Imagine my husband’s surprise when he got a weird text message from our friends in New Mexico congratulating him on our new basketball team (the running joke between our two families has always been that we had enough kids to field our own sports teams). Apparently I sort of forgot to inform my husband that we had temporarily taken in a new kid (actually two of them) while he was out of town – okay, in my defense, it was only supposed to be overnight and he was out of town at the time. I probably should have known that when Tenille told me it was only overnight that it really wasn’t (we’ve had that happen every single time but once), but I have an almost pathological inability to say no when placement calls me. But I digress.
The story I’m writing about here is actually one of numbers. After having been out of the “real” foster game for a few years, I’d forgotten just how much work in involved in the first couple of weeks of a new child joining a family. But let me break some of it down for you here. Please understand that this post is not a complaint about the amount of time or money we spend on taking kids in – it’s simply to illustrate the realities behind why we have such a hard time recruiting and retaining good foster families.
Once the Department decides to shelter a child(ren), the Department has to have the case heard before a judge the next business morning in an emergency shelter hearing so that the Department can have the legal ability to shelter the child until the adjudication hearing. This requires that the child be transported as the courts have now decided that the children have a right to be heard in court (this includes infants – I guess the judges like hearing their cries?) though in the 15 times I’ve been present during the shelter hearing I’ve never once had the judge actually speak to any of my children – even our most recent addition who is four and a half and old enough to talk to the judge. In fact, this judge specifically asked me to take all of the children out of the court room into the play area because they were disrupting court – which served to irritate me because what was the use in making the child attend if you’re not going to pay any attention to them? Even when the hearing is the first one on the docket, you end up being in court for several hours – so if you’re a full time employee, be prepared to burn some annual leave.
When removed from their family of origin, foster kids are required to see a doctor within 72 hours as a way for the system to have a baseline of what their current health status is. However, in certain parts of Florida, the managed care entity responsible for ensuring that these kids have access to a doctor did a horrible job of rolling out its new plan, and thus there are simply no available doctors to see our kids. It took 11 days to get the very first available doctor’s appointment for my new child – officially 192 hours longer than mandated. Oops! Because I was not the person who made the appointment, I was unable to attend this visit due to a meeting at work I simply could not reschedule so my child had to be transported by yet another unfamiliar person to a doctor’s visit that required four shots from a doctor she had never seen before to be comforted by a person she had no relationship with whatsoever.
The results of that visit showed that she needed specialist appointments that simply could not be arranged locally – so I did something not many people have the ability to do – I added her to my private insurance to gain access to a whole slew of medical practitioners that were not available to her on the Sunshine plan. This will cost me money out of pocket, but I would rather do that and have access to good LOCAL doctors than have her suffer or have to be transported to Panama City or further for medical appointments. I was fortunate to be able to do this because she also has a slew of dental issues that need to be addressed and there are no local dentists who take the Sunshine plan either (okay, I may be exaggerating here – there is one dentist but that office can’t make appointments for months so I don’t count them). So to take her to her establishing appointment with both the primary care physician and the dentist both took about a half a day of my workday.
The two kids that came to me that night had nothing with them but a ratty teddy bear, two books, a pair of panties two sizes too small, a pair of pants two sizes too small, a bag of cookies, a box of almond milk and six diapers. When we figured out one of the kids would be staying (likely for a very long time) it became necessary to try to get some clothes and supplies for her for everyday use. Since I’ve never had an older female child, I did not already have a stash of larger sized clothing. We’ve only ever taken in babies – I didn’t even have a bed that was big enough for her permanently (or even longer term). Fortunately, our local foster and adoptive parent association runs a small supply closet and I was able to get two outfits in her size and our licensing agency just happened to have an extra bed we could use for her – otherwise I would have had to run out to purchase those things (and I would have willingly). My fabulous coworkers even pitched in and got her three more outfits, some sock and undies. I ended up having to buy school supplies, a nap blanket and mat, a lunch sack and thermos, and enough outfits to get us through the rest of the week, a pair of shoes and some pajamas. The grand total for day one of her arrival was already sitting at $200 and change.
The week we got back from the trip I will tell you about in a minute (in the middle of the third week kidlet had become part of our family), the case manager finally got us the clothing and shoe voucher we had asked for so that we could supplement and fill in what we didn’t already have. A $50 voucher to Marshall’s for clothing and a $50 voucher to Beall’s Outlet for shoes are what the department provided. While better than nothing – for families who do not have the means that we do at their disposal – this wouldn’t have gone very far.
To recap so far, already we’re sitting at two full days off of work to get through necessary appointments and $200+ out of pocket for basic expenses and a late set of vouchers for an additional $100 at stores whose prices are rather inflated. An addition to our private insurance as the state provided insurance plan was inadequate to handle the needs of the child in my care. And I won’t disclose how much emotional chocolate I may or may not have consumed in this time period to handle the emotional rollercoaster I’m personally on over the course of this journey.
