids in care because we are the people who deal with the end results of everything they tinker with and we’re right here in the capital city with easy access to the people in charge.

The thing all of these things have in common is they all take teamwork and partnerships to happen. No one in this room can make all of this happen alone – we need a commitment to tapping into the strengths of each of our members to build an association that is healthy, strong, vibrant and able to make each of our individual voices so much louder. We have to be able to ask for help from our members and partners and then be able to accept the help offered – otherwise this won’t work. Whoever wins the election tonight for each of these positions needs to be ready with a framework for what they want to accomplish and how they want to accomplish it.

Mine is that I want to get a good grip on our finances – to figure out what money we have, what monies we have coming in and then develop a strategy to increase the grants and donations we have gotten in the past to get some permanent office space where our association can live and where we can run our resources out of. I want to hold our officers accountable for our monies and to know at any point what our financial picture looks like.

I would like to fix our presence on the internet to show that we are an association that supports our families so that anytime a potential foster family or adoptive family looks for information in our area we are the first thing they see – we should be helping drive recruitment and retention of excellent families.

I would like to increase the number of tangible resources we can access for our families by developing a series of in-kind partnerships with various community resources. Need a babysitter? Need a haircut for your kids? Need supplies or clothes or help furnishing a room for a new child? We should have someone we can recommend – and we should even have someone who will help keep the costs as low as possible. There are tons of resources in our community that we simply have not tapped into because we weren’t organized enough to do it. There are tons of people who would help our kids if we just asked them to – I want to ask them to.

I want to set up a group of our families who can help mentor new families as they come into the system – we had this approved with BBCBC two years ago and then it fell through the cracks – we shouldn’t have let them drop this project. I want to help hold the agencies accountable to our membership and to our kids and not let projects that have so much possibility to help our families be dropped again - like the mentor project.

I want to have a committee that actively works on issues in front of the legislature or agencies. Did you know that two years ago the adoptions lobbyists got a small insertion in a bill that now makes it mandatory for the agency to advise families of the ability to do a private adoption rather than go through a TPR? Even if that child has been in s stable placement for two years? Yep. We let that one in because no one was watching. Same thing for the changes to the Rilya Wilson act last year – if we had had a more concerted voice talking to our legislators explaining to them how the changes would impact how we put our kids into childcare, maybe the outcome would have been slightly different.

I want to tap into you guys to find out what things you all need and then figure out a way to make those things happen. Parents night out? We’ve done that and parents and kids loved it. Activities for the kids? Let’s make it happen. Support groups for our kids? I think it would be a great idea. But this can’t be the Heather Rosenberg show – this has to be the every family show. I have to have your commitment that you will use your voices to help drive this association so that we can achieve so much more than what we’ve done so far. This first step of that promise is to use your voice to elect me tonight.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The importance of FAPA

For most people, relationships are important; for foster and adoptive parents this is probably even truer than for the rest of the general population. Joining a group of people who have experienced the same types of situations you are experiencing (or considering) allows you to have a sense of security and trust that you can confide in others who’ve “been there and done that” and likely even have some advice or support to offer in various scenarios. By joining a foster and adoptive association (FAPA), you are able to support and help one another in reaching goals and milestones with our children’s needs and sometimes even with our own needs. Healthy, vibrant FAPAs should sponsor numerous events throughout the year that allow you to connect with your peers and allow the opportunity to fellowship with each other, rejoice and mourn with each other and support each other in this incredible journey we’re all following. We get to share ideas and ask each other for advice. There should be opportunities to volunteer to help each other out or even to become a member of a committee.

Most types of associations conferences at the local, state and even national levels where you can participate and have the opportunity to learn about news and emerging best practices in our chosen “field”, where we can hear about key performers and also meet and brainstorm with others who are trying to further the interests of the children in the system and the families who care for them. In a healthy and vibrant association you may even find a mentor to help you or you may be in a position to become a mentor to someone else. Giving back to other families who come after you can be one of the greatest rewards and benefits from being a part of a FAPA. Participating in forums, chat groups or discussion boards and support groups sponsored or facilitated by the FAPA is also a great way to grow your network of fellow foster and adoptive caregivers (and even sometimes your family). This allows you to use your fellow caregivers as sounding boards and often make some great friends with the same interests as you.

Another important reason to consider membership to a foster and adoptive parent association is to take advantage of their legislative and administrative resources. Healthy, vibrant FAPAs often have committees working on issues that their membership faces (have any of you had issues with Medicaid, ELC or needed help with the particulars of a case). Some associations even have panels of experts or seasoned veterans that you can contact for specific questions or advice on particular issues. Other benefits include information about seminars, training or certification classes that may be helpful for your particular family needs or resources that may help one of your children.

Most healthy, vibrant associations provide an enormous amount of access to resource information such as: case studies, best practices, emerging trends, articles, white papers and books written by experts in our “field”. Healthy, vibrant FAPAs do not take their membership for granted and work diligently to make their membership feel comfortable knowing that someone cares about them and is engaged with the processes involved so intimately in their lives. They also should provide good customer service and respond timely to requests, facilitate partnerships and collaboration and actively engage the involvement of the membership in the activities of the association. It is through the strength in numbers that each individual voice of the membership gains a larger voice with the legislature, the Governor’s office, the organizations that work for us (CHS, Boystown, BBCBC, and every other agency out there), and that we’re each individually and collectively heard.

The Tallahassee Area FAPA needs its members to engage in the process – to be a part of the election cycle, to volunteer for committees and projects and to make their voices heard so that we can speak for the rights of the children and the families who care for them.

In two more weeks (September 23), the TAFAPA will have an election of officers for the Board of Directors. In order to be able to vote in this election, you will have to be a dues-paid member at least five days prior to the election. That means you need to be proactive now to make yours dues payment (it’s only $25 per family for the entire year) if you haven’t already and then be prepared to come to the monthly meeting on Tuesday, September 23 at 6:30 at the ELC of the Big Bend (food and childcare will be provided).

