Girls from the church youth group I led were taken from their home by Child Protective Services with a police escort, their step father yelling and threatening violence. They called a few hours later. With no foster parenting prep classes, no reading over the rules, no official designation, my introduction to foster care was strangely perfunctory. Social workers brought the kids late at night, checked a few things (like the number of beds), 911 was written on a scrap of paper by the phone, and my husband and I signed a form. The children stood in a home they’d never seen before with wide eyes, searching to find any harmful secrets that might lurk. If their own home isn’t safe, how could this one be? They hoped that what little trust they had in me held true.
Foster parents must promise to keep all information about their foster children private. Social workers, teachers, doctors and anyone else who works with the child are also bound by privacy laws. The National Resource Center for Child Welfare Data & Technology attempts to help professionals negotiate between the laws and the need to share information. They concede, “Child welfare professionals face a daunting array of privacy, confidentiality, and security rules. Too often, the answer to the question, ‘May I share this vital information with a colleague who is also working with this family?’ is a frustrated shrug and an exasperated, ‘Better not, just to be safe.’” (http://www.nrccwdt.org/2011/12/privacy-protectio)
It’s clear that these laws were put into place by well-meaning individuals who seem to have never been a foster parent. Want to know if the child sleeping under your roof has AIDS? Sorry, that’s private. Want to find a foster family where a child previously lived so they can have continuity of care? Sorry, that’s private. All information is on a need to know basis. There is no conclusion about who needs to know, until you’ve been charged for sharing without cause.
The only time Child Protective Services (CPS) can publically release information about a child is after a fatality or near-fatality. And even in those cases it is not mandatory: “The State is not required to provide the information to the public unless requested.”(http://www.acf.hhs.gov/cwpm/programs/cb/laws_policies/laws/cwpm/policy_dsp.jsp?citID=68) How does anyone know to request the information if the case is confidential?
The consequences of this veil of secrecy over the care of the most needy children is expressed well by Jim Newton of the LA Times on March 8, 2011: “Their fates are controlled by officials who take them from their homes, assign them to new ones and reunite them with parents who brutalized them — all in secret.” (http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/08/opinion/la-oe-newton-column-foster-care-20110308)
With her baggy leather purse flopping at her arm like a broken limb, the mother moved in broad strokes, sweeping up her timid son. She covered him in gregarious sorrow and tears in front of all the other foster kids waiting for their parent visits or therapy appointments in that stained room. He didn’t want to come, but she lured him with a long awaited birthday present. Watching her cry over him like a lover I wondered where the gift was, hoping that her tears weren’t just show.
She started in with crazy stories and unrealistic promises as the social worker stood behind me, out of the reach of her mucus and grief. As she spoke her bloodshot eyes plead with me to believe her and I answered, “Okay,” and “I understand,” without conviction. I believed her for as long as she could see my eyes.
Walking away with her son at my side I told him I was sorry. He knows more of the world, filled with anguish and tribulation, than 9 years can hold. He brushed away silent tears and said he would never visit her again.
I met Erica at church. She had an adorable one year old daughter who toddled into mischief. Erica and her boyfriend were married at church in a simple ceremony. A week later they were baptized. I was asked by the church to visit Erica every month, to be her friend and assess their needs.
The first month I took a coloring book and crayons (washable) along with a large package of diapers. Erica didn’t sit still, she got up to pull chicken out of the empty freezer, explaining that her husband hadn’t worked much because business had been slow at the car wash. They were grateful for their illegal sub-let: a gay couple that fought nearly constantly and chipped in for food. The baby headed for the stairs so Erica turned on the big screen TV to distract her and I sat on the drooping couch covered with a sheet.
Erica had been in nursing school a little over 6 months, I asked how classes were going. She couldn’t afford gas money or childcare, so she hadn’t been to school in the last week. She talked big- that her husband would get a second job, she would get a night job, and they would move into a house, where she would have room for her 5 kids. Four lived with her mom now, something must have happened between the birth of her 4th and 5th children.
When a mom with kids in the foster care system gives birth to another child it’s like a do-over. Child Protective Services assumes normalcy until they find evidence to the contrary. That evidence can be drugs in the bloodstream of the mother at the baby’s birth or in the worst cases, later, when it’s too late.
