Monday, October 29, 2012

Race & Fostering and Adopting

Last month was Hispanic Heritage month (Thank you for the reminder, Disney Junior!) and it occurred to me, “Hey- we have a household member of Hispanic heritage” because quite honestly, I sometimes forget.  One-third of our foster children have been Hispanic, including our current foster daughter, Rose.  Although I initially felt rather “proud” at my color-blindness and the fact that Rose’s skin color isn’t that big of a deal to me, I later felt a little guilty and thought, “Should I do something to acknowledge that our foster daughter is of a different heritage and color than the rest of my family?”  Then again, at just over a year old she’s probably too young to even realize her skin is a darker shade than the rest of ours so would acknowledging her diversity really make a difference?  Opinions on the subject will vary. 
What I do know is that mixed race families never seemed to be something I ever gave too much thought to- I have nieces and nephews who are biracial or who have married inter-racially and as with our foster daughter, I sometimes forget the fact.  But lately such couples and families seem to really stick out to me- perhaps because my own family now fits that description- if only on a temporary basis.
Gerstenzang described this exact phenomenon in a chapter of her book.  Describing what it was like to foster a child of a different race she said,
“During the initial period when Cecelia lived with us and I became temporarily obsessed with race, I noticed every baby that ‘matched’ her mother or father and every one that didn’t.  My eye was like a camera, and everywhere I went I took snapshots of children and their parents: white baby nursing at white mother’s breast; Asian female face in a stroller with white male pushing the stroller; two brown parents with their two brown children.  I was hyperaware of issues that I had thought a lot about before but that now seemed so personal.”
If you’ll excuse my oversimplified analogy, it’s kind of like if you’ve ever had the experience of looking for a new car or even buying a new pair of shoes- suddenly you find yourself paying particular attention to the kinds of cars people drive (or what shoes they’re wearing) and it seems like you notice the kind of car that you’re interested in pops up EVERYWHERE.  Now this is not necessarily because there’s a sudden influx of that particular car on the market, but rather it just seems more apparent since it’s at the forefront of your mind.
That’s how I’ve felt since Rose has been back in our care again in noticing both a prevalence of multi-racial families or the differences in our races and issues- albeit minor- having to do with race which I’ve never had to give much thought to before.
Here’s a few small examples:
Example #1- Last month I was at a soccer game and being the Sunscreen Nazi that I am (because of a history of skin cancer thanks to my British heritage and too much time spent worshipping the sun in my invincible younger years!) I started lathering sunscreen all over my daughter’s fair skin before the game started.  I then looked down at Rose and her golden skin and wondered, “Do I need to apply some to her skin or does her darker coloring serve as protection against the sun’s rays?” I’ve honestly never had to think about it before. 
Example #2- While looking through the Sunday ads and thinking about what toys to get for Christmastime (because I like to prepare early), I decided that a doll would be a great choice for Rose.  But I had to search a little harder than I originally would have because I wanted to find one with brown skin- like hers.  
Example #3-  One day when my family went for a walk and while my white husband was pushing Rose in her stroller we passed a Hispanic man pushing a very fair-skinned looking child (I’m assuming his own) in a stroller.  That’s ironic”- I thought as we passed.  My husband and I exchanged comical glances. 
My mother, who was raised in a small western town during the depression said that when she was growing up it WAS a big deal to see a mixed race family- stares would abound.  But fast forward to nowadays, as an almost eighty year old grandmother, having mixed race grandchildren, foster grandchildren, and great grandchildren of her own isn’t that big of a deal anymore- and I’m grateful for that.  

