Sunday, July 12, 2009

Lessons Learned from Foster Care- Part 1

This post was originally published in MEM's MEMOS on April 4, 2009

I'll be the first to admit that throughout most of my life when I’ve heard the term “foster child” an image would pop into my mind of an out-of-control teenager with a bunch of behavioral problems or of an unkempt child with a perpetually snotty nose and lice. I know that’s judgmental of me- but it’s the truth. I discovered that my husband had similar prejudices and perceptions the first time I mentioned to him that I felt like we were supposed to do foster care. He looked at me like I had lost my mind.

It wasn't until October of 2005 that we finally put our fears aside and got started on the paperwork, background checks, medical & reference letters, and 32 hours of classes to become licensed foster care providers.

“Are we supposed to do foster care so that we end up adopting a child?” my husband eagerly asked me.

I wished that I could look into a crystal ball like a fortune teller and see a clear picture of our future, but I couldn't give him a definite answer. Sure, it would be nice if we could adopt a child through foster care, but I honestly didn’t know what the outcome would be.

“I don’t know,” was all I could tell him. “I just know we’re supposed to do it.”

One morning when we were a couple of weeks away from finishing up all of the training and having our background checks cleared I got a phone call from my sister. She had just gotten off of the phone with our cousin who wanted to know if she knew of anybody who would be willing to take a five month old baby boy into their home. I’ll give you the circumstances and background surrounding that phone call, but the names have been changed.
BACKGROUND: My sweet cousin Hannah and her husband Jack were happily married and had three kids. Then Hannah died from complications of lupus when she was in her 40's. Everyone was crushed, especially Jack and his three children. However, Jack eventually remarried a woman named Wendy and they continued to stay close to Hannah's family.

Wendy had some grown children of her own, including a 32 year old daughter I'll call "Kristin". Kristin had been a drug addict since the time she was 16 and had given birth to three children. Kristin chose to place her first child for adoption. Her second child, a baby boy, was taken away from her and put into foster care because of her drug use. This baby was eventually adopted by his foster family.

Kristin and her boyfriend, who was also a heroin addict, had recently had a child together- another baby boy whom they named "Jack" after his step-grandfather. Kristin claimed that she was able to stay clean during her pregnancy (she admitted later that she was using during the pregnancy) and Baby Jack was a beautiful and happy blonde-haired blue-eyed boy who appeared to be very healthy.

Tragically, when Baby Jack was five months old his father died of a heroin overdose. This, of course, upset Kristin and she started using even more. 
Jack and Wendy opened their home to Kristin and Baby Jack, but Wendy had enough experience as Kristin's parent to know that she could not enable her daughter's addiction by letting her stay with them while she was using. As hard as it must have been, Jack and Wendy were firm in not letting Kristin stay in their home while she used. On the other hand, they were also worried that Kristin would start living on the streets and take baby Jack with her. It eventually got to the point that Jack and Wendy had to call the cops on Kristin- and when the cops got involved and heard the story, they called DCFS.
So why was DCFS called if baby Jack was being cared for in a safe home by his grandparents? Well, there are a couple of other facts that come into play- namely, that Jack and Wendy were both in their 50s and although they had been the temporary primary caregivers to their grandson, they thought that in the long run it would be best for Baby Jack to be raised by a younger family rather than by them. To complicate things further, Wendy had been undergoing treatments for breast cancer and she would have to return to work soon in order to continue receiving medical benefits.

DCFS consequently removed Jack from his grandparent's home and he was placed in the Salt Lake Christmas Box House. By this point Wendy and Jack were desperate to find a family they trusted who would be willing to care for Baby Jack and possibly adopt him if it came to that.

As my sister heard this information she immediately thought of J. and I: We had been married for five years and although we had wanted to add to our family, we still had no children. We had also just bought our first home earlier that year. My sister mentioned our names to my cousin, who gave another piece of crucial information: "There's a catch- DCFS is trying to find a home for baby Jack in 30 days or less and he needs to go to a family that is licensed to do foster care."
My sister excitedly informed my cousin that J. and I were in the process of getting our foster care license even though we didn't know the reason why we were supposed to do so. She then called me immediately after getting off of the phone with our cousin and as the details unfolded, everything suddenly seemed to just make sense to me and fall into place. "This has to be the reason we're supposed to do foster care!" I thought.

The next couple of days were HECTIC to say the least. Unfortunately, I can't remember all of the details because 15 pages of my journal from that time were LOST after our computer crashed. AARRGGGH!

Here's what I DO remember, though:
  • Calling my husband immediately after my sister called me to tell him the news
  • Talking to Wendy on the phone to get more information about her daughter, Baby Jack, and the caseworkers involved in the case. Wendy was very straightforward with me when she told me that if her daughter didn't get the help that she needed she would most likely die very soon- either from living on the streets or directly from the drugs themselves.
  • Making MANY MANY phone calls to anyone and everyone at DCFS who had any information whatsoever on the case (I'm sure they were SO sick of my incessant pestering!) The CPS Worker I talked to on the phone was very helpful in giving me information. She told me that Baby Jack was (understandably) having a hard adjustment at the Christmas Box House. That broke my heart. Other caseworkers I talked with would give me the run-around or couldn't/wouldn't give me much information
  • Being in such a hurry to drive down to the nearest Licensing Office to submit all of our paperwork that I scraped the right rear-view mirror of our car against our garage (I still have a big scratch on my car to this day!)
  • Eagerly explaining my situation in person to a Licensor only to be told that the information needed to come directly from a caseworker involved directly with the case, and in turn
  • Faxing our forms to Baby Jack's caseworker who informed me that our paperwork needed to be sent to the licensing office nearest them rather than our licensing office. Foster parents care for children in their geographic region; We were in the "Northern" Region but Baby Jack's case originated in Salt Lake so things were a little complicated
  • Making more phone calls, more faxes, more e-mails, etc.
  • Meeting with Jack & Wendy in their home where we discussed the situation further. They were eager for their baby grandson to be in a loving home as soon as possible, where they could keep in contact with him. My husband and I were more than willing to take baby Jack into our home whether it was on a temporary or permanent basis. It seemed like a no-brainer, but since Baby Jack was in State Custody it was their policies and procedures which determined where he would end up rather than our own wishes.
Here are the first couple of lessons that I quickly learned about "The System" during those few days:

LESSON #1- The Utah Foster Care Foundation (a non-profit, private foundation), The Office of Licensing (State-run), and The Division of Child and Family Services (State-run) are three separate agencies which work together to find homes for children in State Custody. Although these agencies have a united purpose, communication between each of the agencies isn't always the most effective or expeditious, nor are each of these agencies always on the "same page" concerning the same case.

LESSON #2- Whenever possible, all efforts are made to place foster children with a blood relative. Placement with relatives ALWAYS take precedence over strangers (provided they can pass a background check).

Although Baby Jack's Stepgrandfather was my cousin-in-law we weren't related by blood, so J. and I weren't at the "top" of the list of possible placements. There were two other options for homes for Jack: the birthfather's family or the foster family who had adopted Baby Jack's half-brother. Although it was decided in a Team Meeting that Baby Jack's father's family wouldn't be a good option for caring for him, Baby Jack's paternal grandparents wanted to see him go to a good home. The other option didn't look likely either as the family that adopted Baby Jack's half-brother had just had a baby.

One thing sounded pretty certain, however: a few of the caseworkers we had talked with told us "based on the birthmother's history, this case will probably turn out in an adoption rather than reunification."

It turns out the case did end up in adoption- but we were not meant to be the adoptive family.


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