Chapter 10 – Meet the Siblings

December 2012

Dear Judge,

Silence has never felt as good as it did after our first sibling visit was over. I sat on the couch with a sleeping Malachi nestled on my chest. It was so loud in my house the preceding hours that there was a constant buzz in my ears. If I wasn’t already exhausted enough, the activities of the day pushed me over the edge and very few things in this world could have forced me to move my body at that moment. It felt as if my insides were made of wet sand and I just formed into the shape of the furniture I was occupying. My thoughts are solely on Bio-Mom and how in the world she would be able to handle what three adults and a teenager had a hard time managing today. I remember the binder and how her house was found in disarray and I can see, as a person without any diagnosed mental illness, how difficult it would be to deal with all six of these children and have time to do anything other than “put out fires.” I automatically assumed that after today, you as our Judge, would have a full report of how hard these particular kids are to supervise when they are together. Couple that with the documentation of how poorly Bio-Mom handles Malachi alone, and you would have no choice but to declare it catastrophic to return them back to a woman with so many challenges already. I was entirely too drained to feel happy about my new-found revelation and I was definitely too weak to feel pity on Bio-Mom right now. The only thing I felt was depleted.

I have put a lot of thought into how to explain our current familial situation to Malachi as he grows. My parenting style with my girls has always been honesty first, even when it’s a difficult subject. The hard part is determining how much their growing-brains can truly comprehend without adding unnecessary stress and confusion, and then working around that. Daryl and I decided that, for now, we would just call it like it was and see how it evolved. He would know that he has four sisters including Ravyn and Taryn and three brothers, and we would address evolving questions as they presented. If we don’t make it a big deal then it’s not a big deal, right? I want Malachi to always know who his siblings are and to be completely comfortable and confident with what is our normal.

“Sibling Visit”

The first sibling visit was scheduled at my house. It had to be four hours long and would be a Christmas party. I knew that Nina was going to escort the four oldest children and Jay would be transported by his foster-mother Cheryl. I planned on ordering pizza and playing games but had no idea what to expect, as four hours is a long time. None of the kids had ever lived with Malachi so there was no bond there, but when I learned from Nina that the children had not seen each other in two months I felt sad and excited to witness their reunion. Ravyn and Taryn would be there to help and Cheryl would be bringing her daughter Josie, who was the same age as Jay.

Nina arrived first with the oldest kids and courtesy of the binder, I was able to greet them all by name as they walked through the door. They were all beautiful children and appeared cared for and friendly, hugging me as I said hello. Edward and Justin were dressed in matching outfits including their coats and hats and were fairly quiet as they handed their coats to Ravyn after my welcome. Tameka was dressed in all pink down to the barrettes that held her freshly braided hair in place. She busted through the door with excitement looking and asking for her mom. Nina quickly corrected her and said “you’ll see your mom later today Tameka.” She explained to me that there was a scheduled visit at Bio-Mom’s apartment later in the day for the oldest four. Angela is the oldest and I knew that she had autism so I hesitated to go in for the hug not knowing if she would be responsive to that kind of gesture.  But she surprised me with the biggest embrace of all and a very enthusiastic “I love you.” After dropping her coat right where she took it off, she sashayed into the living room belting out a Beyonce song while waving one hand in the air with the other one on her tilted hip like she was accepting a standing ovation at Chicago Theatre. It was clear to me right away that there was more than autism going on with Angela, but she made me smile and melted my heart… and later stole my daughter’s iPod.

I tried to gain control from the beginning by introducing them to their little brother but the chaos was instant. They all four spoke at the same time with high-pitched excitement. Without breaking stride, one or more of them would be asking multiple questions at once, “Do we get a present today?” “Is there food?” “What are we going to eat?” “Do you have dolls?” “Can we turn the TV on?”

Malachi loved it. He thrived on noise and the louder it was, the more calm he was. I put him in his swing and for the first time in almost two months, he just laid there quietly with wide eyes taking in his surroundings. None of the kids were interested in him and Angela was actually afraid of him. She would start to inch toward the swing and when she got about three feet away she would retreat with a scream, “he’s looking at me.” When we took a family picture we had to position her away from him.

The one thing all of them were consistent and loud about was where Jay was. They could not wait for their little brother to arrive. Justin was the most excited to see him and literally paced in front of the window and with every car that drove by he would screech “he’s here.” He arrived about a half hour later and everyone except Angela met him at the door, nearly knocking him down with their hugs and greeting squeals. My favorite memory of the day was Tameka repeating, “these are my brudders, these are my brudders” as she grinned from ear to ear. Jay looked like a different child than the one we saw in the shelter. His hair was cut clean and he had clothes on. It made him look so much older. He looked happier too, he had a glow about him. Josie is his foster-sister’s name and she was just as cute as he was with her little pony tails and jeans on. They both looked too tiny and frail to be walking but they entered my home in sync looking like a baby gap commercial. Jay was apprehensive with all of the attention and when Cheryl had to rush back to the car for the diaper bag he stood at the door crying until she got back.

The pizza arrived shortly after the kids were all there and while Nina and Cheryl settled who was sitting where, Ravyn and I placed pizza on plates to deliver to each child. The noise level seemed to go up and the pandemonium continued with everyone talking at once. Just when one request was granted another one was being demanded, “I want another one,” “I don’t like apple juice,” “Jacob just said something mean to me,” “I want to sit by Jay,” and “can I have one of those cookies?” The frenzy of activity was a lot to soak in.

We live in a split level home with an open layout on the first level with the kitchen, dining room, living room and foyer area forming a circle around a center wall. There are stairs going up to bedrooms and bathrooms and stairs going down to family room and bathroom. I was thankful for the first time that I did not have a big house because Angela kept disappearing and we didn’t have to look far to find her. She was very stealth with her sneaking off and we found her each time either downstairs trying to turn the television on to watch “Chuckie the doll” or in Ravyn’s room putting music on the iPod. I would gently remind her that she was there to see her brothers and we needed to go back to the party. Each time she met me with a sigh of disapproval followed by a loud “hmph,” and then she would follow me back to the main level.

Cheryl and I had a chance to finally talk when Nina and Ravyn engaged the kids in a game and some presents. I knew right away that we were going to get along well. She is one of those people who you can’t help but feel comfortable around because of her confidence, her honesty and her laugh. She has the greatest laugh. Cheryl works out of the house full-time so Jay is picked up by an agency aid for Bio-Mom visits. They take him from day care and back so she doesn’t know anything that goes on in those hours. The aid idea was appealing to me for about 2.5 seconds. I would rather deal with the torture of watching Bio-Mom fumble with my son than deal with the misery of what my control-freak mind would make up. When Cheryl and her husband were called to take the placement for Jay she was told a completely different story than I was. They asked her to take both boys just like they requested of us, but they told her that the baby DID have drugs in his system. They also told her that the kids would be up for adoption right away, that Bio-Mom’s rights would be terminated as soon as possible.  She did not start out on this journey to be a “foster parent.”  She wanted only to adopt so this was the first placement she said yes to in four years. These kids are clearly not up for adoption yet and would not be for some time. Cheryl was not happy about this at all.  She was lied to from the beginning and did not trust anything that anyone told her.

The kids got along for the most part, minus a few arguments here and there. Edward was fairly quiet but spoke up when he needed to. Justin was loud and very emotional, he cried more than the rest of them combined, and he never sat still. Tameka just turned five-years-old in October but did not know her colors, numbers or letters yet. She was so sweet and would call all three of the adults in the room “mom” when she needed something. We would correct her with our names every time, but she just ignored us and kept on. There was a clear disconnect between Angela and the rest of the children. After her original excitement to see Jay, she didn’t interact with any of them. She only wanted to sing loudly, listen to Ravyn’s iPod and color. She also loved to eat. Every time I looked at her she had some sort of food in her mouth and if we told her “no, that’s enough,” she would wait until we weren’t looking and sneak something else.  She was in my cabinets and refrigerator and at one point ate someone’s pizza crust off of their plate.  None of the children paid any attention to Malachi. I tried to explain that this was the baby that was in their mom’s tummy but they just didn’t get it or they didn’t care. They couldn’t miss him because they’ve never been around him.