Yet there needs to be a balance between being color-blind and having a “Does it really matter?” attitude and acknowledging that, “Yes- being a member of a transracial family can be a big deal” and that differences in skin color should be recognized and even celebrated rather than ignored.  
I was particularly interested in the chapter in Another Mother about race relations, foster care, adoption, and social policy.  As a white foster parent to a black infant foster daughter (And I use the term “black” rather than African American because not all people with black skin come from Africa- as is the case with Haitians, Jamaicans, and Brazilians, for example) Gerstenzang  had her fair share of curious inquiries, stares, unsolicited advice and opinions and in some cases, outright rude remarks from others, both people close to her and perfect strangers.   
“One of the things I particularly worried about was that some black people might feel upset that we were parenting a black child.  If I could have posted a sign on my back it would have read: ‘We are trying to help a family get back together.  We are foster parents.  We aren’t kidnapping this child.’”  
Incidentally, I also recently read a blog post which a black foster family shared their experiences fostering white children, including a very unfortunate event when the foster father was watching his foster daughters play at a park and a concerned bystander approached the little girls and asked if they were alright or if the man (their foster father) was bothering them.  *Can anyone please tell me where I read that so I can reference it?*  Too bad the foster father couldn’t have been wearing a sign on his back.  
Gerzenstang’s concerns about parenting a black child as a white woman did not just stem from her daily encounters with others, but from her study of social policy.  She recalled a stance made by the National Association of Black Social Worker’s (NABSW) in response to the trend in the early 70s of white families adopting black children:
“Black children should be placed only with Black families whether in foster care or adoption.  Black children belong physically, psychologically, and culturally in Black families in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future.  Human beings are products of their environment and develop their sense of values, attitudes, and self-concepts within their own family structure.  Black children in white homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as Black people.”
Thank goodness that the NABSW has since modified its stance.  Otherwise, there would be even more children waiting for homes.  Gerstenzang continued to explain:
“By 1994, the NABSW had modified its position with a three-tiered statement.  The priority, the top tier, was preserving or reunifying black families; the second tier was adoption by parents of the same race; and the third tier was adoption by parents of another race, but only after appropriate members of the African American community had determined that the second tier was unreachable.”
On a related personal note, I can’t help but wonder, with the new developments in Rose’s case, if the fact that Tia is Hispanic and I’m not has any bearing on DCFS’s decision to move her?  (One of Rose’s parents is white and the other parent- Tia’s relative- is Hispanic)  Is it an issue of race or is it just a coincidence?  If it were about race, it wouldn’t be legal as Gerstenzang continues to explain about American social policy:
“The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) of 1994 said that race could not be the determining factor when placing a child in an adoptive or foster home.  However, the legislation did note that an agency could consider the capacity of the prospective foster or adoptive parents to meet the needs of a child of a different racial, ethnic, or cultural background as one of a number of factors used to determine the best interests of the child.  Because MEPA is a federal legislation, any state that receives federal money for its public or private foster and adoptive agencies (which is every state) must comply with it.  And in 1996, the law was modified to make it even stricter.  The Inter-Ethnic Placement Act, still commonly referred to as MEPA, said that race couldn’t play any role in adoptive placements.  In other words, the law says it is illegal to consider race when placing a child in a foster or adoptive home.  So if a child is available for adoption and several couples are interested in the child, the couples that match the race of the child cannot be given preference on those grounds.”
Aside from the social policies mentioned in the book, it was interesting for me to read about how this family’s experience with foster care evolved.  I won’t tell you how the book ends, you’ll have to read that yourself, but I do highly recommend it.  And speaking of recommended reading, I urge you to read these posts on racism by an adoptive mother (and social worker) whose two sons happen to be black.
Any thoughts from those of you with backgrounds in transracial adoption or fostering?  What is something you wish people knew or that you’ve learned from your experiences?     

Friday, October 26, 2012

Co-Parenting Book

I googled the term co-parenting and was surprised to come across an e-book, Another Mother: Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System by Sarah Gerstenzang.  It immediately interested me not only because it was about foster parenting, but because the author was a social worker in graduate school at the time she and her family decided to foster.

