Thursday, April 10, 2014

Foster Care Isn't For You

A couple of months ago I was asked to submit something to adoption.com answering the question "What is the one, most important piece of advice that you would give someone who is considering becoming a foster parent?  This was my response:

Last year an article by the name of “Marriage Isn’t For You” swept across the internet.  I was curious why so many people were praising and recommending an article which, judging from the title, sounded so cynical and anti-marriage to me.  However, after finally reading it I was amused to discover that my initial assumptions about the article couldn’t be further from the truth.  By asserting that “Marriage Isn’t For You” the author wasn’t putting down the sacred institution of marriage or trying to discourage anyone from getting or staying married, but rather he learned through his personal experiences that the key to having a successful marriage is realizing that marriage isn’t for you – in other words, it isn’t about getting all of your needs and desires met, but it’s about focusing on what you can give and provide for your spouse.  

In the same light, when I reflect upon what one the most important pieces of advice I could give someone considering doing foster care is, I would sum my response up in one statement: Foster care isn’t for you. 

Wait a minute- What?  Are you trying to tell me not to foster?  No- absolutely not!  What I am saying is that the most valuable lesson I’ve learned over the past 8 years of fostering is that fostering isn’t about ME- it’s not about my fulfillment and needs or my wishes and desires- it’s about supporting the needs of the children placed in my care. 

Fostering a child presents somewhat of a dilemma because you welcome a child into your home and try to care for them as if they were your own child while at the same time being ever aware and respectful of the fact that they are not your child.  Fost-adopt families are also presented with an added dimension of uncertainty and speculation that comes with the possibility of adopting their foster children in the case that they can’t return to the care of their family.  In either case you’re most likely going to become attached to a child and the inevitable result will be heartbreak when they leave your home.  When I hear people say of fostering- “I just couldn’t do it- it would be too hard” I think to myself “Yes, it is hard, but it’s not about what’s easiest for me or about protecting my feelings- it’s about providing children with a safe and loving home even when it’s not necessarily convenient and even when it could potentially cause me to grieve.”  In other words, foster care isn’t for me- it’s for them.

When any foster parent starts to lose focus of the child’s needs or begins keeping a mental tally of what they’ve “gotten” out of fostering versus what they are able to give, then they are bound to face disappointment, frustration, and even resentment.  I’m speaking from experience.  Perhaps the biggest example of this self-centeredness and resentment is when I think to myself on my less-than-positive days, “We’ve fostered 11 children and we haven’t been able to adopt a single one!”  That’s when I have to remind myself- “Guess what?  Foster care isn’t for you- it’s for the children!”  The fact that I have or haven’t been able to adopt any of my foster children shouldn’t really matter, but what does matter is the fact that we’ve provided a good home for a child in need- regardless of whether that child stays in our home for days or months and regardless of how I feel about the judge’s final decision determining their future.
One of the most surprising discoveries I’ve made through fostering is that not only are you impacting the life of a child, but you are serving as a major resource and support to that child’s family as well.  In some cases your family may be the only reliable alternative that your foster child’s family may have to provide a safe and loving home for their children.  With this in mind, foster care isn’t just for the children, but for the families of these children as well.  You are giving a family a chance to come back together again.

This is another area where it can be extremely tempting and all too easy to focus on yourself as you make comparisons between your home and family life and your foster child’s family- especially when you realize that the quality of care and environment your foster child came from or may be returning to is not up to the same standards you can provide.  But that’s when you need to remember once again that foster care isn’t for you- it isn’t a “contest” of bio parents versus foster parents and who can provide the safer, more stable home environment- it’s about being a support to your foster child’s family the same way you support and advocate for your foster child.

It can be difficult to take yourself out of the picture and not compare yourself with your foster child’s parent (or parents) when you know that they have been evicted from their apartment or were living in a shelter just a short time ago and over the next couple of months they are expected to keep a steady job and provide stable housing for their family.  It can be especially concerning and worrisome when you know that your foster child’s parents are expected to refrain from domestic violence or from abusing drugs when that’s the exact environment they’ve grown up with and those are the addictions or cycles they must battle to break.

