October 17, 2017

A Different Story

Because she is unable to adequately care for the needs of her child, the little one has been taken into protective custody, and placed in the safety of my home.  That makes her the villain and me the hero.  She’s the bad mother and I’m the good one.  Right?

How did we get here, exactly?  Her story is so different from mine!

Even before I took my first breath, my story was relatively smooth and straightforward.  While she was born into a fractured and flawed family that sort of limped along, each one managing the best way they knew how, my parents were committed to staying married and raising their children together.  They taught me the meaning of “family,” setting for me an example of faithfulness, love, patience, and enduring hope.  They taught me about healthy relationships and the importance of making responsible decisions. 

October 6, 2017

Small Stones

It is just sitting here, this plain glass jar in my bathroom.  The jar is clear and simple, and inside the jar are smooth colored stones, all shiny and perfect.  The centuries that these stones spent tossed in the relentless waves and sand of the Atlantic Ocean have perfectly smoothed away all the rough edges, leaving them sleek and glossy, almost as if an unseen hand has deliberately polished them.  Oh, how I love these serene and beautiful stones that have been sitting here on my porcelain counter for so many years.

Sitting here for so many years, that is, until my two-year old daughter stands beside me.  It takes one curious little hand just one moment to reach for the jar, and in one horrifying crash, the floor is covered with small stones and shattered glass.  Utterly wrecked.  Beyond repair.

In an instant, before I even know what is happening, I am screaming at my daughter, What did you do?  Look what you did?  Look at this mess?  Why do you have to touch my stuff?  Why do you have to break everything?  Do you understand how furious I am right now?  The blistering words spew out of my mouth like an active volcano, sizzling and scorching the innocent little one in front of me, melting her into a puddle of tears.

Whoa!  What just happened?  I am shocked and alarmed at my sudden outburst.  Where did this outrage come from?  What made me lose control like this?  Why would such a minor incident cause me to respond with such a vicious tirade?

September 30, 2017

Connect: How Professionals Can Promote Stability

I just want to quit!!   Even if those exact words have never escaped our lips, many foster parents have certainly thought them!  And even if we haven’t thought about giving up our foster license altogether, we have certainly thought about giving up on a certain foster child in our home.

Of course we know that children need the love and nurture of our families.  Their health and development and very future depends on the stability of their placement with us.  We’ve read the statistics and seen the study results, confirming that moving children multiple times throughout their foster care journey can have serious long-term impact on their future success. (1)

We hate disruptions. (2)  It’s tragic when children are uprooted.  Forced to transition to new communities.  Adapt to new schools.  They lose touch with relatives, and tragically, are separated from siblings.  They learn that it’s normal to say goodbye.

But what can we do when we want to quit?  When our endurance is depleted and we don’t feel like we can take another step?

Or more specifically, the question might be asked, what can Child Welfare Professionals do? (3)  This is the question asked at countless staff meetings and during federally-funded research projects and through state-wide initiatives. You have devoted your careers to serving these children, and it’s heartbreaking when their placements are disrupted again and again and again.  How can you improve placement security for these precious foster children you serve?  How can you turn multiple disruptions into long-term stability?


RECEIVE

We don’t know what we don’t know.  How could we possibly anticipate the needs and behaviors and challenges that will arrive at our front door when that first foster child is placed?  Licensing Specialists, please ensure that we receive quality pre- and post-placement training, which absolutely should include an understanding of how trauma affects a child’s behavior and development.  It should at least mention the possibility that the foster children in our home may have difficulty attaching, and what that might look like.

Most (maybe all) states have this requirement, but it’s one thing to attend a class; it’s another thing entirely to truly understand what welcoming an abused and neglected child into our homes will look like.  We need to receive practical tools for raising children from hard places. (4)  To hear from experienced foster parents.  To have access to books and other resources that properly prepare us for this role.  Being well-equipped is one of the best ways for us to have realistic expectations . . . which may make us less likely to disrupt a placement or quit altogether.
  
Placement Coordinators, before placing a child in “an available bed” that we might have, please ensure that we receive all the information that is available about the child.  You might even give us a list of questions to ask the social worker, doctors, or other professionals involved before agreeing to the placement.  Prior knowledge can prevent future heartache.

Placement Coordinators, your personal connections with your foster families is key to preventing future disruptions.  Know our strengths, weaknesses, personal preferences and experiences.  Every child has potential just waiting to be reached.  Serve him well by making every effort to connect him with compatible foster parents who can help him thrive.