Erica hated that her Mom cared for her children because her son has ADHD and her mom lost her temper often. She vacillated between gratitude for her mom’s care of her children and anger. The money her mom got from the state for taking care of Erica’s kids was more money than her husband made at the car wash. If she got the kids back, there would be no payments for her.
She never said how she lost custody.
The county jail is inaccessible by stroller. There is a wide set of steep steps leading to a set of darkly tinted glass doors high above street level. The advantage is that a passersby can’t gawk in the windows. The problem is taking an uncooperative two-year-old boy inside. Buckled into a stroller his protests would be of little consequence, the stairs eliminate that possibility. Instead, I throw his diaper bag over one shoulder, my purse over the other and heavy laden lean down to unbuckle the stroller straps restraining him. He bursts out of his seat and I grab his mittened hand. It takes a tight grip to hold onto him through the layers of knit.
With the other hand I hold the stroller and push the button with my foot to collapse it. I fold it to a manageable size and drag it behind me while lifting Bobby up each of the steep stairs to the glass doors. I can’t open the door, my hands are full. Standing there physically overwhelmed with burdens, mental burdens also stop me. I am walking into a jail. This two year old boy who was delivered to us at 4 am (filthy and grasping his only possession, a plastic red car) is now ordered by the court to visit his father in jail. His father is charged with child endangerment. He left his diapered son alone in their inner city apartment so long that the neighbors called the police after they couldn’t take his screaming any longer.
There must be a shift change, because through the dark glass doors I can see rows of guards coming towards me smiling. They hold the door open for me and I try to catch someone’s eye, to show them by my clear conscience that I don’t belong here.
Sitting on the row of plastic seats that look like leftovers from a 60’s era airport, I see that the only other white girl in the waiting area is with smeared mascara and ratted hair, rambling incoherently into a phone. My tawny skinned foster son pushes his red car across the floor, laughing when it crashes against the cement walls. When he runs his wiry black mop of hair bounces into his eyes. He comes over to eat Cheerios on my lap and an African American grandmother sitting next to me asks if his daddy is inside.
I say, “Yes, but I’m his foster mom.”
Her smile vanishes and she scoots to a chair further from me.
The guard at the desk calls Bobby’s name. I grasp his hand again and walk him up to the metal detectors. I bribe Bobby with more Cheerios so he’ll happily pass through with the social worker. After he’s beyond the solid metal door and is in the belly of the jail with his father I don’t know what to do. I choose walking the winter streets over the cold shoulder of that grandmother.
Marcy calls me because she left Bobby with a social worker at the jail and is now in that situation that I was in over a year ago – at the jail with time and no friends. I quickly realize that she’s on that border between tears and tantrum that is common for compassionate souls dedicated to nobodies’ children.
“This is ridiculous! This child has spent most of his life in foster care because of this man’s choices, yet here we are again, a 4 year old sentenced to spend time in jail because of who his father is!”
Marcy quit her job to be Bobby’s mom. She and her husband are providing foster care for him with the intention of adoption. He went to their home after being in legal limbo with us for six months. They are waiting for the courts to grant the coveted TPR: Termination of Parental Rights.
We say TPR because it isn’t the courts that really terminate the parents. They made the decision themselves years ago, courts just make it a legal fact.
The first time I went to the gym with Bobby the childcare was full, so I walked over to the older woman in charge, and asked if I could leave him for an hour, even though he wasn’t legally a member of my family. She smiled and gave an overwhelming, “Yes!” He ran off to bang trucks together and watch Dora. The woman kept talking to me. I wish I had walked away because what she said next will not leave me. It remains like an unhealed scab on my brain. I try to pick it off and make it go away, even though I bleed, but it comes back and stays.
“One tiny foster girl my neighbor took in had two broken legs. Her father raped her until he broke them.” She demonstrated with a crude thrusting motion.
Years later my head fills with bile and tears to write it.
I found a blogger who’s been a foster mom for more than 5 years. In that time she’s given birth to 2 daughters and will soon have a third. She and her husband also foster parent Becca, who just started kindergarten, has been with their family for more than a year and has Leukemia. When she came to their home she had no hair and a long list of doctor appointments and medications.
