I’d like to share with you a bit about my experience in foster care and adoption as a single mother, how I came to it, how my children wound up where they were and some of their experiences in foster care, and what it was like on our journey to becoming a ‘forever family’. FYI: This is long.
Why did I decide to foster?
I’d like to tell you about some lightbulb moment, some sudden passion that seized me one day, but the truth is, as far back as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to adopt, to give children in need a family. I read books about orphans, about foster children, about child abuse, even as a child. I knew there were children out there who had no permanent home, through no fault of their own, and I wanted to be able to give them a family. As a young adult, I researched adoption.
Private infant adoption was never really a goal of mine. To begin with, I was an unlikely candidate for that sort of adoption – I had little more to offer a child than the mothers surrendering their rights to their newborns. I was single like most of them, and I was far from the upper end of the financial scale.
International adoption intrigued me, but aside from being massively expensive, I had concerns about the whole process, especially the process in which the parents in the other country lost their rights. Besides that, as a single mother, my options were fairly limited.
Foster care, though, was always available, free (in terms of actual adoption costs) and there was a massive need for it right here in my own country. Thousands of children wait for families in a broken foster care system. Thousands graduate high school without them every year. This was where I would find my family.
I became a foster parent when I moved to the Big City at age 27. I emailed the local agency, they sent me a packet, which I filled out and sent back in, and I got into my classes. The process took a while, but it was (absurdly) easy. Paperwork, fingerprints, a month of classes once a week in the evenings, a background check, and a visit from my licensing worker, and that was it. I was officially a foster parent.
The classes I took were ridiculously stupid. I learned nothing except that in my state, I didn’t need background checks on anyone I wanted to babysit, and aside from haircuts, spankings, and sleeping in bunk-beds before age 8 (all prohibited), I could basically treat them like they were my own. My state is very lenient with foster parents. For good foster parents, this is great, because it enables them and the children to lead more ‘normal’ lives. In some states, regulations don’t allow foster children to be babysat by anyone who hasn’t been through a licensing process, and foster kids can’t have playdates at other houses or sleepovers. In some states, foster children can’t ever be left alone, even if they’re perfectly capable of it, and families must lock up steak knives out of reach, and so on and so forth.
Aside from that, the classes mostly went into the sorts of issues foster kids face in comparison to normal child development. Nothing useful, though, in how to deal with those sorts of issues. A friend of mine later went through classes and had a better experience, so hopefully that indicates it’s changed.
I was actually licensed for a year before I got a placement. Partly because I’d initially put down ages 0-2, and partly because I’d indicated adoptive placements only (placements where it was reasonably likely I’d be able to adopt the child who was placed with me). I changed this up on my next licensing to 0-4, but somehow, my worker wrote down 0-8 and that’s what showed up on my license. And I switched to foster and adoption both.
My first child was an infant, four months old. She was a short term placement, because her mother was working through a drug program and was expected to move into a home where she could have her baby with her soon. She’d been in a previous foster home since she was a month old, but the foster parents were moving to another county, so she had to be placed elsewhere. She cried. A lot. A whole lot. Oh my gosh did she cry. Some nights, she slept in her car seat, because driving her around was the only way to get her to sleep, and I didn’t dare move her once she was out. Eventually, I found a way of swaddling her that seemed to help, and a different formula, too.
She went home two months later. I missed her, and still think about her, but I can’t say I actually attached to her, not really.
It was only a couple months before my next placement – a pair of kids, siblings, half of a set of four. My two were a girl, aged 3, and a boy, aged 18 months. I met them at the clinic, where they were being checked for scabies with their brothers, ages 6 and 8.
The kids were being separated because of inappropriate sexual issues between them. They’d found a home for the oldest two, and I was chosen for the younger set. The girl, Sassypants, was three-almost-four. She acted like she was 14. No joke, she was a ball of fire, incredibly confident and outspoken, and completely capable of taking care of herself. I joked with my mother that I could leave for the weekend and she’d be able to run the house just fine.
Sadly, that’s probably exactly what she’d had to do in the past to survive. Take care of herself, and her baby brother.
Her brother, The Babbler, was eighteen months, and when I brought him home, he wore nothing but a diaper, so I scrounged up some clothing for her. He fit into the previous baby’s size 6-9 month onesie, because he was so small. He was massively delayed – he didn’t talk, walk, or even crawl. He’d been mostly confined to a crib, high chair, or car seat his whole life up until this point. He and Sassypants were the first children I really attached to – and I attached /hard/. They attached right back to me, and we worked through some hard things together, us three.