I urge each of us to think about the kinds of support we so desperately need as families charged with caring for such vulnerable kids and to let our voices come together to make a strong, healthy, vibrant FAPA that gives each of us what we need to do what we do even better!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Response Regarding Responsibility

I was corresponding with one of our local Community Based Care (CBC) representatives yesterday about the responsibilities the CBCs have in placement decisions. I was particularly upset by one line of one of the emails I received that stated that "The decision to move a child as well as place a child does not always fall on the CBC's decision makers."

The more I thought about that line, the more upset I got. You see, I think it is a common practice for those of us working in dependency to throw our hands up in the air and declare that something is not our fault because the system is too big and there are so many players that we cannot control everything. I strongly disagree with that idea and think that we each have a responsibility to uphold the intent of the system to make life better for the kids in our care by holding every single player to an extremely high standard - including ourselves. I was so upset by this that I ultimately didn't sleep very well again because I kept dreaming about the issue. So when my teething one year old woke me up for the third time at 2 AM, I never really fell back into a sound sleep. So at 4 AM I composed the following response:

The more I thought about your response last night the more it got me thinking. I wanted to say something that's been on my mind for a few years now as I've worked on a lot of these types of issues both at out local level and statewide (and if you want to get truly technical, even at the interstate level).

You said in your email that the decision to move a child as well as place a child does not always fall on the CBC's decision makers, but I think that it actually does. The decisions themselves may not, but the responsibility to ensure that they are done according to best practices and in the best interests of the children does. That means that while the decision makers are not the people manning the placement phone lines and doing the day to day work of moving and placing children, they are the ones who are working on the policy practices, manning the contract management of the various partner agencies working under the auspices of the CBC's contract, and following up with the quality assurance plans that should show compliance with the state's requirements for the adequate treatment of the children and the families who care for them.

We all know that there are five thousand working parts to dependency and that the system is incredibly fluid. As a result, many times there are no true "textbook" cases, but there are human considerations for which to account. The two most recent cases I've brought to your attention do have some similarities to each other despite their being polar opposite examples - the similarities are that the consideration of the impacts to the kids and the families caring for them of actions on the part of placement and/or case management were not adequately addressed. This means that the families who were caring for children were treated with little respect. Because care giving families are not automatons who are simply paid babysitters we should afford them the respect they deserve - even in times of turmoil and quickly changing priorities. If the system wants to be able to treat families without that kind of respect, then my recommendation would be to scrap the foster home model completely and hire part-time babysitter providers who would be available at the drop of a hat, would not work as advocates for the children, and wouldn't mind being treated as "less than" - though I would caution that the expenses associated with that model would be incredibly high - both monetarily and otherwise. No one is advocating for that type of model to be put into place because everyone realizes that a home setting is truly the best setting for kids who come into care - but to keep the current model working at optimal efficiency, we need to make sure that we're being sensitive to the needs of the families in whom we place such trust. It's spelled out very clearly in the Partnership Plan. It's touted at every conference and every QPI call. We need to do everything we can to live what we preach.

My hope is that by providing the examples of cases where the system was not working optimally, we can ferret out the places for improvement and take ownership of the improvement processes. My goal is to help every single family we bring into the system, whether it's a biological family, foster family, relative or non-relative family experience the very best parts of the system without re-traumatizing them any further through poorly implemented or inadequately thought out processes.

I hope you can see where I believe that the CBC's decision makes do have the responsibility to ensure that placement decisions are done properly and with the interests of the folks directly involved (ie the children AND the families) are taken into account - not just the convenience of the transporters and case managers.

Thanks, and I'll chat with you soon, I'm sure!

I haven't gotten a reply yet - but I'm quite certain I've managed to irritate at least one person today (even though that was not my intent - honest!)!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fostering Questions

I was asked some questions about why I decided to become a foster parent. Here are my answers!

Why did you become a foster parent?

I am an accidental foster parent actually. When my husband and I decided to start a family we ran into issues with fertility which meant that we were unable to have children biologically. We started looking into the process of adoption and decided to take the MAPP class to adopt from Children’s Home Society. My husband and I were originally only going to look into adoption when we decided to take the MAPP class, but once we got into the class and the instructors started talking about the desperate need for homes for children in care, it awakened a whole slew of feelings I had been carrying around underneath the surface about the events that unfolded in my own family. You see, while I am the only child of my mother and father, my mother had three other children in subsequent marriages – each of whom ultimately ended up in foster care themselves. Of my siblings, I alone escaped the chaos and destruction of our family and then the foster system relatively unscathed. Relatively being a subjective term here!

My husband and I committed to taking the MAPP class every Saturday for four weeks to learn what to expect from adoption and what kinds of behaviors and medical issues to expect from kids in state care. There was a lot of homework and forms to fill out, and it was a truly eye opening experience learning about the absolutely horrific things people can do to children and to each other. Much of what they discussed in class I had experienced myself in my own childhood as my mom and stepfather were abusive alcoholics, but the range of various abuse and neglect cases the instructors presented in class literally took my breath away. Aside from learning specific information about the types of trauma and abuse children who come into care suffer, we also had a lot of work to do personally by preparing ourselves to be able to handle the types of behaviors that may arise as a result of that trauma and abuse. This was also an exercise in strengthening our relationship because it forced me and Evan to deal with things about ourselves and our pasts that we would likely never have revisited if not forced to. I mean… my parents were a nightmare… and I would have been happy to leave things in the past, but we had to learn to deal with our own childhood issues to be able to help children that may be placed with us to deal with theirs.

After the second week of class, my husband and I decided that we would not simply go into the adoption track, but chose rather to become foster parents instead with the idea that if a child needed a secure home we would provide that. We also thought that if it was meant to be for a child to stay with us long term, that we had already decided we would be willing to adopt as well – and ultimately of the dozen children we’ve fostered in the last five years, we adopted three of them.

Tell us a moment in your life that led you to take part in foster care.

