Let’s Talk Parent Visitation

DFPSI write this blog with two goals in mind – to allow you to vicariously join us on this emotionally-charged journey and to inform you of the inner workings of the foster process. My posts until now have been completely narrative.  As to be expected, there is emotion bubbling over in these first weeks and nearly everyday provides fodder for a post.  However, I find that there are a few “hot topics” in foster care that people ask me about again and again.  Those include the legal timeline, training and licensing, parent visitation, etc.  Foster parents are deluged with friends, coworkers, new acquaintances, the check out lady at Costco, etc. who want to know more.  While I’m no expert (well, unless the topic is when to call CPS from the ER), I will take opportunities to inform you, as best I can, about the foster process.  Keep reading to the end, and you’ll hear my thoughts digress back to the emotions of the process.

Parent visits are typically scheduled for one hour every other week for children over 12 months, one hour weekly for infants under 12 months.  Visits occur at a DFPS (Department of Family and Protective Services) building on the south side of San Antonio.  Upon entering the building, you face a security desk to check-in and a metal detector to walk through.  Foster parents are ushered to a special waiting area, “because you don’t want to run into the bio parent our here, do you?” as the security guard explained to me this week.  The CPS case worker assigned to the child(ren), picks them up from the foster waiting area, takes them to a supervised 1 hour visit, somewhere in the depths of the building, and then returns them to your care.  The foster parent is expected to provide transportation for their foster children to these visits.  Some families will have a friend or other relative licensed to transport their foster kids – helping them out with this responsibility.  CPS works to accommodate foster families – they won’t demand you to come at a time that is impossible for you, they respect that foster parents have lives outside of foster care that may involve work, daycare schedules, other children, etc., and from what I’ve been told, they work around those constraints as much as possible.   If the case is progressing towards “reunification” between bio parent and child, visits increase in length and frequency, may start to take place at the bio parent home (in which case CPS typically does the transporting), and often include weekend/overnight stays.  Again, I’m no expert – if you read this and know more, please comment!
This week we had our first parental visit.  Visits for our foster children have been fairly infrequent.  As sad as that is, it may be a blessing to us, as it saves us the 40 minute drive down to DFPS once a week.  When our CPS worker met us in the building, she informed us that parent had not arrived.  The appointment had been confirmed the day before, and although little is required of parents to have a visit if desired, the worker had made clear to bio parent that punctuality was crucial. We waited 20 minutes, during which time I fed baby boy and tried to contain Nate and little girl in the small waiting area. After baby boy had finished his bottle, CPS texted with ‘no show, you can leave, sorry about that’.

I wasn’t surprised by the no-show.  I was surprised by how agregious the offense felt when it was towards my foster child, the child that has been entrusted to me to care for and protect these past two weeks.  I generally feel empathy for parents that end up having their children placed in the custody of CPS – I recognize that there are grave circumstances out there, including drug addiction, dealing with past physical and sexual abuse, mental illness, the stresses of extreme poverty, etc. that I, by God’s grace, have never had to face.  And often, I can look compassionately at parents who find themselves in these predicaments, and know, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  But when the total amount of time you have spent with your child in their lifetime can be measured in hours, rather than days, and you have one hour or so a month to spend with them, how can you not come?  How can you not make that the most important thing you have to do, ever?  How can you not treat it as if it’s the most important meeting of your life?  How, can you stand your child up, for the one date you have with them in a month?  I’ve uncovered a discompassionate piece of my heart in this.  And I know I have it easy on this one.  My little people left the DFPS building with no more than the thought that we went on a drive, stopped and fed baby boy, and left again.  Only Leah left questioning, “wait a minute, aren’t they going to go with their parent?”  Some foster parents have the disheartening task of taking their school-aged child to a long-awaited parental visit, only to then see and deal with the disappointment in their child’s eyes when bio mom/dad don’t show up.  Oh, heartwrenching.

I left the DFPS office, pensive.  I didn’t care in the least about the 40 minute drive, gas spent, time taken out of my day, etc.  This job comes with inconveniences and we have cleared our schedule as best we can to make room for unpredictable inconvenience.  Expecting that makes it doable.  What I left caring about, was the beautiful little children in my car, who I had made sure looked so cute that morning, and who I had fed early so they wouldn’t be cranky or sleeping, and who may someday have to hear from me that bio parent just didn’t show up.

Almost home, I stopped at the gas station.  While standing alone outside the car, I looked down at my shirt and pulled the DFPS visitor sticker off to throw away.  At second glance, I thought better of it, and stuck it to a McDonald’s napkin to save as a keepsake.  A reminder to me of the new emotion I felt that day towards these children – the protective mama bear, who can feel the thick fur raising on her back, when someone wrongs her foster children.