The four-hour visit ended one hour early because it was just too long for that many people in my little house. Before she left Cheryl handed me a picture of Malachi and asked if I knew where it came from. The glossy picture was obviously torn out of the Shutterfly book I made for Bio-Mom. It was a picture of my son in our office during the first visit with her. She gave it to 18-month-old Jay as a gift. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. My knee-jerk reaction was to be angry because I gave her that book as a gift. After taking a breath I wondered if, in her juvenile mind, Bio-Mom was attempting to keep the boys together with the gesture. Cheryl and I exchanged phone numbers so that we could continue to commiserate on what is happening with our case and our boys.

When everyone was gone and I sat on the couch to compose myself Ravyn came down the stairs with a distressed look and told me that Angela stole her iPod. Of course immediately I assumed she had just misplaced it and lectured her on blaming someone else, but she was certain. She said that the few times Angela was in her room she kept touching it and then she would look around to see if Ravyn was paying attention. After helping her look for a few minutes I decided to contact Nina before she dropped the girls off. I was hopeful that she would answer her phone but not expecting it because she never does.  She surprised me when she picked up on the second ring. I explained to her our concern and since she hadn’t dropped the girls off yet she immediately asked her, “Angela, did you take an iPod out of Ravyn’s room?” Angela responded with a confident “yes, I did.”  Nina promised to take it from her and get it to me at our next home visit.

“Henry”

After my excellent detective skills helped me locate Malachi’s appointed attorney, I was pleasantly surprised when he actually picked up the phone with “Public Guardian’s office, this is Henry.” The first time I called him was to just to touch base. I was lucky enough to be introduced to a few foster moms who had great advice for me and each of them said that I need to form a relationship with the GAL (Guardian ad Litem). The agency is there to facilitate visits, services and monitoring; but their primary goal is to prove to the Judge that they are doing everything they can to reunite the family. The GAL is there to advocate for the kids and their primary objective is in the child’s best interest.

Henry was almost robotic and very formal when he spoke. His tone was dry and never changed. I felt as if he were reading a cue card a lot of the time. Almost directly after my introduction he went on to explain the process, “well Mrs. Davis what will happen is there will be a trial date for adjudication and that is when the clock starts ticking and Bio-Mom will have 9 months, blah, blah, blah.” I actually already knew all of the process and even though I appreciated the sentiment behind his explanation it was annoying and hard to sit through. I felt like I was back in school with the most boring teacher there. After he explained to me why I should not supervise the visits he said he would put a call in to the case worker to make sure they provided a proper aid for the job. Before we hung up the phone he added that someone from his office would be contacting each foster family to set up a home visit to meet the children and go over the case.

“Next Time”

With my new-found revelation that there is no way on earth that anyone in their right mind would grant Bio-Mom custody, I started to exhale and relax a little. I decided I would be patient and wait for our adjudication trial and then start counting down the nine months until we could change the goal. Oh how naïve I was back then.

Next time I will tell you about how I, Malachi’s mother, listened to my intuition and how important it was. Biology didn’t matter, my baby needed me and I knew it, despite what any expert had to say.

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*Names have been changed

Chapter 9 – Visits & Doctor

December 2012

Dear Judge,

Before Nina abandoned me at the DCFS clinic for Malachi’s exam, she made sure we established a set weekly visit with Bio-Mom. They were going to be at our office in Oak Park at 9 am every Thursday morning. All I knew was that the visits were supposed to be at least an hour long and I was going to supervise. The night before our first one, as I was displaying definitive signs of type-A personality by making lists, preparing for the worst and planning every single detail, I realized that I had no idea how to document anything. What does it actually mean to “supervise” a visit? My case worker didn’t tell me if there was a form or even what to look for. I quickly add to my list “call Nina first thing,” but I knew she wouldn’t answer, and was confident that her voice mail would be full because it has been for weeks. It’s frustrating to know that I have rules to abide by, but no one telling me what they are. There were a few pressing issues I needed to speak to her about. The first one was day care. I had no choice but to return to work and it wasn’t as easy as I anticipated to do that from home with such a demanding newborn. I needed to get through the formalities that allowed me to consent to DCFS guidelines with child care. My maternal instinct was also telling me that something was up with Malachi’s health and I did make a doctor appointment for directly after Bio-Mom’s visit, but wanted to get my suspicions on record with the agency. Then there was the supervising thing and what that was supposed to entail.

“First Bio-Mom Office Visit”

We don’t treat patients on Thursday mornings in the office. It’s usually a time when I come in to get phone calls made, billing done and a few other administrative things checked off my list. I arrived with plenty of time to prep the space and prepare for anything that I thought could go wrong. I pulled back the privacy curtain and positioned the diaper-changing area on one of the physical therapy tables so that I could see it from my desk. I strategically placed all of the chairs in the waiting room so that I could have her in my line of vision from almost every seat, and I kept the diaper bag next to me so she would have to ask for any supplies.

Bio-Mom walked in 10 minutes late and made a bee-line toward the car seat where Malachi was sleeping peacefully. All elements had to be perfect for this baby to sleep. It couldn’t be too quiet, he definitely preferred some noise. The lighting couldn’t be too dark, he favored a little glow. He liked to be swaddled, but not too tight. I was starting to get a handle on his peculiar sleeping habits, so when Bio-Mom picked him up, unwrapped him and threw him over her shoulder like she was picking up a toy doll, I immediately became more agitated. We were up the majority of the night, as we had been since we brought him home and it was bitterly cold outside. Bio-Mom smelled like she just rolled out of a dumpster and her coat was filled with those white dandruff balls. Her long and knotted hair extensions were hanging down in front of her face and several strands were sticking to my baby’s already compromised skin. I was tired. Malachi was tired, and clearly Bio-Mom was tired because she was consistently nodding off while holding a now-awake, fussy baby in her arms. He became so upset I allowed her to give him a bottle early to calm him down. Thirty minutes later when he was still fussy she insisted on feeding him another one. I refused her the formula because I literally fed him right before she got there and if he drank another 8 ounces right now he would explode. I felt like I was being gentle and was trying really hard to not appear condescending as I told her no, but I was seriously so tired I have no idea how it actually sounded. I tried again to show her how he likes to be cradled and rocked but she only gave me the cold shoulder.

I did not hear her say “I love you” to the baby one time during the visit. I didn’t hear any gentle words at all. When she did speak to him it was in an aggressive, almost angry tone. Of course she made sure to use her catch phrase, “I know Malachi, you want the titty, but they won’t let me give the titty to my own baby.” Her behavior did not display anything maternal with him. She was hard all of the time and when she spoke to him, it was almost like she was personally offended by his crying. She would bark orders to him, “stop that crying boy, my kids don’t cry like this. These people are holding you too much, they need to put you on the floor.” I tried to talk to her about what we do with him (i.e. tummy time, stimulate with colors, etc.) but she completely ignored me. I continued to remind myself to be patient with her and understanding with how hard this had to be for her too. I was really struggling with my emotional control. I wanted her to know about the health concerns I had, so I pointed out how labored his breathing was and showed her the eczema and how it was spreading. Shockingly, she dismissed me by looking the other direction.

Malachi is like an Olympic champion when it comes to massive blow-out bowel movements. I’m talking fill the diaper, up the back and stomach, down both legs, everywhere poop. I heard the volcano erupt in his diaper about 40 minutes into the visit and escorted Bio-Mom to the designated area I had ready for her. I had laid out a changing pad, wipes and pampers so that everything was within an arms-reach. It was torture to watch her try to maneuver his wiggly body, t-shirt and pants while getting poop everywhere. She refused to take that revolting coat off and it was just getting in the way. I asked several times if she needed my help, but she acted as if she didn’t hear me. I actually got up once and started to walk toward her but she waved me away with, “I got this.” I cowardly walked back to my desk and felt the tension rise in my body as she jerked my little man up and down with his head bobbing around. She splayed the overfull diaper on the edge of the table and did not put the dirty wipes on top of it, but instead she laid them out on the table behind her. A few of the wipes fell onto the floor as I pointed out that the garbage can was literally just to the left of her. She still didn’t use it.

