November 1, 2012
As I sit in my car outside the red-brick building downtown Chicago to pick up my new foster son, I draw in some heavy mindful breaths and try to force my shoulders to stay down. The sun is poking out between the clouds and I note how the shelter is located in the middle of a surprisingly residential city block. Looking around at the trash-lined street I can’t help but question if this is really going to happen. This is our fourth placement call in two months and I have no faith that anyone at our private agency knows what they’re talking about. Yet here I am feeling excitement, fear, shock and a tremendous amount of anxiety.
Our first call came on a typical Tuesday evening, September 4th. Daryl was mowing the lawn and the girls and I were in the kitchen making dinner and talking when the phone rang. It was Lana, the licensing worker from our agency. All I remember hearing was “Mrs. Davis, we have a placement for you.” My heart started to triple beat. “She is 9 months old and her name is Mia.” My mind went blank and I couldn’t remember where my list was or any of the questions I had written on it. I started shooting the inquiries that I could remember out like rapid fire… Is she healthy? Is she drug addicted? Where are her parents? Is she African-American? Did you say “she?”
Parental rights were already terminated in this case because mom had severe mental illness and had signed away her rights. Mia needed to be moved the very next day so they required an answer immediately. Obviously, I needed to discuss with Daryl so I got her call back information and my husband and I had the conversation right as he turned the mower off while we stood overlooking our freshly manicured lawn.
Daryl heard the word female and stopped short. He did take some time to consider it, but in the end could not commit to another girl in the house permanently. He was looking forward to the possibility of having someone to take fishing and golfing because his daughters had literally NO interest in anything sporty or outdoorsy. I completely understood his perspective and only allowed myself to be disappointed for a short time.
I think about where Mia might be sometimes and pray that she has found a loving stable home.
Our next call came in exactly one week after the first one. I answered the phone in the middle of sorting laundry and heard Lana’s voice once again. She went on to tell me about Jason, a 4-year-old boy whose mother was currently in a halfway house and had been in and out of rehab, and most recently jail, since he was an infant. Jason was currently living with his grandmother. Before that he was with his mother’s boyfriend and had called him “dad” since he was a toddler. When I asked why he was being removed from grandmother’s home, all I got was “it is not a safe environment for him.” When I asked why he was removed from his pseudo-stepdad, Lana informed me that the mother did not want him there and he had no legal right to him. I was told that the little boy was healthy but did have some behavioral problems that included aggressive tantrums, running and acting out. Lana set up a visitation for that very afternoon.
Butterflies made themselves comfortable in my stomach the entire morning and I can’t even explain the thoughts that occupied my mind. I would describe them as somewhere between excited like anticipating Christmas and terrified like waiting to see if your toothache is going to end in a root canal. They were two hours late so Ravyn and Taryn were home from school when Jason, his case worker Ms. Jakes and his social worker Susan arrived.
He marched up to our front door like he had been here several times and walked straight into the living room without hesitation. He was a very handsome child with dark chocolate skin, perfectly-round brown eyes and a newly shaved head. He was dressed impeccably with his shirt appearing pressed and his Adidas gym shoes without a scuff. I did not expect him to look so well cared for. The girls greeted him and they went into the back yard to enjoy the sunny day. He followed after Ravyn and Taryn like he had known them his entire life. He was racing from one end of the yard to the other with Daryl and my daughters chasing after him laughing while getting familiar with each other. I sat on our patio with Ms. Jakes and Susan to gather as much information as I could. They both agreed that this case would more than likely end in adoption because bio-mom could not keep it together.
From what I gathered from the women, Jason’s mother was angry because her ex-boyfriend would not let her see their biological son who was just under a year old, and to get back at him she said she did not want Jason living with him. They both agreed that this was tragic because the boyfriend was actually a stand-up man and dad. Again when I asked why Jason could not remain with his grandmother I was not given a straight answer, all I got was “she is not compliant with the agency and is defiant against our wishes.”