So how do you stop focusing on yourself in such cases and remember that fostering isn’t for or about you  but rather about supporting your foster child’s family- which, in turn, supports your foster child?  I think it helps to remember that nobody is perfect and that we all need help once in a while.  Focus on how far your foster child’s family has come and realize that, for example, although getting a job at McDonalds or 7-11 may not be much of an accomplishment or career move to you it is honest work and a huge step for someone else.  We all have our own strengths and weaknesses and if I were to run a 5K tomorrow it would be a major accomplishment for me, but to a triathlete it may feel like just a warm-up. Focus on the good about your foster child’s parents because we are all in much more need of encouragement than of criticism and judgment.  Tell your foster child’s parents what you like about their child and never forget to look for the good in your foster children and praise them for any progress they make as well- no matter how seemingly small.

All of the relationships we have in life will become much more meaningful and successful when we try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and focus on what we can give rather than what’s in it for us.  These principles most certainly apply to the role of a foster parent.

If nothing else, please remember that foster care isn’t for you – it’s about focusing on what you can give and provide for a child and their family. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Importance of Physical Contact & Attachment

I started reading a book about attachment theories and came across this quote about child-rearing by behaviorist John B. Watson in a book he published in 1928:

“Treat them as though they were young adults.  Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection.  Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm.  Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap.  If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight.  Shake hands with them in the morning.  Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task.”

A couple of thoughts:

1)      If I had my child taken away from me and sent to live with strangers (as in the case with foster care) OR if I were to voluntarily place my child with a family (adoption) I would sure as heck make sure that NURTURING were as important to that family as making sure my child was fed and clean and safe.

2)      In the past, child welfare professionals were afraid of children becoming too attached to their caregivers so they would purposely move the children from one foster home to another to prevent attachment. (I’m shaking my head at the thought that so much more disruption and change and trauma could possibly be in the best interest to a child).

3)     My cousin once visited an orphanage in a foreign country and she was warned beforehand “Don’t pick up the babies- they are not used to getting so much attention and it will just cause them to cry more after you put them down.”   Truly Heartbreaking.

4)      Trying to “toughen up” children reminded me of this quote by child development researcher L.R. Knost which I’ve came across recently:
 
 
5)      Jack is becoming more attached to me and at the end of the last couple of visits he's had with his parents as soon as he sees me he leaves his mom’s side and reaches out his little arms to me or toddles over to me in a hurry with a smile on his face.  This causes his mom to be jealous (she’ll either say something out loud or it is apparent in her body language) which makes for an awkward and tricky situation. Doubtless I’d probably feel the same way if I were in her shoes. 

 
I guess the best perspective for any member of the “foster-care triad” to have is “Too much love and too many secure attachments are better than a lack of love or attachment.”  Instead of looking at things as a competition where there’s only one victor, I think it’s much more beneficial to everyone involved- (foster child, bio parent, foster parent) to recognize that just because a child loves one “mother” or caregiver it doesn’t mean that he loves the other mother or caregiver any less.  I’m sure people with children in very open adoptions or blended families have reached the same conclusion through their experiences.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Halfway to Permanency for Jack and Jill

Six months ago I picked up a three-day-old baby girl from the hospital where she was released into my care as a foster placement.  As if that's not enough change and excitement for one family to handle, later that same day a caseworker brought her 11 month old brother (yep- 11 months apart!) to our home with only the clothes on his back and a dirty, ragged diaper bag with a few scarce belongings after a court hearing ordered him into state custody as well.  These children, whom I refer to on this blog as "Jack and Jill" are the tenth and eleventh children we've fostered and they are expected to return to their parent's care in five months.
 
It is pretty much impossible not to become extremely attached to a baby you've cared for 24/7 since their birth (other than a few hours each week when they're having supervised visits with their parents).  For this reason, saying goodbye to these foster children- and to Jill in particular, will be especially hard to do.
 
