In September of 2007 my husband and I signed up for foster parent training. We had decided to pursue adoption via this route, and had contacted an agency in Cambridge. My husband had liked their website in particular for the reason that their adoption page did not state ‘mom and dad’ as the ideal for all children (as many do)….it spoke to ‘families’….of all configurations…and the desire to help children in need find their ‘Forever’ homes.
I remember the first day of training as if it were just the other day. Each couple or individual was asked to introduce themselves and speak a bit on what had led them to pursue this venue for adoption. I, being a person who uses humor to diffuse an awkward or uncomfortable situation, noted that my husband and I had tried ‘the old fashioned way’ to have a child, and had failed, and had therefore decided to pursue adoption instead. People chuckled at the idea of two men trying ‘the old fashioned way’ and the rest of the people in the room continued with their introductions and stories.
We were not the only same-sex couple in the group. There were also two women there pursuing the same end. The rest of the group was comprised of opposite sex couples, a single lady, and two roommates and friends who wished to do hotline placements (taking in children who had just been removed from their homes on a temporary basis). As varied and unique as we all were, we had a common goal and common ground to build from. We all wanted to help children in need.
I walked into the training with many preconceived notions about the types of children we’d encounter in the process. I couldn’t have been more wrong in my thinking. Children in foster care come from all walks of life. There are a lot of stereotypes and myths about the children that are placed in foster care. They are not all children of addicts. They are not all ‘crack-babies’. The parents are not all ‘losers’ and ‘terrible role models’. That isn’t to say I subscribed to all the above thoughts myself personally, but I must admit that I did harbor a few of these myths in my mind. That was quickly changed and opened to the varied backgrounds and stories that these children come with.
In Massachusetts alone, the 2010 data (released in early 2011 by the Children’s Defense Fund) reports that there were 9,650 children in foster care. Only 790 children in foster care were adopted. Not all those children (the 9650) are available for adoption – many are children that their parents’ rights have not been/are not being terminated, and the plan for them is reunification with their family of origin. I can’t locate any recent data on number of children in Massachusetts whose goal has been listed as adoption. But with a base of 9650, you can imagine how great the need is for even a safe haven for these kids no matter what their goal is. Many (25,000 estimated for 2005) kids simply ‘age out’ of the foster care system…they reach the age of 18, and are on their own…to make their way in the world.
I watch a program on television called The Walking Dead. It is a post apocalyptic drama where some sort of ‘event’ has occurred and whenever anyone dies, they become a zombie. Not really alive, but not really dead….thirsting for human flesh and blood. Several of the characters on this show are people who are on their own in life trying to survive. Imagine waking up one morning and every single person you knew and loved has suddenly vanished. Imagine stepping outside your door and looking at the world and thinking ‘Everyone who is supposed to love me unconditionally…everyone I have ever counted on…is no longer there.’ What would you think? More importantly, what would you feel? How scared would you be knowing that any safety net you ever experienced in life had disappeared, and you were completely and utterly on your own.
Now remove the zombie aspect of it, and, in my mind, this is what some children face in foster care. They wake up one morning in a world where, despite the presence of friends and perhaps some distant relations who don’t really know them and never have, they are on their own….and have to find a way to survive it. Many have limited to no means, limited to no social skills, and a background that would reduce the strongest of persons to tears. They all have stories that have the power to break your heart. Their voices…their stories….are gut wrenching.
The foster parent training we attended included a session where we listed to an audio only recording of young children speaking their thoughts and fears out loud….’Why did you leave me, what did I do?’ ‘Who is going to keep me safe?’ ‘Where am I going to live?’ ‘Will I ever see you again?’ I sat in a darkened room full of other people that I only knew so well, and when my initial ‘horror’ passed while listening to this tape…I found myself reduced to tears…..no matter who was watching or could hear me crying. No matter how strong you are, or think you are, in terms of ‘crying’….listen to a six year old say, ‘I have nowhere to go’…and try to hold it together. These aren’t actors….these are real children….real voices….and they are sad…and scared.
As much as I love to encourage people to investigate this course of adoption….I also feel a responsibility to caution people. It’s not a walk in the park to adopt a child or take in a child from foster care. You may want an infant…a brand new life to shape and mold and protect and love….you will RARELY ever get that. Children in foster care go through a lengthy process of identifying their needs, finding a suitable situation for them, and then the process of setting a goal for them, be it reunification or adoption, takes place. That’s the easy part. Then the rights of the birth parents (if the goal is adoption) need to be terminated. This entire process can take anywhere from 18 months to several years….which means, at a minimum, a child in foster care, with rare exception, will be two years or more old before you can adopt them.
Children in foster care have anywhere from a full to no background information available about their birth family. You may enter this arrangement with absolutely no history of mental and physical health issues in the family of origin. True, when you bring a child into your life naturally you have no idea what issues ‘will’ crop up, but you have a reasonable idea of what ‘could’ crop up based upon family history. Each child in foster care has an assessment file where all known history is documented on that child and their family of origin. In my experience (and I do not state this as the norm, in any way, shape or form) there is a desire and an effort to protect the privacy of the birth family and a hesitation to release a complete file of information, which is understandable…..but you can, however, request the information with any names or identifying information for birth family members ‘blacked out’ – so that names and addresses are removed, but ‘facts’ are there to read about.
My husband and I were fortunate enough to get some information about the family background of our son. It’s not a lot, mind you, but some. We know certain things to be ‘watching for’….and the rest we will, much the same as parents who bring children into the world ‘the old fashioned way’, just have to deal with as it comes along.
No matter what their history entails, no matter what their particular challenges are, no matter how qualified a person or persons are to deal with those challenges – children in foster care all need (and deserve) some very universal things that all children need:
If you can provide these three things to a child, whether you created them or not – if you can open your heart up to a small life that has lost its way and needs someone to take their hand and hold it tight and say ‘I’ve got you….if you fall, I will pick you up….if you’re sad, I will comfort you…if you’re happy, I will be happy with you…for the rest of my life’….you can be a parent to a child in foster care.
Parenting is not for everyone. I know plenty of people with no desire to raise a child whatsoever, and that’s fine….it doesn’t ‘surprise’ or ‘mystify’ me why someone would choose to NOT be a parent, as much as I have long known I did wish to be one. It takes a lot to be a parent, no matter how you became one. Some days, I’m SuperDaddy, when I have endless patience and nurturing in me…some days, I’m Snidely Whiplash…the villain of the piece….and I have little to no tolerance for the daily shenanigans they pull…and I yell….as much as I don’t want to yell. Most days, though, I fall somewhere in between these two descriptors.
Every 13 minutes a child is abused or neglected. In the time it took me to write this blog post, forty-five minutes, three children were either abused or neglected. The 2010 estimated figure is that there were more than 38,000 children who were victims of abuse or neglect in Massachusetts alone.
Children in foster care deserve what every child deserves. A home…safety…and love. It’s not an easy road to parenting, but I’ve not yet found any road to parenting that didn’t have some major potholes in it. Adopting a child from foster care can be a long, challenging, frustrating process. I won’t sugar coat that. But I also won’t sugar coat that it’s very much worth it.
Children in foster care and foster to adoption homes grow up every day and go on to lead very productive lives. I know a few personally, and there are millions more. Children in foster care are short, tall, young, adolescent, happy, sad, thriving, broken, skinny, obese, black, white, talkative, silent, obedient, disrespectful, and so much more….just like all the other kids in the world. They are as varied as the color spectrum in their personalities and mannerisms. But they all have something in common. They all want to be sure of something. Perhaps, if this is the right method of becoming a parent for anyone who reads this blog…they might wind up being ‘sure of you’.