Friday, October 13, 2006

Foster Parents

As foster parents, Erin and I are part of a team of people who are working on our kids’ case. Yesterday, we spent our morning attending our first meeting of this entire team. It was quite an intense experience. The foster care process includes this kind of meeting every now and then, just as a way for everyone to check in, give updates on how things are proceeding, and continue to work towards the goal of permanency for the kids.

Present at this meeting were the two kids, Erin and me, the kids’ mom, the kids’ paternal grandmother, the kids’ dad’s lawyer, the kids’ lawyer, the kids’ medical case manager, the kids’ case worker, the kids’ therapist, the case worker’s supervisor, a court representative, a community representative, and the Assistant Director of the Children’s Division office. So, picture all fifteen of us crowded around a conference table in a meeting room that was clearly designed to accommodate exactly fifteen people sitting around a conference table, but nothing else at all.

This meeting was the first time for us to meet the kids’ mom (and the kids’ grandmother, for that matter). Needless to say, we were feeling a TON of anxiety going in. What would she be like? Would she resent us? Would she care at all? All we knew about her was based upon what her daughter told us following their weekly visits. And of course, her daughter loves her. But was that just because all kids love their moms, no matter what? Maybe we were over-thinking this, but we were pretty nervous about the meeting, wondering what she would think of us, what we would think of her, and how we would get along with each other.

Well, despite our sense of foreboding, meeting the kids’ mom was a very positive experience. She was friendly and gentle, and very affectionate with the kids without smothering them. She held them on her lap for most of the meeting, but let them down when they wiggled so that they could go sit with someone else, mostly either their grandmother or one of us. It felt similar to a family gathering, where the kids will wander from relative to relative, trusting that any of several different people would give them a lap to sit on and a couple of arms to hug, and Erin and I were two among the several.

I say it felt similar to a family gathering, but nobody was eating barbecue chicken and baked beans off of paper plates on the front porch. Our purpose was to discuss “the case.” So Erin and I told everyone about how the kids were doing, acting, eating, conversing, playing, dressing, “getting along,” and basically everything they have been up to for the last two months. We told them about dentist and doctor appointments, about day care, about church. We talked about their temper tantrums and their moods after a visit as compared to before. We told them everything we could think of, than answered their questions for the rest of the info they needed. It was, all in all, about thirty minutes worth of conversation.

I can’t reveal very much about the content of what happened, of course, but as I reflect on sort of how the whole thing felt, I would say that the meeting itself felt very much like a step in a longer process, almost but not quite a hoop through which to jump. Most of the people in the meeting had a demeanor that said, “I’ve done this before; I’ll do it again.” We had built up so much emotion and expectation toward the meeting, that it was almost anticlimactic once we got there. But I’m not trying to say that the people were cold and impersonal. In fact, all of the people involved were very friendly and open about the whole thing, talking with the kids and trying to draw them into the conversation. It was clear that the people around the table were all there because they wanted what’s best for the kids, and that is a good thing.

One final observation about this meeting: there has been a sweeping change in the philosophy of foster care in recent years, and a lot of people just don’t understand it. For example, I spoke with a friend at church about it, and her reaction was, “Oh, I bet the kids just clung to you for dear life during the whole thing.”

I replied, “Actually, no. They pretty much went straight to their mom and sat with her most of the time.”

At this, my friend was surprised. “Really?” she said, “I would have thought they would have been scared to leave your side with all those strangers.”

I’m not sure what exactly my friend was thinking, unless it was that since the court decided the kids would be better off away from mom for a while, the kids must agree. But as a general rule, kids love moms. And in particular, though they may not have lived with her for a while, she is still their mom, not a stranger at all. Of course they went straight to her mom and sat with her. We are foster parents, care-givers. We are not their parents.

As foster parents, we are a part of a team working in concert to see that the kids are safe and healthy, both in the short term and over the long haul. That might mean they go back to live with their mom after a few more months. That might mean that they are adopted by another family. That part of it is not our decision. Only the court can decide that. Our part is for the short term – to take care of them, to love them, to keep them safe and make sure they know that they are.

After the meeting was over, I told the kids’ mom, “We’re taking good care of them.” I just thought she might like to know. After all, she’s their mom.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reality check, Andy. In my mind and heart, your foster children have already become a permanent part of the family. Your words remind me that it just ain't so. How lucky they are to have you and Erin, Cori and Wes, if only for a little while. cb

Lisa said...

From a former foster child and current child advocate...

Your post is the most refreshing and encouraging thing that I have read all day.

This is true on many levels:

1.) The "round-table" approach, where many representatives got together at one meeting to discuss the children's well-being, is ideal.

In a recent summit of Ohio foster youth, one of their top concerns was to have many representatives present in meetings regarding their current placement.

2.) You genuinely care about your foster children and didn't resent their biological family. Rather, you were kind and welcoming to them.

3.) As a Christian, I have often been disappointed by the fact that many of the churches I have visited / attended simply did not have "a burden" for foster care.

Often the focus was simply on parishioners and their own (read: biological) families.

So, it was very gratifying to read that you are a Methodist minister and aware that one of the ways God is described in the Bible is as "Father of the fatherless."

Hey -- I bet you know that verse about the "least of these," too!

Have a wonderful day,

Andy B. said...

Dear Lisa,
Your dedication to foster children is admirable. Thank you for your encouraging words.
Yes, I have read the verse about "the least of these" with new eyes in the past couple of months!