Chaper 17 – Happy First Birthday

Dear Judge,

I don’t know if it’s how I was born or the result of my life’s journey, but I am always preparing for the worst case scenario so I can be fully ready for anything that comes my way. There are many issues that accompany that characteristic, but one of the biggest is the anxiety and worry that something is going to go wrong at any time. So, when I start obsessing over something, I have to remember this trait, and balance what I think “might” be happening with what could be a non-issue. Not the greatest quality for a foster parent. When Malachi started exhibiting behaviors that were foreign to me, it was hard for me to accept that it was “normal” for a boy to behave that way. However, it could be the case, right?

“One-year developmental appointment”

I would get notices every quarter from the Department of Children and Family Services that there was a scheduled “case review.” Basically, this appointment was a “check-up” for our private agency. The case worker would bring absolutely every shred of documentation she had on the case and prove that they were doing everything they were supposed to do regarding Malachi and his siblings. Foster parents were always invited, but the case worker encouraged us not to attend, because with a case involving six children it could run up to four hours, and it was really boring information. Ms. Persons went to the first one because she was unhappy that Angela and Tameka had to spend so much time at a dirty McDonald’s with Bio-Mom’s visits. She said it was a waste of a day off. They did recognize her concern and said the visits would be moved to a new location, but they never were. As soon as I got that notice in the mail I knew the barrage of phone calls would start coming in from our case worker asking for shot records, doctor appointment records, dental forms (yes, I had to take him to the dentist with only four teeth in his mouth), medication logs and “developmental screening appointments.”

When Malachi was about 5-months-old, I was informed that he needed quarterly “developmental appointments” with DCFS and he was, at that time, two months behind. I got an email from DCFS indicating the time and date of Malachi’s appointment. The email did not ask me if the time was okay, it was merely confirming the date and time that I was expected to show up. Fortunately, I was able to accommodate the appointment.

The thirty minute drive downtown was not a problem, but the parking situation did raise my blood pressure. I can parallel park, but I don’t like to, and I certainly couldn’t squeeze into the spots that were available. I ended up parking in the lot that was designated DCFS, but it was just as stressful as street parking. It was less like a parking lot and more like a small dirt field surrounded by a chain-link fence with a very small entrance and exit. There were no designated spaces and it appeared that the cars were parked in a zig-zag pattern. I couldn’t tell where I was supposed to drive, let alone leave my car. I finally chose a spot as close to the exit as possible and hoped that I wasn’t blocking anyone in.

The facility was located on a picturesque street with more mature trees than you would expect for downtown Chicago. There was a bright-green, grassy median down the center of the entire block with a small fence surrounding it. The beauty was instantly gone the minute I was buzzed in through the double doors. The smell of old urine hit my nose and I made a conscious effort to breathe out of my mouth right away. There was uniformed police officer to my left seated at a little card table and straight ahead was a reception area that was shielded by a thick layer of glass. There were parental rights and child advocacy posters randomly hanging on the dismal white walls. Rather than take the risk of the woman with the gun telling me I was going in the wrong direction, I chose to turn left toward the police officer only to have her guide me to the reception window. After signing in, I pushed the stroller to the waiting area that contained a few stand-alone fabric chairs and two black leather couches. On the first visit I sat next to a couple of older social workers catching up on some work gossip, and they instantly shifted their focus to my cute little man. One of them asked to hold him and with a high-pitched grandma voice said, “Oh my goodness what a precious baby, and he is smiling and alert, are you the foster mom? You are doing such a great job, we don’t see too many babies coming in like this.” The comment struck me as odd, but I accepted the compliment as we were called back to the long corridor leading to the meeting room.