I already pulled a few pertinent quotes from the book in this post, but now that I’ve read the whole thing I’d love to share some of the things I read which really resonated with me-  (which I’ve CATEGORIZED for easy reference and bolded the parts which I could relate to.)
During Gerstenzang’s  last year of graduate school she interned with a prevention program in New York City intended to help parents whose children were at risk of entering foster care through parenting classes and counseling and drug and alcohol rehabilitation, among other services.
“When reading files and meeting clients, I was overwhelmed by their stories, which almost always included poverty, little education, few family or social supports (or at least not positive ones) and often a history of being sexually assaulted.”
Shortly after she finished the internship and after becoming licensed, she and her husband asked to be put on the list to provide foster care.  At the time they had two young children, a boy and girl, ages six and eight.  She described her mixed feelings like this
While excited about our new venture, I also felt somewhat predatory waiting for another parent to stumble so that we could pick up the pieces.  I felt that I knew too much.   These birth parents weren’t evil monsters- (or most of them anyway) they were unlucky people who had difficult lives.  I also knew that children almost always want to be with the parents they know, regardless of how they are treated.  I wrestled with my ambivalence.  What is really best for these children?  How bad do parents have to be to justify taking their children away? 
Gerstenzang further wrote about how social class and culture affect those involved in foster care, by first comparing the demographics stated by an Australian social worker with similar demographics in the U.S.:
“Brenda Smith, an Australian social worker has written that in her country ‘the majority of foster children come from the most socially disadvantaged and stigmatized families, particularly those headed by mothers, and are mostly cared for by upper-working class foster mothers and supervised by middle-class welfare workers.’
This is true, too, in the United States, where except via the professional roles of lawyers or social workers, foster care rarely touches the middle class.  The first time I took Cecelia (her foster daughter) into the agency medical office, the doctor asked what my husband and I did for a living   (Her husband is a lawyer and she was in graduate school)  She then asked why we chose to become foster parents.  The real curiosity in her voice made it obvious how unusual we were.
The people I know who can’t or choose not to have birth children have adopted through domestic private adoptions or internationally, at a cost of $15,000 to $30,000.  The majority of children in foster care are placed with and sometimes eventually adopted by working-class people in their own neighborhoods.    A conundrum that would nag at me over the next months was why middle-class Americans showed little to no interest in these children (aside from shaking their collective heads at the occasional horror story in the media) but would go to so much trouble and expense for children in other countries.  (I’ve wondered the exact same thing!)  I wondered if it was race, class, the bureaucracy , the stigma of U.S. foster care, or the excitement of a foreign language and culture?  Ignorance?  The discomfort of being too close to the reality of the child’s birth family?  (Understandable- I’ve been guilty of making that a concern.)
It is hard to discern the cause of this phenomenon, which involves such complex and emotional issues. Of course, many people are simply desperate to adopt, and it is understandably appealing to them to go to poverty-stricken countries and adopt young children where there is virtually no chance of ever having contact with the birth family.  Distance and race must also have something to do with it as there are healthy African American infants who are adopted by Australians and Canadians each year.  However, others adopt for humanitarian reasons-something I have considered, as it is so hard to read about the intense suffering of other people, especially children.  Why don’t these people ever become foster parents or adopt one of the thousands of children in foster care who are already freed for adoption in the United States?  Then they could send the thousands of dollars they would save to other countries to aid many children instead of just one.”
I thought that last idea was BRILLIANT.  However, by agreeing with her I am not necessarily judging others for adopting internationally versus domestically because I think some people feel “called” or drawn to adopt from a certain country or race or culture (or even to adopt children with specific disabilities and medical conditions) just as others feel the call to foster.  It’s such a personal decision and it is my hope that any family or individual who makes such a decision would have an outpouring of support from others rather than judgment and criticism heaped upon their heads.
I will save my thoughts for the rest of the book (mostly about race & fostering and adopting) for another post.

Or So She Says Adoption & Foster Care Resources

If you have never browsed through Or So She Says, do it NOW!  Not just because I was a guest poster this week but because there is literally something for everyone- from recipes to home improvement projects to holiday gift and craft ideas, and a section on adoption & foster care resources
I think you'll agree that Mariel has quite a fabulous and comprehensive blog.  Check it out.