But the worker involved with the kids eventually made the decision to move them to be with their brothers, despite protest from multiple individuals on the case. The worker, to be honest, took issue with me after I’d emailed her boss (after weeks of not hearing a word from her) and I never really had a chance at keeping them after that, especially once the decision to keep the siblings together was made.
If I’d known then what I knew now… if I’d had the experience then that I do now… I’d have agreed to take all four kids, but at the time, I honestly believed it was too much for me to handle, that I couldn’t manage those four kids together and keep them all safe. So they left me in March, seven months later, and I cried. And cried. And cried. I woke up with nightmares about them for weeks.
But two days after they left, I brought home another placement – Big Girl and Little Bit.
Big Girl and Little Bit were six and three. They were the complete opposite of my previous girl, Sassypants. She was whip-smart and independent, and these girls were… well, I called them my “clueless kids” for weeks. Because they were clueless. They were spacey. Little Bit cried at every bump and bruise and everything that upset her. Big Girl stared at me, often, with this blank deer-in-the-headlights look. Neither had any idea how to take care of themselves or do simple things like “put the toys in the box”, and I confess, my expectations after Sassypants were probably a bit high. She was older than her age, and these two were younger than their age, but not, like The Babbler, in any obviously-physically-delayed way.
They were meant to be a short term placement. Their mother was basically giving up on them because parenting was hard and she wanted to drink and party. They had family in Colorado who wanted them, and only had to finish paperwork to get it done. They were also Native American, which meant ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) rules applied to them, and there was basically no real chance that I’d be able to adopt them since I’m white. These facts, along with my frustration with their utter cluelessness and my grieving over Sassypants and The Babbler, kept me from attaching to the girls for a long time.
They weren’t really attaching to me, either. They had been in and out of foster care for two years. They were attached only to each other, but that was a love-hate relationship at best. Little Bit had a speech disorder and it was weeks before I was able to decipher a single word she said, so Big Girl, accustomed to her, had to translate for me. Often, for fun, she’d mistranslate on purpose, and Little Bit would scream and cry in rage about it. The girls were active and tended to find trouble if I wasn’t keeping a close eye on them. They drove me nuts.
But day by day, week by week, an attachment built between us. It wasn’t quick, it wasn’t easy, but it grew, just the same. The relatives in Colorado disappeared from radar, and the social worker brought up adoption for the first time. Then, out of nowhere, some tribal relatives wanted the girls, so adoption was swept aside again as visits began with their aunt and uncle, J&R.
In this time, the girls’s worker left, and a new worker started on the case. She was very determined to place the girls with J&R, and ‘soon’. However, problems cropped up left and right. J&R weren’t making all their weekly visits with the girls, and they weren’t finishing paperwork on time. This would continue for over a year. The girls, initially excited about this impending move to live with J&R, began to act out their frustrations. The longer the process took, the more attached to me they became, and yet, the more attached to J&R they became also. The more attached to J&R they became, the harder it was every time they missed a visit, or several visits. The more missed visits, the more they clung to me.
Big Girl was angry, because J&R were ‘family’ and they were supposed to love her and care for her, so why weren’t they getting anywhere with this? Little Bit was angry and scared, because I was the only mom she really knew, and she didn’t want to leave me for them.
On and on and on it went. In the middle of this, near Christmas, their biological mother showed up and wanted visits. She saw them for 3 weeks, then had another baby (who was immediately surrendered to J&R), and disappeared from their lives forever. This only compounded the girls’ sense of loss and uncertainty about their future.
In visits with J&R, the girls would be preached at about the love of god and about going to Hell if they didn’t believe in god, and they would be shown pictures of their mother living a happy life without them, and they would be told elaborate lies about going to disneyland, even though J&R couldn’t even pay for their house.
One day in May, the girls were told they would spend a weekend with J&R, and then maybe they would move in a few days later. Then the social workers showed up at J&R’s house only to find the place unfit for children. (And believe me, standards are extremely lax.) All thoughts of home visits were placed on hold. Summer passed with hardly any visitation at all, and then it started up again with missed visits randomly. Paperwork still wasn’t completed. Deadlines were set, and passed, but J&R were given more time to complete it and get their house fixed.
I harassed the workers constantly, trying to get stability for the girls. After one particularly ugly meeting, I was certain that this would be drug out until they were eighteen.