As my husband and I were going through licensing, we read more and more stories about the abuses children were experiencing. I had endured many of those same things myself and spent the majority of my adult life trying to work through the feelings of fear, worthlessness and anger that I felt as a result of how my parents behaved and treated me and my siblings. When I was an early teen, I finally got free of my mother and step father when my paternal grandmother and aunt stepped in to care for me. But my siblings were not so lucky and had to stay in the situation they were in. They were parentally kidnapped by their father and were missing for several years before ultimately being removed by DCF in another state some years later after my stepfather tried to murder my sister. I was still too young really to step in to try to save my siblings, but it didn’t mean that I didn’t want to. I was in my early twenties when my siblings came into the care of DCF in Massachusetts, and as a result of the abuse I had grown up in as well, I was not a mature twenty something – more like an angry teen. I was not equipped to handle the behaviors my siblings exhibited nor was I equipped to handle the emotional needs they had. I was not able to take them in or help them recover from their ordeal – but neither really was the system of care they were in. Both of them ended up in multiple foster homes and group home settings – and both of them ended up aging out of care with no safety net in place. My youngest sister ended up in the same situation as things between our mother and her father continued to deteriorate and DCF Massachusetts stepped in to remove her as well. After dealing with my own failure to help protect my own siblings, when faced with the idea that I could do something now to help keep this from happening to another child, I knew that we could help - even if we only ended up helping one child, I felt like it could help me heal some of the old wounds I still felt about my own siblings.

What do you think the state of the child welfare system says about Florida, and about the times we live in?

Anytime you deal with a vulnerable population and you fail to protect them, it says something very sad about your society. In Florida, we have not done even an adequate job of protecting our vulnerable populations – particularly our children. We’ve had an increase in the number of children and families on the radar of DCF yet we’ve not funded services to these children adequately. The staff charged with working these cases (whether CPIs, case managers, transporters, supervisors) are not trained very well, they do not have the tools necessary to do their jobs efficiently, and sometimes they cannot get to everything that needs to be done. As a result, what happens is we have this group of children and families on our radar who we know need help. We know they’re in danger. Yet we do not have the mechanisms in place to keep harm from coming to them. And I am not saying that money is the salvo to fix the problems here – it’s not. It’s about supporting the children and the families who care for them appropriately – which means supporting the people working in the system of care – all of the people working in the system of care, not just the child protective investigators (though that is a good start).

We also have a backwards mindset as a state when it comes to child welfare. We continue to see children as an extension of their parents – chattel almost – rather than seeing them as human beings who have rights themselves. So instead of working to do what is best for the children to help them grow up strong and healthy, we place the emphasis on keeping a family together – even if that means keeping a child in a situation that is dangerous or unhealthy. I hear judges and legislators talking about cases of termination of parental rights as the death penalty of child welfare cases, but these same judges and legislators do not live in the homes with the children and see the physical and psychological devastation the effects of a broken system of care have on their daily life and ultimately who they grow up to be. We know the research shows that exposure to violence and neglect have a detrimental effect on children, yet we somehow have come to the conclusion that we do more harm or damage by removing children from these situations – and I think we’re wrong about that in some cases. I’m not saying we should take all children away from all families – but I definitely think that the notion that some situations can be fixed by an inadequate safety plan is tantamount to sticking our heads in the sand to a real and dangerous situation – one that has lifelong, real life consequences!

I also think by not fully funding and fully supporting our system of child welfare that we’re re-victimizing the children we’re trying to protect. I’ve been the parent who had to comfort a child whose nervous system was shot from so much prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol that they could not adequately regulate basic life processes. Yet when that same set of parents had their sixth child (all five of the others were already in care), the state had to scramble and work really hard to prove to a judge that the situation this child came into was extremely dangerous for that child to go home to – and they almost we not able to remove her because the judge felt like the extreme history of drug and alcohol abuse, chronic homelessness, mental health issues and domestic violence were not a safety issue. I’ve had to pick the pieces up for an eight month old child after they’ve had to spend ten hours on the road to a visitation with a biological parent twice a week – only to not have their diapers changed but once and fed only four ounces in that time by the transporter, visitation supervisor, case manager and biological parent. When we fail to remove children from situations that are extremely volatile and dangerous and then fail to adequately service the ones we do remove, we re-victimize our children over and over again. This is how we have multiple generations of families with the repeated patterns of behavior that cause DCF involvement in the first place. My family is a prime example of this systematic breakdown of the system! I should have been taken from my family many, many times but never was and so I had to suffer the physical and mental abuses doled out by my mom and stepfather. My siblings should have been given stable placements and had case workers who supported them as they grew up, yet they were repeatedly moved from home to home to institutional setting instead. My middle sister is doing well now finally – after a lot of counseling and hard work on her part, my brother is really damaged and will likely not do much better – and my youngest sister had her own child removed by DCF and has only now been able to regain custody of her. I worry that my niece will end up repeating this pattern again someday.

It says to me that our state either does not care about the future of our children or that we’re too immersed in things that are of minor importance comparatively when we don’t do everything we can to protect our children.

How does putting the focus on case planning instead of the CPIs improve Florida's child welfare system?

It seems like the focus of child welfare policy lately has been on the up front battle of investigations and the supporting the child protective investigators. While this is a good start, if we logically think about what happens next, we must figure out that if we already do not have enough resources to care for the families in the system currently, that we’re not going to be able to handle the influx that will necessarily come when we bring more families into care. There needs to be a huge push to fully support the case managers and attorneys who handle the cases once they leave the investigative part of the process too. Otherwise, you bring families into a system that will only end up removing children but not putting mechanisms in place to help heal those families with no mechanisms in place to achieve permanency for those children. There should never be a case where a child has to linger in the system for years with no end in sight – either fix the situation that caused the removal and return the child or if the situation is not fixable or if the fix drags on and on and on because no one thinks progress is important – then move to permanency.

