It’s like running with scissors, we’ve all heard this warning in grade school while picturing the first hapless victim who ran and fell. A schoolyard martyr born from a cautionary real-life tale so the rest of us could remain safe. There are similar warnings in foster care and adoption, urban legends mixed with grains of truth.
Stay far from the ledge, know your limitations.
You go into this foster parenting with parameters and limitations. You set your age range and you have a mental list of what you are capable of doing within your home. You then receive a phone call and all parameters, limitations and capabilities fall off the ledge of reason.
The judge was considering making her a court ordered DNR (do not resuscitate). I got the call and was asked if I’d take this 11-month old baby. The case-manager warned me and said I might want to really think about this before saying, yes. The baby had already spent months in the hospital on life support, and been resuscitated more times than they could count. This baby would be a tremendously difficult child to care for. We were a last ditch effort to see if a lower elevation and a different home might change the outcome.
Do you see how this is the “I really don’t recommend this, and you are about to run with scissors” warning. Well, I was a brand new medical foster parent with ink still wet on the license, so, I grabbed the scissors and began to run…straight off the ledge.
Don’t run with scissors, you could get hurt.
You are going to have biases…it’s a lie to think that you are a completely unbiased human and that you will not have prejudices. Child abuse and neglect knows all races, cultures, ethnic backgrounds and economic classes. Foster care will shine a very bright light on your own personal biases and it won’t be pretty.
I admit to having preconceived notions and prejudices. This baby was called an “anchor baby”, a child born to “anchor” an illegal parent to the United States. She was also a million-dollar baby, because she had spent months upon months in a NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), and tax payers were footing the bill. Sitting in my white privilege, I was frustrated by the whole situation because I paid for health insurance, and I lived responsibly. And do you see where this leads? Do you see how this line of thinking places value and worth on a human life, and gives a judge cause to consider placing a DNR on an 11 month-old baby? When I held her the first time, I did not see “illegal”, “anchor baby”, or “drain on the system”.
And there was so much more to the story. She was born to a 15-year-old mother lured through social media from Mexico by a 30-year-old man. She was pregnant within a month and went into labor at 23 weeks. At 15 she was dropped at the doors of the ER and gave birth; alone to twins. Twin sisters; and one didn’t make it through the day. So the teen mother sat with her dead baby swaddled in a hospital blanket and cried tears alone. 15 years old, alone in a foreign country. The sister had been rushed to the NICU and was tenuously holding onto life. A baby born to a child. A baby one-day old, helpless with nothing. She was not to blame for the journey she was now on. Her life was not a mistake.
We picked her up from DCS caseworker at the hospital and the whole back of my car was filled with oxygen tanks and tubing, feeding pumps, a pulse oximeter, apnea monitor, and bags of medications. We set her up in our room; it became a miniature hospital suite with monitors and equipment. Our alarm was set every two hours around the clock to give all the breathing treatments, medications and check that her oxygen saturations were maintaining. And it was HARD and it was scary. We didn’t know her, we had no clue what looked normal and what was a sign of bad. Our 6 hours of “Medical Fragile” training seemed a cruel joke. Years later after lots of medical kids and the achievement of a nursing degree, I realize how very far over our heads we were. And maybe it was a good thing we didn’t fully grasp the situation. I really walked into this thinking we could change the outcome.
If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.
Things started out hard, but they soon escalated into impossible. When you are doing foster care, you realize that each day is a series of “letting go” moments. You are asked to love and care for this child like your own, but don’t get too attached. We understood this to be the job we signed up for; but never did we think we’d have to give our hearts to a baby and then watch her “let go” of this life. She was sick…incredibly sick. And she taught me it takes far more strength to let go, than it ever did to hold on.
Because of her extreme prematurity, she had spent her life battling lung issues. Being in foster care and juggled between different homes and caregivers, things were not managed well. She was so incredibly fragile that a missed medication or breathing treatment was detrimental. And the crazy thing was, that our care actually caused more issues because as she started to put on weight with monitored feeds she began to grow, and organs that could sustain something tiny, couldn’t sustain bigger. Her heart and lungs started failing and we spent months in the hospital managing her care and watching her die.