My family had already planned a Disney vacation for the week after munchkin joined us. It was obvious munchkin wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon because we’re out of foster homes locally – and quite frankly, unless a home came available that could take all four of them permanently (did I mention she’s part of a sibling group of four) I wouldn’t want her to move because each move is highly traumatic to kids. It wouldn’t have been right to exclude her from the trip we had already planned because she is part of our family now. We couldn’t back out of our trip or reschedule it because it was already paid for – so we simply bought her tickets to go with us – another $180 expense. She had a fabulous time and the whole family had a much more enjoyable trip for having her with us.
Here we are now at week three of munchkin joining our family. I can’t really remember a time when she wasn’t part of our family – and my kids have all embraced her as one of us. My husband adores her as does all of the extended family who have met her. Her daycare teachers love her. Our friends love her. She’s’ one of the best things to have happened to our family since Elie joined our family two years ago. But I haven’t even begun to touch on the emotional toil going on in our family in the last three weeks.
Initially, there was a lot of fear, chaos and even some anger as my husband was a little peeved with me when he first got the news I had taken a new child in. I was also a little off kilter as the placement phone call came at 1 AM and the kids arrived at 3 AM when I have to be up for work by 4 AM. Court is ALWAYS stressful – so add in a(n) (un)healthy dose of high stress from court and then the utter chaos of trying to get your house situated for a little life to join you when you were clearly not planning for it. My husband was returning from a weeklong trip to the D.C. area during a nasty weather system and my kids were all out of sorts from having a new little person joining our clan. Toss in a smattering of sobbing from our new kiddo as she started to figure out that she wasn’t going to be with her mommy again for a while, some missed visitations, and a nice little tummy bug to boot – let’s just say that fostering isn’t for the faint of heart.
Recently, I’ve had people discuss with me that they feel people foster simply for the money. They go on and on and on about how foster parents make so much money housing other people’s kids. I’ve always taken offense to those statements – but after we finalized the adoption of our last kiddo I started focusing more on my own family and less on the system of care (though trust me, I’ve not given up on changing the system). But after this last three weeks, when one of my very misguided friends tried to barb me by saying “at least we would be making some more money now” I actually went off the deep end on her a little. You see, the average board rate reimbursement for foster care in Florida is $439 a month, split up on a daily rate it’s $14.16 a day. On the very first day my new munchkin came to me I’d already spent over $200 just to meet her basic immediate needs. Setting up daycare there is a $75 registration fee and a $65 supply fee. The Early Learning Coalition referral only pays about $16-22 a day towards day care for kids in care and most day care centers cost between $25-50 a day. At one center we were paying over $600 a month out of pocket just for day care costs alone.
To put this in perspective – the per diem reimbursement the State of Florida pays a state employee when on travel is $36 a day for meals alone – that does not include the costs of hotels which is generally $85 a night or more. If it’s a travel day and you’re travelling during all four day parts, the reimbursement rate is $80. The state pays more for employees on travel status than it does for kids in care.
The emotional toll foster parents pay is also enormous. My current munchkin is very, very sad about not being with her mommy. We’ve deal with crying jags that have lasted over an hour at times where the only thing we could do is simply hold her, rock her, pat her head and remind her that she is loved and that we would do everything in our power to help ensure she could see her mom again soon – even though her mom doesn’t always show up for visitation. Dealing with a clinically depressed four year old is tough work – knowing that every little thing we say or do can either help or hinder her healing process is a huge emotional burden to carry – but we do it willingly because we know she needs us.
The changes in the relationships between me and my husband and me and my kids right now also carry a big price tag. Granted, these have been positive changes this go around – but they haven’t been with other kids we’ve fostered in the past. One of our foster babies was so high needs that she almost broke me from all the crying – that was one of the hardest three months I’ve ever endured and I come from a pretty rough childhood myself! My marriage was stressed. My other child was stressed. I was stressed. Every time we’ve taken a child in, it’s changed the dynamics of our family. I’m hopeful my kids learn from these fostering experiences that we should help our fellow humans out – but there’s also a good chance they grow up resentful of the time and energy we put into other children and families aside from our own.
The long and short of this all is that fostering is expensive – emotionally and literally. We need more families to make this investment though – because it’s an investment in the future of a child but also in the future of our society and civilization. We also need our legislators to realize that there are physical and emotional costs to these kids and to the families who care for them – so that they can adjust the supports available to the families and to the kids. And we need the system of care to become more flexible to allow for creative solutions to the needs of our kids and families. None of this will happen in a vacuum – we need more people like YOU to take the steps to help make the change too. Won’t you join me? There’s a child out there who would be grateful you made the world change for them!