BELIEVE 

Foster parents are on the front lines.  Sitting in front row seats to our foster children’s stories as they unfold.  Because we live with these children 24/7, we are in a unique position to notice behaviors and patterns and habits that the child welfare professionals on the case may not see.

When we tell our case managers, social workers, or guardian ad litems about our concerns, please believe us!  When we tell you about the 3-year old in our home who frequently says the F-word, why would we make that up?  When we notice that our new little girl has sexual knowledge way beyond her years, shouldn’t you make note of that?  When we encounter an inappropriate interaction with birth parents.  When we notice negligent or unjust actions of a professional involved.  When we admit that we are exhausted and overwhelmed.  Some of us are hesitant to speak up, and when we do, please listen, and please acknowledge the importance of our words.

We need you to take our observations and uncertainties seriously, without being dismissive or condescending.  At the first sign of trouble, the questions you should be asking us is, What can I do to help?  What do you need?  The problems need to be addressed immediately when they arise.  Once we ask for a child to be moved, it might be too late to salvage the placement.

Here’s the thing though.  Foster children are not the only ones who need continuity and stability.  So do foster parents!  It can be disheartening to have multiple social workers during a child’s placement with us, and with each new worker assigned to our child’s case, we trust just a little bit less.  Each staff transition feels like starting all over again.  Why would we confess our struggles to someone who doesn’t know anything about us or the children in our home? 

Do Child Protection Agencies want to reduce the number of disruptions for the children they serve?  Perhaps if you could focus on recruiting, training, and retaining excellent child welfare professionals – people who stay! - the connection between your staff and your foster parents would deepen.  The mutual respect would grow.  We would feel more comfortable voicing our concerns, and if addressed early enough, perhaps those concerns could be resolved.  The children’s placements could be preserved.


RELIEVE

Welcoming a child into our home is a huge responsibility!  Not only are we caring for a child’s basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and education, but we are managing behaviors we may have never seen before.  We are filling out paperwork and documentation.  We are requesting developmental evaluations; making appointments with doctors, specialists, dentists, and oral surgeons (you would not believe how many foster children come to us with oral decay!); registering for school; shopping for clothes, shoes, pajamas, underwear, and jackets; transporting him to visits with his parents; participating in treatment team meetings and court hearings; attending ongoing training classes to keep our license current.  This is in addition to holding down full-time jobs and caring for our homes and other family members.  It’s no wonder we so quickly become overwhelmed, exhausted, and burnt out.  Sometimes when we say, I just want to quit, what we really mean is, I can’t do this by myself.

Case Managers and Social Workers can help relieve some of these endless responsibilities by partnering with us.  You can let us know about resources and support groups in our community. You can provide transportation to visits.  You can help fill out medical paperwork and application packets for special education programs.  And when you attend the child's medical appointments, developmental evaluations, and school meetings yourself, you can hear first-hand from the professionals, instead of requiring us to take our time to send you updates.  It would feel more like a team effort.

You can offer recommendations for services our foster child needs.  When the foster child in our home needs counseling, for example, this may be something new foster parents know nothing about.  Where do we find a good therapist in our town?  Google?  Wouldn’t it be so much better if our Social Worker could offer a first-hand recommendation based on personal connections?

This is, again, why it is so important to focus resources on retaining capable and competent Child Welfare Professionals.  As you gain experience, you gain wisdom and can offer sound advice.  The longer you serve in your role, the more contacts you have and the more community resources you know about.

You are in a unique position because you know other foster families who might be in similar situations.  Can you connect us with each other?  Surely my foster child isn’t the first one to navigate the maze of the special education system in our county school system.  Perhaps there is a foster parent who has just brought a baby home from the hospital, and is struggling through those middle-of-the-night withdrawals.  I might have some words of wisdom and some practical suggestions based on my experience.  Connecting us with each other can make our foster care journey seem less confusing, and daunting, and complicated. 

And most importantly, you can relieve some of the crushing weight by simply asking – often!! - What can I do to help?  What do you need?


REPRIEVE  

As much as we hate to admit it, foster parents are not invincible.  Sometimes when we cry, I just want to quit! what we really mean is, I just need a break!