Babies grow at an astounding rate.  Jill is not the same helpless little creature she was when we first brought her home from the hospital- she's now babbling, squawking, laughing, smiling, rolling around, and on the verge of getting her first teeth. And I know that in five months from now, when it's time for her to go back to her parents, she will have changed and developed even more so that she'll be in an entirely different stage of babyhood. 
 
As for Jack, he has come a long way in many areas of development in just a few short months.  When he was first placed with us he was so emotionally distressed that he would wail and cry whenever we left the room and if he wasn't constantly being held he seemed to be in panic mode- he was essentially as needy and helpless as his newborn sister and yet there was almost a year between them.  Not only were we worried about Jack's social and emotional development, but about possible motor and cognitive delays as well.  Thankfully he has made great strides and when we were finally able to get him assessed by Early Intervention after the Christmas holidays, they found that although he has some minor delays they weren't significant enough for him to qualify for any services.  Had he been evaluated during the first couple of months he was in our care, however, I am certain he would have qualified.
 
Jack still has somewhat of a "cautious" personality, but he is learning to explore and becoming increasingly independent, playful, and ever curious like most toddlers.   Although he wasn't actually walking until a few short months ago, he is conquering stairs and climbing onto furniture like a mountaineer.  And the fact that he is able to voluntarily venture into another room without me or my husband with him is a HUGE deal. 

Jack and Jill have been seeing their parents at a weekly two-hour supervised visit up until recently when visits were extended to twice a week for two hours each because of the progress their parents are making.   The caseworker and the Division are not only pushing for extended visits but for unsupervised (outside of the DCFS building) visits as well.  Herein lies the conundrum they're currently facing: In order to have unsupervised visits, Jack and Jill's parents need to have a place of their own which is approved OR they must find a home of a friend or family member who can pass a background check and be approved for unsupervised visits.  The parents have not been able to meet either of these criteria so for now unsupervised visits are at a halt.

Earlier this month I took the babies to a Review Hearing for their case where the judge basically told the parents to "keep up the good work" in meeting the requirements set forth in their Service Plans.  The judge also agreed that since this case is headed towards reunification and since the children are so young, it is imperative that they start having more visits with their parents.  However, like I mentioned, until either parent can find a friend or family member who can pass a background check (which is why a kinship placement has not been an option) these visits can't take place.  The fact that neither parent has yet been able to find one single relative or friend who can pass a background check speaks volumes to me about not only what kind of circles the parents run in, but also what kind of a credible support system they have.  This is a major concern to me.

Other concerns I have, not just for Jack and Jill, but for their parents, as reunification approaches are:

-Sure, it's easy to "parent" your kids for four hours once a week but what happens when Jack and Jill's parents start parenting both babies 24/7 (Keep in mind that they've never parented more than one child at a time) when they're back in their care?  For the past six months they haven't had to get up during the night to feed Jill or to comfort Jack when he's teething, they aren't used to changing multiple diapers a day and doing extra laundry that two little people produce.  Aside from any of the day-to-day demands and challenges of caring for two children under the age of two, the financial responsibilities of diapers and formula, baby food, cribs, clothing, and car seats can really add up- especially when you're in a situation, as they are, where they're just trying to get back on their feet again.
 
-I imagine it would be extremely motivating to do everything required of you in a Service Plan when the alternative is losing permanent custody of your children.  Not only that, but the fact that you are constantly being monitored and checked up on by DCFS and the court system to make sure you're making progress would actually be more of a help than a hassle in the long run.  I know for me, personally, accountability and monitoring help me so much in terms of trying to do better in any area of my life.  For example, say I'm working on staying in shape or eating better.  If I have an exercise buddy or personal trainer to push me or if I knew that I had to weigh in every week then of course I'm going to make more of an effort because I have to be accountable whereas if I were doing things on my own I might start to get lax or even slip into my old ways if I have no follow-up on how I'm doing.  Similarly speaking, when it comes to becoming lax or "slipping into old ways" what happens when DCFS is no longer checking up on Jack and Jill's parents?
 