In the span of three months, I called life flight four times. She would be fine in the morning, and suddenly crash on me. Our local emergency services knew about her and the response from 9-1-1 call to helicopter transport was lightening quick. I would not have time to call my husband, but he would hear the helicopter land on the football field at the high school where he taught and know it was her. When I called after landing at the hospital, he would have already been praying knowing we were on a helicopter to the cardiac unit.
Don’t love too much, because ‘too much’ will hurt you so much.
I don’t know how to explain the intense bond between a medically fragile child and a mother, but it is built on life and death, pain and fatigue. It is intense and it is scary. I walked the edge of death with this child and I peered over. I would sit by her bed in the hospital and cry ugly sobs as she swelled up beyond recognition and her lips cracked around the endotracheal tube (tube placed for breathing). I sat for endless minutes stroking her hair and talking to her. In the hospital, time is measured by meal trays, physician rounds and nurse shift changes. We were told she probably would not live much longer. My soul ached as she struggled in pain, and every breath was hard won. I was holding on, when maybe I should have let go.
There were many days when the doctors said she would not make it another 24 hours. I can’t explain how it feels to physically sit watching someone labor to live. I wanted to run from that room and pretend she was someone else’s baby. I wanted to run away screaming from this pain, I did not want to witness this baby die. And I had a choice. When a child is hospitalized past a certain number of days, they are no longer “your foster child”. It is your choice to care for them in the hospital, but you are no longer ‘on the hook’ for their care.
Those days and nights, I sat by her bed and begged and pleaded to God to let her live. I’d see her bruised and hurting body and I’d feel cruel wanting her to stay and fight. I’d change my mind and guiltily plead for Him to take her home. And then in the next breath I’d take it back. I’d pray and take it back, because in 8 months of riding this roller-coaster, she was mine and I was holding on. When she was awake she would look for me and her gaze would lock on mine. If her numbers were stable, the team would lift her frail, tiny body covered in tubes and wires; into my arms and she would settle into me. And no one but my best friend knew the hell we were walking through. This was not ‘my child’, this was a foster child; however when she looked at me no one had told her that. No one had told this baby that I wasn’t her mother, her protector, her person in this world. Here is where I fell with the scissors and the injury would last my lifetime; because I chose to stay, again and again.
Families are Forever
In foster care a family is not always forever. Reunification is the goal for foster children and the rehabilitation of abusive parents will never effectively happen in a year. It is truly a system designed by adults to band-aid a crisis. I can only think of one situation that a child returned home and I wasn’t scared for them. My sweet, fragile baby was not that situation.
She did not die. This little fighter survived open heart surgery, coronary balloon angioplasty, pulmonary hypertension, the placement of a tracheostomy tube, the placement of a g-tube and countless other procedures. She had been with us a year and DCS (Department of Child Services) determined that she needed permanency. And that word tasted bad in my mouth because this child had permanently taken up residence in my heart. But the goal was return to family and I was court ordered to let her go. Minute by minute, day by day; like letting out a line from a kite. And I knew it was dangerous, and it wasn’t safe. She would be going back to a family that was ill-equipped and I had no control, and the kite string was ripped from my fingers and she was gone. And with it, a piece of my heart. She was my daughter for a year, and when I kissed her good-bye, she didn’t know she would never see me again. And I’m glad that she smiled as I left, because it’s easier to remember her that way.
I learned that there’s a difference between letting go and giving up. We walked a very hard year with her, and foster care is not forever. This means that at any point, we could have said we were done, and no one would have thought ill of us. But we knew that she deserved a family that would walk through some dark and scary times. She deserved a mother that would not give up; even if it meant eventually letting go. She deserved a parent whose heart would shatter the day she left. And the part that is crazy, is that I’d do it again.
If you love deeply, you’re going to get hurt badly. But it’s still worth it. -CS Lewis