Child Welfare Agencies would be wise to recruit and train respite care providers.  People who are willing to partner with us to provide our children with a safe, structured environment from time to time.  We so desperately need time, not only to rest and recharge, but to give some much-needed attention to the other not-so-needy children in our home. 

We cannot always assume that our friends and family and “regular” babysitters are knowledgeable enough about our child’s needs to provide them with the appropriate care.  Their good intentions to connect with our foster child, for example, may inadvertently undermine any fragile attachments that we have worked so hard to build.  And at a minimum, a change in routine can be so upsetting to a child who has trouble self-regulating.  If we do need someone to watch our children for a few days, it’s imperative that the care givers know us and our family, and are willing to partner with us.

Do you want to preserve these children’s foster placements?  Please, we ask that you do everything you can to connect us with qualified respite providers. 


GRIEVE

Sometimes, no matter how much we wish the circumstances could be different, a foster child moves.  Sometimes he is reunified with a parent or goes to live with a relative.  Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, he is moved to a different foster home.  No matter the reason for the child leaving, child welfare professionals should understand that we need time to grieve. 

We knew going into it that the placement would be temporary.  Foster care, by very definition, is temporary.  We may be feeling guilt that we weren’t as strong as we thought we were.  We may be feeling disappointment that we didn’t make as much of a difference in that child’s life as we had hoped.  If the move was our choice, we feel the full emotional weight of it.  And if the move was not our choice, we may be feeling anger that the courts made a decision that we did not agree with.  Regardless of the circumstances, please understand that we grieve the loss.

However, the end of a child’s placement with us does not necessarily mean the end of our foster care journey.  Perhaps the social worker or case manager could be a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on.  Perhaps you could write a note of encouragement or say thank you.  When we have that personal connection with even one professional in the system, it could mean the difference between giving up altogether, or finding the courage to say yes again.  To welcome the next child who needs the love and stability of our home. 


ACHIEVE

Child welfare professionals, you have within your power to help achieve stability for the foster children you serve.  The key is to build connections!  Sometimes the only thing standing between us quitting and persevering is one supportive professional.  Sometimes when we cry, I just want to quit! what we really mean is, I just want someone to understand!

Be the one who takes the time to connect with us.  The one who connects us with children who fit into our family.  The one who connects us with resources in our community and with other foster parents who are on the same journey.  The one who encourages us to press on. 

Be the one who asks regularly, What can I do to help? What do you need? 

Together, with that connection, we can achieve stability.

1.    Foster children who “age out” of foster care without the permanency of a family are much more likely to experience homelessness, crime, proverty, substance abuse, and unplanned pregnancy.  www.adoptioninstitute.org/news/the-importance-of-home-permanency-for-foster-child-development/
2.    According to a recent report in a nearby county in my state, “some children are shuffled to 15 or more foster homes before they are adopted or age out of the system.”  15 times?!  When we say that children do better in families, what we need to clarify is that children do better in stable, consistent, permanent (or at least long-term) families!  www.fayobserver.com/news/20170925/cumberland-county-has-most-foster-kids-in-nc-nearly-900
3.    Child Welfare Professionals include a wide range of positions including CPS (child protective services) investigators, placement and intake coordinators, social workers, licensing and training specialists, agency case managers, clinical specialists, child advocate attorneys, and guardian ad litems.   Because the roles sometimes overlap, I use the general term “child welfare professionals.”
4.    A valuable resource for anyone who works with children from hard places is the Empowered to Connect conference and simulcast.



August 26, 2017

Before You Say Yes

Here it is!  The Call you have been waiting for!  Months and months ago, you finally made the courageous decision to open your home to a foster child, and now the plans are becoming a reality.  You attended the required training classes, completed the dozens of documents, answered all the questionnaires, proven that you do not have a criminal background, and have shown that your home is safe.  You are ready to say yes!

The “yes” part is easy.  And exciting!  And, oh so tempting after all the preparations and dreaming of what it will be like to care for a child who needs you.

However . . before you are too quick to agree to open your doors and your heart to this one who will undoubtedly change your life in ways you cannot imagine, here are some questions you might want to consider asking . . .

July 30, 2017

Love Never Fails

She’s not that sweet baby girl you once knew.  Somehow, when you weren’t looking, she grew up.  And in spite of 18 years of your very best parenting and your most fervent prayers and your consistent love and nurture and training, somewhere along the way she chose a different path.  A dangerous path that has left you frightened and anxious about her future.

