My mind has a really good way to talk me into anything. Ten years ago it said, “I think we should become foster parents.” And then it rambled on with all the logical and not-so-logical reasons why. So many kids need homes, of course we can set an extra place at the table. For sure we have a little extra money for clothes and bedding and stuff. It would not be hard to love a child that needs stability and a family. Sign me up, let’s take a class and learn about this trauma stuff and how to help foster kids heal and keep their culture when placed in a white, middle class home. Let’s talk about how to parent a child that is not biologically yours and how they might have a few minor behavior issues. No big deal, I’m a teacher and I deal with these kids all day long. Let’s do this….boy I wish I could smack my 30-something self and give a glimpse of reality. Okay, maybe not full reality, maybe small doses. Actually maybe it’s best it went down the way it did. Ten years ago I was not who I am now. Since that first placement call, I have traveled a journey that has broken, scarred, shattered and completely changed me. I started this adventure thinking I would change these kids and in my mind’s eye, I was riding in like some warrior mama on a mighty steed and avenging wrong with a sword of justice and possibly a taser of revenge. Little did I know that these kids would teach me that life isn’t always about fixing and changing and in foster care no one wins. Sometimes it’s just doing the best you can to hold back your own tears and walking alongside them for a time. Sometimes the story doesn’t end well and your heart will be ripped out and broken, because God forbid you have to send this kid back home. And even more shocking is when this is the very thing the child wants too. This beaten traumatized baby wants the very thing you are trying to save them from. This thing called foster care and adoption, has ruined every carefully laid plan and goal I had set for myself and my family. But, it is a path that I would choose over again even knowing what I know now. Foster care and adoption has taught me it HAS NEVER BEEN ABOUT ME. The broken, the sad, the fragile, the toddlers, the teens, the darkness, the abuse, the secrets and pain; all these things heaped up and sifted as ashes, knowing you choose this and you can never fix this. You are inept, unable, broken, sad, and fragile too, and it’s not your job. Your job is to hold up and be the one adult who won’t let them down. To love them when they are at their worst and to keep them safe for the time they are with you. Your job is to let them go with a smile and a hug when inside you the world has come crashing down. And then when the phone rings for the next child placement, you open your heart and do it again.
He Gives and Takes Away…
“Oh my God, I cannot do this.” Tears streamed down my face as I looked at the chubby fingers of the 21 month old clutching my hand. He looked up and said “mommy sad?” and I gulped down a sob and smiled. Mommy is okay, I lied and I shut the door on the anger, fear, and terror screaming in my mind. I was going to lose my baby and I had no power to stop this moving train called DCFS (Dept. of Child Family Services), the same train I had willingly boarded two years ago. After 18 months in my home, reunification with family was court ordered. My baby was going back to his family.
I will never forget the day I picked up this child. It was my birthday and I had received a call for a 3 month old, brain injured child. He was on heavy seizure medications and was extremely fragile. The nurse handed him to me and his head dropped to the side, as he had lost core strength from the brain injury. His mouth gaped open and drool pooled onto his onesie. His eyes were hollow and dull. The nurse gave me discharge paperwork and a poor prognosis for his recovery and then quickly ushered us to my car. They were afraid the biological parents might interfere and wanted us on the road before they found out he had been removed. My best friend drove the car and I studied the infant in disbelief. There was not a mark on the outside of his body, but the skull fractures and subdural hematoma (bleeding on the brain) told a different story. His drooping body and flat affect were evidence of something amiss.
Thus began months on end of an infant that screamed in high-pitched pain, had seizures and lagged further behind in his development. The baby could not lie flat because it caused pressure inside his skull and he would be in pain. We took turn sleeping upright with him on our chest. He drooled continually and there was still no light inside his eyes. His little mind was broken and we began to realize that perhaps some injuries you do not recover from.
