January 12, 2015
The Relay Team
Through blurry eyes I pour coffee into my extra-large mug, watching the brown liquid fill to the top, hoping wearily that the caffeine it contains will do its job quickly this morning. I did not sleep well last night – again. My precious child sleeping in the room down the hall kept coughing at irregular intervals; his weakened lungs have been fighting germs for several weeks now, germs that refuse to give up and go away. As much as I would love to cuddle with him on the couch today, nursing him back to health, I simply do not have the time for such luxuries.
My other little guy, my foster child, has once again managed to fill my calendar today with appointments - appointments which will require the majority of my energy and attention. I should tell myself to continue pressing on and not give up, knowing that I am being obedient to what the Lord has asked me to do. But still, it is difficult not to get discouraged. It is impossible not to be exhausted.
As I quickly check my e-mail inbox before the busy day begins, one particular notification suddenly catches my attention. It practically jumps off the computer screen and into my lap: 75% off an island getaway. On this cold January day, under the cloud of sleep-deprivation, with the kitchen clock ticking rapidly towards the incessant demands on my time today, a vacation in the sun sounds absolutely heavenly!
I do feel a momentary twinge of guilt that if I take this trip, it will mean that my husband will need to stay with the children, holding down the fort here at home. However – true confessions here – we have been taking separate vacations for years. He takes a few weeks every fall to go hunting with a buddy in the Northwest. I take a child or two with me on various trips to visit extended family on the West Coast, or to see the sights in some faraway city. We love to travel . . . just not together.
It is not because we do not love each other passionately. We do! It is not because we need to take a break from each other. How I long to spend more time with him! The one reason we cannot enjoy vacationing together, the one obstacle that keeps us apart is, sadly, a simple one: we do not know one person who is able to care for our foster children while we are gone.
We are like a relay team, my husband and I, each one of us running strong, holding the baton of responsibilities for as long as we are able, before passing it along to our teammate to carry it for a while. We may run alongside each other briefly, but it is only long enough to pass the baton back and forth to each other.
Why? It wasn't always this way. When did our decision to become foster parents make it necessary for us to become a relay team?
We could take our foster children with us on vacation, but . . .
1. We need permission. Foster children are in custody of the state in which they live, not in custody of the foster parents. Therefore, they need special permission from the court in order to leave the state. And sometimes, depending on the circumstances, the birth parents’ cooperation (or lack thereof), or the child’s medical condition, the court will not grant that permission.1
2. We need a break. Even when the foster children are able to accompany the foster family on vacation, let’s be honest here. Sometimes we foster parents just need a reprieve from the demanding needs of the children in our homes. The foster care job does not end when the sun goes down. There is no such thing as a day off or a long week-end or a holiday. It is a 24/7 commitment, often for months or even years at a time. At some point, our permanent children need some love and undivided attention. Our marriages need some love and undivided attention!
3. Medical needs make it difficult. One time, a few years ago, we did make plans to take our special-needs foster child with us to a family reunion in another state. Her medical equipment, oxygen tanks, emergency supplies, and regular baby paraphernalia took up so much room in the back of our SUV, that there was almost no room left for our luggage. Her specific needs were so severe that she required round-the-clock nursing care. Yes, we actually had nurses staying with us in our hotel room overnight, and had to cut our daytime activities short in order to be back in time for the nurses’ shift changes. Really?! That is not my idea of a vacation!
4. Behavioral problems make it difficult. Many foster children, because of abuse, lack of training, past trauma, or mental illness, have behavioral problems that can be quite challenging, especially in public. We may be able to manage the behaviors at home, but when you mess up sleep patterns, change the routine, vary the food and mealtimes, and add in meeting new people and experiencing spontaneous events, you have a recipe for disaster. We have had to leave suddenly from restaurants, museums, camp sites, theatres, and friends’ homes because of out-of-control tantrums and screaming. One trip to Disney World lasted exactly one hour before the meltdown started. For us that day, it definitely wasn’t the happiest place on earth!
So taking them with us is a challenge, to say the least. We could put them into respite care with another foster family, but . . .
1. We don’t want to leave them with strangers. Although they are "just foster children” (we have heard that from several people, including social workers), we love them dearly and treat them as if they were our own children. What mother would want to leave her child with a stranger? As it is, these children struggle with being able to trust. They fear being abandoned. The few times that we did leave one of our young foster children with another foster family when we went on mission trips, it took months to undo the damage! Months before he didn’t scream when I left the room, before he would sleep in his own bed again without having nightmares. We would love to be able to leave our foster children with trusted friends and extended family who know and love them, but unless they are licensed, they are not allowed to.2
2. Other foster families are not available. There are other foster families in our agency and in our church, but either they work full time (which works well for those with school-age foster children, but not for our little ones), or they already have five children in their home (that’s the limit in our state), or they are not trained to care for children with special needs.
3. Other foster families may not be reliable. I cannot count the number of times that we have had to cancel our family’s plans because the foster family who had planned to provide respite cancelled at the last minute. Or they decided not to renew their license. Or they got a new foster placement of their own, filling all the spaces in their home. We, especially our permanent children, have been disappointed again and again.
I do hope and continue to pray that God would touch the hearts of those in our church, those in our community, to provide this vital ministry, not to foster children, necessarily, but to foster parents. That He would call others to love, support, and encourage foster parents by being willing to provide respite care. Like Moses, whose arms became weary during battle, and who needed the physical support of Aaron and Hur to uphold him, so foster parents need physical support when they become weary.3
While foster parents feel called to rescue, strengthen, and sustain wounded children, perhaps there are others who will feel called to rescue, strengthen, and sustain a wounded marriage. A marriage that has been stretched thin and may have weak spots that need loving attention, tender salve, and time to heal.
While foster parents feel called to care for other people’s damaged and neglected children, it’s important that their own children do not become damaged and neglected along the way!
While foster families care for other people’s children, giving birth parents a chance to restore their strength during a difficult season, perhaps there are others who will feel called to care for foster families, giving them a chance to restore their strength during a difficult foster placement.
But, until God provides that support system that we need, I will continue to run strong, pressing on as long as I am able, and then passing along the baton to my husband, whom I trust to run strong as well.
Until God provides that support system for which we continue to hope and pray, I will trust God to sustain us and to meet our needs along the way. I will click the “purchase now” button for this Caribbean cruise, and will begin looking forward to an island getaway without my spouse. I will thank God for opportunities to get away for a few days of vacation time, when I can rest these arms that hold little ones, rejuvenate these emotions that get a daily workout, and restore the joy in the Lord that, although it resides deep in my heart, sometimes gets forgotten.
And until God provides that support system that we so desperately need, I will thank Him for giving me a loving partner in this difficult, demanding, unrelenting ministry. A teammate who is faithful and trustworthy and responsible. A co-laborer who generously gives me time away when he knows I need it. I will thank God for my relay team!
1. Medical care for foster children is usually covered under their state’s Medicaid insurance, which will not pay for emergency medical care in another state. If a child has complex medical needs and may need emergency medical care while out of state, the Department of Social Services may not want to assume the risk of incurring huge medical bills. In such cases, they may deny the foster parents’ request to travel out of state with the child. Unfortunately, we know from personal experience that this does happen.
2. To learn how to become a licensed foster parent or respite provider, contact the Department of Social Services in your state. In the Raleigh, NC area, information about upcoming training classes can be found at www.orphanconnections.org.
3. “As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses' hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up--one on one side, one on the other--so that his hands remained steady till sunset.” – Exodus 17:11-12