In the current system, the goal of foster care is always reunification with birth parents. Until the moment that the parent’s rights are legally terminated it is the focus of everyone involved in the case. Except for the most severe cases, children who are in foster care visit their birth parents regularly as part of a reunification plan.
Becca’s birth father doesn’t show up to her doctor appointments, as the judge ordered him to do as part of the reunification plan. Becca still goes to visits with him where they might eat ice cream or go to the playground. The social worker doesn’t share information with the foster parents about the other things Becca’s parents should be doing to work towards reunification. They did ask if they would be willing to take in Becca’s little sister too, on a long term basis. (Long term basis hints at adoption, or at least the agonizing legal process of sorting out parental rights.) That is how you know things aren’t going according to plan for reunification.
Becca still visits her father each week. Now her little sister joins them.
Nine year old Vinnie came to stay with us for a week, which turned into a month. Whenever possible siblings are placed in the same foster home, but Vinnie fought with his brother so violently that his previous foster mom refused to house both of them. She’d been fostering for 15 years and was spotlighted in the foster agency newsletter the same month we got Vinnie. Over the years foster kids had gotten more violent, she said. There had never been a child that scared her, until Vinnie.
A month later Vinnie cried and gave every member of our family hugs when we gave him belated birthday gifts, wrapped with bright paper and curled ribbon. That same week he told his friends at school that he hated his new foster family and wanted to kill himself. After investigating the comments his social worker assured me that it was a misunderstanding, Vinnie was not suicidal. After he left our home I heard rumors that he was institutionalized for attempting suicide.
Vinnie’s previous foster mom told me that the school nurse called Child Protective Services over her concerns about his home life for two years before he was finally removed from his drug addicted mother’s care.
Excerpt from “The Nobodies” by Eduardo Galeano
“Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream
of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will
suddenly rain down on them- will rain down in buckets. But
good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter
how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is
tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or
start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The
nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,
dying through life, screwed every which way.”
Before we became official foster parents my husband and I saw commercials on TV pleading, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a foster parent.” We felt strongly that homes like ours were needed. Foster parenting blogs and web sites also begged the sane and competent to step to the plate, out of traditional roles and into parenting a stranger. We had a taste of it with the girls from church so knew this would be hard. So we said then.
Hard isn’t a word I use much anymore. It’s a stupid little word, four little letters insignificant against all the meaning packed behind it. Difficult is better, I’s surround too many F’s and a crossed T brings up the rear. The base sound of the big D fights with the C in the middle, ending with the sharp LT. “Hard” makes it sound as if it can be broken through, like ice crusted on a street puddle. “Difficult” is complicated, like the thick ridged winter crust of an arctic lake, and goes on long enough to arouse fears that it’ll never end. That’s how this problem of endangered children feels, never ending.
Laws and rules have been made, with strict lines and solid parameters. But these are people, worn down round the edges- soft babies pitted against poverty and ignorance, accidental parents with addictions and mental illness flowing through the curves of their viens, and disheartened teenagers scoured by the mean streets until their soft child palms clinch into hard fists. These things don’t fit the image we have of America, where the huddled masses come to breathe free, not to be suffocated by the cold shoulder of secrecy and the hard lines of policy.
When I signed the paperwork to become a foster parent I signed a confidentiality agreement. I’m breaking it by writing this. It could ruin my hopes for a career in social work – a great irony considering “Social workers help people overcome problems and make their lives better.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics, bls.gov) Very few people listen to children; they have little voices that don’t vote. They are nobodies in the eyes of politicians, lawmakers, and power players – people with the resources to help them.
While picking up my foster kids from their inner city school I saw a large woman walking a small boy home. They stopped as she stooped to tie his shoe. As we walked past them the little boy stared vacantly at me. His mother, with her back to me while she tied the small shoe, released a train of profanities that burned a trail from my ears to my heart. The destination of the singeing words was her son. The cause- an untied shoe.
I thought about putting a stop to it, pointing out that an untied shoe is hardly cause for verbal abuse. Then I looked down at my foster kids and remembered that in some homes children get the worst of everything. Concerned for how the boy would be treated if I embarrassed his mom, with burning eyes I put my head down, took my foster daughter’s hand and kept walking.