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!