Susan has been Jason’s social worker for a few months and said that he is a bright and kind child who has been torn away from the only form of stability he has ever known and because of that he was having some behavioral problems at school. She went on to say that all Jason needed was a stable family with a strong male role model, he didn’t know what a normal family environment was. He has never been in a house where dinner is prepared and then eaten together or any family activities were enjoyed. I did scratch my head as to why this is sufficient reason for removal from family, but didn’t know enough to speak up.
I excused myself from the adults and joined my family in the yard for some play time and by the time we were done interacting with Jason, both Daryl and I agreed to move forward with the placement. After just three short hours at our house it was time for them to leave and we got to witness one of those tantrums when Jason did not want to leave yet. My husband gently persuaded him to head to the car and promised him we would see him on Thursday for an all-day visit. We had arranged for Ms. Jakes to drop him off at our office in Oak Park at 10 am and we would have him unsupervised for the entire day.
After the trio left our house the four of us had dinner together and talked about funny things that Jason said and did and what this would mean for our family. We were all excited for Thursday to come.
“Jason all day”
Ms. Jakes dropped Jason off at our chiropractic office in Oak Park on Thursday morning. Again, he approached our office like he owned the place. He was very confident and curious about all of the tables and buttons and was non-stop from one thing to another. After his curiosity was satisfied there we went to Portillo’s for a hot dog and fries. I had a small dump truck that I gave him and he was so excited, it did not leave his side the entire day. His nonstop questions reminded me of when the girls were four-years-old and I was enjoying his energy and interest as I answered them. He wanted to know “where are those girls that I played with,” and “when are we going to go back to your house?” and “can I spend the night with you?” and “can I ride the bike that I rode last time?“ Then he would switch gears to “what was that noise?” and “have I ever been on this road before?” and “why is your car so big?” He made me both my face and my heart smile with his excitement.
Once again, I was surprised at how he did not appear to be “uncared” for. He took his shoes off before coming into the house, he said please and thank you whenever necessary, he washed his hands after using the washroom and again, he was sharply dressed with his nails clipped and his ears clean. I was still perplexed why he was being removed from his grandmother’s care and felt unsettled with the dodged answers I was getting.
We picked up Ravyn and Taryn from school and his excitement stepped up a notch. He carried that dump truck under his arm in the car seat, to the back yard, to the bathroom and everywhere else we went.
By the time we met up with Ms. Jakes at Noodles and Company that evening, Jason was exhausted and clearly should have had a nap. When he noticed the case worker at the restaurant he turned to us and started to cry “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I want to stay with you.” He responded very well to Daryl instructing him to calm down and eat his macaroni and cheese. We got through dinner with the girls entertaining him and then it was time to go. My husband carried him to the car while he cried hysterically, kicking and holding his little hands out to me. We had only been together for a combined 12 hours but it was heartbreaking to see him so sad. I handed him the dump truck, gave him a kiss on the forehead and they drove away with him still sobbing. When Ms. Jakes dropped him off that night, his grandma would not let him keep his dump truck.
“Jason Custody attempt 1”
We were supposed become Jason’s official foster parents on Tuesday September 20th. The few times I got to speak to him on the phone he was like a broken record, “when do I get to come back to your house?” and “can I stay there all night?” All I could tell him is that we were working on it.
Ms. Jakes was going to be at our house at 10 am and when I hadn’t heard from her at noon I knew something was up. She finally called early afternoon and informed us that Jason’s grandmother had filed an appeal and they had to leave Jason where he was until an informal hearing was held. The meeting was scheduled for Friday at the agency so all we could do was wait and see what transpired.