I remember the day in the Fall that it happened. The leaves were colorful on the ground and I was holding the baby. I looked down and in that moment I realized it had snuck up on me. The light was there, and with a gummy grin he patted my face. In that moment I realized that he was returning. He was healing from an injury that most would not recover from. And then as the weeks rolled by we experienced astounding leaps and bounds, and he soared. He crawled, he laughed, he babbled, he slept, he ate, and then he walked. The doctors were astounded and we heard words like neuro-plasticity, rewired pathways, and miracle. The boy was a sight to behold and his laugh would ring through my home. Time slipped by with the seasons, family traditions, and celebrations and then another Fall came. This time it came with a phone call that tilted my world and threw a black shadow over my heart. The boy was considered well and it was time for him to return to his family. The Navajo nation had taken over jurisdiction citing ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act), which is a federal law that seeks to keep American Indian Children with American Indian families. It was created with good intentions because of the history between Native Americans and white people. However this law did not take into consideration the boy who now called me mom, the bedroom with his crib, or the place at our table that was his spot. It did not consider the nights spent walking the floor, the hours with therapists and doctors or the minutes spent cuddling and rocking.
You sign up for foster care and you know this is supposed to be the outcome. They teach you that reunification is the goal and you file that in your mind as you step into the world of placements, visitations, and court cases. What they cannot teach you is how to give back a child that you have loved with the heart of a mother. How to hand over the baby you nursed from the black of night into the light of day. How to give away the boy who has called you mom and placed you as the center of his world. They never teach you how to hold a child without guarantee of the future, how to take pictures of first birthdays and first steps, knowing they may also be last. How to live in a moment, because the tomorrow is not guaranteed. How to love him with abandon and then be asked to abandon him. These are not taught, and I guess if they were, I may not have signed up. But I signed up knowing that my heart would hurt, and I would have to learn to stumble and carry on with this pain. I knew that baring such pain could not be taught in a foster care class. However I knew that my shoulders were broader and my heart was stronger than that of a child. I signed on full of naivete and hope to change the life of a child. What I did not know was that perhaps sometimes there is brokenness and injuries you do not fully recover from.
I am told so many times by people that they could never do foster care because they might have to give them up. They are afraid of the pain and the heartache of returning a child. I will be honest and tell you that this is indeed true. That it is true that your heart will break into a thousand pieces. I will be honest and tell you that my darkest day was the day before he was to leave my home. I fed him his last lunch, and his last dinner. I gave him his last bath and tickled his round toddler belly the last time. I tucked him into his crib and breathed deep of his scent for his last sleep in my home. And I went to bed and wept a river as I realized I was giving away the boy who had become my son for 18 months. I begged my God to give me this child and I was angry. How could He let this happen when we were faithful to follow his plan. This could not be how it ended and I was struggling to walk this path. I could barely breath let alone wake up to a sunny day and hand him over to his caseworker. I wrestled with God that night and finally broke with the knowledge that I could not control this. I gave this child up to God and I fell asleep with a heavy heart.
The next morning I awoke with a heavy heart and began to gather the rest of his belongings. The caseworker had decided to go to the court hearing and then drive to our home to pick the child. He said it would be easier that way and inside I thought that nothing could make this easier or better. I fed him his last breakfast and spent extra time holding him. I can never explain the feeling of each routine being the last. The last time I brushed his hair, the last time I made his favorite breakfast, the last time I kissed his cheek. Around 10 am I received a phone call from the caseworker and he had tears in his voice. “In all my years as a case manager, I have never seen this happen”, he said. Apparently his aunt had pulled aside the ICWA attorneys before court and had a small meeting. When it came time for the change of jurisdiction, the attorneys stated the family’s preferences for the child. They asked that he remain in our home, as we were the only parents he knew. They stated the best placement for the child was with our family. In an unprecedented move, the court named our family the best placement for a native american child. The judge decided upon love and not law, and this child was to be our son. Several weeks later his aunt called and explained the full story. She said that she had seen him in our home and heard him call us mom and dad. She did not want the child to suffer another huge trauma. I listened with tears streaming down my face to a family that gave us the most priceless gift.
Blessed Be the Name…
Another Fall came and this time we were walking to a courthouse to make final our adoption. There was not a dry eye in the house as they named this child to be our son. This was one of our first experiences and it was a roller coaster. Since that time, we have had many children through our home. Every one has left an indelible mark on me and my family. Not every story has the beautiful outcome that I have told. I have sat in the dark places and begged for God to intervene, and He chose not to. But throughout each experience and story that has unfolded, I have trusted God. I have had to, otherwise the shattered pieces of me would still be laying on the floor with my tears.