By Eleanor Delewski
We had just completed our foster parent training classes. The home inspection was done and we were licensed and waiting for ‘the call’.
It came on a Friday afternoon. “There is a baby, he is seven months old. He needs a home today, he is at day care and we would need you to get him from there. We expect this to be a long term placement, probably months, could be longer, his Mom already lost some kids to the system so there is potential this could go toward adoption, would you take him?”
I said yes and fifteen minutes later the social worker called me back and confirmed that I was to drive to the day care and pick the baby up, they would meet me there. I hurriedly packed a bag and, hands shaking, began the long drive toward the day care. My head was swirling with all kids of thoughts.
I’m not proud of any of them.
My thoughts were all about what we were gaining that night. A child to love. A family. We had been waiting to become parents and at last this was the day that I would come home with a baby in my arms. I was already imagining what books I would read him, what songs I would sing when I rocked him to sleep. I had zoomed months ahead and envisioned Christmas with a child to dote on.
What I had missed in all my excited considering was that there was a baby sitting in a day care waiting for his mother to come back. She may not have always been an appropriate mother – CYS doesn’t take custody without good cause. But she was his mother, his world. She was what he knew. He would not be going home to the bed he knew. The next bottle he had offered to him would not be the way he was used to it. Things would smell different. He was a tiny child about to face an enormous, traumatic loss. He would not be happy to see me when I arrived. I was a stranger and while I might be delighted to meet him he was certainly not going to be delighted to meet me.
I had made a rookie mistake. I was brand new to the world of foster care. I was longing to be a parent and had forgotten what foster care was all about. Foster care is never about ‘getting’ a baby or a child for hopeful parents. It is always about finding the best home for a child.
Twenty minutes into my drive the social worker called me back. “I’m so sorry, a Grandma showed up and offered to take the baby. Better luck next time”
I cried. I got mad at the unfairness of it all. I wanted to be a mother SO badly and this was meant to be the day that happened. As I drove my empty car home I was overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and disappointment. I did not celebrate that this child’s Grandmother, someone he knew, someone who was already a part of his world had stepped up. I wanted him, and in my wanting I had forgotten what the child wanted – someone familiar to show up and offer him a chance to loose a little less of his world. The best thing would have been if his mother had been able to parent him. But since the best thing could not happen the second best thing did, a relative arrived and offered him a home. I should have celebrated for that small victory for him but I am ashamed to admit I did not.
I judge my young eager self a little from where I am now. A decade of foster and adoptive parenting has schooled me in what fostering is and should be about. If I was making that same drive today my thoughts would be very different and if I got a call saying “Grandma arrived” I would be thrilled that a family member stepped in.
I also wonder at the social workers who called me that night. I remember the social worker telling me “I was really disappointed when Grandma showed up, I really hoped this would be your night, I was so looking forward to getting a child home with you”. He validated all my hurt and disappointed feelings when he should have been gently reminding me that foster care was about doing the best thing for the child and the best thing for that child had happened.
Foster care agencies have the hard job of recruiting foster parents, and in their efforts to recruit some tell hopeful prospective parents what they want to hear. I have been to information nights where agencies offer statistics in a way that frames the foster care cases that go to adoption as their successes, “Over 50% of our cases end in adoption, you have a good chance of keeping the first child you foster”. This is not okay.
The goal in foster care is (almost) always reunification until all efforts there have failed. Adoption is not the success story. Don’t get me wrong – I am pro adoption, especially adoption from foster care. I am an adoptive Momma of two kids but when we are talking about a child who is entering foster care adoption is NOT the first goal. It is a goal that develops after other goals fail.
Agencies need to tell hopeful prospective parents this right off the bat – that foster care is about providing a safe and loving home for a child and doing EVERYTHING in your power to support reunification with the birth family. That you need to get ready to love a child with the full knowledge that you may well have to say goodbye to them. They need to remind hopeful families from day one that foster care is about finding families for kids, not finding kids for families.
There are some wonderful agencies out there who set the tone for the conversation early but as foster parents I believe we need to set the same tone in our conversations with each other. I see the comments in online groups. I cringe a little when I see someone post “We got a baby for Christmas, I am so excited!” I am happy for these parents, who may have waited years for parenthood but my heart goes out to the birth family who has to face the holiday without a child that they love and too often in the excitement for a family that gained a child we do not talk about the family that lost one.
I know there are many hopeful people out there eagerly waiting to fulfil their dreams of becoming a Mom or Dad. But even in our hopeful dreaming we have to remember what we signed up for here and speak about fostering in a way that honors that and keeps us all accountable to the goal of supporting reunification with everything we have, while also loving these children with our whole hearts.
There are options for hopeful parents who do not wish to risk their heart on a child that they may have to say good bye to. After parenting, loving and saying goodbye to six foster children my husband and I decided our hearts had taken enough of a beating and we decided to only accept placements of children legally free for adoption. Three months later we were matched to our sons and finalized their adoption the year after. I think that it is important to be honest with ourselves about what we can do – not everyone is in a place where they are emotionally ready to parent a child without the certainty that they will raise them till adult hood. And that is okay. I have been there. I am a huge advocate of foster parenting and foster adoption but there is a season for everything and there was a time when traditional fostering was just not something we were emotionally ready for and admitting that to ourselves was an important step in building our family.
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