“Jason custody attempt 2”
It was determined in the meeting that it was indeed in Jason’s best interest to be removed from his grandmother’s home and we would have him with us on Wednesday September 26th. This time when I presented the question about why he was being removed I got, “grandma uses corporal punishment and does not abide by the agency rules.” Not fully sure what “corporal punishment” meant, I looked it up. The meaning reads “physical punishment, such as caning or flogging.” There were a few other definitions that came up with my search, but they all indicated beating and I just didn’t see that in Jason, but then again I hadn’t spent that much time with him.
We were ready. I had batman sheets on the bed, bought some Lego’s and had a few other items donated to us from a close friend. Ms. Jakes was going to pick Jason up from his grandmother around 10 am and bring him directly to our house. My patience started growing thin when it was 2:00 in the afternoon and I had not heard from anyone. I finally called the case worker and she sounded angry when she sharply explained,”when I arrived to pick Jason up no one was there and he’s not at day care today. I will have to call you back when I figure it all out .”
I don’t really know what actually transpired, but what I did understand was that grandma’s attorney filed another type of suit to get in front of a Judge and court date was set for October 25th. She was going to fight for her grandson. In the end I wanted what was best for Jason and if it was his grandmother, then so be it. This was the first time I felt how powerless you are as a foster parent and I didn’t even have a child in my home yet.
“Jason’s court date”
On court day we got a call rather early telling us that the Judge had decided that Jason would remain with his grandmother. Case closed. Nothing further was divulged to me, despite my attempts. Now we were back on the list to get another placement.
When my phone rang just two hours later I was a little less on edge and answered it with no expectations. All I heard on the other end was Jason’s little voice and I could barely make out what he was saying. In between each word he would gasp for breath through his sobbing, “I *breath* want *breath* to *breath* come *breath* to *breath *your * breath* house!” My mind went into overdrive. I asked to speak to Ms. Jakes and that is when a voice I have never heard before took the phone. “Mrs. Davis, my name is Ms. Williams and I am the agency aid for Jason and he has not stopped crying since he got into my car because he wanted to talk to you.” I still don’t know how she got my phone number but I was immediately enraged. I had no idea what Jason knew, who he had talked to or what I was supposed to say. I could only come to the conclusion that Ms. Williams didn’t know what happened in court because otherwise it was just cruel to let him call me. Haven’t we done enough damage to this little guy? I was so angry I could feel my neck muscles begin to tighten but I had to push it back and handle the sobbing baby that I was listening to on the other end of the phone. I instructed the incompetent woman to pass the phone back to Jason and when I opened my mouth I truly had no idea what was going to come out. Somehow I managed to say “Jason sweetheart you need to take a deep breath and just breathe with me for a minute and then we can talk after you calm down, okay?” I was buying time to figure out what to do. I didn’t hear a response, just sobs. “Listen Jason, remember when I told you that everything was going to be okay? I meant that, and no matter what happens you are going to be okay, do you understand that buddy?” His cries calmed just a little and he said “but when do I get to come to your house to live?” I’m guessing a case worker told him that he was going to live with us because we never discussed that topic. I knew I had to respond, I am clearly the only level-headed adult present right now and I didn’t want to lie because I had no idea what he understood or knew. I just tried to dodge the question and comfort him. I fought through the tears that were forming in my eyes, the dry mouth I suddenly had, and while starting to clear the lump in my throat I said “I don’t know what’s going to happen Jason but I know that you are a very special little man and you are going to be okay. I have a picture of you here at our house and you were smiling so big and bright, I want you to smile for me right now so I can hear how handsome you are okay?” That was when he threw the phone. I sat where I was on the couch in my living room holding the phone for the next hour trying to comprehend this remarkable little boy’s story. I couldn’t.
That was the last contact I had with Jason. In my heart I know that he is okay. I don’t know that he has the stability of a family like ours but I know that his grandmother loves him enough to fight for him and hopefully she can give him the care and guidance he needs to sort through this crazy-ass world.