Part of the problem with child welfare as I’ve been witness to personally, is that the turn over for staff is so high and the burn out rate so great, that there’s no longevity for institutional knowledge. By the time a case manager is fully trained and has the ability to make excellent judgment calls on case planning, we’ve thrown such a high case load at them that they’re so overwhelmed and underpaid that they leave for less stress and more money. Understandably! If we focused on supporting the case management/legal aspect of the system as well as what’s been suggested for the investigative portion, then we may be able to have staff trained well enough to actually design case plan activities that would work to help change the unsafe behaviors. If the unsafe behaviors change, then the children get to go home. Having enough and well trained case managers and attorneys would also decrease the caseload of each individual case manager allowing them to be more supportive of the individuals in their care. A case manager with 30 or 40 kids on their case load cannot possibly know all of the details of each case and be alert to the behaviors that are sometimes subtle but indicative of dangerous things to come. They also cannot be as in tuned to the timeframes of the families on their caseload when they have to manage so many different families. Our two youngest children’s cases were complex and had so many chronic problems that the case manager literally had to send referrals out for services once a week. For the family associated with only two of the children on her caseload, I’m quite sure she had to spend at least five or six hours a week dedicated to that case alone – and she had at least thirty children on her load. That is simply too much for one person to manage adequately – though I will say she is one of the shining gold stars of case management in how dedicated she was!

We have to do better as a state – there’s no other way to put this! With our growing population and beautiful places to live, we’re going to always have people want to call Florida home. We need to be sure that we figure out a way to help make that paradise that so many people come here looking for isn’t just a shattered dream!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Am Not Invisible

So U2 has been my favorite band since I was about eight years old which may sound strange to anyone who doesn’t know me very well. Most people my age didn’t “find” them until The Joshua Tree was released in 1987, but I remember hearing Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day for the first time thinking they were awesome. I was drawn to the music, but also drawn to the message their music held – even at the young age of eight. It seems weird to me now that as an eight year old I would appreciate such controversial, almost militaristic music – but I come from a home that was rife with violence, alcoholism and chaos so I don’t think I was ever truly a normal eight year old. The year I first heard their songs was the same year my parents finally split up and divorced, my Grandma Estee (actually my great-grandmother) passed away and my Papa (Grandfather) passed away, too, making it easier for my father to abandon me to my dysfunction alcoholic of a mother permanently – so maybe a lifetime of witnessing the destructive behavior of my parents and a year of extreme upheaval just naturally coalesced into the unusual listening habits of an odd eight year old.

The year I turned nine the band released The Unforgettable Fire , and by this time I had started clipping and taping to my bedroom wall every news article I found in the paper about the religious and political struggles in Ireland – I knew everything the IRA was doing (everything that made the World Section of Lake-Sumter Sentinel or the Orlando Sentinel of course) and had read as many library books on the various revolutions taking place in Ireland as I could get my hands on in a rural southern school library. I identified, strangely, with the struggles and wants of both sides – which probably just points to the fact that my inability to choose sides goes back many, many years – but most of all I was disturbed by the loss of life that I kept reading about. I would read the newspapers at the school library, and I was probably the only nine or ten year old in Sumter County who knew or even cared what a Contra or Sandinista was, let alone who the Irish Liberation Army was, or that there was unrest in South Africa. The librarians probably thought I was cute or weird – most people thought I was weird at that time (cultivating weirdness is a coping mechanism many children from abusive homes develop) – my English teachers likely thought I was overly dramatic, if not maudlin, in the assignments I turned in, and most of my classmates basically tolerated my oddness and eccentricity.

Going into my teenage years, The Joshua Tree came out and my love of U2 became apparent to anyone who knew me as my fandom started to morph from simply a love of the music to a love of the band itself – I guess the long hair Edge and Bono sported just appealed to the rebel side of my personality – so that when my grandmother and aunt gave me my very first CD player and my very own copy of The Joshua Tree I was in heaven. Every night for months and months I would fall asleep listening to One Tree Hill or With or Without You or Running to Stand Still. The years between Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were rough for me as my mother and then step-father were spiraling more and more out of control by the minute and I was left to care for my three year old sister and new baby brother, to handle the entire household and to try to maintain my grades in school while dealing with the fighting, screaming and physical violence from my parents. It was a dark period for me.

I would sneak out of the house every night after my parents had passed out from their boozed fueled evening, climbing out my bedroom window and dropping the eight or nine feet to the ground as quietly as I could, then walking up our driveway beside the marsh creeped out the whole time as I had never really gotten used to the sounds of the frogs and crickets at night. I’d wander the streets of Wildwood through the roughest neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks slowly winding my way to the police department where I would sit for hours with the dispatchers until it was morning and time to go home again. I think they knew how bad things were at our house, but back then no one really knew how to handle child abuse – and lord knows my parents were a bloody nightmare if you tangled with them. So I think the dispatchers and patrol basically kept watch over me as best they could from a distance until I was old enough to make a stand on my own. I was evolving on the inside during this period of my life – I was learning to hold in secrets and to hide what was happening at home, but I was also furious that no one would do anything about it. How do you, at thirteen or fourteen or fifteen, convince adults that you need help? That someone needs to step in and make what’s happening stop?

I was lucky that my dad’s side of the family had finally figured out a way to weasel me away from my mother by offering to let her keep the child support my father paid each month yet having me come to them and them support me, freeing my mother up to continue in her dysfunctional spiral. The first year I went to Darlington was the first time in my life that I had any consistency or normalcy – but I had no idea how to function in consistency. I had no idea how to be normal. My freshman year at Darlington was rough as a result. Fitting in with a whole slew of new kids while learning how to fend for myself in a college-like setting almost threw me into a tailspin. But it didn’t. I figured things out and settled into a decent routine of going to classes and participating in eighth period after school activities. I had several faculty “adopt” me and start mentoring me in how to be a normal teen – I don’t even think they knew how much their actions helped me because I didn’t know how to tell them then and even now have a hard time thanking people for what they did for me then. By my junior year, Achtung Baby released and was basically the theme CD for that entire year – I still can’t hear Mysterious Ways without thinking of Kari Nelson.