In the Meantime, Other Placements
While this was going on, I had two more girls join the family for a few months. Blondie and Lil’ Britches. Blondie was eight, about to turn nine, and Lil’ Britches had just turned three. She still wasn’t potty trained, and was nowhere near ready for it, either. The kids were from a large family and siblings were spread out over several foster placements. They had been removed due to allegations of sexual abuse by Lil’ Britches’ father. Blondie was terrified of her stepfather and didn’t want to return to her mother, who didn’t believe the abuse had happened. Unfortunately, a judge ruled to return the children to their mother as soon as she was living apart from Lil’ Britches’ father. Recent facebook posts indicate she still loves him and believes he’s innocent.
After they left, I had a sibling trio, ages 11 months, 4 and 6, for a week, while my foster-mom friend was grieving the unexpected loss of her unborn twins. I was quickly overwhelmed by the three, and advised the worker they’d need to move along once a placement was found for all three. A placement was found quicker than expected, and they moved on to another single foster mom who, as far as I know, is still holding out trying to adopt them. (They are also an ICWA case. This is not easy.)
After this, I advised my worker that I wanted to only be available for adoptive-only placements until the girls’s case resolved one way or another. The losses of foster siblings were only adding to their turmoil and I wanted things at home to be as stable as possible.
This is how I wound up with The Boy. Months and months after the Trio left, I got an email from my worker asking if I was interested in adopting a six year old boy. They wanted a single mother for him because he didn’t have a good track record with men. I was treated to a lot of information about The Boy prior to adoption. But somehow, everything I asked for (actual psychological records, etc.) never materialized. I went to meet him in December, right before Christmas, and liked him immediately. He was, as described, VERY ADHD. He talked all the time. He had a great imagination. He was obsessed with vacuums and phones. I met his teachers, who loved him. I attended his first-ever IEP meeting and learned that he low cognitive scores and extreme adhd. They got him physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and helps for reading and math. He was not reading and could not write.
Between December and February, we had a series of visits, mostly of me driving through near-blizzards 4 hours to Missoula to see him for a day, only to return the next. My dedication to these visits with a boy I barely knew only increased my rage at J&R for their lax attitude about visiting their own blood relatives who they hoped to adopt.
The Boy’s psychologist didn’t seem to like him much, and used somewhat questionable methods about analyzing his every move. She also told me he was never going to go to college and I should be prepared to have him at home forever. And, much to my horror, when he called me Mama in front of her, she told me it didn’t mean anything with ‘these kids’. These kids, meaning these unattached children in foster care, who readily call anyone Mama.
I was furious. Not because she was wrong – she wasn’t, except for the minor fact that I was going to be his mother – but because she dared to say so in front of him, like he couldn’t hear or wasn’t listening. He was.
Despite what the testing at school says, and what the psychologist said, The Boy turned out to be extremely bright. Delayed, yes, and inexperienced thanks to his (awful and traumatic) birth family experiences, but bright.
Also? Severe ADHD is a slight underestimation. He was diagnosed with RAD, PTSD, ADHD, Anxiety Disorder, and possibly ODD. Like, the whole alphabet of disorders. And we had issues. Issues upon issues. My worker told me most people would give up. Other workers who were supposed to assist our family advised me to up and run. I wondered, several times, as he lay on the floor screaming and biting and kicking, if I was sane.
He got along with the girls… sometimes. Before he came, the girls would fight like cats and dogs with each other. Now it was two on one, with the teams changing every couple days. The Boy vs. The Girls one day, The Boy & Little Bit vs. Big Girl another, and so on. But somehow, despite rough seas, a week of psychiatric hospitalization for The Boy, and many medication changes (for BOTH me and The Boy), we managed to become a family.
Late that summer, the workers involved with the girls finally got permission from the tribe to go forward with adoption – by me. J&R failed to get their paperwork in, and even better, half of their paperwork was now expired and would have to be redone. Their quest for guardianship and adoption of the girls ended, visits with them were terminated, and we proceeded towards adoption on National Adoption Day in November.
I wavered and wavered on The Boy, terrified I was making the wrong decision no matter what I did, and finally told my worker to hurry up and go forward on him too, so they could all be adopted on the same day. I crossed my fingers and hoped that finalizing our family on paper, with name changes and everything, would really cement our family together in a way that enabled us all to move on.
And you know what? I haven’t looked back.
In fact, I’m continually amazed at just how much has changed in these last few months. The Boy stabilized with the right medication and the firm knowledge that he wasn’t going anywhere ever again. So many of the girls’s issues also fell aside once adoption was completed – their fears and worries about all the uncertainty resolved.
I won’t say it’s perfect, but I can say it was worthy every minute. I have no regrets – except one, which is that I wasted so much time worrying about whether I was doing the right thing.
I was. It wasn’t the easy thing. But it was definitely right.