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When we were in training to become foster parents, we were told that some of our placements might be very short-term, on the order of just a few days. Sometimes this is due to DCS identifying other family members who weren’t immediately available to take the children when they come into custody. In other cases, the situation that brought the children into care might be resolved quickly. Until recently, 100% of the placements we’ve had since being approved to foster have been 9 months or more. That’s out of a sample size of 2 placements, sure, but those two totaled almost 30 months. At the beginning, our first placement looked like it was going to be short term, but until this past November we hadn’t really had a truly short-term experience. After a few months and a little bit of reflection, this is what I took away from our incredible sixteen hour placement.
I didn’t sleep a lot on Election Night. For one thing, I come from a very civic-minded family that has been involved in the democratic process at one level or another for literally generations, so the presidential election process and Election Day have intrigued me since I first understood what they meant. For another, I spent five years working for an organization in which election seasons were quite busy and Election Night in particular meant long hours at the office, so that reinforced my habit of staying up to see the results.
This year, that meant that when the CPS worker called and apologized for possibly waking me up close to midnight I could reassure them with “on election night? I don’t think so”. We haven’t had a new foster child in our home since Stinkerbell left in February, so we fell back on the plan we established when we first became foster parents: if we get a call and we don’t currently have a placement, the answer is yes (assuming the child doesn’t have any cat allergies, concerns that we can’t accommodate, etc.)
After asking the standard allergy & health questions and getting what details we could from the CPS worker about the situation, it sounded like the placement was going to be longer than usual. I went to pick him up around midnight and the wife stayed behind to tidy up and make sure he’d have a warm bath and a comfortable bed ready for him with as little fanfare as possible.
On the drive to the DCS office I was equal parts excited and anxious. Looking forward to meeting him, certainly, and hopeful that it would be easy to get him calm and resting. More than that though, I was a little worried about the way the first several days might go and whether we’d be up to the task of parenting. We’ve felt like that to some degree every time we’ve gotten a placement, but previous children have been young enough that the challenges were different. We knew some, but not all, of his story, and the information we had gave us enough to know that we’d never dealt with anything like his situation before. Then I pulled up and met him and I didn’t have room in my mind for anything else.
Five-year-olds are much more talkative than I remember them from the time I was one, I’ll say that much. Come to that, I probably didn’t say that much the entire way home because he didn’t stop talking long enough for me to get more than two words edgewise. Even bone tired at the end of what was likely one of the roughest days of his life, he was chipper enough to keep a running narrative on what he’d had for dinner, the things he liked to watch, his bunny toy, and a million and one other subjects that I couldn’t keep track of while I was trying to focus on driving.
When I got him back to the house he was a little bit shy meeting the wife and her mom and the cats all at once, but he was calm and happy enough after a warm bath. A bit less talkative at that point, he wanted a good-night fist bump before dropping off to sleep less than ten minutes after he got in bed. Once I knew he was comfortable, I wrapped up everything I’d been working on, sent an email to the office to let them know I’d be out the next day, and tried to get some sleep myself.
The first day of any placement can be incredibly hectic regardless of the child’s age. With infants and toddlers, sleep and feeding schedules top the list along with any medications or allergies their pediatrician might have identified. With older children, I imagine that the first order of the day would be dealing with the emotional fallout of whatever brought them into the system. In this case, the morning brought with it no sign of terror or bitterness or confusion. I think he asked for peanut butter toast, actually.
The biggest challenge was really making sure that all of our paperwork was in order and that we communicated everything to our caseworker since the placement happened in the middle of the night. School was another top priority, knowing that his was likely to be a longer-term placement it was important to make sure we got him registered for the one that’s nearby so we could make sure he didn’t miss any more time than absolutely necessary. In between calling in to meetings so I wouldn’t be too far behind at work the next day I got him set up with toys, cartoons, and Minecraft so that he’d be able to occupy himself if he wanted to. That bought us a little bit of time to talk to the school and figure out everything that we’d need to get him registered.