Bio-Mom escorted a very upset Malachi back to the waiting area and as I got closer to the changing station it looked as if a crime scene had just occurred, the only thing missing was the bright yellow tape. There was baby-mush, green-colored poop everywhere. It was on the therapy bed, the changing pad, the floor, and even a little on the wall.  I spent the next 10 minutes disinfecting the area and then decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I had a headache from the smell of Bio-Mom mixed with the fresh newborn crap that was now sharing the air, it had been at least an hour and I could feel that I was about to lose control. Between making sure she wasn’t going to drop my son while sleeping in the chair, listening to him cry to be comforted and her complain about how unfair it was that I wouldn’t let her give him the titty, I had gotten absolutely no work done. I felt like I was babysitting the babysitter. I could feel the anger rising in my body as I stood to remove Malachi from her arms. With contempt oozing from my voice and through gritted teeth I informed Bio-Mom it was time for this visit to end. She stared at me blankly as I took the baby out of her arms.

She asked to use the washroom before she left and as she walked down the hallway I calmed my stinky little man into a sleep. After what felt like an eternity of her being in the bathroom she returned and sheepishly approached me. I felt that all-too familiar guilt as she walked toward me looking depleted. I had completely abandoned my goal of being consistent, supportive and kind with her and I really did feel bad about it. She looked like a little girl when she finally reached me and without skipping a beat said “so, when you bring Malachi home next month will you take him to the agency or just bring him to my house?” After pausing to process what she just said, I gently replied “I am new to this just like you are and I think you should discuss that with your case worker, but I believe the next visit is one week from today, here at the office.” She responded with “I get my new apartment in two weeks so the kids will be returned to me right after that.” All I could do was smile at her as she stuttered out her next question, “Could you bring him to my house for a Christmas party/overnight visit next weekend?  The other kids are coming too.” I told her that I would take the baby wherever and whenever the case worker told me to. I felt for her, standing there with her head down, pleading for some glimmer of hope and clearly confused about the process she was currently going through. She told me that Nina does not return her phone calls, and I believed her because she doesn’t return mine either. I wondered if she was confused because of her condition or if it was because no one was taking the time to give her proper information. I think it was a combination of both. My heart ached for her, but at the same time I am overwhelmed by how protective I am of Malachi and everything I had witnessed here and at the first visit. I know she is attending classes on parenting, but can you teach someone how to be loving and maternal? Maybe she is comforting and nurturing in another setting?

If I were truly fostering her as well, and trying to form the bond I had promised myself from the beginning, I would have advised her. I should have told her to go home, take a shower, do something with her hair, throw that coat away and march to that private agency, demand answers and not leave until she had them. I want to shake her and say “these are your children, you need to snap out of this and do everything you can for them.” But of course I didn’t. I told myself it’s because she couldn’t comprehend it and I didn’t want to confuse her even more. Even though that might be the case, I am embarrassed to admit that there was so much more to the reason I didn’t give her one word of advice.

Thankfully, I had enough time to take Malachi home and bathe him before his doctor appointment. When I began to disrobe him, I noted that his t-shirt was unbuttoned and curled up his back, and his entire body was smudged with feces from the blow out he had an hour and a half ago.

“Clinic appointment”

Finding a doctor that would take his medical card in the area I lived in proved to be an all-day job. The pediatrician that treated my daughters would not take it, nor did the next dozen I called. I finally found a local non-profit clinic closer to my home and got him in. Actually taking him to the doctor was an eye-opening experience because I had no authority in regards to his health care. It was becoming more and more clear to me that a lot of people view foster parents as glorified babysitters. Not only was I limited to where I could take him because absolutely no one else would take the State insurance, but they hesitated to even see him at all when I arrived because the caseworker hadn’t filled out the proper paperwork yet. As I waited in the small reception area after convincing them I had authority to bring him here for treatment, I felt as if I were in another realm from the pediatrician’s office I’m used to. The receptionists were spewing patient’s personal information out into the waiting room, shaking their heads in disgust when they had to explain anything, and on the friendly scale they were batting a negative number. I am truly amazed that the amount of money you make has a direct impact on the healthcare environment you are entitled to. After waiting for at least 40 minutes I was finally ushered back to see the doctor. My biggest concern was that his breathing was loud and labored all of the time. He literally snored while he was awake. The doctor assured me that this was nothing to be concerned about. She said that this was just the way some people breathe. The young resident was nice enough and well-intentioned but she was more interested in asking me why I decided to be a foster parent than the issues I was presenting with. When I gave her my easy, standard line of “if I don’t do it who does,” she just looked at me curiously and said “Huh. Well the baby is progressing normally and is doing fine.” Despite my search for another explanation for his skin issues, the doctor concurred with the DCFS physician and said it was eczema. Daryl and I both felt that something bigger was going on with his skin. It was almost as if toxins were escaping his body and coming out through his pores. Even though I was told that Bio-Mom did not do any drugs or drinking while she was pregnant, I was not convinced and made a note to probe a little harder with the case worker at our next home visit.

“Bio-Mom visit #2”

Bio-mom was late by about 40 minutes so I had to give Malachi his bottle without her. When she arrived she did not take her coat off again and squeezed him hard against the filth as she asked for some formula. I told her that he just had one and wouldn’t need another for at least 90 minutes. She responded to the baby with the same old “I’m so tired of people telling me what I can and can’t do, when I know all you want is my titty, so just stop the crying cause I can’t give it to you. My kids don’t cry like this.” She went on to tell our baby in her combative tone “what they don’t know is that you will be back with me. Yes you will.”

Malachi was extra fussy for the visit and his breathing issues seemed to be getting worse. I had called the clinic to get him in again, but they told me if he didn’t have a fever that it’s probably fine and if I was that concerned I needed to take him to the Emergency Room. The response didn’t sit well with me but I was so exhausted that I convinced myself I was being overdramatic.

This Bio-Mom visit was pretty much mirror to the other one minus the diaper eruption. She didn’t ask me any questions about how he was doing. There were no follow up inquiries regarding the health concerns I told her about on the last visit. She still had no interest in learning from me how Malachi liked to be comforted, yet she didn’t really try anything herself. She never stood up and rocked him, she just sat there and let him fuss while repeatedly and sternly telling the 2-month-old baby to stop crying. I don’t know how she managed to doze off with a crying baby in her arms, but she did. It was almost impossible for me to put myself in her shoes, but I did try. If I was only seeing my newborn child once a week, I think I would spend the entire time imprinting his face in my brain, telling him how much I love him and soaking in every second. It hurt me to the point of nausea to imagine only seeing my son once a week.

After our last visit I was a little embarrassed about my behavior and attitude so I went home and made Bio-Mom one of those hard-cover shutterfly books of all of the pictures I had snapped of Malachi since he came to our home. When I handed it to her as an early Christmas present from our son, she shoved it into one of the grocery bags she carried without even looking at it and headed for the door.

“Next Time”

I found out from other parents that every foster child has a Guardian Ad Litem, their own attorney looking out for their best interest. After several failed attempts to get Malachi’s attorney information from our caseworker and the agency, I finally spent some time on the phone with the courthouse where family court is held and was able to track down Henry, his lawyer. We had set up an appointment for him to come to the house and meet with us. While I had him on the phone, he indicated to me that I should NOT be supervising the visits with Bio-Mom because anything that I add to the case would not be submitted to the Judge. I am a biased witness. He indicated that all her attorney would have to do is ask me if I love Malachi and want him to stay in our home and when I answered “yes” it would void any testimony I had. So why would the private agency have me supervise? In the next two weeks I will be meeting Henry and will also have a visit with all five siblings. I can’t wait to tell you about it.