- I have always had more confidence in their father's parenting abilities and general maturity over their mother's and since their dad will be working full-time and mom will be the primary caregiver (although she is required to work at least part-time which also brings up the question of who will be watching the kids if both parents are at work and if no friends or relatives have been able to pass background checks- is all their money going to go towards day care?  If so, more stress for them) I get a little worried- especially when it comes to the parenting competence and attachment (or lack thereof) their mom has with Jill. 
 
The first couple of months during visits (this is according to my own observations as well as what the caseworker would share with me) Jack and Jill's mom would spend all of her time and attention with Jack but would sometimes not even bother to pick Jill up or take her out of her car seat and hold her.  Understandably, she is much more attached to Jack because they already have an established relationship and it's certainly not the most ideal situation to try and bond with your baby when they've been removed from your care at birth and you only see them for four hours a week  WHICH IS WHY IT IS SO IMPORTANT THAT VISITS NEED TO BE EXTENDED IN PREPARATION FOR THE TRANSITION TO REUNIFICATION for EVERYONE'S sake!
 
I wish that Jill's mother were as in love with her baby girl as our family is.  I wish that she would be as excited about seeing Jill and interacting with her at visits as she is with Jack.  The good news is that she's gotten slightly better at interacting with her daughter, but she still has a long ways to go.

For example:  At one doctor's appointment with both babies (the only one their mother has shown up for, actually) I purposely had to say to her, "Would you like to hold {Jill} now?" so that she could have some interaction with her baby girl and not just Jack.  She said sure and we "switched" babies since each of us had a baby on our laps.  I might also add, at that same doctor's appointment as we were waiting for the doctor to come into the room, Jack was toddling around and for a brief moment he looked at his mom, and then at me, and then back at his mom again with a slightly puzzled look on his face as if to say, "Which mommy do I go to?" When he toddled over to me and put his head on my lap, his mother got visibly jealous and reprimanded him, saying,  "No- You come to ME!"  Awkward.  I quickly grabbed a favorite board book of his from the diaper bag and handed it to his mom and said, "This is one of his favorites- do you want to read it to him?"  Fortunately, Jack was content to sit on her lap while she read it to him.

Another example is at the recent Review Hearing I took the babies to.  Before everyone was called into court, the parents (and mom's mom- the children's grandmother) were playing with and holding the babies in the lobby.  At one point Jill's mom was holding Jill and Jill started to get fussy.  Her mother immediately got a panicked look on her face and looked at me in desperation and said, "Here, can you take her."- more as a statement than a request and she quickly handed off Jill to me like a hot potato.  Not a good sign.  She's the mom- I'm "just" the foster mom- the substitute mommy.  What is she going to do when her boyfriend (the babies father) is at work and she has not just one but two fussy children?

Yet another reason why transitioning into reunification as soon as possible is imperative: Jack knows his parents and is happy to see them at visits, but Jill needs a chance to get to know them as her parents- not just the woman and man she sees with her brother for four hours every week.  Although she hasn't shown too much separation/stranger anxiety yet at just six months old, it is apparent that Jill prefers me over others and most definitely recognizes me as her primary caregiver.  I am her "mommy" even though I'm not.  How potentially confusing will it be for her in four or five more months after becoming even more bonded and attached to our family to suddenly start living with a new mommy and daddy?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

ReMoved- Through the Eyes of A Foster Child

I came across this award-winning, short flim  (13 minutes) and thought it was very well done:


ReMoved from HESCHLE on Vimeo.