When you look at her piercings (27 at last count), black eye make-up, and dyed hair that covers most of her face, you barely recognize her.  Who is this person sitting on your front porch sharing a cigarette with her tattooed boyfriend?  How can this young lady with the slumped shoulders and bony ribs possibly be the same girl you once tenderly rocked to sleep?

This is perhaps the most difficult path that you have ever been asked to take.  It requires more faith than you think you have.  What are you supposed to do now?  Does she need “tough love,” where you lay down the law, keep the standard high, and accept nothing less?  Or does she need grace and acceptance and unconditional love?  Do you let her live with you while she struggles to find her way, or, since she has chosen such an immoral and self-destructive lifestyle, do you make her leave your home and find a new place to live?  There are no easy answers.  Or rather, so many possible answers!  How do you know which one is right?

July 22, 2017

Asking the Hard Questions

What should you make for dinner?  Should you enroll your child in piano classes, swim team, drama camp, or art lessons?  Or all of them?  What should be the theme of his next birthday party?

These are questions that mothers tend to think about.

There are other questions, however, that mothers should never have to ask themselves.  Hard questions.  Questions that quite possibly have no answers.  Questions that are almost too painful to ask.

If you have ever asked yourself these questions, if these thoughts have ever entered your mind, you just might be a mother of a child with a chronic life-threatening condition . . .

When every single day is a struggle to feel well, do you insist that he take care of his chores and responsibilities anyway, or do you give grace and let him sit back and take it easy?

When he feels dizzy and has constant headaches and his mental functioning is impaired – whether from his health condition or from the medications, it’s impossible to tell - or when he's admitted to the hospital for the 3rd time in 3 months, do you make him do his school work anyway?  If he has a shortened life expectancy, does it really matter if he knows his multiplication tables?  On the other hand, are you even allowed to make that decision?  Isn't school required?  Will you get into trouble with the law if he doesn't go?

When the super-nutritious, all-natural, grain-free diet doesn’t seem to be working any more, do you keep researching and trying and restricting every morsel that goes into his mouth, or do you just forget the whole thing and let him eat the darn Big Mac he’s been asking for?

When the tiniest germ will send his health into a tailspin, how much do you protect him?  Do you keep him in a safe bubble at home where he is painfully lonely, or do you let him be a kid for heaven’s sake, playing at the public playground, attending children’s events, participating in Vacation Bible School?   At what point do you just let it go and let him find a few minutes of joy, knowing that doing so will most likely land him in the hospital?  Is it better to live long, or is better to live well?


What about when you see that great sale at the mall?  Do you buy clothes for him to grow into, or do you wait and see if he will need them?  Should you buy them in faith, eternally hopeful?  Or is your optimism really just living in denial?  At what point do you become realistic?

How do you make plans for next month?  Or next year?  Do you go ahead and plan that family vacation, trying to give him a normal childhood with fun experiences while he is still healthy enough to enjoy them?  What about all the other times before when you had to cancel your plans at the last minute because he was too sick to travel?  How do you help your other kids (not to mention all the extended family members) deal with their deep disappointment when this one child’s health has the power to derail every family event?

When you feel like you are drowning in overwhelming fear and frequent medication changes and endless specialist appointments and debilitating insomnia (his, which means yours too!) and endless unanswerable questions, what do you do?  Do you take a break from him and his never-ending needs, or do you spend every precious minute that you can with him, making it all count?

What do you say when people ask, “How is he doing?”  When every day there is this huge question mark hanging over you and your family?  Today, this moment, he might be feeling just fine, but tomorrow he could be back in the hospital.


(These pictures were taken exactly 1 week apart.)

Do you tell him the details of his medical condition, or let him stay na├»ve and innocent as long as possible?   What do you say when he feels miserable 24/7 and he says to you, “I wish I would just die!”  How does a mother possibly respond to that?

What do you do with the sweet picture that he drew for you?  The picture of himself in heaven, with the words To Mom, God is always with you.  Do you hang it on the refrigerator as the precious, priceless artwork that it is?  What if it makes you cry every time you see it?

What do you pray for when healing might not be an option?  How long do you keep believing in miracles?

These are the questions that mothers should never have to ask themselves.  Hard questions, that quite possibly have no answers.  Questions that are almost too painful to ask.

But when you're the mother of a child with a chronic life-threatening condition . . . you find yourself asking the hard questions.