“Terrence and Jay”
It was just four days later and we barely had enough time to process the fact that Jason wasn’t going to be placed with us when we got our third call. The girls just got home from school and we were doing homework and figuring out what was for dinner when Lana called again. Terrence was his name and he had been with the same foster family for the full 2-years of his life. They were ready to terminate parental rights and he was to be adopted; however, the family he was with did not do the required upkeep of their license and they were no longer foster parents in the state of Illinois according to the law. He was healthy and had no behavioral problems. After taking a deep breath and asking a few more questions I realized that they wanted to drop him off in three hours… FROM NOW. I will never understand how people transition their minds from a normal, ho-hum day to “okay, here is your family.” After talking to Daryl and telling the girls, we quickly started to prepare to have, among other things, a Taryn and a Terrence in the same house. I had asked a friend to run to Target for me and get some diapers, a car seat and a few essentials for a toddler. The time he was supposed to be here came and went with no phone call. The agency was closed so there was no one for me to call, so we waited… again!
At 6:00 pm we received a phone call from a case worker named Ash and my heart sunk AGAIN. “Mrs. Davis, I’m so sorry to do this to you but we are moving things around to allow Terrence to remain where he is, but we do have a 6-day-old baby that needs placed right away. His name is Jay and he is at the shelter waiting for a home.” I put my hand to my forehead and tried to process what she was saying as my friend pulled in the driveway with all of the supplies for a 2-year-old named Terrence. All I could do was laugh and say “what?” The absurdity of the whole situation was almost too much for me to handle at that moment. Ash went on to explain that they wanted to place him in the next couple of days and she would call me in the morning with more details.
I am speechless.
It was 9:00 am on Halloween eve when Ash called me back. I had already discussed the situation with Daryl and even though we were not anticipating a newborn, we were as ready as we were going to be. His name was Jay and he had five siblings. The agency had found homes for the four oldest children but were looking for someone to take on the newborn and his brother who was 18 months old. Ash went on to explain that they would like to keep the boys together if possible and there was one other family they were talking to, but she wanted to see if we would take them both first. Both boys were reportedly healthy and were removed from the home due to “neglect and child endangerment,” and she did not have much information beyond that.
My mind was whirling yet again. Daryl and I both agreed that two would be too much right now. We were short-handed at the office and I was putting in a lot more time there, and we just didn’t have the room for two. I called her back and told her that we could only take one. When she asked me which one, I responded that it didn’t matter to us. The agency was going to give it another day to see if she could keep the boys together and she would call me tomorrow with the outcome. We found ourselves waiting again.
I was starting to expect craziness when I answered the phone, so when it rang early evening that same day I braced myself. It was Ash again and she sighed, “Okay, the other family is going to take Jay and you will take the newborn, Malachi.” Uh…. Who? This was the first time I heard that name at all. Shockingly, the agency had mixed up the brothers. And so it was settled, we would pick up 8-day-old Malachi from a shelter downtown Chicago the day after tomorrow.
Judge, the only word that comes to mind for you this week is “WOW.” I do understand that there is a sense of urgency that comes with placing a child that has been removed from their home and that confusion can come with that. However, I feel like everything about the process in our case was whimsical and uncertain, and that is disturbing when you’re dealing with the lives of so many people. This was an important story for you to read because there is so much that happens later that makes the nonsense of this first three months more relative.
With the roll of her eyes, a shake of her head and a tsk of her teeth, a caseworker from our agency recently confided in me that Jason ended up going home with his mother after she was released from the halfway house. She didn’t have any information beyond that. Not that my opinion matters, but I think that Jason’s grandmother didn’t appreciate some foster agency in her family business. I would bet that she fought them on all of the ridiculous requirements she was being asked to do when it came to raising her own grandson. I will never be able to wrap my brain around how 4-year-old Jason got caught up in the middle of such ridiculous drama. Why was it allowed to go that far?
In my next letter you get to hear about when we picked up our little man Malachi. One of the best things to ever happen in our lives.
*Names have been changed.