Flash forward to this morning on my commute to work – I’m blasting Invisible and Beautiful Day at high volume driving down the Crawfordville Highway thinking just how much my life has changed in so little time. I am still that odd eight year old in my head some days. I read too many articles about the horrible things we do to each other and I’ve seen, first hand, what we do to our children and generations of children, and I wonder what the soundtrack of their lives would be. I was lucky that my ears found pleasure in a band whose idea was to protest through music and advocate for change and peace through words and monetary policy. The soundtrack of my life has been peppered by the suggestion of action and work and advocacy and hope and love. But what happens for the children whose soundtrack is not so plucky? We have to move forward as a society and change their soundtracks to change their destinies. Who’s willing to change the station today?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Working towards fixing a broken system of care...

I am copying a letter I wrote today to a couple of folks at our local Community Based Care partner to attempt to resolve some persistent issues in one region of our state. This is an issue I've had first hand experience with from this particular county and have actually worked with the individuals I sent my letter to before trying to address some of the things we thought needed tweaking to help better serve the kids who come into care. This is the kind of action I think all foster parents should be prepared to take when it comes to the kids they're entrusted with.

Dear So-and-So,

I'm writing to you because I have gotten another series of questions this week from three different foster families who have kids placed with them from Bay, and I'm not really sure how to advise these parents going forward. The theme of the last few days has been:

I have kids from Bay county and I'm not getting copies of JRs or Case Plans or any other documents that should be included with the kids' files. When I've asked for them I've been told I'm not allowed to have any of this information.

I've had kids placed with me from Bay who have been with me for over two years and the DCM still is not willing to work towards filing TPR even though the parents have not been compliant with any of their case plan tasks. (This particular statement came from two different families - one of which even said the magistrate gave the department 45 days to file a TPR which he said should have been filed months ago)

When my kids go for visitation, they often come back saying they have not gotten very much to eat during their visit. (this sounds eerily like what another foster family and I expressed two years ago about our kids going for visitation - so this one really concerns me greatly)

I hear several recurrent themes from families when dealing with Bay county quite frequently - and they come from multiple families which leads me to think that the experience is common and not limited to one or two case managers. Most of my conversations with other families usually end with the family saying they are unwilling to accept children from that county ever again and this really concerns me for several reasons I will outline below.

I'm concerned anytime a foster parent shares stories about case managers or other system employees who do not listen to the parent's concerns regarding the children in their care - but I'm more concerned with this when it comes from multiple families over long periods of time. With the Bay County issues, I've been first party to what happens over there, but I am now two full years removed from any first hand experience. I see where Life Management has posted that they have a critical foster home shortage over there and that we are not doing a good job retaining or recruiting families there. And when less than two days later I've gotten emails or phone calls from three different families dealing with similar issues as what I dealt with two years ago, I'm starting to understand why there may be a critical shortage of homes.

I'm not naive enough to think that there aren't other mitigating circumstances that affect the practices of that county - I get that it has a highly mobile population with a very low median income. I get that homelessness and drug use is more prevalent and that there's also a military base to deal with. But I also wonder if there are practice issues at the case management level and legal level that are affecting the support that foster and bio families are receiving which are making supporting the children in care more difficult? I am afraid that kids who are removed form Bay homes are going to be shipped to farther areas of the state as more families become unwilling to work with the county - I want to help combat that because like you guys, I truly do believe that kids need to stay as close to home as possible.

So with all of that in mind, what can I do to help? What answers or tips or suggestions can I give families when they come to me with questions, concerns or complaints? What is the right combination of people to put them in contact with and what steps can they take to have their issues handled?

I know with the first bullet I offered, they are entitled to the documents they are requesting as they are supposed to be a part of the resource record and the language including foster parents as appropriate participants to be included is specific in the statute and rule -- yet legal continues two years later to refuse documents to families. Who do we escalate this one to? And maybe the second bullet would be appropriately addressed to the same party?

The third bullet falls under the issues that stem from transportation, handing off to case management/visitation center, and the biological parents - so I know this one will certainly have to have a multiple party approach - but I think this one may actually be more pressing than the first two as it really bothers me that children are saying their basic needs are not being met during visitation/travel time.

Let me know what steps you think we need to take as a community to find workable solutions to these issues. I want us to get to the point to where all families are willing to take all children regardless from which county or circuit they originate.

I hope that they will take my letter seriously and that we can work to get some relief for both the families who are caring for the kids and also for the kids themselves. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could ever reach that wonderful goal of having three homes available for every child who comes into care - because that would mean we've either figured out a way to safely keep kids with their biological families or we've figured out an amazing way to recruit and retain amazing foster and adoptive homes!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Happy Birthday Warren!

Having a three year old was supposed to be easier than having a two year old. Unfortunately for me, my three year old never got that memo – instead the terrible twos that never really developed until the last part of his two year old year ramped up until I was quite certain that I would lose my mind in quite a dramatic show down over bedtime or back talking or daredevil stunts off the living room sofa. Indeed, three was a challenging year for my little mischief maker – probably because three was also a year fraught with so many changes in our home life that it made me and the hubs a little crazy, which makes the Monkey’s transition to Chief Mischief Maker all the more understandable.

Shortly after his third birthday, we learned that we were going to have another baby placed with us. We ended up changing childcare centers to a more affordable center who would take all three kids (including the new baby) and Warren did fine with that transition – he asked about his little buddies from the old school a lot and really seemed to miss Jay and Malik – but he quickly made good friends with Ariani and Skyler and Arlis. So it worked out well in the end.

Two weeks after the move, our little Bunny baby joined our family, and Warren fell in love. Even though he was getting more challenging by the minute, he did such a great job being a big brother first to Liam and then to Elie – he always wanted to sit with me to help give her bottles. This was a huge change from just two years prior when we had a little girl placed with us for a few days and he did everything in his power to push her out of the house as quickly as a case manager could come get her. I’ve watched him grow into such a wonderful and protective big brother over the last two years since then – he was even more attentive to Elie than he was to Liam when Liam first came to us (though don’t be fooled – he is fiercely protective of his little brother, too, just watch him if someone tries to do something to Liam he doesn’t approve of).

