Sunday, July 12, 2009

Lessons Learned from Foster Care- Part 2

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

The night that we met with Wendy & Jack in their home we stopped at a store on the way home and bought a crib.  My husband was able to take some time off of work to set it up in the nursery.

A day or two later we were contacted by yet another caseworker who wanted to come to our house, interview us, and do a walk-through inspection of our home so that we could be given a temporary license and have Baby Jack placed with us. She explained that although she wasn't the original caseworker assigned to the case, she was helping out since this was an "emergency" placement of a baby and she had more experience than the newer caseworker assigned to the case. It was nice to finally meet with somebody in person and it made things seem more real.

When we met with this middle-aged and seemingly experienced caseworker we filled out many of the forms we had already filled out for our training (and which I had ALREADY faxed to the Salt Lake DCFS Office & Office of Licensing). She told me to "hang on" to some of the paperwork when I informed her that I had already faxed the information. We also had copies of our driver's licenses, marriage license, and my husband's paycheck stub on hand. We wanted to be prepared with anything we might possibly need so that all of the bureaucratic "red tape" could move along as quickly as possible.

After the interview and inspection we asked the caseworker the BIG Question: "WHEN will Baby Jack be placed in our home?"

Her answer was "Depending on what the judge decides in a hearing scheduled for tomorrow- it could be as soon as tomorrow night." J. and I both exchanged excited looks.

The next day we were just WAITING and WAITING for the phone to ring.

We weren't the only ones either- by this time our family had become engrossed in the drama as well. We finally got a hold of the latest caseworker and she apologized for misinforming us- it turns out that the hearing that was held that day was not to determine when Jack would be placed, but rather to determine whether his removal was warranted or not (and it was.) She didn't know too much more than that.

A couple more days passed and the big question remained "When is Baby Jack going to be placed with us?" Through more phone calls I learned that there were a couple of Child and Family Team Meetings coming up to discuss the placement. When I called Wendy to ask her if she would be going to the meeting her response was "What's a Team Meeting?" She hadn't even been informed about it! She also told me that every time she or Jack would call to get more information they would be given the run-around and nobody seemed to have any definite answers. That sure sounded familiar!

The next couple of days stretched out so that a week had passed. And finally two weeks had passed from the day my sister called me. Over that two week period my husband and I WAITED. Jack & Wendy WAITED. Everybody was WAITING.

Despite all of the phone calls that were made, nobody had any information for us. One day I finally decided to call the Licensor whom I had originally met with in person shortly after I got the call from my sister. She had been courteous to me, and I was hoping she might be willing to shed some light on the subject.

I asked her if she had heard anything from any of the other offices regarding Baby Jack's case or our licensing. She paused- the kind of pause that let me know that something was wrong.

"Have they not told you?" she asked.

I didn't know if "they" referred to DCFS or to the Utah Foster Care Foundation, but I voiced a drawn out "N-o-o-o". Nobody had told me anything. "They" hadn't called.

She sighed and continued sympathetically, "Oh, Mary- I'm not sure if I'm the one who is supposed to be telling you this- but I know how much you've invested in this case. . . Baby Jack has been placed with the family that adopted his half-brother."

I think she went on to tell me something about the rules regarding kinship placements but I wasn't really listening- I was stunned.

"Oh" I replied. I thanked her for telling me and hung up the phone.

LESSON #3- When doing foster care, EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED!

J. and I hadn't heard from Jack or Wendy for a couple of days. Had they known about this and just not wanted to call and break the news to us? No, that wasn't like them- Maybe Wendy was sick. I finally decided to call them and it turns out that they hadn't even been informed about the placement either! As soon as they found out they apologized for "dragging us into this mess". They expressed their frustrations with DCFS and they became very worried that they would lose all contact with their grandson because of his placement.

My husband and I were heartbroken to say the least. We were also very disappointed in "The System". To be told that a child would be placed in our home only to be left hanging with no additional information seemed so cruel and calloused. In the least it was extremely unprofessional, which is why we decided to at least make our voices heard.

We quickly learned about DCFS Hierarchy so that we could speak to someone as "high up" as possible. We talked with the Deputy Ombudsman for the Salt Lake Office. Although she was sympathetic to our cause, she informed us that if we wanted to file a formal complaint with DCFS their office caseload was such that they wouldn't be allowed to look into it for 6 months (because of the number of complaints they had). Imagine that! The Deputy Ombudsman then forwarded our information on to the State Office Constituent, whom we met with in person at her office.

In addition to the State Office Constituent we met with some of the caseworkers we had interacted with (including the caseworker who came to our home to interview us and inspect our home, via Conference Call). They heard us out and offered their apologies in how the case was handled. The caseworker who came to our home was genuinely sorry. She said she was just "following orders" from her supervisor and wasn't even aware that other families were being considered as placement options.

"It's not so much that the child wasn't placed with US" we both tried to emphasize, "But it's the misinformation and lack of follow-up communication which we feel was so unprofessional. We just want to make sure that this type of thing doesn't happen again- We don't want another couple to have to go through what we did."

A short time later a representative from the Utah Foster Care Foundation (A woman who used to do casework for DCFS but now works recruiting Foster Parents) came to our home. We had met with this woman once before when we originally contacted the Utah Foster Care Foundation for more information about fostering. This woman expressed her disgust for how the case was handled and she apologized PROFUSELY for the actions of DCFS.

LESSON #4- I have found that DCFS is there to advocate for the child first, then the birthparents. The rights and feelings of foster parents, however, don't receive much attention.

The Utah Foster Care Foundation, on the other hand, is a great advocate for foster parents. After all, they are the ones who try to find families who are willing to provide foster care and they are the ones who are in charge of training foster parents. They are the also the ones who help run The Christmas Box House.

Is it just a coincidence that a government bureaucracy treats its clients much more impersonally than a non-profit organization? (Just something to think about).

SO. . . Whatever happened to Baby Jack, his birthmother, and Jack & Wendy?

Baby Jack was adopted by the foster family that adopted his half-brother. Fortunately, Jack & Wendy are able to keep in contact with Baby Jack and his half-brother on a regular basis. They are enjoying retirement and grandkids and Wendy's breast cancer is in remission and she's doing great!

Wendy's earlier prediction about her daughter came to fruition: Tragically, Baby Jack's birthmother died of a heroin overdose.

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