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Deep Thoughts … On the Potty

No pictures for this one, I promise!  I would imagine that many moms out there can relate to this moment – I have now successfully gotten two little ones in bed, my three big kids are at the kitchen table coloring Halloween pictures before their bedtime, I have Nate in bed – after reading his favorite book, giving lots of hugs and kisses, praying, covering him up with his favorite blankie, I have one hand on his door, and the other is reaching for the light switch (anticipating light off and door closed, which symbolizes my hard-fought victory in finding moments of freedom before going to bed and starting it all over again tomorrow), when, like a thunderstorm during a campfire, these intrusive words interrupt me, “Mommy, I think the poo poo is coming, I need to go potty”.
        Deep breath, turn around, smiling countenance, “Okay sweetheart, let’s go potty.”  Out of bed, to the bathroom, diaper off, get Nate on the potty.  While he’s singing and daydreaming, I’m sitting on the floor with my head resting against the wall, periodically gently reminding him to stay focused on the task at hand.  After a few minutes, and still no poo poo, he looks at me, and in his two year old voice (where r’s and l’s still make the “w” sound) asks, “Mama, why is ‘little girl’ here?”
        I stare back at him for a moment, contemplating how I answer that, while recognizing the sincere questioning expression on his face.  “Well, Nate, ‘little girl’ needs a mommy and a daddy and a family to love her, so God brought her to our home.”  Still not satisfied he replies, “but where is her mommy?”
        Hmm, that one’s harder.  How do I answer in a way that is honest and toddler-appropriate?  “Well, see, her mommy isn’t here, and she can’t take care of her right now, so ‘little girl’ needs us to love her while her mommy can’t.”
        Recognizing that I’ve dodged the direct question, he comes back at me again, “but where is her mommy?”
        Again, I pause, staring into his questioning wide blue eyes.  “You know, Nate, I don’t know where her mommy is.  I just know that her mommy can’t take care of her right now.  And she needs Mommy and Daddy and you and Bryce and Leah and Sissy to love her as best as we can.  For now, and as long as God intends, we are her family.”
        Seemingly satisfied, he looked around the room, down at the potty, back at me, and asked, “Mommy, does Thomas (the train) go night-night in the roundhouse?”
        Okay, moment passed.  “Nate, do you have any poo poo yet?”.
        “No, I don’t think there is any, I all done, I can get down now.”
        Oh good, sleep soundly sweet toddler, and enjoy the child-like innocence that allows you to recognize that something has changed dramatically in your world, but trust that it is all good and freely transition to the whimsical land of Thomas and trains.  And, don’t be surprised if I look at you rather inquisitively the next time you tell me you need to go potty.

No Fruity Pebbles

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Tumultuous transitions going on here.  Did anyone think we would weather such a tremendous change in our home unscathed?  Thankfully, the “what have we done” doubts that periodically interrupted my day last week have completely extinguished.  After years of praying and contemplating foster care and adoption, I have no doubt that this is right for us and that these particular children are exactly who God intended for our home.  Erik, whose opinion I often trust more than mine, is similarly confident.

Our biological children on the other hand are passing through the necessary stages of response to major stress.  I explained to my exuberant, “save all orphans” daughter, as she was in tears over missed math problems, that even good changes cause stress – especially when they are so new and so monumental.  This past weekend we were all outside, playing basketball on the cul-de-sac, coloring with chalk.  I wandered inside to look for Leah and found her curled up on the couch sobbing.  As I ran over to her and asked her what was wrong, the floodgates opened.  “I don’t want foster babies anymore, I want it to be just us again, I want it to go back to being just us.  I want you to just do school with us like you always do and not have to take care of  baby boy, please mommy, please, I just want it to be like it was.”  My breaking heart was only slightly assuaged by the knowledge that I knew this was coming.  I held her, cried with her, reminded her again that this will be hard in different ways on all of us and that it is normal to feel the way she’s feeling.  Fifteen minutes later she was off laughing and playing.  My heart was still in pieces.  That night I collapsed into bed with her, held her hand, and used my overnight discretionary time to sleep soundly by her side.

Nate has escalated in his wild antics.  Again, normal response to stress.  He could be considered little girl’s personal physical therapist.  Yesterday I caught him teaching her to climb in and out of a pack-n-play.  I looked on in horror when I realized that once she knows she is capable of that, she will start climbing out of the crib too!  Oh no, put an end to that, there is no way I am taking on transitioning this child to a toddler bed right now.  So, pack-n-play is now packed up, out of sight!  I caught a glimpse into the workings of his little mind the other day when little girl non-specifically, sang “ma ma ma ma” about the house.  “No!” retorted Nate, “that’s MY Mama!!”

The other night, Erik came home from work to find me laying limp on the couch while the little ones watched TV.  “Please, can I just hand them off to you and have a few minutes to myself?” I begged.  I fell on the bed and wept, likely out of shear emotional exhaustion more than anything else.  I cried out to God, longing to live in a place where children don’t have to be taken away from their parents, and aren’t abandoned by their parents, and aren’t abused and neglected.  I sobbed for my heavenly home.  After twenty minutes or so, my spirits lifted as my mind dwelt on the tremendous hope and assurance I have of heaven, a place where there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain (Revelation 21:1-4).  I picked myself up and went about washing bottles and prepping for the next day.  When Erik came down the stairs after settling everybody in bed, I smiled coyly and said, “it’s okay, I’m okay now, I’m back”.  “Oh phew,” he said in exasperated relief.

This morning my kids woke up, excited to wish Erik a happy birthday.  We have a tradition around here that on your birthday you get to choose your most favorite, sugar-laden cereal to be served for breakfast.  Bethany appropriately asked, “Did you get Fruity Pebbles?  I know Daddy would want Fruity Pebbles!”  Aww, shucks, she’s right, I completely forgot.  Having already mustered every ounce of strength I had, to get up with a crying baby and a coughing, runny-nosed toddler, so that Erik could sleep in on his birthday, I went to the pantry and scavenged for the most fun cereal I could procure.  I emerged, semi-victorious, with a brand new box of whole grain Dora the Explorer cereal.  Bryce came down the stairs, and without even a “good morning”, glanced at the table and then at me.  In disbelief and disdain, he inquired, “Daddy chose DORA cereal for his birthday????”  Umm …. uh…. yeah bud, he did … uhh .. it’s really delicious … wait till you try it!  And so it goes, happy birthday, Honey!

Forming Bonds That May Be Broken

IMG_2176Our boisterous, loud, almost three year old, (who incidentally still remains the most difficult child in this household to care for!), had an immediate connection with little girl.  As early as day 2, he accomplished something that no one else yet could – bring out in her squeals and giggles of excitement.  I followed them up the stairs on day 2 and found him teaching her to jump on his bed (CPS and ER colleagues if you’re reading this let me point out it is very low to the ground 😉 ) while shrieking at the top of her lungs – yes, classic Nate.  In that moment, I saw little girl, for the first time in her new home, let down any guard or hesitation, and squeal and laugh and jump and laugh and squeal again!  That day she gained a new word, “Nate”.  Hearing her call after him by name is still a privilege only he holds.  Now they spend their time running about the house together, her chasing after him, him waiting for her and calling her name while saying “come on, follow me”.  I would like to say that they are becoming best buds, but knowing Nate’s personality and the activities he finds most interesting, I think a more appropriate term would be “partners in crime”!  Each night this week, while putting him to bed, I’ve whispered softly in his ear how grateful I am for his big, boisterous, loud personality, and the way that he has unknowingly transferred all of that enthusiasm into helping this little girl feel at home.

Our older three children, so far have been accepting of this transition.  I had no doubt Bethany would be enthusiastic.  She begs me to feed the baby, play with the little girl, etc.  I mentioned at dinner tonight that this week ahead held a special day for our family (Erik turning 40).  Bethany’s eyes brightened and she interjected, “we’re getting another baby?”  Um, no, try again.  Every day I catch Bryce sitting next to the bouncy seat or laying down on the floor and smiling and talking baby talk to baby boy.  In those moments I have no doubt Bryce’s brain is chuckling on the inside, “I’ve been saying we need more boys around here for a long time!”  Leah, true to her personality, has been gentle and kind, but on guard.  She is taking her time to warm up to them, but does ask on occasion to hold them or feed them – only for short spurts.  I recommended she play doll house the other day with little girl.  “No thanks,” she replied, “I don’t play with babies, I’ll wait until she’s two.”  I took that as her gentle “I’m not ready” defense, and didn’t push it further.  Despite her outward reluctance, I know her compassion runs deep, and I know that breaking these bonds, if the day comes that these children are placed with biological family, will be the hardest for Leah.  As far as Nate, well the above paragraph speaks largely for him.  I have no doubt Erik will be won over.  I’ve seen the way little girl flashes her smiling, huge brown eyes at him while trying to feed him off of her dinner plate.   Today, while he was napping on the couch, she climbed up on top of him.  As he opened his eyes, she put her face right up to his, and with a huge grin and giggle exclaimed, “Dada”.  Yep, she’ll find her way into his heart, no problem.  And as for me, well, I have already felt how easy it is to form a bond with an infant.  Baby boy, although 6 months, was a tiny preemie, and as such is still a slow, frequent eater.  Spending that much time a day, sitting on a couch feeding him, with his huge brown eyes staring up at me, does wonders for creating that all important caregiver-child bond.  Little girl also gazes at me with her big brown eyes and climbs up on my lap, in the sporadic moments when she is not off and running with my other children, that is.  All summer I have been pondering what it means to allow your heart to form these bonds, knowing that someday these children may leave.  But, that’s another entry for another day.  Suffice it to say, bonds are starting to form, and we are all wiggling our toes in the deep ocean of vulnerability that foster families choose to swim in.

They’re here!

photoOur home is now 4 feet larger.  Yesterday was, I think, perhaps, the weirdest experience of my life. I had long wondered what that moment would feel like – the moment when a little child, desperately in need of care and love, is placed into your arms. I mean, of course all children, out of the womb, are desperately in need of care and love. But the weight of that need feels greater in these situations because you have to assume that almost all children who end up in the CPS system have been traumatized in some way – abuse, neglect, drug exposure during pregnancy, etc, etc. Honestly, I had trouble even speculating how that moment would feel. And, I would say that it lived up to my expectations – it’s hard to even describe what that moment felt like, because it was such a whirlpool of conflicting emotions – joy, fear, excitement, worry, love, curiosity, endearment, shock, empathy, and question upon question about these little people. Thankfully, since we had a few days to prepare, Erik was able to block his work schedule and be here for drop off. We were greeted by the CPS worker who is assigned to these children, and our Pathways case worker, who will stay connected with us throughout our placements. The initial flood of emotions described above, intensified after our brief introduction to the children, as we sat down at our kitchen table and went over the legal aspects of the case. The easy part was passing papers and signing away (very reminiscent to signing for a mortgage). The hard part was spending over an hour hearing everything we could, every detail the CPS worker could tell us about these children. She has known these children for months, and with the knowledge that any placement could lead to adoption, I was determined to take this rare opportunity to garner every ounce of information about these children that I could. That conversation was driven by the thought that IF (and that’s always a big IF in this system), these children become adoptable and we adopt them, I will carry the weighty responsibility of someday looking into the eyes of my questioning child and trying to help them fill in the gaps of where they came from, what their history is. I imagine that precious child hanging on every thread of detail I can provide. And so, as if on a mission, I will use these rare chances to take notes and gather information that will be tucked away in confidentiality, in the case that someday we need to help our child define who they are. As you can imagine, the whirlpool of emotions I described upon first meeting these children, turned into an outright maelstrom as I spent my first hour with them hearing all of the details of their past, what brought them to CPS, who’s been involved in their lives, etc., etc. I know our situation is not unique – I know enough from my ER experience and now from my foster care training to know that the system is flooded with children in need (our agency gets 5-20 referrals a day!) and that there are no neat, clean stories of how children end up with CPS. Our foster children are no exception. A moment in my mind that defines the way I was feeling during that hour, occurred when at one point, I glanced up from the baby in my arms to find Erik and both case workers looking at me. One said, “does that date work for you?”. I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. “Oh,” I laughed, “you mean you actually need me to think during all of this?”.

Well, that was the heavy stuff. The rest of the day was unlike any other. I followed these little people around, watching them, studying them, gazing at them with a big, “who are you?” in my mind. Our situation is somewhat unique in that it looks like these children MAY be heading to adoption (again, this is a roller coaster people, things change at any point!). But, as such, I spent that first day vacillating between the consuming thoughts of, “wow, this is too good to be true!”, and, “oh my goodness, what have we done?!” (I mean, c’mon we suddenly have 6 children – that still blows my mind!). I’m happy to report that after my first good night sleep since I found out they were coming to our home (yes, we have been BLESSED with great sleepers, very funny that I slept great the first night they were here!), our second day together was characterized by joy and excitement, with only the occasional, interrupting thought, “oh my, we now have 6 children, and three of them are under three!”

Today a sweet friend came to visit.  As she was feeding the baby, I caught myself gazing at him in anticipation of when I would get to hold him again, and considering advising her to try holding the bottle differently.   Caught off guard, I questioned, “Wow, where did those thoughts and emotions come from?”   I suppose, even after our short 24 hours together, my mind and heart are beginning to transform into those of this particular baby’s  (foster) “mom”.