May 27, 2017

How the Impossible . . . Becomes Possible

Somehow, a single day can seem like a lifetime when a child is in the hospital.  When one day of admission turns into several days, and then into several weeks, it’s more like an eternity.  What day is it again?  Time seems to stop and the tears seem to never stop.  It is utterly exhausting, both physically and emotionally. 

After many years of caring for medically-fragile children, children who spend thousands upon thousands of hours in the hospital, you would think I would get used to it.  Nope!  It never gets easier.  There are days – and usually interminable nights – when I cry into the darkness, I can’t do this!  This is impossible! 

Indeed, it is impossible, at least for one person.  There is no way I could continue caring for these precious children with their complicated medical needs if I had to do it alone.  I depend on my community, my “village,” those invaluable friends and neighbors and church family who are ready and willing to step in and offer support when things invariably get overwhelming and difficult.

During these seasons of long hospitalizations, the most common offer I am likely to hear is, If you need anything, please let me know.  I love the openness of that!  The generosity and kind-hearted intent.  The love that those words communicate! 

But honestly, when I am focused on the child in front of me - on the medical complications and the doctor’s prognosis and the long-term implications of this current health concern – and when I am completely drowning trying to balance the time at the hospital with the ongoing responsibilities at home, it becomes almost impossible to articulate what I need.  I search my over-burdened brains for the right words to ask, and come up empty.  All I can think to cry is, Help me!

What I need more than anything, what has encouraged me the most during these stressful days and weeks in the hospital, is a specific offer of help.  When someone is willing to take the initiative, and give or serve or love from the abundance of their heart.

I am so grateful and humbled to be the recipient of so much love!  I can barely begin to count the ways that thoughtfulness has inspired me to not give up on these frail children.  Ways that generosity has encouraged me to press on with this hard calling.  Ways that kindness has made the impossible . . . become possible.

April 29, 2017

The Magic of a Wish

What could possibly be more magical than a Ball?  The sequins on my royal blue gown catch the sparkle from the crystal chandeliers overhead, and it doesn’t seem real.  I feel like a common villager, trying to pass as a princess.  I can hardly believe that I am the same person who, just a few hours ago, was checking our son’s lab results, confirming the next appointment with his specialist, and measuring out his daily medications.  That was real life, messy and routine and sometimes exhausting.  But this opulent ballroom with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and the small ensemble in the corner playing beautiful classical music?  This is magical!


I can’t help staring at our son all decked out in his black suit and tie – the first one he has ever worn in his life – and admiring how dashing he looks.  The blue sash across his shoulder, the one with the words Wish Kid on it, make him seem almost royal.  He and the other Wish Kids like him, are the reason everyone is here.  We have been invited to this Wish Ball, an annual charity gala to celebrate the wishes that have been granted to children with life-threatening medical conditions.  If the cost of admission is having a child with a life-threatening medical condition, it is a steep one indeed!

March 11, 2017

When You Say Yes


Everyone you know is asleep at 2:00 in the morning, but not you.  In the stillness of the hospital at this hour, the noise of the irregular beeps and sporadic hisses and frequent alarms are jarringly loud, ensuring that sleep is impossible.  But because the annoying sounds are coming from the machines that are keeping your child alive, how can you complain?

As you reposition yourself on the blue plastic chair beside the bed, attempting every contortion possible to make yourself comfortable, you think to yourself, What in the world am I doing here?  How did I become the one who is responsible for the child in this room?  Is this really the life I had envisioned I would be living?

February 22, 2017

Worth It

The foster placement had been a hard one.  Really hard.  He had many complicated medical issues that required surgeries and procedures and appointments and specialists.  His development was significantly delayed, which was frustrating for us and for him, and which required countless therapy sessions.  He had very few social skills and he (literally!) pushed me away when I tried to get close to him or pick him up.  He was aggressive towards the other children in our home. 

And to top it off, his mother disliked me.  Almost daily she would find fault with the care her son was receiving, constantly complaining to the social worker about me.  It was disheartening, to say the least.

It was hard, and I wanted to quit.  In fact, I had asked to quit!  Several times I had requested that his social worker and case manager please, please find another home for him.  Surely there was someone else who could love him.  Someone who had more time, energy, patience, and resources to give that child the care and nurturing and attention that he so desperately needed.

And yet, he was still here.  Apparently there was no one else.  Apparently I needed a lesson in perseverance.  And faith.