Friday, August 7, 2020

Meet The Fosters

Kids in cages. That was the tipping point.

It was the summer of 2018 and families were being ripped apart and detained (such a sanitized word for such an inhumane act) at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This space seats 1,000 people,” said the priest of the progressive Catholic church my husband and I attended at the end of a Mass. His eyes welled up with tears and his voice warbled. “Imagine twice that many children separated from their parents.”

The lights in the sanctuary went out as we prayed. I wept for the bereft mothers with empty arms and the terrified children with no one to cling to.

As we exited the church, my husband happily chewing his "I went to church" reward cookie, I said, “I wish we could do something to help those kids.”

But what? I started researching and found an article about a Christian foster care agency that was placing children separated from their parents at the border in homes across the Southwest. The agency had a branch in Minnesota. While we wouldn't be able to help those kids through this agency, we could open our home to someone.

The agency purported to help people create families in non-traditional ways, through domestic infant adoption, international adoption, and foster care. I suspected adoption was out of our reach financially, but foster care might be feasible. The baby lust that flared up in 2016 hadn't faded; I'd just gotten busy with freelance work. But now, assignments had plateaued and I had time on my hands, enough time to care for another child. Foster care was like temporary parenting, so it might be easier to get my husband to agree to it, too.

My husband and I watched a few videos about foster care on the agency's slick website. We were surprised to learn that foster parents were a diverse group, not the homogenous white, wealthy, suburban couple demographic I had assumed would have the resources to foster children. If a 60-something single woman could foster several children, surely we could, too. We signed up for an informational meeting.

On the appointed night, we arrived at a nondescript office building and filed into a charmless room arranged with tables for two. There were eight couples there, all seemingly in their 20s or 30s. Two agency employees, wearing crisp business casual clothing and carefully applied makeup, commenced their well-practiced presentation on all the agency’s services. We followed along in our informational packets.

Infant adoption sounded appealing, but the price tag was prohibitive – over $20K to adopt domestically. Just to put a profile together and complete the agency's screening process was at least $11K, with no guarantee of a child. A birth mother had to choose you, and there were far more couples waiting to adopt than there were birth mothers willing to surrender their offspring, so you were essentially competing with other wannabe adoptive parents. Even if we could've afforded domestic infant adoption, I knew there wasn't a birth mother in the world that would choose a lower-middle-class, blended family like ours over a well-to-do childless couple for their baby (and I couldn't blame them; I'd choose the latter couple, too). 

That's why so many couples opted for international adoption – more babies to adopt, in part because of overfull orphanages. But there were restrictions abroad on everything from the adoptive parents' ages to income to heath, and they varied from country to country. The cost? A whopping $40K. 

The wait was long, too, no matter which adoption route you chose. Years. Plural.

Foster care was the agency’s area of greatest need. A stat that stuck with me: in the U.S., there are three churches for every waiting child in the foster care system. If each congregation stepped up to support one family to do foster care, there would be no more waiting children. 

My Catholic guilt was already overwhelming me. Then the reps showed a video of an adorable 9-year-old boy in the foster care system. He was obviously a handful (he didn’t stop moving the entire video) but he was sweet and articulate and said he longed for a mom and dad. My eyes welled up. "I could love that kid," I thought.

Foster care it was. We scheduled an intake interview and soon found ourselves seated on a stiff, floral-patterned couch in a tiny office as the intake coordinator laid bare the realities of foster care. The kids needing placement had suffered unthinkable neglect, physical abuse, and sexual assault. And if we were hoping for an infant (which I was), we were out of luck. The agency hadn’t placed any babies in the last year. Their greatest need was homes for teens, sibling groups, or children with special needs. We didn't have the space or the emotional bandwidth to provide that level of care. 

The intake coordinator understood. But even if they could find, say, a 4-year-old child with no siblings to place with us, were we prepared for the bedwetting? The sleep disturbances? The violent outbursts? The destruction of property? The multitude of doctor appointments, court dates, supervised visitations? I could feel my husband’s eyes grow wide even though I wasn’t looking directly at him.

I’d majored in psychology as an undergrad and had interned at a treatment center for children with mental and emotional disturbances. While the kids I’d interacted with (mostly boys) were certainly challenging, I’d also found them charming.

But this was not that. There was no going home to decompress at the end of the day. Placements were 24/7 and lasted from 12 to 20 months, after which, the children went back to their family members. Foster parents were encouraged to get attached to the children but had to be prepared to be heartbroken when they left.

The coordinator was definitely not trying to sell us on the foster care idea. In fact, it seemed like she was dutifully trying to scare us away.

“If we decide to go forward, what’s the next step?” I asked.

Paperwork. Lots of it. A deep dive into our family history, mental and physical health, financial records, and more. The agency wanted to know not just what type of parents we were but how we were parented, too. There would be four to five home visits from social workers, and likely home repairs to make our fixer-upper safe and accommodating for foster children. There would be criminal background checks and we’d have to provide multiple references, professional and personal. 

“But we’d have a placement for you by Christmas,” the coordinator said.

So there was that – foster care moved fast. There was also financial compensation, but considering that kids often come to foster homes with little more than the shirts on their backs (and sometimes, not even that), the weekly stipend was barely enough to cover the children's expenses.

Many wrought conversations followed. My husband wasn’t sure he could handle a kid who'd experienced serious trauma. Though I tried to argue that there was no guarantee how any child – biological, adopted, foster, or otherwise – would behave, I didn't want to drop us into a powder-keg situation, either.

“I’ll do it for a year,” he finally acquiesced.

“A year?” I gaped. Just to get to a placement seemed like a lot of work to only to do it for a year.

There was one other option: foster care adoption. Basically, you agree to provide foster care for a child who probably isn’t going back to their family. Once parental rights are terminated, you can adopt them. The advantage of foster care adoption is that it’s free, and the state subsidizes Medical Assistance for the child until they turn 18.

It sounded too good to be true. And as it turned out, it was. In our county, the wait from foster care placement to the finalization of adoption was 18 to 24 months. The representative wouldn’t disclose how many babies they had placed in the last year, but she did say that most people getting licensed for foster care adoption were doing so in order to take custody of family members. Also, foster families were expected to foster at least one child first – and return them to their families – before they could foster-to-adopt another. That would mean up to four years in limbo before we could legally adopt a child.

“Foster care is not the fast-track to adoption,” she said.

Understatement of the century.

I felt defeated. The system made people jump through so many hoops. On the one hand, I understood why; I’d heard the horror stories of children who were removed from abusive homes only to be retraumatized by unfit foster parents. But I’d also heard stories of foster parents who depleted themselves financially, physically, and emotionally caring for kids – especially teens – who didn’t want their help.

I didn't want to believe that giving back and growing our family were mutually exclusive, but it seemed like they were. We quickly found an alternative way to do the former, by volunteering as a family for an organization that packed and shipped food to children in need. As for the latter, if we wanted a baby, we apparently had to make our own. The only problem was I couldn’t do it alone, and to get my husband on board would require some serious convincing – and an invasive medical procedure...

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