The girl we met with was named Bridget and she appeared very young.  She had dark hair with clear green eyes and skin as white as the walls. Her demeanor was very soft spoken but confident and graceful. She chose her words carefully and was slow and deliberate with her delivery. The small room we were escorted into was jam-packed. Along the wall immediately to the right were a line of folding chairs, the back wall contained a kid’s kitchen play-set, a folded mat, two overflowing toy boxes, a play baby crib and high chair. The wall on the left contained two book shelves with games, puzzles and bins full of blocks and other educational toys. Finally, directly to my left was an over-full desk like the one my eighth grade teacher had, taking up the entire length of the wall. In the middle of the room was a kids table and chairs. There was no room for the stroller so I had to leave it in the hallway. I sat down in one of the folding chairs with Malachi on my lap and waited for instruction. The majority of the first visit was spent talking about my little man and his likes and dislikes, watching him smile and assessing his strength. I felt like she was observing my interaction with him. When she asked me if I had any concerns, I mentioned the fact that he did not sleep well at all and had a very difficult time soothing himself. I told her that from the time we brought him home, his body was almost always stiff. He wasn’t that newborn that was comfortable curling up on your chest for long periods of time. It took effort to make him relax. I mentioned that Daryl and I were not convinced that he was not exposed to some drug in utero. I informed Bridget that this is something I bring up on a regular basis to our case worker. She made her notes and said we would just watch this behavior as he grew.

The next two visits went pretty much the same way. Each time Bridget confirmed for me that cognitively and physically, he was developing in the upper percentile of his peers, and I would let out a sigh of relief. She was always impressed with his strength and agility. She would observe him throwing a ball, picking up a small object, and a few other small tasks. Bridget liked for me to get involved as much as possible, so I would build blocks with Malachi, play peek-a-boo and do a small puzzle. She asked questions the entire time we played and learned that he loved to be outside, to read books, but still did not know how to calm himself down or put himself to sleep. As he grew, his behavior became more intense. It was as if every emotion he was feeling was met with such a zest that he couldn’t contain himself. If Malachi was happy, he was emoting that with 110% energy. If he was hurt or angry, it was met with that same intensity, only louder. His temper was so explosive for such a little person. It would typically happen when he didn’t get his way, which was normal, but he would sometimes scream, shake and cry for an hour or more for no visible reason. She asked me if I was overly concerned about the behavior and I indicated that I was; however, most people assured me that I was dealing with typical “boy” behavior and I just wasn’t used to that because I had raised two girls. Ms. Theresa, Malachi’s babysitter, had raised three boys and she did her best to reassure me that his behavior would get better, and it was just that “XY” chromosome factor. But then again, even she would shake her head sometimes with his temper. Bridget always took notes but never said much beyond the fact that he was developing normally. I always felt like she was observing me as well and would ask questions about Bio-Mom and Bio-Dad, the visits and the process. I wasn’t sure if she was just being friendly or if it was part of the appointment, and I always kept my guard up when talking with her.

Toward the end of our fourth appointment, Bridget handed me a clipboard with a questionnaire on it and seemed embarrassed when she asked me to fill it out.  She apologized and said that it was a new DCFS policy and all foster parents with children under the age of five had to complete it. When I started reading through the invasive form, I understood why she hesitated. The questions were fair enough, but the way they were worded was so negative and aggressive that I felt uncomfortable even reading them. I can’t remember them all, but a few were worded something like this:

“I often get angry and resentful because my life has changed so much after my foster child came”

“I feel distraught and alone when I can’t get my foster child to stop crying”

“I often feel like my foster child hates me”

“I often want to hit my foster child when they misbehave”

“I am depressed and regret the decision to become a foster parent”

Then I was instructed to check a box that said “always, never, sometimes, or I don’t know.” There were two pages of questions and not one of them said “I love my foster child” or “my foster child has enhanced my life.” There was NOTHING positive on that paper.  I wanted to discuss it with Bridget but chose to remain silent and check “NEVER” for every question.

Of course there were certain days when I wondered what in the world I was thinking when I jumped on that DCFS-crazy train, but not because of Malachi himself. I mean, he was challenging at times, but he was my son and I love him. It was the system, the way it was structured, and the way I was treated that I got so frustrated with, not caring for my son. But there were no questions about that, only negatively worded statements that, to me, were looking for someone with hate in their heart for their foster child.