Friday, October 12, 2012


Rose has been back with us for almost two months now.  She is 14 months old and has spent roughly ten of those months in our care.  Perhaps that’s the reason why whenever I drop her off to a visit with her parents (the visits they haven’t missed, that is) she immediately starts crying and reaches out her little arms to me.  It’s really awkward when that happens- especially when it happens week after week.   Not only do I instinctively begin to comfort Rose when she cries out and reaches for me by saying, “I’ll be back- go see your mama” in a consoling voice, (while nodding in her mother’s direction and placing extra emphasis on the word “mama”) but as soon as I see the dejected look cross her mother’s face at her daughter’s reaction I suddenly feel the need to offer some comfort to her, too. “It’s only because she spends more time with us.” I quickly explain to her and try to brush it off as no big deal so that she doesn’t feel any worse than she already does.

Last month when the question of how many more chances Rose’s parents will be given to get her back in their custody was being addressed, the CPS worker informed us that technically DCFS doesn’t even have to offer reunification services to parents.  (I’ve heard different things from different caseworkers and it would be convenient if there was an easy “one, two, three strikes you’re out” policy or answer, but each case is different.   Regardless of federal legislation, my state is very pro-reunification when it comes to child welfare issues).  However, in Rose’s particular case, it was explained to me that her parents will be given one more chance.  Certainly their histories and track records of both having children other than Rose previously placed into state custody and losing their rights to those children has some bearing on DCFS’s decision. 
If, after seven more months, her parents have completed everything required of them in their Service Plans, (eight months is the maximum amount of time our state ever likes to keep babies separated from their parents, unlike older foster children who could remain in foster care much longer) she will return to their care.  If not, it is possible that their parental rights could be terminated.
Her parents are motivated to get her back considering this is their last chance.  I would be, too.
Just a few weeks ago, it was very surreal when Rose’s caseworker [not the same one who was over her case the first time Rose was in our care, unfortunately- although I am beginning to like her new caseworker just as much as her previous one] asked my husband and I to fill out an “Intent to Adopt A Child” form, which, although not legally binding, basically provides DCFS with an official back-up plan of adoption should the case take that direction.  The reason for doing so was that, as required by law, kinship options had been explored, but so far there were no good options which is precisely why she was placed with us again rather than with a relative.  This also meant that in the event of TPR (Termination of Parental Rights) we would be able to adopt Rose.  Even so, I didn’t even want to entertain thoughts about the “a” word just yet or even TPR for that matter to avoid too much of the fost-adopt roller coaster. 
Well, yesterday I took a huge nausea-inducing PLUNGE while riding the fost-adopt roller coaster:  As Rose’s caseworker was making her required monthly home visit she took a deep breath, raised her eyebrows, and cautiously announced, “There’s been a change of plans. . . .” 
I braced myself as she proceeded to tell me that a relative has come forward who initially thought that taking Rose as a kinship placement wasn’t do-able but has since “changed her mind.”  This relative is the same woman who had supervised visits for Rose and her parents in her home last year as Rose was transtitioning back into her parent's care, so she has already passed a background check and the only thing standing in the way of getting her home study approved and her licensing requirements finished is time. 
“How soon will Rose be leaving?” I asked the caseworker and as soon as I said the word “leaving” my lips immediately started quivering and the tears started forming in my eyes.  I apologized for not being able to keep my composure but the caseworker assured me there was no need to apologize and that it was totally understandable.  In fact, she confessed to being a little more than perturbed about the timing of everything and how Rose’s case seemed to be unfolding lately and apologized for having to be the bearer of bad news. 
Although there is no definite answer time-frame wise (is there ever any predictability in foster care?) it’s possible that Rose could be leaving us (again) within a month or two, rather than in the spring, as initially expected. 
The reason this relative, who I will refer to as “Tia”- decided not to foster Rose the first time she came into care, is that she is a single mom who works full-time.  It just didn’t seem feasible.  However, her work schedule has changed so that she works only four days a week now- instead of five, which allows a little more flexibility for taking Rose to visits and appointments.  My next obvious question for the caseworker was “So who’s going to watch Rose while Tia works during the day?”  “Daycare.”  she answered.
I don’t have anything personally against Tia- she is a very nice woman, and I know she sincerely cares for Rose.  But I’m just left wondering, “Why now?”  “Why did she have to decide to become licensed after Rose has had almost a year of attaching to us and becoming a part of our family?”
Is it really in Rose’s best interest to be moved from the family who’s cared for her for two-thirds of her life and whom she is securely attached to into another home- especially when her new primary caregiver isn’t even going to be around to care for her most days because she’ll be at work?  Not only will Rose have to adjust to her new home environment but to her new daycare providers as well.       
I was still trying to soak in everything Rose’s caseworker had just told me (I still am), but I had one additional question for her to answer:
“If Rose’s parent’s rights are terminated, is Tia interested in adopting her?”