Stephanie

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*Names have been changed

 

 

Chapter 8 – Meet Bio-Mom

December 2012

Dear Judge,

I pride myself on being a good person. Not any better than anyone else, just your normal run-of-the-mill, try to do the right thing, kind person. I have my quirks and I certainly have many areas that need “tweaking,” however, I can generally be trusted and relied on. As I sit in the car doing my self-taught yoga breathing while trying to force my body to move toward the building, I remind myself yet again that Malachi is not mine. He is hers. We are here to meet her and to let her hold the son she gave birth to just six short weeks ago. I am here because this is what I signed up for and I will put any negative or selfish feelings I have aside and be here for this woman because it is the right thing to do. It could be possible that because of the insane heaviness and extreme fatigue my body is feeling, I am being overly dramatic; however, I feel like this is a defining moment for me and how I handle the next couple of hours could make or break me. This is about her. The other mother. The original mother. The mother who is fighting to get her kids back. To get my son back. The moment I allow my brain to think of another woman cradling him like only a mom can do, I literally feel as if I am going to vomit and have to physically shake the thought out of my head. I have no idea what to expect because one person tells me she doesn’t understand a thing that’s going on and then another informs me that she is starting to pull it together and took the first step towards getting custody back by getting a steady job.

“Settling in”

I turned 40-years-old three weeks before we brought Malachi home and was used to getting my eight hours of sleep per night. I would literally make plans around the fact that I needed that full night. The newborn thing hit me hard. Very hard. He had just turned 6-weeks-old and we were nowhere near a set schedule. The voice of the woman at the shelter rang in my ears frequently when she said “good luck with that” in reference to his loathe of sleeping. The most I got was a two-hour stretch and the weekend reprieve from my husband. Mac was the strongest newborn I have ever witnessed, holding his head up the day we brought him home, and when he was awake he wanted to be heard. I continued to study him day in and day out. I was starting to understand what his different cries were and came to know every crease in his tiny body. I was falling in love with my son the same way I fell in love with my daughters. As much as I tried to keep those walls up, there was no denying the bond that had been created already. I spent a lot of midnight hours rocking him and making plans on how to walk that thin line of falling in love with our “son” and guarding our emotional well-being in the event we had to return him to his mother.  I had every intention of doing my best to foster her as well and I reminded myself of that often. Somehow I thought that the more I said it the more it would ring true and start to feel natural instead of forced. I made the decision early on in the licensing process that if I had to return a child I loved back to his mother that I would have a relationship with her. The kind of bond that made it comfortable for her to call me if she needed help of any kind. I was anxious to meet her and get the process started but every time I called Nina, our case worker, to inquire about the visits, I just got her voice mail with no return call until it was finally full and I couldn’t leave any more messages.

When she finally called me back it was only because Malachi was missing a required examination that was supposed to be done before he was placed in our home. She informed me that the appointment was already set for two days from now. Even though she tried to scurry off the phone without any questions I was able to ask about bio-mom again and the soft-spoken and clearly overwhelmed case worker barely spoke in a whisper when she informed me that bio-mom had a steady job now and it was hard to get a set schedule. Without thoroughly thinking it through, I decided on the spot that I would extend the first olive branch and invite Malachi’s birth mother to join me at his DCFS exam if she wanted to go. It could be beneficial to learn some of his familial medical history and she could provide that. Ultimately, it was just because I was so annoyed with waiting and wondering who she was I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wanted to pull the Band-Aid off and get it over with. Nina thought it was a great idea and called back within the hour to confirm that bio-mom would indeed meet me at the appointment in the DCFS office downtown Chicago.

I spent the next day obsessing over all of the different scenarios that could play out. Was she going to be receptive to me or bitter? I knew that she has some mental illness, although I was not legally allowed to know her diagnosis. I had imagined all kinds of stories that had her with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism and every other personality disorder you could imagine. I remember the green-eyed woman relaying to me compassionately that “mom in this case is very confused, doesn’t understand what’s going on, and is under the impression that this whole thing is going to be over in a couple of weeks.” With so many variables I decided that I would have to be okay with having absolutely no idea what was going to transpire. This is something that I personally struggle with, big time.

“DCFS Examination Visit”

After underestimating the time it takes to pack a diaper bag and get ready to leave the house with all of the added elements, I was running a few minutes late. I didn’t have time to sit in the car and give myself a pep talk, but it was essential today.

My legs felt like concrete when I tried to lift them to depart the car. Somehow I was able to maneuver them out the door and began my stroll to the building with nausea taking up residence in my stomach with each step. I felt old. I felt tired. I felt anxious and sad and excited. As I walked through the back entrance of the facility, a hospital-smell hit my nose – hand sanitizer and bleach with a little hint of barf thrown in. Considering the squeamishness I was already experiencing I scanned the interior for a bathroom sign, but there were too many people, so I sought out a bench that was nearby and sat down to regroup. That’s when I saw Nina at the big circular information desk in the middle of the corridor.

I swallowed the golf ball in my throat and stood up with all the confidence that I could muster and moved. I looked directly past the case worker and saw her. My heavy legs did their job, but I’m not sure how. The entire walk towards them I reminded myself that regardless of how much I was falling apart on the inside I had to keep it together and forge forward with fortitude and fearlessness.

Of course she looked nothing like I thought she would and I was trying not to stare at her. Her entire demeanor appeared as drained as I felt. She looked beat down. Her skin was a caramel color, she was about 5’5” with her hair combed straight and completely over to one side like an 80’s side pony without the scrunchie to hold it in place. She had freckles and dark bags under her naked-looking small eyes. She appeared very young even though the binder told me that she was 32-years-old.  She had on an oversized, well-worn, big black coat with what appeared to be dandruff all over it.

I don’t know at what point in my life I became a hugger, but I am. I haven’t always been one and I can typically sense when someone is not comfortable with the affection, but it doesn’t stop me. I still go in for the squeeze, it’s almost become a habit. I sat down the car seat carrier with arms stretched out before I even realized what I was doing. Was I really going in for the hug now? I was. That’s when the smell hit me. The offending odor was coming from that coat, but I had already committed to the embrace and couldn’t turn back. She didn’t say a word and did not attempt to return my gesture, but instead gave me a one-handed shoulder pat and went straight for Malachi. During my failed attempt at being dramatic with our introduction, Nina had found out that we had to go to the fourth floor and so we headed toward the elevator without speaking. Bio-mom carried Malachi in his baby seat and I carried the diaper bag. Once inside the elevator I tried to break the awkward silence by complimenting bio-mom on what beautiful children she had. She ignored me.

The elevator emptied directly into the waiting room and it was filled with children and parents or guardians. I found myself looking at each person, one-by-one wondering what their story was. Are they a foster parent? A bio-parent? A case worker? A grandmother, Aunt, Sister? Since I am Mac’s guardian I was the one to approach the reception desk and provide his medical card and fill out the paperwork. Nina and bio-mom stayed in the waiting room as she held our baby and just stared down at his face. I sat in the only seat available directly across from bio-mom and became fixated on the fact that she had picked up my son, removed his blanket and had his face directly against the foul-smelling, dandruff-flake-coated coat. I wanted her to leave now. I was uncomfortable and regretted the invitation. If it were anyone else holding him I would insist that they remove him from that offensive fabric and clean him with a baby-wipe at once, but since it was her I wasn’t sure what my boundaries were. Is he my son right now or is he her son right now? We are co-mothers? What are the rules? I began to sweat and shift in my seat. The chair next to me opened and Nina made her way over and explained to me that she had to leave. Like now. I completely missed my opportunity to abort the entire operation when she asked me if I was comfortable handling this alone and I automatically, without even thinking, said “of course.” What I should have said is “no, my body is completely numb, I think I might throw up and do you see the nastiness that my baby is laying on right now. I can’t do this.” But I didn’t.

The moment Nina walked away Malachi started to fuss. So here we are, just me and bio-mom sitting in a DCFS waiting room approximately 6 feet directly across from each other separated only by a small table full of magazines. She made eye contact with me for the first time and asked for a bottle. I noticed that she was missing a front tooth. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep or momentary insanity, but the fact that she was missing a tooth threw me for an unexpected loop and I just blankly stared at her for a considerable pause before I snapped back and started to dig in the diaper bag for the bottle. I was trying to recover from my inappropriate reaction to the tooth thing and bio-mom decided to, at that very moment, display her first sign of mental illness.

