It was our final therapy session with our youngest foster daughter, Janine. She was about to be discharged from the residential program where she had lived for 19 months. She would be coming home to live with us full-time. At the top of one of the office walls, her therapist had taped a piece of pink construction paper with the words “I have overcome…” written on it. He handed Janine her own stack of colored paper and a Magic Marker. She filled each sheet with challenges she had surmounted in her 14 years on earth. “The death of my father,” Janine wrote on yellow paper. “My alcoholic mother,” on green. “Being separated from my sister,” on blue.
I squeezed my husband’s hand and fought back tears.
Janine was just getting started.
“Having people I live with not be nice to me,” Janine wrote on a purple square and taped it up to the ever-growing tower of sadness. “Being afraid to make a mistake,” came next.
“What does that one mean, Janine?” I asked her.
“It’s simple,” she explained with a shrug. “If you do something wrong as a foster kid, DCF can make you go live somewhere else.”
My heart broke. This was no way to live.
“You only need to give us 10 days notice if you this gets to be too much for you,” our caseworker told us one day. “No one would blame you if you did,” said another.
But this is exactly how nearly 443,000 children live in this country every day. Afraid to make a mistake. The average foster child is moved three times over the course of their placement. Some are moved more than 10. We were foster placement number 11 for both of our foster daughters. Luckily, we were also their last.
We have gone through a lot with our foster children over the years. School suspensions, car accidents, hospitalizations for drug overdoses, suicide attempts. We’ve been through the usual teenage maelstroms and then some. After one teenage house party that got a bit out of hand, Janine’s first question to us the following day was, “Do I have to leave now?”
If foster children themselves get the idea that their placements are tenuous and temporary, the message foster parents get from the Department of Children and Families is parallel. “You only need to give us 10 days notice if you this gets to be too much for you,” our caseworker told us one day. “No one would blame you if you did,” said another.
But should it be that easy? By making it so effortless to re-home our foster kids, are we giving them all the same message that Janine took away early on? Don’t make a mistake or we will find someplace else for you to live. It is the belief so many foster children incorporate into their psyches. That they are only welcome if their behavior is impeccable. It is the option foster parents are presented as well. You can give them back at any time.
But it is a terrible message. And we’ve got to do better. Foster children need a sense of permanency. They need advocacy. Not just when they are honor students making us proud. But when they make mistakes. When they cry out for help. When they test us, seemingly asking, How ugly can my behavior get before you get rid of me?
In all the paperwork I had to sign to become a foster parent, the word love was never mentioned. I had to promise to get the children to the doctor regularly and keep their vaccinations up to date. Love was not a requirement. But maybe love is the key. Or at least a key. Love is basic. It is what keeps families fighting for each other. To be sure, not every foster placement is a perfect match. Love cannot be compelled. Staying too long in a home which is an ill fit can be just as detrimental as leaving too soon for breaking the rules.
Perhaps mediation before removal could be a consideration. More stringent training for families could also help mitigate expectations. By providing potential foster families with the “10-day notice” option, perhaps DCF assumes more parents would come forward to volunteer. But maybe a “worst-case scenario” approach would work better. More rigorous education in trauma-informed care may better prepare them for the challenges of working with abused or neglected kids.
More foster homes will be in demand as need expands. There has been a 147% increase in foster care entries attributable to the opioid epidemic from 2000 to 2017. Migrant children re-settling in our area will need fostering as well.
Our foster daughters are in their 20s now and live with us still. One has a baby who is the joy of our lives. Foster placements need not be as permanent as ours has turned out to be. Reunification with children’s biological families or placement in a permanent home is the goal for most foster children. But until that happens, these children need someone in their corner. Someone who will stick by them when they make the inevitable mistakes that all children do. Someone who might even take a chance on love.