He helped Liam celebrate turning into a one year old by teaching him how to expertly lick the frosting off of a cupcake and then eat the entire cupcake without missing a crumb. He even offered to help Liam with the leftover frosting if it was too much for him to eat. He helped Liam learn how to walk by moving toys just out of his reach until the poor baby was forced to learn how to take a few steps on his own just to steal back what he had rightfully taken earlier.

Warren started taking jazz and ballet lessons over the last part of spring and loved the classes a lot – to the point of being quite disappointed when the season was over. He looked forward to the fall when dance would start again – and he was able to take classes for a few weeks until taekwondo classes sort of took over every last second of free time we had as a family and we abandoned ballet in favor of taekwondo.

We spent the summer going to the Trousdell activity pool, where Warren, Liam and Elie splashed and played to their hearts’ content, and Warren eagerly awaited the day when he would be finally big enough to go down the big water slide – he had finally gotten tall enough to ride his first rollercoaster at Disney (Barnstormer) in March – but alas he did not gain enough height prior to the season’s end. He is now (as of Friday) 42 and a quarter inches tall, so it looks like this summer he will be graduating to the big slide.

We made a failed attempt at moving him to a preschool in Tallahassee at the museum – which was a huge tactical mistake – one that made me seriously question every choice I had ever made as a mother. But it led us to actually switch him to the larger location of the school he was currently attending, which has been a HUGE success. This actually helped me get on board with him going to the Wakulla County schools next August when he starts kindergarten.

Two weeks ago he tested for his yellow belt in taekwondo and passed. I was so proud of my little monkey! He answered the questions beautifully and showed his newly acquired skills like a little ninja warrior. And next weekend he will compete in Spring Nationals for the very first time.

I’ve noticed a big change in Warren over the last month or so that is making me start to tear up a little thinking about it. My baby is growing up. The challenging, mercurial days of his third year are winding down and he’s finally starting to show some real progress in self-control and big boy behavior. He has finally started to sleep through the night in his own bed, he goes to bed without fighting and whining anymore, he is much easier to reason with and get a point across to – and he’s even starting to recognize when he’s back talking saying, “I know, mommy. I shouldn’t back talk. I’m sorry.” All of these things are wonderful, but they also make me realize my boy is growing up!

I took him to Karen’s Bakery this morning on the way to school so we could pick out some treats to take to his little friends at school to celebrate his birthday. Oh my goodness, it was such a fun morning activity to share with him too! He was amazed by all the cookies in all of the cases and watched in glee and wonderment as Miss Karen iced 35 cupcakes for us to take to school today. He was even more excited when she offered him a little thumbprint cookie – which made me remember fondly the times my aunt or grandmother had taken me to the little bakery in Perry to get me thumbprint cookies.

Warren has learned how to write the alphabet, read some small words, draw actual pictures of things, tell really cool stories and seriously terrible knock knock jokes, and he’s even learned how to hit a T-ball and climb up the monkey bars he couldn’t even attempt last year. He’s grown 5 inches taller and six pounds heavier, had several funky haircuts, learned to love guacamole and how to manipulate me into letting him watch “just one more show.” All along the way, my love for him has grown deeper and more full every single day – something I didn’t know was even possible as I already loved him so fiercely!

Tonight, when he drifts off to sleep in his Lightening McQueen sheet set, I will put balloons outside his bedroom door so that when he wakes up tomorrow morning that will be the first thing he sees. I cannot wait to see how his four year old year will turn out, but I can definitely tell that we’re going to love every second of it! Happy birthday, my dear, sweet Warren. Mommy loves you to the moon and back – no – actually, Mommy loves you to infinity!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Forming a new family is hard work

I have been a foster parent for almost five years now and an adoptive parent for just over two of those years. In that short time, I’ve been through the dependency system with a dozen or so babies and have adopted three of the babies that came to me through foster care. Last month a judge banged her gavel and declared that my husband and I were the legal, forever parents of a brand new baby girl, Elie. And while that doesn’t really seem like an Earth-shattering statement as forever families are formed every day in court rooms across this country (though not nearly often enough in my humble opinion– but that is the topic of a future post), what is huge about that statement is that Elie is the third child my husband and I have adopted from the foster care system, and the biological sibling of the child we adopted back in October of last year, Liam. It is the story of how Liam came to us that put the wheels in motion for Elie becoming our child, too, and it is the story of the dedication of three very special women working in dependency that tells the story of my new and now whole family.

Twenty-three months ago next Monday, I got a call from placement asking me if I had space for a nine day old baby boy who desperately needed a home because he had been removed from his parents' care due to neglect and safety issues. The placement specialist, Rachael Bassett, had already called a slew of homes that evening looking for someone to take this little man in – I know this because my foster bestie, Sherri, had sent me a text message about thirty seconds before my phone rang telling me I needed to answer the phone because placement would be calling me. I remember the phone call vividly. I was actually in the middle of bathing my (then) recently adopted son, Warren, and our (then) foster daughter. I had bubble bath bubbles up to my elbows, was covered in water and sitting in a puddle of water that had been splashed out of the huge tub by one of the kids. I even managed to drop the phone while Rachel was talking to me- but she had placed children with me a few times before so she knew how spacey I can get during a placement call (yes - I am one of those mothers whose first instinct is to say "yes, yes, yes" even though my husband fusses at me for doing that). After briefly telling my husband what was going on and that we were getting a new baby that night (and I may have asked him if he was okay with this... or maybe I forgot to do that... not sure which), I raced out the door with my hair on fire to go meet the child protective investigator to pick up the new baby. And that was how Liam came to our family -- the first time.

Liam did not stay with us for very long initially. A judge reunified him with his family four days later because the family was able to find housing through the good deeds of a local church; but, sadly, this reunification lasted only about four weeks until a series of hotline calls led to him being removed again and resheltered with us. This is a dance many foster parents know too well. In this case, we sort of knew that it would not be a matter of if Liam came back into care, but more a matter of when he would come back into care and how much would have happened to him in the interim. Both of his biological parents had pervasive mental health issues, drug problems, chronic and persistent homelessness, unresolved and untreated health issues, issues with violence and self-esteem, long criminal histories and were, themselves, products of a broken foster care system. The cycle was repeating itself over and over again with this family. It was a long four weeks for Liam, and a very long four weeks in my head for the things that were happening to him.