I am fairly confident that I looked a bit mad myself as it happened. My mouth was agape, brows were lifted and eyes pleading to anyone who would make eye contact. Bio-mom decided to start chanting to our baby in a deranged high-pitched tone, “I know. You want the titty, I know. You want the titty. I’m sorry I can’t give you the titty right now. They won’t let me give you the titty.” I am not sure if the next part was created in my sleep-deprived mind or if it really happened, but I swear she looked at me with piercing eyes and took it one octave higher with “My baby wants the titty and he can’t have it.”

While recovering from the outburst, I said a quick prayer that we would be called back to see the doctor before she made any other comments about her body parts. I waited out the rest of the time pretending to thumb through a magazine while secretly watching her every move.

The nurse who finally called us back into the room was a jolly woman with very large breasts. The reason I can recall the size of the woman’s chest with certainty is because bio-mom made sure to mention it while she was weighing the baby, “wow, my kids would have loved to breast feed if you were their mother.”  I felt myself shrinking with every word she spoke. I quickly wondered which one of my past mistakes was allowing karma to bite me in the ass so hard right now.

I let bio-mom handle the maneuvering of the baby and I was surprisingly okay with it. I do understand that she birthed him and I am a mother, so I sympathize with how hard this had to be for her as well. I wanted to give her this time; however hard it was. She was very aggressive with the way she handled him, paying no attention to his head flopping from side to side, but I made a conscious decision to let it go and told myself it would all be over soon.

The nurse handled bio-mom’s inappropriate breast-feeding comment with ease and came back with “how many children do you have?” Her answer was very curious to me and at that point I knew I was overanalyzing everything that spewed from her mouth. She said “I have six and you can have any of them but this one, this one is all mine.” What does this mean? She doesn’t want the other five children? Who says this about their kids? But then again, who announces in the middle of a full waiting room that their baby wants the titty.

When we got to the examination room the nurse wasn’t sure who to address her questions to and it turned into yet another uneasy exchange. I would answer the question and bio-mom would follow-up with a giggle or a curious snort and add her own commentary as if to say “he is my baby too and I know what’s going on.” When the nurse asked “how is he sleeping,” I answered “he is not a good sleeper at all,” bio-mom was right behind me with that awkward giggle saying “yep, just like Tameka.”  Another question was met with “yep, Jay did the same thing,” and yet another follow-up of “Oh yeah, I remember Justin used to do that too.” I understood her need to flex her parental muscle and it made me feel bad for her.

It was a long wait between the nurse and the doctor and I was going crazy trying to think of ways to relay to this young mother that I was not against her, I was only here to help her, but I could not come up with the words or find the right time to ease it in. I was also trying to convince myself that it was true. It was Malachi himself that actually broke the awkwardness of the situation between his two mothers when he became agitated and started crying. After several failed attempts to calm him, bio-mom said “he must be tired.” I concurred and asked if I could show her how he likes to be comforted.  When she slowly handed him over to me I immediately welled up with tears and had to fight back a big-old melt down. He is so comfortable in my arms, this is where he belongs and I automatically feel calmer with him closer to me. I put his blanket between my left shoulder area and his face, stood up and did the “mom-sway” back and forth a little, while cradling his head in my right hand and whispering “shhhh” in a rhythmic way.  He immediately nestled in and fell back to sleep.

I didn’t want to hand him back to her but knew I had to. As I made the exchange, I was careful that his blanket was shielding his face from that funky-smelling coat. I suggested that she remove the nasty sheath before I handed him back to her so she didn’t get hot, but she ignored me again. I filled the silent moments with whatever I could and told her that I met Jay at the shelter and how stunning both Daryl and I thought he was. I explained to her that he didn’t want to talk to us but instead just looked at us. She gazed at the floor, lost in thought as she whispered her response, “he was probably scared.” My heart softened toward her and I felt sad again. She must have felt it as well because this was the moment she started to open up to me. Without making eye contact she said “I trusted the wrong people.” I quizzically answered with “I’m sorry but I’m not quite following what you’re saying.” After looking at me for a good 10 seconds she came back with “My neighbor called DCFS and stole my money, she stole the money that comes with my kids.” The only response I could muster was “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” She went on to say that she brought Malachi home from the hospital for one night and the neighbor heard him crying so she called the DCFS hotline and turned her in again. She turned her attention to Malachi and said “I almost got away with you.”

Then she asked me if I had any other foster children and I proceeded to tell her about my daughters Ravyn and Taryn and then went on to explain that Malachi was our first real placement with the system.

Bio-mom’s next shocking revelation made my fight or flight response kick in. It all happened so fast. After a few moments of silence she turned to me very sharply, as if she had just discovered that I was a murderer and said “why did you call DCFS on me?” She caught her momentary lapse of whatever it was, and her face switched from a look of contempt to one of pleading within seconds. I felt like we were in a hot yoga room and so many thoughts ran through my mind in that fleeting moment. My brain shifted from “she’s gonna attack, run to the closest exit,” and “this is my opportunity to introduce that I am indeed here to help her, the window I’ve been waiting for.” After a quick reminder to stay calm, I gently said “I am only here to help you with Malachi. I did not know you before I was asked to take him. My husband and I did this because we wanted to help and that is what I want to do, help you care for Malachi as long as we need to.” She looked at me with a blank stare for what felt like an entire minute and then we both shifted our attention down to the innocence that rest on her crusty coat.

I was getting impatient when the doctor finally entered the room.  She was a black woman in her 50’s and immediately I could tell she was not the “warm and fuzzy type.” We spent most of the visit going over the past six weeks and she was very hard on bio-mom, asking her questions like “why did your children get taken away from you?” When bio-mom didn’t answer right away she asked in a more aggressive tone, “Did you hear me? I asked why the children were removed from your home?” There was absolutely no compassion in her tone or her body language, and why was she even asking these questions at all?  Bio-mom wasn’t even supposed to be here, I invited her. This obviously flustered the mentally-ill woman and I felt so bad her for her I physically got goose bumps.  When the pause was too long, the control-freak in me took over and I started to answer for her. In retrospect I am a bit grateful for the door that this doctor opened for us, she made bio-mom and me a team, if only for a moment. When bio-mom stuttered, I answered. I responded with “the paperwork reads neglect.” Bio-mom looked at me and whimpered “is that what it said? Neglect?” With sympathetic eyes and a slow nod, I answered “yes.”  When the doctor asked the ages of her other children she could not recall any of them. Because I had familiarized myself with the binder I knew the answer to each one and I coaxed it from bio-mom, “isn’t Angela 10?” “Yes, she is” answered bio-mom. And it went on and on with each child, I would answer and then bio-mom would confirm. The physical examination itself lasted minutes and my only concern was Malachi’s skin. He was extremely dry, to the point where he looked almost alien-like on his stomach, back and sometimes his face. The doctor said that it appeared to be eczema and that I should continue with the Aquaphor wash and cream twice a day.

I was more than relieved when the doctor said that the baby should be taken to his primary care physician for his shots. I did not think I would be able to let bio-mom comfort him after that trauma. I would have had to take that one over.

The doctor left the examination room and we stood on each side of the table while I started to dress Malachi. It was silent for a moment and then bio-mom shocked me again when she softly muttered “I’m not a monster you know.” I stopped what I was doing and looked at her face and tried to sound assuring and gentle but somehow it came out forceful, “I know you’re not a monster and I am going to take very good care of Malachi, I promise.” She didn’t look at me. If we spoke again in the exam room, I don’t remember it.

It was almost noon when we walked out of the building together. It was a beautiful, sunny December day. Unsure how to part ways I asked her if she knew where the bus stop was from here and contemplated offering her a ride, but my autopilot knew better and took over just in time. She pointed in the direction of the bus stop and assured me that she knew where to go. Despite my debacle attempt at hugging her at our introduction, I made a conscious decision this time to try it again, coat and all. I received the same half-hearted shoulder pat and then we walked in opposite directions.

I wasn’t even half way to my car before I started to cry.  By the time I secured the baby seat and got the car started I was in full hysterics. The kind of sob where your face gets all scrunched up and your throat starts to hurt and you make noises that sound like a pig squealing. I allowed the melt down to occur the entire drive home while having a full-fledged, out-loud conversation with myself. I can only imagine what I looked like. In between sobs and squeals and occasional psycho-laughs it went something like this:

“What was I thinking inviting her? How am I ever going to hand him over to her? What if I actually do have to hand him over to her?” What did I do? Who does this? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with her? Who opens themselves up to this torture? I love him so much already. Why do I love him so much already?”

