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We all go into situations with expectations. I am sure I had a lot of them when I first thought about fostering as a child, also when I talked with my husband about fostering and then again when we decided to start the process but looking back the only one I can remember is the biggie: Providing a safe haven for children as their parents/family and DCS figure out what the next step is.
Before starting the process of becoming foster parents I am sure we didn’t think about the massive amounts of paperwork, time spent with various child service providers (doctors of various kinds, education related services, etc.) time spent at court, home visits, visitations, etc. We most likely only thought about the care and struggles of caring for another person’s child. I am sure we thought about the getting to know you phase (or honeymoon phase), the sticking their toes in the water or testing phase, the trying our patience phase, the heartbreak phase and so on.
Going through the foster care preparation classes (PATH), we learned a lot of what was expected of us as foster parents. Sometimes what we learned shocked us such as the level of abuse some children go through before coming into care or how long some children stay in care. There were other things we never really thought about like how DCS hopes that we develop a good working relationship with the parents/family of the child/children in our care.
That bit we just never thought of before. It makes perfect logical sense, after all the goal of DCS (at least in Tennessee) is to re-unite every child with their family. Even when it is physically impossible for reunification with the parents, DCS wants these children to be with their family so extended family members and even friends of the family are contacted and asked if they are interested in providing a forever home for these children. When thinking about this, it does seem natural. These are the people that love and worry about these children. Most often these are the people that may have even called DCS in the first place because of their concerns over these children’s welfare. These people are a big part of who this child is and will become and ultimately who can answer questions this child will have about their background and ancestry. This is that child’s first village.
Like a lot of things in life, this concept made sense on paper but we didn’t know how the real world application of it would work for us. The thought of trying to develop any kind of relationship with the person who may have sexually assaulted or physically abused their child is just nauseating. We knew that would be the line in the sand for us: dealing with severe abuse cases and their outcome.
Once we finished the approval process, we had several calls about availability in our home before we received our first actual placement. Our first placement was two boys. They were beautiful little monsters who we fell in love with at first sight. Other than one small health issue, the boys seemed very well cared for and loved. We weren’t sure how we were going to feel about meeting their parents and family because from the moment the boys were placed with us we had mixed feelings.
In our minds, there was a reason the boys were pulled from their parents’ care then placed with us and not their family. We didn’t know the whole story but we knew DCS doesn’t just pull children randomly and stick them with total strangers. That’s just not how DCS in Tennessee works. I know that not just from sitting in a class but from being a listening ear for friends who had CPS (Child Protective Services) called on them (and their children were never taken away).
There are many reasons why a child can be pulled from their birth family. The reasons range from an unsafe environment to physical abuse. An unsafe environment can mean many things from a house constantly infested with bugs to a family of four sharing a vehicle to sleep in for more then a few nights. Generally in those situations, CPS gives the family an expected timeline to have things figured out before the children are pulled into care. Children can also be pulled when parents test positive for drugs or are even involved in the making of said drugs. I think physical abuse cases are self-explanatory.
Our first meeting with the birth family of our first placement was over the phone. We could hear the relief in their voices as they heard the children playing in the background. The emotions we heard over the phone reinforced this feeling of love that we thought existed based on the physical appearance of the boys when they came to us.
When we finally met the family in person those feelings were once again reinforced but we still had reservations and mixed feelings. We slowly got to know the family while building a working relationship and even later a friendship. There were certainly times where we felt strained or confused but that is bound to happen with any relationship. At no time did that ever mean we couldn’t provide respect to the birth family.
Our own immediate family members knew we were building this relationship and were confused by it. Most everyone hears horror stories about children in the system from evil biological parents to evil foster parents. No one really stops to think about the people involved actually being human and having the same wants and dreams as the rest of us. The question often is: If the situation was bad enough for the children to be pulled from the family, then why is DCS working towards re-unification and why do YOU need to build a relationship with the family?
As I stated earlier, when my husband and I first imagined a relationship with the birth family we weren’t sure how it would work out. However when you meet the birth family and they are crying for joy that their child/children are safe, how can you not be compassionate and think of these people as human beings rather than monsters?
Meeting the birth families of each of our placements has reinforced in my mind a few old adages and ideas:
- It takes a village to raise a child
- Don’t judge a book by it’s cover
- Family doesn’t mean just blood
- The monster in the closet isn’t always who we think it is
- You have to give respect to get respect
- We are ALL only one step from a disaster
- Lead by example
So now when I think about what fostering means to me it is a phrase: Fostering for Tomorrow. Fostering isn’t just about providing a safe haven for one child. It is about providing encouragement to families who are trying to fix what is broken. In some cases it is providing living examples of how to move forward. It can be about providing the support the adults need to raise this child, a kind of support that these adults may never have had before in their lives. This support doesn’t just affect the parents, it can be the building blocks these children need as well. There are so many ways we can foster for tomorrow (a better future).
This is why part of me hopes we will never have a case (involving re-unification) where we can’t find a common ground with the birth family. I believe respect should be given from the start (if that respect is abused then it must be earned back) as that is the best foundation any relationship can be built on. We are happy to help any family work towards re-unification if that is what they want and are honestly trying hard to make that goal a reality (even if our hearts get broken in the process- loving and losing a child). Knowing a child is happy and alive with their family is a better way of losing a child than through the alternative. We feel that once a child leaves our care we hope that they will never need to come back to our care (but the door will always be open). For those families who really have no intentions of working to get their children back, we would rather the family terminate parental rights instead of playing with the feelings of their child/children. No child should spend year after year wondering if this is the year they get to go home, rather that they should know they always have a home with us.