A few personal comments/reactions:

- What a great young actress.
- What's up with that first foster family?!
- So grateful for organizations who donate bags or backpacks- basically anything other than A GARBAGE BAG for foster children to carry their belongings in!
- Surely some will identify more with the little girl or even the bio parents in this film than with the case worker, police, or foster parents, but I felt so bad for the second foster mom (the nice one) who was just doing her best only to be "rewarded" with anger and resentment.  And yet . . . behind every outburst is a reason so you have to learn not to take things personally.
- The anger Zoe had reminded me of what was perhaps our most difficult placement when we fostered a 3 year old girl, "Precious", as an emergency placement for about a week until she could be placed with kin.  As with Zoe, Precious had a tremendous amount of anger and even rage which would come out at seemingly random (to us) times but she seemed to use her anger and resistance as a way to protect herself from getting hurt any more than she already had been.  Despite the angry outbursts, yelling, and whining, Precious was also in desperate need of love and validation (what child isn't, right?) and fortunately, when she was calm enough, she would accept the validation and nurturing from me without pushing me away.
- Caseworkers have a hard job.  You could sense the stress and frustration on the caseworker's face after each removal and during the supervised visit.
- Keeping siblings together is SO important! Watching Zoe take on the role of mother to her younger brother at the beginning of the film was both touching and hard to watch.  Hearing her voice her concerns about being away from him was heartbreaking.
-And speaking of the role of a parent, Did you notice how Zoe's mom ran after her boyfriend (or husband?) when he was arrested rather than checking on her children?  Ugghh!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Choosing the Right Adoption Agency for You

In our journey to adopt the second time around, we've looked into many different agencies and situations.  One of the first things my husband and I do when researching adoption agencies or looking into available situations is to ask for a breakdown of fees.   Over the past couple of years I've come across a few situations from a particular agency in my state known for its costliness (among other things) and when I asked for a specific breakdown of fees I was ASTONISHED to learn how much money went towards their "advertising costs."   I also found it ironic that for an agency with such high advertising costs, they always seem to be searching for families to go through their agency by posting situations in online forums.

Take note, adoption professionals:  Please Don't leave messages or announcements in online forums or social media asking if anyone is interested or knows of anyone who is interested in adopting a baby with an approaching due date without an estimation of the costs.  Doing so is like a Realtor posting an ad with a picture of a house which has just been listed and asking all potential homeowners "Is anyone interested in buying this house?"  Of course people are interested in buying the house, but no matter how great the location or how gorgeous the home is, if it doesn't fit into the buyer's budget, then it's just not a realistic option for them to look into!  The real question isn't "Is anyone interested in buying this house?" but rather "Is this house within your price range?"

Similarly speaking, with infertility affecting 1 in 8 couples in the U.S.,  and/or for many families who may not necessarily be affected by infertility but who would love to provide a safe and nurturing home for a child through adoption OF COURSE PEOPLE ARE INTERESTED IN ADOPTING!  So why don't more people adopt when situations arise?  Because being interested is NOT the same as being able to afford the costs of adopting which  is where one of my biggest pet peeves about the adoption process as an adoptive parent lies:  That adoption can be so costly! 

Dear Adoption Agencies with Particularly High Fees, 

Please don't get anyone's false hopes up by advertising situations and asking if anyone is interested, but rather, just come outright and say, "Those of you who have at least $45K in your adoption budget, please inquire- no other families will be considered."  Yes, I realize there won't be as many inquiries, but it will save both parties a lot of time and save prospective adoptive couples (and their friends and families who are so eager to pass along such information) extra frustration and heartache.  
                                                  Sincerely, Me

I understand that medical care and legal fees cost money- I get it- and certainly birthparents may need some financial support during a pregnancy, but I just don't understand how some agencies can feel good about themselves for charging an arm and a leg for "advertising" or other fees.  Do these agencies exist to find homes for children or are they in the money-making business of buying off birthparents and in return selling babies to the highest bidder?  I know that sounds extremely cynical of me, but it's an honest frustration I have.  When I come across such agencies, it makes my husband and I much more inclined to want to adopt a Waiting Child through the foster care system, because the intent of The Dave Thomas Foundation For Adoption and other such foundations and agencies is to find families and homes for children, NOT to make a profit.
 