Rose’s caseworker nodded her head in the affirmative.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Protect the Children

My heart was touched this weekend as I listened to a talk, “Protect The Children” by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an apostle of Jesus Christ and former state Supreme Court Justice.  Here’s a brief video segment from his message followed by a heartfelt plea:

“None should resist the plea that we UNITE to increase our concern for the welfare and future of our children- the rising generation.

We are speaking of the children of God and with His powerful help we can do more to help them.  In this plea I address not only Latter Day Saints, but also all persons of religious faith and others who have a value system that causes them to subordinate their own needs to those of others- especially the welfare of children.”

Certainly not everyone will agree with what was said in this talk, and that’s okay, but regardless of your marital status, sexual orientation, or religious background I think we can all agree that protecting children is crucial.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Stereotypical Large Foster Family/ Making Room for More

Earlier this year I heard a teenage boy in foster care speak on a panel and share his experiences with a group of foster parents.  When asked what he preferred in a foster family he said, “I didn’t want to be placed in a home with lots of children because I didn’t want to be somebody’s babysitter.”  Sadly, this teenage boy had enough experience parenting his younger sister throughout most of his life before being placed in foster care.  He needed a chance just to be a kid.

This past year I also came across some comments from birthmothers and expectant mothers in an online adoption forum in which one expectant mother posed the question, “Would you ever consider placing your baby in a home that does foster care?”

Perhaps I was being too sensitive, but the implications of the question kind of bothered me because Are foster children (and foster families) really that different from biological or adoptive children and families?  Then again, maybe this particular birthmother imagined all foster homes being packed full of children- like sardines in a can- and was worried that her child would have to compete for time and resources.  If that’s the case, it made me think “Just because a family does foster care doesn’t necessarily mean they have 500 kids running around!”

Both of these scenarios suggest that the stereotype abounds that all foster families have huge numbers of children in their home at one time.   Perhaps this stereotype goes hand in hand with the assumption that foster families take in children just for the money.

As for my family, we certainly do not fit the stereotypical mold of a large foster family with a dozen children of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds filing out of a large passenger van everywhere we go.

First of all, we only have one child of our own and up to now we’ve only taken one child at a time as a foster placement.  Part of the reasoning that my husband and I have stuck to taking only one placement at a time is that we’ve both developed some pretty strong feelings and preferences over the years of being able to give the children in our home the quality and quantity individualized attention they need.

I would never want to have any of the children in my home feel like they’re a permanent “babysitter” to other children, as the teenage boy on the panel felt.  That is a responsibility that belongs to a parent, not a child.  Nor do I ever want any of the children in my home to ever feel overlooked or like they have to compete for attention- especially if they’re more likely to have special needs which require additional care.

Despite these concerns, we’ve decided to get out of our comfort zone and do something we’ve never done before:  We’ve become licensed to take two foster children at a time, if needed.  I suppose the term “if needed” is an oxymoron since there is ALWAYS the need for homes for foster children!   We did some rearranging (since space is another big factor in determining how many children we can potentially care for) and made another bedroom available for one more child.   

Although the self-centered part of me is hoping that the end result of making room for more is that we could end up “keeping” the next child that comes into our home on a permanent basis [Please just once can we adopt one of our foster children?!  Please can a birthmother find us soon so that we can be an answer to each other’s prayers?] the more humble, submissive part of me (the part that takes much more discipline to listen to) wonders if maybe God intends to keep using us to help more children if only for a little while,  regardless of what’s in it for us.

I love the imagery of “making room” from this poster: