June 9 2012
My stomach turned as I stood next to the chair where the middle-aged man sat in front of the small conference room. Our instructor had positioned nine of us one-by-one next to the man she designated “the child.” I was a sibling, another was the mother, a father, an aunt, an uncle, school friend, teacher and a grandparent. We each had a hand touching him. I wasn’t sure where she was going with the exercise and the anticipation was growing. Again, one-by-one she told each of us to leave the “child” and take our seats until the man was once again alone with the chair. She asked him how he felt up there by himself. He said “lonely.” The lesson was intended to help us understand what a child might feel like after being torn away from their family and friends. She wanted us to fully grasp how scared and alone a kid of any age would feel regardless of the reason they were being taken away from the only life they’ve ever known. Even if that life was unstable and dangerous, it was still the only security they’ve ever experienced. It was a profound statement and I could feel my insides tighten and my shoulders stiffen as my thoughts wandered to my own daughters.
We attended all-day classes every Saturday for five weeks at a private agency located in Oak Park, IL, a suburb just west of Chicago. We spent each weekend with the same small group of people going over the ins and outs of foster care in Illinois. Even though the instructors drilled in our heads that the primary goal was return to home, it appeared that every person in the room was willing to and probably hoping for adoption. There were six couples including us and three singles in our class, all from different private agencies. Of the six couples only two of them did not already have children biologically. The Pastor and his wife were the only two who I felt were comfortable with the temporary arrangement of fostering.
On the first day of training we had to go around the room with introductions and a brief statement on why we were there. A couple of the singles who were in attendance had already taken custody of family members who entered the system and they were just completing their required training to keep their nieces/nephews/cousins/grandchildren. It was a single young girl named Raquel who touched me the most. She sat across the table from us with her dark hair pulled back into a pony-tail and she wore hospital scrubs. Raquel was a NICU nurse in the city of Chicago. When it was her turn to talk she took a deep breath and fought back the tears before she even opened her mouth. She went on to explain that she was working one night and a 9 month old little girl was brought in with failure to thrive. She weighed only 12 pounds and her head was flat on one side because she had been lying in the same position for so long, she had brain damage and her prognosis was unknown. Raquel explained that she immediately felt a connection with this baby and after three months of caring for her she knew that this was her daughter. Not one family member had ever even come to see the little girl. Raquel was here to complete her requirements so that she could take the baby home with her. She showed us pictures of the little one’s first birthday celebration in the hospital and you could see the maternal love on her face and hear that parental pride in the way she talked about her soon-to-be daughter. From the pictures it was clear that there were some medical issues, but she was sitting up, smiling and was up to 19 pounds. That was the first time I cried during the training. Raquel became one of my personal hero’s that day.
When it was my turn I spoke with a shaky voice, “my name is Stephanie and this is my husband Daryl. It’s kind of a long story why we’re here and we are still in the decision-making process but to sum it up I think that we are a really loving family and great parents. We have a calm household, we never yell and we have a lot of love to share.” I had to cut myself off before finishing for two reasons. The first one is because my eyes were yet again welling up with tears. The second reason is because I seriously felt like an idiot with the words that just came out of my mouth. Did I really just tell this group of strangers that we never yell? Really, Stephanie – where did that even come from? Of course I raise my voice sometimes and I’m not quite sure what inspired me to make that comment but my husband was all too happy to correct my statement when it was his turn. His response was without shakiness but with a grin, “well, I don’t know what house she lives in because it does occasionally get loud, but we do have a loving family and we have not made our decision yet because to be honest, I have a hard time thinking about caring for and falling in love with a child only to have a Judge tell me I have to return them to a parent that I’m not convinced is ready to care for him or her.” The instructor used this as a catalyst to explain to us how hard this process can be.
Diane, our teacher, was a single woman who was raised in a hostile home environment and knew early on that this was her calling. She was a tall, very strong presence. Not only strong in the way she spoke with the assertive, no-nonsense tone but also in the passion she had for foster children. She ran the private agency that we were training in. I admired her commitment to foster children and realized what a very special person she, as well as anyone who commits their life the way she has, had to be. Diane’s assistant was named Ethel. She was an older, gentle woman who I would describe as a wispy “free spirit,” but others might describe her as a little ditzy. She was clearly a very loving, patient woman and had successfully raised three biological children of her own and fostered several troubled adolescents in her lifetime. Ethel had some hair-raising stories to tell about some of the teens that had been in her home. She told the story of one of the first teenagers she fostered, a 13-year-old girl who had been prostituting herself for at least a year. Instead of telling her not to do it she took a different approach. She encouraged her to love herself more and used every opportunity to teach her self-respect. Instead of telling her what she couldn’t do, she showed her what she could do. Ethel’s persistence and unconditional love for that young girl paid off and she eventually joined the Navy, got married and has a daughter of her own now and they see each other frequently. Another one of her foster-daughters purposefully lit part of the house on fire and when the agency went to remove her from the home Ethel’s response was “no, she stays and we’ll get through it.” When a girl (she only takes females) is placed in her home she sits down with them for a “come to Jesus meeting” where she commits to them and makes them understand that she will, under no circumstances, give up on them. I believed her. She wanted us to understand that these children are broken and every person in their lives either gave up on them or didn’t care enough to fight for them. She could not stress enough to us that these particular children cannot take any more rejection or disappointment and once we commit we have to follow through regardless of the age of the minor. Even though I thought some of her methods were a little unorthodox I did have the greatest amount of respect for her. When we left class that day Daryl turned to me and said “it feels like if these instructors do their job properly they will scare us out of doing this.”
My life was changed during the five weeks we spent in that training. My rose-colored glasses turned a bit gray. I don’t know how anyone can sit in those classes week after week listening to the shocking real lives of these children and come out ever looking at life the same way again. We heard story after story of abuse and neglect and unthinkable conditions that kids live through. We were told about the four-year-olds who hide food under their pillows because they don’t know when their next meal will be. Some children have a garbage bag with all of their belongings in it that they refuse to unpack because they know they’ll be moved soon. The sexual abuse stories were the hardest to listen to. There were many times when the room would just fall silent as we all dropped our heads and soaked in the reality that these helpless little people endured.
The tragedies (that I learned are their reality) scarred my heart in a way that I could never truly describe with words. When I finish a really good book it haunts me for some time, like a cloud looming over me. I compare the obsessions, but instead of a Liane Moriarity novel, it was real life drama that happened to vulnerable little humans that my mind could not, and still has not, escaped. Every life deserves to realize their own potential and be given the same opportunities, regardless the situation they are born into. Diane had so many meaningful things to say, but one that sticks out in my mind is “every child deserves a place to call home and someone to call mom and/or dad and no one should be denied that.”
Daryl and I would drive home in silence with heaviness in our hearts. We live in an established middle-class suburb of Chicago where you can still feel comfortable letting your children walk to the park without fear. I love to turn into our subdivision and see all of the beautiful lush trees, well-manicured lawns, giggling kids taking a break from selling lemonade to run through a sprinkler in their front yard. Now I can’t help but wonder how many innocent children will never know that kind of happiness. My conviction was only growing stronger.
I’m not sure at one point my husband decided that he was “all in,” but I have a feeling he knew all along that we were going to do this. I think that most people who enter into this journey and choose not to commit are just scared. I get it. It’s a frightening thing to think about what you could be inviting into your world. In the end we decided to move forward. We sat down with our daughters and explained to them, with as much detail as we could, what it all meant. Neither one of them had any reservations. I explained to them that I was nervous and excited and ultimately unsure how this would change our lives and if they had any hesitation at all I would respect their feelings. They both continued to stay strong with their support and excitement.
We learned in class to create and have ready at all times a “question list.” When you get a call for a placement you need all of the important issues answered right away. We have the right to say yes or no to any child we are asked to take and we needed to ask the tough questions right then and there, on the phone. We decided that we did not want an older child because Taryn was still only 9 years old and we didn’t know what to expect with whatever trauma an older child had endured. We both work and have no family support in the area so we were torn on the disabilities we could handle. I researched babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome and I knew that these children could come with some severe disabilities and I did not feel that I was mentally strong enough to handle some of the issues that could potentially present. Studies show that drug-addicted babies could lead a normal healthy life after the chemical leaves their system and I was willing to take on that responsibility. Our list of questions was about a half of a page long. We chose to accept a child between the ages of newborn to 5-years-old even though we were told in training that we would be called with any age. Diane also informed us that the caseworkers would not always be honest when answering our questions. She said that they would say anything to find a placement for that child or that they simply didn’t know the answer and so they would make it up. We knew that we would only accept an African-American child. Knowing the struggles that inner-city black men face there was no doubt in our mind of the race. The gender didn’t really make a difference to me but my husband definitely preferred not adding another female and her fluccuating hormones to already unbalanced mix.
We met all of our requirements on July 9th and we received our license on August 31, 2013. Now we just had to wait for the exciting phone call that would forever change the dynamics of our home.
As you can see Judge, the classes were definitely beneficial and covered a lot of ground. I do feel like the instructors were as honest as they could be. The information made me view the world differently. I was able to put life into perspective in a way that I can’t put my finger on and I don’t sweat the small stuff the same way I once did. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten names and numbers of the individuals that we spent those five weekends with because maybe they could have been a support to us.
Fourteen days after we got our license we received our first of four phone calls from the placement department. I’ll tell you all about them next time.
*Names have been changed.