Every once in a while I would stop short of my temporary insanity, blow my nose and start to giggle at how absurd this predicament was and then I would pick up right where I left off:

“Love him like he’s my own and then hand him over to a woman who can’t remember her own kid’s birthdays and repeats the word “titty” over and over again? Really? Schizophrenia? Bipolar? Where is she going to sleep tonight? Does she have someone who loves her? Is she crying right now? I know she’s not a monster, did I indicate I thought she was a monster? It didn’t seem like she was THAT mentally ill. I can’t believe I tried to hug her with that disgusting crusty coat on.” 

I was crying because of how much I already loved him. I was sobbing for the heartache I felt for this young mother who wasn’t born with the ability to be maternal. I was baffled at how confused my emotions were. If I thought of her as Malachi’s mother, bitterness and contempt entered my heart. If I pictured her as a young, scared mother without her children I felt nothing but sorrow. I really did want to help her, but I really didn’t want to give him up. What a conundrum, and we had only just begun.

“Next Time”

As always, with my controlling nature, I volunteered to have ALL of the bio-mom visits at our Oak Park office without thinking it through entirely. Bio-mom could easily get to us on the green-line, I wouldn’t have to drive him and sit for an hour in some germ-infested McDonald’s, and I could get some work done while spying on them at the same time. Win-win, right? I’ll tell you about it next time.

IMG_5199

*Names have been changed.

Chapter 7 – To WIC or not to WIC

November 2012

Dear Judge,

As I sat in the parking lot at Target, I was fully aware that I had only about 30 minutes left before my insomniac newborn was going to wake up screaming with hunger as if he has never eaten before. My legs were literally shaking with nerves because of pride, embarrassment and fear of judgement. I repeated to myself “I am going to do this! I am going to use these WIC coupons to buy my baby formula.” I mean, why wouldn’t I, right? It was saving me a lot of money and I pay taxes and it’s really nobody else’s business anyway. Yet I couldn’t quite bring myself to open the car door. Every judgmental comment I had ever heard or read was replaying in my mind.

“To use or not to use”

When I received the WIC instructions and approval from the green-eyed woman at the shelter I really had no intention of using them because I was uncomfortable with several aspects of the idea of government assistance.

I can’t recall accurately if we were actually on food stamps as a child but if we weren’t, it was only my parent’s pride that stopped us. As so many Americans do now, we lived paycheck-to-paycheck even though both of my parents always held full-time jobs. We lived about 30 minutes from town, so it was always exciting to make our big grocery store trip. We would fill our cart up with all of the essentials needed to get us through to the next paycheck.

For as long as I can remember I have heard adults complain about people that they assume are on food stamps. You know, the ones who can afford tattoos, iPhones, steak and beer instead of food or health insurance. It’s as if some people believe that if you don’t make a certain amount of money you should only be allowed to spend your earnings how they deem appropriate. When I hear those comments, I always think of my dad and the happiness on his face when he opened his Friday night beer. Again, unsure how accurate the memory is, I can vividly picture his dark blue work pants and matching button-up shirt with dirt and rips in them. His face would be full of filth, except where his safety goggles were. That is how I recall him as he smiled at us while he popped the top off of his Pabst Blue Ribbon. He worked in a factory for many years and then went on to become a plaster laborer and he physically worked harder than most people I know. He worked through sickness and even when his body started telling him that it was time to move on, he still forged forward. That is why his 71-year-old body is more like a 100-year-old one now. Very little extra money, food stamps or not, if anyone deserved a steak and beer at the end of his work week, it was him.

It’s fruitless to try to convince someone to change their mind on their views of government assistance and I agree that there WAY too many people who abuse it. It makes me sad for those who legitimately need it. I worked with a girl who posted something on Facebook comparing people who use food stamps to the animals at the zoo and the quote ended with “don’t feed the animals because they will learn to rely on it.” When I replied to her that there are many people who work very hard and need the assistance to feed their families she came back and said “I drive by the food pantry every day and there are Lexus, Mercedes and BMW’s parked in the lot and I can guarantee you that if I couldn’t feed my family I would not be driving one of those cars.” I knew she couldn’t guarantee me that because I knew that her father owned a rather large and lucrative construction company… it’s not something she would likely ever have to consider. She unfriended me when she told me that her mom had to clip coupons when they were little and I asked her if she could tell me where I could get the coupons that she used to send her and her sister through “finishing school.” Yes, I am fully aware of how childish that comment was. But it is, in the end, people like her that made me very uneasy at the thought of using the WIC coupons.

We live in a community that is pretty conservative and I have often heard comments from friends and neighbors regarding people who were not born as fortunate as they were. Whether that means being blessed with the gift of drive and perseverance, or above-average intelligence to pick yourself up and pull yourself out of a seemingly impossible situation, or merely being fortunate enough to have a built-in family that could help you achieve your goals. My husband and I are far from wealthy but we have afforded ourselves a few luxuries along the way and I am just not a fan of people judging me for something that they assume is true about my life when in reality, they have no idea.

In the end it was something that my 8-year-old said when she was eavesdropping on my conversation that made me decide to use the WIC coupons. She matter-of-factly stated “mom, you always tell us to not care what other people think and to travel outside our comfort zone, so why don’t you?” So I set up the WIC appointment and decided to conquer the fear.

“WIC Appointment”

I took a deep breath as I prepared to turn into the parking lot at the government office in Cook County in my Land Rover and had to chuckle when I saw the only parking spot open was between a Yukon Hybrid and a Cadillac Escalade.

The appointment itself can be described as silly, but I do understand how it could be helpful in certain circumstances. First I sat with a woman who entered all of Malachi’s information into the computer and then I was ushered into a small office where the lady with hair like Peppermint Patty, small wire-rimmed glasses, and grey shirt that was buttoned all the way up to her chin counseled me on how to give a baby a bottle.  She was very serious as she read me the illustrated paper on her desk that informed me how to hold a bottle, wash the bottle, hold the baby while he eats the bottle, how to wash my hands, and lastly how I should never let the bottle sit for long periods of time in the heat and then feed it to the baby. I caught myself smirking and may have even let out a giggle with a look that read “are you being serious right now?” When she kept going I realized I was being juvenile and had to reign it back in. So I had to finish my tutorial on how to give a bottle with a bubble of discomfort in my ribs from holding back one of those overtired, ridiculously poorly-timed and unstoppable laughing fits.

The woman with the wire-rimmed glasses had one more lecture to give me as she handed me a packet and this one was about being responsible with my coupons.  I was given nine vouchers inside a yellow booklet, three for each month of the quarter. Two of the them were for four cans of formula and one was for three cans and if I lost them they would not be replaced, and this was stressed to me like my life depended on it. I was told that on my next appointment I would be given a quiz and I quickly wondered if I missed any important information while I was focusing on not laughing. I wondered what would happen if I failed the quiz but chose not to ask that question.

“Target”

Now it was time to face the music, travel outside my comfort zone and use the dreaded WIC coupons. I decided I would go to Target because it was on my way and not so close to home that I might not run into anyone I know.  I picked up the formula and a few other items that I needed and headed for the checkout.  I could feel tiny beads of sweat slowly creeping their way down my side, my heart was beating ultra-fast and my mouth was so dry I felt as if I could choke. I scanned the registers for someone who looked like they knew what they were doing so there would be no calling a manager for assistance. I also wanted it to be someone a little younger, thinking that they might not have such a negative opinion of the world yet. No one looked quite right so I ducked back into the clothing department to give myself a pep talk. I looked down at the beautiful sleeping baby boy nestled snuggly in his seat and my heart immediately slowed down. I reminded myself of the strong and confident woman I was, took a deep breath and headed for the first register I came to. I grabbed a water bottle from the end kiosk and opened it immediately so that I could at least speak without my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. I peered up and smiled at the middle-aged Hispanic woman and she smiled back. I placed the cans of formula first and then rapidly piled the diapers behind them to try to shield the obvious paper that I thought was screaming “she’s using WIC.” It felt like the woman was moving in slow motion as she scanned the formula and then ran my coupon through her register, asked me to sign it, and handed me a receipt. The moment she finished my transaction I scurried to my car without looking up.

In the end, it was not the horrible experience I expected it to be and it was over quickly. I was so happy that it went well, but I was still dreading the next time I had to do it.

I wish I could say that I never felt judged using the coupons, but I did. It is like I preach to my kids, “the more you travel outside your comfort zone the more you grow.” Each time I used them it got easier and the people who wouldn’t make eye contact with me or shifted their hips with irritation because I took too long in line just made me want to move slower. Ultimately, the coupons saved me $200 per month (I still had to buy plenty of cans on my own) so I would continue to travel outside my comfort zone until Malachi was no longer drinking formula.

“Next Time”

I know you’re probably asking yourself what this has to do with Malachi and the foster care system, and answering honestly I can say “not much,” but it is an important part of my journey and just another way I grew as a person during this whole process. You will see as my story evolves how jaded and negative people who work in the foster-care world can become. The two situations can be compared in the way that because of the irresponsible behavior of some, many others are treated unfairly and prejudged.

In my next letter I will introduce you to bio-mom.

7-25-17-2

 

Chapter 6 – First Home Visit

Wednesday November 7 “The red binder”

Dear Judge,

I’ve been up all night again and I don’t even recall what day of the week it is. It’s 5:00 am and I have been “sleeping” on the couch with Malachi in a Fisher-Price Rock N Play Sleeper directly next to me for six nights now. My mind has completely erased what it’s like to have a newborn and this particular little man doesn’t sleep more than a two-hour stretch and I feel lucky when I get that. There are twinklings of time that I can sit in the silence of the middle of the night and soak in the sweet smell of a new baby, and then there are moments of “are you freaking kidding me right now? GO TO SLEEP, what is wrong with you?” If I weren’t so exhausted I would likely be fretting about our impending first home visit with the case worker later today.

“First Home Visit”

I don’t know if this is a sign of my age or hers, but our caseworker Nina looks like she just graduated high school.  About two inches above her left ear her dark hair is shaved close to the scalp with the remainder hanging to just below her right ear. She is a cute petite girl with a tongue ring and earrings running up and down both ears. She is soft spoken and I can tell by the way she nervously answers questions and fumbles with paperwork that she is in way over her head.  She confided in me that this was her first case and it is a big one because there are a lot of moving parts in a family of six children and a bio-mom requiring so many services.

After giving her a tour of the house and showing her that we had all of the essentials to care for a newborn, we sat down at the dining room table. Nina pulled out her notebooks and folders while I held a sleeping Malachi. I filled her in on how we were adjusting to life with a newborn as she scribbled in her notepad. I didn’t tell her that I am literally running on fumes at this point and she shouldn’t look in the dishwasher because I threw all of the dirty bottles and cereal bowls in there just moments before she arrived. I was also hoping that she didn’t look in the garage to see the mounds of pizza and carry-out boxes that I had piled along the wall waiting for garbage day. At least I was showered and the baby didn’t have any curdles of milk in his little fat rolls. I wasn’t sure how many liberties we were supposed to take with what we call him, so I sheepishly explained that I wanted to call him Kai for short and Daryl wanted to call him Mac. It appeared Mac was the nickname that was sticking. She didn’t respond. She just kept writing with her head down.

Nina could not answer all of my questions and referred to the red binder frequently. I admitted that I hadn’t completely gotten through the nearly 2-inch-thick pile of paperwork. In a nutshell, this is what I learned about the case from Nina on our first visit:

Right now the “goal” for this family is reunification and we were waiting for a court date for adjudication, which is when the case actually begins. Anything that happens before this date would not count for or against bio-mom. From that date, bio-mom will have nine months to prove that she is doing all she can to get custody back of her brood. Every time there is a new trial date the goal will be reviewed and will either continue with reunification or change to “TPR” (termination of parental rights). If bio-mom is attending all of her services and showing effort, the Judge will likely extend each trial date. She couldn’t divulge to me bio-mom’s diagnosis or what her actual services would be, but did say that hypothetically they would include parenting classes, domestic violence classes, and psychiatric counseling. She will have to obtain proper housing and a job. These are all things that the private agency would assist her with. She is currently unemployed and homeless. She has already had one psychiatric evaluation that found she is mentally unable to care for six children but may have the mental capacity to care for one. When I asked if that meant she might be given a chance with the youngest one, Nina’s response was “anything is possible.” She went on to say that she thinks that bio-mom loves her kids because she knows she should, but does not display the maternal love that one would expect to see. When she mentioned that bio-mom’s biggest concern was that she can’t live without the SSI money that comes with her kids I wondered how much she was getting. We needed to set up hour-long weekly visits with bio-mom but the case worker was having a hard time getting everyone’s schedule together. The sibling visits are supposed to be four hours per month but it is difficult to find a location that could easily accommodate six children between the ages of new born and 10-years-old. She asked if I was willing to host a visit and without hesitation I said yes. According to Nina, this case could go on until Malachi was at least 2-years-old, maybe longer.

When the young case worker left my house I was emotionally drained. I felt like I understood the “process” a little better but did not get the answers I was hoping for. However unrealistic and unfair, I was hoping she would say “Mrs. Davis this is an open-and-shut case, bio-mom can’t handle it and we are going to do everything we can to ensure that Malachi stays here and will do it as quickly as we can.” I did not even get an inkling of that.

This was the first time I questioned if I could really handle this.

I put off the mounds of chores that I needed to accomplish and the nap that I should have taken, and instead sat down with a cup of coffee to finally flip through the red binder to figure it out on my own.

“The Binder”

The information printed in the formal DCFS document was very hard to understand and there were punctuation and spelling errors painted on every page.  I wondered if someone had maybe spoken into a transcription machine and that’s why it was so poorly worded.  After flipping through the entire binder I felt even more confused than before I read it. One page contradicted the next and the dates made absolutely no sense. I got a piece of paper out and wrote down calls that were made and dates that the authorities were called to her apartment and there was just no way that it could be accurate.

For fear of losing you with confusing “facts” listed I will just give you my version from what I could piece together:

According to the binder the calls started to come in in March of 2012; however, I can tell that she was already on DCFS radar with services such as a “house and parenting coach.” There were several calls made to the hotline to report questionable behavior but they do not all have dates.

The reports included a call made from the school bus driver recounting an instance where he arrived to pick up the kids and only two of them came out. One was dressed in a thin t-shirt and gym shoes and the other one was wearing a coat with nothing underneath it, one boot and one gym shoe. The second report proclaimed small, naked children throwing debris off of the ledge of their third-story apartment. Other calls included screams and cries heard throughout the day from the apartment. The binder does not indicate which day the following occurred, but it almost appears that they were different incidences. The reference reads: “When the agent showed up at the home the children reported that their mother was at the laundromat. Neighbors gathered on the lawn telling stories about the screams, naked children on the ledge and reported that they rarely went to school. There were butcher knives on the floor. The home was full of bugs and rodents. They eat old food off of the kitchen floor and there were dirty pampers and moldy food scattered throughout. Mom says she was in the bathtub when the children were on the ledge. The family was living in hoarding conditions.” According to the documents, bio-mom was arrested for child endangerment. The four oldest children were sent to temporary foster homes while the youngest stayed with neighbors who frequently took care of him, this was dated March 19, 2012.

The red binder went on to indicate that mom has limited parenting abilities and was four months pregnant. She was in a domestic violence situation with the children’s reported father. She stated that he has beaten her for nine years and only shows up a few times per month to have “relations” with her and take her SSI checks. Some of the information contradicted others, but what I could gather was that three of the children were frequently with neighbors and friends while the two youngest spent most of their time with bio-mom. Yet there was another account that suggested that bio-mom’s mother was staying with them for help until she had a stroke just months before the children were removed.

There was a short sentence on each child.

Justin is a 6-year-old male with an IEP for developmental delay.  It was noted that when the visits with his mother are over he does not cry, instead just says “good bye” with no emotion shown.