When I got the second call from placement about Liam almost four weeks later I left my office immediately to go pick him up from the child protective investigator again. The CPI told me the case manager assigned to the case was going to be a Lead Dependency Case Manager named Bethanie Milford and gave me her contact information. I assumed that Bethanie was going to be just an average case manager and that I would begin that other dance foster parents know too well of tracking her down for paperwork or referrals or worse, that I wouldn’t be able to get to her at all. I was pleasantly surprised though as Bethanie was anything but average – in fact – as a ten year veteran case manager, she took her role as family advocate very seriously, and she was determined to do everything in her power to break the cycle of abuse in this family.

Bethanie went about setting up visitations with the biological family (which was complicated due to the everyday visitation the judge ordered), asked about our family's needs, got every single piece of documentation I asked for to me as soon as I asked for it, provided follow up and constant communication with both us and the biological family and provided referrals and services at least once a week. She would reach out to me before I could even reach out to her, and that threw me off because with the dozen or more case managers I had worked with prior, I had always been the one to initiate contact and generally had to spend the better part of a week or more getting the things we needed! Bethanie worked hard to anticipate the needs of both my family and the biological family and she worked very hard to get services in place to help the biological family start to overcome the overwhelming disadvantages they experienced in trying to parent this child.

I watched in awe as Bethanie did things I had only ever dreamed a case manager would or should or even could do to help heal a broken family. It was incredible. Watching Bethanie started to restore some of my faith in a system I have only ever seen fail since I was a young teen and watched my own siblings fall into the system having their lives slowly broken, piece by piece. It was also extremely disheartening to watch as the biological family systematically refused all of this amazing help and started to sink further into their chaotic lives and withdraw from the community around them. It was kind of like watching a horrific traffic crash happen in slow motion speed.

After many, many months of failed visits, lack of progress on case plan tasks, and then ultimately the disappearance of the parents, the posture of the case changed from reunification to concurrent goals of reunification and adoption and finally to adoption. I became acquainted with the Children's Legal Services attorney assigned to the case, Diana Korn, when she reached out to me to answer some of the legal questions I was asking about how the process worked. I was able to see, first hand, how well Bethanie and Diana worked together on this case during this time. Bethanie would talk to Diana about challenges she was facing managing the case, and Diana would actively reach out to Bethanie with suggestions for how to document certain things. All along the way, Diana would call me at various points to make certain that my family understood what was happening in the legal arena and had the opportunity to advise the court of various things we were experiencing as a foster family. I had never had a CLS attorney keep me so well informed of the process of the legal system, but Diana would answer every question I posed to her as soon as I posed them – no waiting for weeks or months for a return phone call. And I know this should be what happens with every case, but it simply isn't. So as I've told my other foster friends about how cooperative and professional Diana is, they've all hinted that they think I'm fibbing to them – until they meet her!

The other person who played an integral role in this case was the guardian ad litem, Karen Isch. I've had experience with wonderful guardians before, but Karen takes the cake. Karen visited Liam at his daycare (which was in a different county from where Karen worked), our home, during vistations with his parents - she even once came to a doctor's appointment to visit him while he was getting shots (and helped me calm him down after those shots). She actively interacted with the parents and the parents of the parents. She visited, wrote reports, asked about the kids and the needs of our family and remained a wonderful source of information throughout the case. I think we chatted weekly or every other week as I would update Karen about Liam’s different specialist appointments or new rounds of testing he was undergoing. When she knew he had an appointment or that we had to travel to Jacksonville for a test, she would call to check in to see if she could help in any way. At the holidays, she even put Liam’s name on the list to receive gifts through the GAL office – which I thought was absolutely sweet and kind!

A few months before Liam turned one, we were told that his mother was pregnant again and were asked if the baby was sheltered would we consider being the placement resource for that child as well. The maternal instinct in me was to say "yes, yes, yes" again, but I knew that my husband and I were already stretched very thin with the two boys we already had as Liam had some complicated medical needs that kept me out of work a lot travelling to the children’s clinic in Jacksonville for his specialists. Not wanting to give up on the idea of keeping the siblings together if the new baby was removed as well, my husband and I started a several-month-long dialog as to whether we could financially afford to take the new baby, whether we had the physical resources to fit a third car seat into our vehicles, whether we could find a center that would take a brand new baby, whether we could handle another child with complex medical needs like Liam had, and whether we had the emotional capacity to go through this again as this case has been the most emotionally draining case we've ever had. We knew our own relationship had been strained through the course of this case because of the emotional nature of the things that kept happening – and we were both exhausted because Liam did not sleep well due to some of his issues and we travelled a lot to the next county for ER, urgent care and doctor visits.

Long story short, after many, many emotional conversations, and many visits to a marriage counselor who acted as a mediator to our emotional conversations, we both came to the conclusion that we could not break up siblings, and we would be the resource for the new baby if it were sheltered - making the decision just in time for the new baby's birth (whew!). We bought a new van as our old car would not accommodate the extra car seat. We prepared our home for a new child and bought some additional furniture. And we told our employers the news as experience had shown us that you take a lot of time off with a new child. And we both decided to say goodbye to the possibility of any sleep ever again.

The interesting thing here is that Bethanie, Diana and Karen were playing instrumental roles in our decision making process for accepting the new baby into our lives - though none of them knew it at the time. We were already drained from the emotional rollercoaster of this case - the highs were so few and far between, and the challenges and lows were so challenging and frequent that we had decided to close our foster care license and home to any more children. But we used the energy that each of the women poured into the job they were doing for the kids on their case loads to help us recharge and stay in it for the long haul.