I drove home obsessing over the questionnaire. It was so hard to piece together the puzzle that was the foster system. There were so many moving parts, but none of them were communicating with each other effectively. I was curious as to what someone was trying to accomplish with those questions. If they were trying to piss off a foster parent or two, they accomplished their goal. Of all of the things that needed to get changed within the system, and they chose to pay someone to come up with a questionnaire like that. Just another frustrating moment.

“Turning One”

As I sat going over the checklist for Malachi’s first birthday party, I allowed myself a few minutes to ponder how much the last year had changed our lives. There were the obvious ways that included lack of sleep, busier schedules, fewer dinners out and no more last minute excursions. Then there was the state of Illinois and our private agency stressors that were just too many to even articulate. But what I wanted to focus on was the fact that this little man changed our lives for the better in so many ways. His smile could lighten up our moods and his laughter was the best medicine ever. He had such a massive and exciting personality for such a little person, and we took great joy in watching it evolve every day. It didn’t matter what emotion he was displaying, it was abundantly clear how he was feeling. I did not think that we were “missing a piece” in our lives before him, and I really try to stay clear of cliché sayings, but it really did fit to say that he completed our family. He challenged us in ways that made us stronger as a unit, and he showed us happiness that brought us together on another level.

Malachi’s first birthday party/sibling visit was a success. Marco was there with Justin and Edward, but he didn’t drive himself, which was curious to me. He rode along with Tim, the agency aid who transported the boys. Marco greeted me with his backwards left hand “shake” and his soft whisper “Hello Stephanie.” What stopped me in my tracks this time was his jacket. My 9-year-old daughter had the same exact one. I know, because I bought it at the girl’s clothing store “Justice” just months prior. It was a pink and green floral-patterned, zip-up hoodie that fit his larger frame a bit snug. Marco and Tim sat alone the entire visit and didn’t really communicate with anyone. Kena brought Angela and Tameka because Ms. Persons wasn’t comfortable driving outside the city, but when she asked a few months prior if she could ride along with the transporter, she was told it was against the rules. Cheryl and Darrin were there with Jay and Josie, and about 15 minutes in, Cheryl whispered in my ear, “Tomorrow we discuss the fact that Marco is here with the transporter and whether we tell Ms. Persons, and more importantly, what in the world he was thinking when he bought that jacket.”

The party itself went very smoothly. We had Mickey Mouse cakes, hats, music and even an appearance from the big mouse himself. Malachi had always been consistent with the fact that the more chaotic his surroundings were, the calmer he was. He wasn’t sure what to think of the life-size version of his favorite character trying to give him a high-five, but quickly warmed up. Luckily the weather held out and the kids were able to decorate pumpkins outside and run around the back yard.

Two weeks prior to Malachi’s first birthday, Bio-Mom showed up to the visit with a chocolate-chip cookie and size 2T, used underwear in a Jewel bag for him. Taryn was with me that week and got to meet Bio-Mom in the flesh. It was interesting to watch them interact with each other because Bio-Mom was actually comfortable and confident when talking with my 9-year-old daughter. Somehow, Taryn’s presence put her at ease and we ended up having a nice visit as we sang happy birthday to Malachi and exchanged pleasantries without any tension. Before she left, Bio-Mom reached deep into one of her bags and pulled out a card with no envelope for Malachi and said “you can read it if you want to.” Pictured on the front of the card was a chunky baby with puckered lips, a scrunched up face and a party hat on, but when I opened the inside, all that was there was the pre-printed “happy birthday.” I handed her a pen and asked her if she wanted to sign it. She sat down and wrote “I love you son, we will be together soon. Mom.”

“Next Time”

I have such strong feelings about the way the foster-care system is run and how jaded the people in it are; however, I find myself becoming increasingly more negative and defensive, and less flexible and caring. I love my son and what he has brought to our family and I wouldn’t change my decision, but I feel like I’m starting to lose my ability to understand or care where someone else is coming from. It’s so hard when your feelings are so exposed and vulnerable. I’ll tell you about more frustrations next time.

*Names have been changed