Speaking of child-centered adoptions, I fully agree with what Dawn Davenport, an adoption advocate and the Executive Director of creatingafamily.org, wrote in this post:

“OK, here’s the truth: the process of adoption is often messy with lots of ups and downs.  Both families involved –birth and adoptive- are making the biggest decision of their life.   What is right for them and for the child is not always clear.  Absolutes are in short supply.  No agency can make this process seamless, nor should they. You can and should expect, however, honesty, transparency, and communication.

Good agencies are child centered; they are more interested in finding homes for children than children for homes.  Good agencies come in all sizes and flavors, but in my opinion they share the following traits:
  • They stress pre-adoption education.
  • For domestic adoption agencies, they provide pre and post adoption counseling for first mothers, and support her decision either way.
  • For international adoption agencies, they have humanitarian programs in the countries where they work to help the kids that won’t be adopted and help families stay intact.
  • They don’t cherry pick the kids. In other words, they try to find homes for harder to place children.
  • They make a lifetime commitment to you and your child through post adoption services.
A good adoption agency looks more like a child-welfare agency.  It’s worth the time to find that type of agency.”

My husband and I were very pleased with the private agency we went through for our first adoption for the following reasons:

1)      As a non-profit agency it was affordable; not “cheap” but affordable

2)      The agency provides free lifelong counseling to birthparents (if they desire) and

3)      The agency we used does not charge “more” or “less” for children based on race of the child.  I REFUSE to support any agency which charges more for a child based on skin color.  Some would argue that it’s just a matter of economics: white babies are more “rare” than multiracial or minority babies, but there are more multiracial babies and children available or in “supply”; therefore the higher the demand the higher the price and vice versa.  Even so, it just doesn’t seem right to me.

4)      The agency required pre-adoption education stressing the importance that adoption should be centered on THE CHILD and that although birthparents and adoptive parents are crucial to the process, their needs come second to the child’s needs.

After much thought and research over the past couple of years we found another adoption agency which meets the criteria of our first adoption agency: it is a non-profit agency which charges on a sliding scale based on income, they do not charge more or less based on race of a child, and birthparents who go through this agency are provided with ample support- emotionally and financially- and they play an active role in choosing which family adopts their child.  Such criteria meets our definition of an "ethical" adoption agency.  We were approved to adopt through this new agency a year ago and thankfully our Home Study from our original agency easily transferred over which helped to save a TON of paperwork and time on our part!

Another advantage for us as adoptive parents going through this new agency is that the number of families that they work with at one time is substantially lower than our other agency- which has literally hundreds of prospective adoptive couples, which is GREAT if you're a birthparent considering adoption, but not so great when you're hoping to adopt and have to compete with other couples in the exact same situation.  

Criteria for choosing an adoption agency depends on what things are most important to prospective adoptive couples- or birthparents.  Speaking of which, I thought it was very interesting that as part of the application process with our new agency (we are still with our old agency as well) in an attempt to get to know their clients, we were asked to rate the following three statements in order of importance to us:

"____  I want to have a baby in my arms as soon as possible.  I am not as interested in specific characteristics; I just want a child.

____  Birth parents race, intelligence, and general characteristics are very important to me.  I am willing to wait longer in order to find what I'm looking for.

____   Although I am anxious to adopt, cost is very important to me, therefore I am willing to wait for birth parents with minimal financial need."

Such statements can be very helpful in determining what is a priority to you and what kind of an adoption agency would fit your needs.


Other questions to keep in mind if you or someone you know is considering adoption and researching agencies are:

-How long has the agency been in business/licensed?

-Is the agency Hague accredited? (for international adoptions)

-What are the fees?  Are any of these fees refundable? 

-Can the agency guarantee the placement of a child?

-How many adoptive placements does the agency have, on average, per year?

-What is the average waiting time to be matched with a child?

-How many prospective adoptive couples at a time does the agency work with?

-Does the agency encourage closed or open adoptions?