The day we made the decision to take Elie into our home, I got the phone call from Bethanie that she had been born a little early and would be ready to go home the next day. I was emotionally freaked out thinking of all the work that goes into a new baby – the sleepless nights, the crying, the endless barrage of diapers and butt paste and spit up and laundry and visits from case managers and guardians and on and on and on. I was afraid my husband would end up not being on board with all of this and that it would strain our family to the breaking point. But my oldest son, who had just turned three, and I went to go pick her up from the hospital the next day, and even though it ended up being a nightmare that involved security having to whisk us to safety in another room and part of the hospital and nurses and security having to escort us to the car in teams to protect us, I fell instantly in love with this little squishy baby that would find shelter in our home and love in our hearts.

Things did get crazy again, too. The biological parents who had disappeared for months came back out of the woodwork and brought with them a whole new onslaught of emotional pain. We watched them struggle and once again refuse the help being offered. We watched, helpless to change the course of their destinies, but beginning to understand that Liam and Elie were likely not just going to be with us temporarily. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you foster sometimes – because you are so uplifted and encouraged by the gains the children in your home make but find such despair in knowing that their family story involves so much loss and pain.

I flash forward now to almost twenty-three months after I got that first phone call from Rachael about Liam. Liam and his little sister are now part of our forever family. Our house is a little messier... our schedules are a little more hectic... we have less disposable cash and much more laundry to fold... but our family is exactly the way it was meant to be! The journey has not been easy. Evan and I have fought and argued and fussed and whined at and to each other. We’ve had financial pain as we’ve discovered the costs of raising children are quite significant. We’ve had sleepless nights as one or more of the kids have been sick, or teething, or experiencing night terrors for the first time. Our marriage has had to grow with our growing family – and sometimes that has meant we’ve had to seek counseling to help us navigate each other’s meanings and fears and challenges and strengths. And we’ve had days where we’ve gone to bed angry with each other (even though they say don’t do that). But through this all, we’ve also grown fonder of each other and learned to appreciate the nuances of each other’s parenting skills.

It’s been interesting for me to observe Evan growing as a parent – watching him make decisions he’s never had to make before and learning how to debate an incredibly intelligent three year old who sometimes uses fuzzy logic. It’s been downright funny to watch him learn how to change a dirty diaper with a squirmy baby who decides to add to the diaper mid-change. And it’s been heartwarming to watch him teach our children how to put puzzles together or learn how to catch and throw a ball.

We made it through a challenging, complex case to form our final forever family partially because the ladies who were charged with seeing that the children in care are protected, safe, nurtured and loved went above and beyond what many people in the system do. The communication from legal, case management and GAL helped us stay focused on doing our part - loving the kids, keeping them safe and allowing them to grow. The support this team of women provided our family along the way helped us through a very difficult two years and ultimately helped us make a forever family of siblings who will always be able to stay together. Through all of this each of these ladies had their own personal lives to attend to as well - but they never lost sight of the kids and their needs - and they never lost sight on trying to help their biological family heal itself.

I know that in many years when my children ask me the story of their beginning I will have some challenges on how to present their beginning in a way that they will understand and not feel loss that their family was formed by graft rather than root stock - but I know that I can also tell them about three amazing women who helped them before they were old enough to even know! I am forever grateful for these ladies.

A few months ago the judge announced the arrival of our Elie for the first time to the world and in the process made us a legal, forever family of five. Now my husband and I will have to learn how to navigate the world simply as parents, and that is going to take some getting used to… for me at least. I think back to the beginning of our foster care journey and I can’t help but think how much life has changed for my family in those short five years. We have three forever children now, have fostered a dozen children along the way, have made many friends who have fostered or adopted, and have seen the ugly underbelly of the dependency system up close and far too personally. But we also have seen the amazing capacity of the human spirit to thrive and rebound, and we’ve met three wonderful women who worked very hard to ensure the safety of one child, but ultimately ended up creating a loving family for his sister too!

I think about all of this and know that my life is as it should be.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On becoming plain old parents

In a few days my family will become a forever, legal family. A judge will bang her gavel (well, maybe not actually bang her gavel, but she will wield her pen) and declare that my husband and I are the legal parents of my youngest child. I’ve done this two other times now in the last three years, but this time is a little different because it will be the last time my husband and I do this – so it officially changes our title from foster parents to just plain old parents. That seems weird to me. I never wanted children when I was younger. I would declare vehemently and often that I would never have children, and I was completely serious about those statements. I think I felt this way partially because I was terrified that I would be a horrible parent like my parents were – or maybe because I was afraid to even consider the possibility that I could love or be loved by another human. I had no idea the depth and richness of love that I was capable of feeling towards someone other than myself – and to be honest – I didn’t know I could really love myself either. This journey into family-ness has been one of discovery for me. Hell, the whole meeting Evan and falling in love with him was an ordeal in and of itself, let alone him actually wanting to marry me (he asked me four separate times so I know it wasn’t an accident), and have babies with me, and living with my special version of crazy (which, by the way, we should nominate him for sainthood for navigating for the last seven years). The journey has not been easy. Evan and I have fought and argued and fussed and whined at and to each other. We’ve had financial pain as we’ve discovered the costs of raising children are quite significant. We’ve had sleepless nights as one or more of the kids have been sick, or teething, or experiencing night terrors for the first time. Our marriage has had to grow with our growing family – and sometimes that has meant we’ve had to seek counseling to help us navigate each other’s meanings and fears and challenges and strengths. And we’ve had days where we’ve gone to bed angry with each other (even though they say don’t do that). But through this all, we’ve also grown fonder of each other and learned to appreciate the nuances of each other’s parenting skills. It’s been interesting for me to observe Evan growing as a parent – watching him make decisions he’s never had to make before and learning how to debate an incredibly intelligent three year old who sometimes uses fuzzy logic. It’s been downright funny to watch him learn how to change a dirty diaper with a squirmy baby who decides to add to the diaper mid-change. And it’s been heartwarming to watch him teach my children how to put puzzles together or learn how to catch and throw a ball. In a few days the title we share will change – because once the judge announces Elizabeth Grace for the first time to the world and makes us a legal forever family of five, she will also be announcing the closure of our home to more foster children because we will be full. So we’ll have to learn how to navigate the world simply as parents. And that is going to take some getting used to… for me at least. I think Evan will be excited about our new chapter – and I will too – just for different reasons!