We were tremendously productive throughout the morning, culminating in a visit to the school at noon to fill out all of the paperwork that would let him join his new class the next day. By the time we got to the office he was comfortable enough to start being a little bit silly, changing the calendar on the secretary’s desk to the wrong dates while we waited, changing it back again after I gave him a stern look. Naming things incorrectly, like referring to the ceiling to as the floor or pointing at the walls and commenting on how nice the windows looked. I’ve noticed similar things with the nephews so maybe it’s something about the age range? The more he joked around, the more comfortable he seemed to get and by the time we got back home he seemed more chipper than I’d ever seen him.
I had an afternoon meeting that I needed to call in to and planned to spend the rest of it hanging out with him and making sure he was adjusting well. The adjustment was apparently going quite well by the middle of my call because everyone who had dialed in was treated to an impromptu “can you unlock the computer so I can play Minecraft?”
They’re still getting a significant amount of mileage out of that at the office as I understand it.
Once I wrapped up my last meeting of the day, I devoted the rest of the afternoon to playing. Before the end of the day we got the chance for him to ride around on a toy jeep, take turns playing the Transformers video game that I’d been waiting for in one form or another since I was about eight years old, and play Minecraft in between bouts of typing nonsense in the middle of emails I was trying to write. He was pretty good at the video games and seemed to be having a great time the whole day of his unexpected vacation.
Lots of smiles and giggles and, if he wasn’t completely at home, he at least seemed sufficiently adjusted to his new environment that he was starting to push boundaries and get a little bit out of hand the way the nephews tend to do. I was happy that we’d had a good beginning. Sometimes that’s all you really get though.
We got the call about 5:30, right as we were getting ready to figure out dinner. “Can you bring him back to the DCS office within the next hour or so? He’s going back to his family.” That was definitely cause for some mixed feelings.
The goal of the system, as they keep reminding us, is to reunite families and do it as quickly as possible. I had my doubts based on what we thought we knew when he came into the system less than a day before, but I reminded myself of two facts that kept me from driving myself crazy over taking him back so soon. First, it’s ultimately not up to us. There are millions of variables that factor into those decisions. Situations can change quickly, and despite my sometimes cynical view of the world I know that sometimes they can change for the better. Second, the information the system gets can be wrong though no fault of anyone’s so it’s possible that only a small percentage of the things we were told ended up being correct in the light of day. Either or both of those could have applied in this case so the best thing to do was to be happy that we could go back home so soon.
It was a little bit of an emotional roller coaster in a fairly short time. We went from anxiety to relative ease in a flash and built what could have been the beginnings of a good relationship in the time that we had. He seemed to have a good time all day and it felt like he was already fitting in well in our home. He wanted a good-bye fist bump, too. The visit ended little more than sixteen hours after it began and didn’t even register as a proper placement in the system, it qualified as a “respite care” stay. In a lot of ways, it was kind of perfect.
Don’t get me wrong, we had a lot of fun and I’m selfishly sad that I couldn’t spend more time getting to know him. It was almost an ideal short form version of what we’d like every placement to be. There was all the joy of a day spent with all of us together, we were extremely productive with paperwork and everything we needed to do on the first day, and there were no real discipline problems the entire time. We didn’t have to sit through endless rescheduled court dates, worry about visitation schedules, or deal with any drama that might have come up with his birth family.
One can assume that his transition home was smoother than anything we’ve seen or heard about from any of the foster families we know because he was out of his typical environment for less than a weekend. Nothing went wrong, and we were able to provide exactly what he needed without feeling like we might fail him. It hit all of high points that we think of when we imagine being foster parents without the parts that make me want to scream. It left me a little bit wistful and missing a shy little ball of giggles that we barely got to know, but happy that we could be there when he needed a safe place.
Sometimes things happen exactly the way they need to even if they seem too brief to us, and it all fits into a bigger plan in a way that we can’t see until later if at all. That’s why I’ve tried to take a very Dr. Seuss approach to the experience. What was it exactly? “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”? It was a really neat day, and I wouldn’t trade any part of it.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally wonder where he is and how he’s doing, though. Given the amount of time we spend with the other children who have come in to our home and left again, doing it the other way just feels odd to me. Still, it was a pretty incredible sixteen hours.