Tameka is a 4-year-old girl with an IEP for developmental delay.  Even though the bond with her mother seems strong she does not get upset when it is time to leave her visits, she merely says “good-bye.”

Angela is 10-years-old and has an IEP for autism.  She is happy to see her mother during the visits but also happy when she leaves.

Edward is a 9-year-old male and has an IEP for speech/language impairment.  It appears that Edward has the closest relationship to his mother and kisses her when she leaves.

Jay is a one-year-old male with no health concerns.  He is non-verbal and does not allow anyone to touch him.  He appears to be fearful of everyone except the neighbors that he was temporarily placed with, the Grogans.

Only two of the children mentioned their father and both seemed fearful of him stating that he would hit them and they did not want to see him again.

Bio-mom received a monthly social security check for herself and a check for $698 for each of her children and has admitted that she cannot handle all five of the children together because of Angela’s autism and her pregnancy.

The binder included pages of goals for bio-mom and listed how DCFS would help her obtain them, but again, the wording did not appear logical. The objectives were made on May 18, 2012 with a completion date of October 31, 2012. The few that made any sense were vague and ranged from “The mom will be able to attend and receive knowledge of her abuse,” “learn appropriate ways of parenting,” “keep families whereabouts known at all times,” “obtain medical and birth records of all children,” and “make changes and help ensure she receives the help provided”

After skimming through the confusing information a few more times I realized that there were a lot of gaps, almost as if pages were missing. I felt like a lot of questions were answered but a lot more were created. The multiple inconsistencies and chaos made me obsess over the uncertainty of these innocent children’s futures, not to mention the daily life they were subjected to.

Then I got out my calculator. Bio-mom received $698 for each child, which is $3490 per month, PLUS the social security check she was getting for herself, and this was before Malachi was born. Even though I vowed not to, my initial reaction was to judge this woman. It was as if having children was her job and every time she wanted a raise she would get pregnant. Prior to May 2012 when her kids were removed, she had Section 8 housing in a nicer part of the city, food stamps, a medical card, WIC and roughly $4000 per month. She’s never held a job for more than 6 weeks and somehow was pulling in more money than most hard-working people.

Exhausted did not begin to describe my state of mind. I felt like I had just run a marathon when all I did was read a binder. I put the dreaded book away and picked up a sleeping Malachi and just stared at him while we rocked. I felt the need to protect him now more than ever. From the woman who gave birth to him? From the situation that his siblings lived in? From the system that is seemingly so topsy-turvy and uncontrolled. Is it really possible that a judge would place him back in that environment? Could she pull herself together? As I watched his little lips pucker while he slumbered I reminded myself that this is indeed what I signed up for and regardless of what happens in the end, if Malachi has to go back to his bio-mom then we will have at least given him a head start in life and pray that God will continue to take special care of this baby and his siblings. This is literally my only option.

The mother in me could not help but think of bio-mom out there without any of her children and it just added to my melancholy. I picture her pacing the floor back and forth wondering where her children were. I wonder if she is pounding the pavement trying to find a job and a home. Does she lie in bed at night crying and feeling regret wondering what she could have done different? I ponder if she even has the ability to organize her thoughts like this. I kissed my little man on the forehead and whispered to him that I would do anything I could to protect him.

“Next Time”

Judge, I am already confused about why the record-keeping is so unorganized, messy and contradictory. I truly have no idea what actually transpired. I have decided to keep my own record of everything that happens with Malachi, just in case. I want you to understand that I am completely for government assistance when it’s needed and understand how hard it would be to monitor that on a case-by-case basis. I would not begin to pretend I could come up with a solution on how to stop bio-mom from taking such severe advantage of the system without impeding the help to someone who really needs it. Does she even know that is what she’s doing? What I do know is that it’s a big problem and I see it first-hand right here in this binder.

Next time I’ll lighten it up a little with the process I went through to use the dreaded WIC coupons.

Image-1 (7)

**Names have been changed.

Chapter 5 – Pick up day

November 1, the day he stole our hearts

Dear Judge,

I’m not sure at what point you fall in love with your child. For a pregnant woman I believe it’s the moment that she fully absorbs that there is life growing inside her. It’s absurd to think about loving and protecting something the size of an almond, but I think it’s true. The moment I found out I was pregnant with my girls I gave up anything that would be potentially harmful to their growth. Even coffee. Ridiculously, I would stare at my belly for a long period of time and wonder who was in there. Priorities start to shift in your life and you prepare for the kind of love that makes you stronger and more confident, and ultimately no longer your own number one priority.

Today I am picking up a baby that I didn’t know existed until a mere 36 hours ago. A baby that will call me mom; even though he’s not my son. I wonder if that love will be immediate or if the situation with which we are presented is going to interfere with the process.

I find myself trying to take in what might make a mother do something so wrong that their child is taken away. I can’t grasp it. I want to enter this journey with no judgement, but it’s already hard and I haven’t even picked him up yet. I don’t know if I’m dealing with mental illness, drugs, ignorance, selfishness or something I haven’t even considered yet. Whatever the case is Judge, I am truly going to do my best not to condemn this mother. I will try to understand that all of our paths are different and I have no idea what it’s like to walk in her shoes. I will try. I will try. I will try.

“Shelter pick up”

Like a record on repeat. All night long: “I really should get some sleep tonight because after tomorrow I will have a newborn keeping me up. Drop the kids off at school, install car seat and that will leave me approximately one and a half hours to get downtown. Is that enough time in rush hour? Should I take some formula with me? I wonder if he’s on soy milk. I should have gotten that fancy bottle cleaning machine. Do I have enough blankets? Do I need to take an outfit to change him into? I wonder if he’s awake now. I wonder what his story is. We should have taken both boys. I should just get up because I’m not going to sleep. No. GO TO SLEEP. I wonder what he’ll look like. I know I’m forgetting something.”

I think I slept for two hours that night – and it wasn’t consecutive.

We chose not to tell our daughters about their impending brother’s arrival just in case it was another “false” alarm. If pick up goes as planned, they would find out when they got home from school and discovered him. Ravyn woke up with a stomach ache. I knew it wasn’t a real one but I didn’t have the energy to go through the tug-of-war that goes with a fake get-out-of-school illness. She was cautiously surprised when I caved quickly and agreed to let her stay home.

Watching me try to get the car-seat base installed was like watching an episode of “The Three Stooges.” Maybe it was because the autopilot feature in my brain was malfunctioning, but I literally could not do it. I swallowed my pride and stopped at the fire station on the way to get help.

Because it was a Thursday and Daryl had to work, I had to drive myself downtown and meet him there. I sat in my car for a few minutes and stared at the building.  There was a small deserted playground behind the shelter that made me sad. Tricycles piled up against the slide and the weeds that were overgrown everywhere made me believe that no one had played there in awhile. I thought about all of the kids we learned about in training and wondered why the playground wasn’t a more inviting place for the scared children who would call this home for a moment. Malachi had only been there for a couple of days but his older siblings had been there for a couple of months.

I nervously approached the front desk which was directly to my right after being buzzed in through the double doors. After telling her my name and signing in, the receptionist guided me to the second door on the right down a short narrow hallway with another set of double doors at the end of it. I entered a very small conference room with old car seats, diapers, coats and boxes lined along all four walls.  There was a tiny table in the center and there were already three women waiting there.  I introduced myself and said I was here for Malachi. The stunning woman with bright green eyes and a shaved head shook my hand and presented herself as the worker for DCFS. Then I met Nina, the case worker from our private agency, and finally Kesha, the foster mom here to pick up the two oldest boys in the family. The guardian for the two sisters was a woman named Ms. Persons but she could not be here until later today. The couple taking Jay had not arrived yet but were on their way.

I barely got my butt into the chair when the green-eyed woman startled me with very fast ramblings about some labs that were run on Malachi this morning that indicated that his bilirubin was insanely high and they were likely going to have to admit him to the hospital. Thank God my husband was walking in the doorway at that very moment because a) I had no idea what she was talking about and b) I was starting to feel like those four walls were closing in on me. I immediately calmed when we caught each other eyes with a look that said “are you freaking kidding me right now?” When Daryl asked what this meant she clarified that WE are his caregivers now and we would be the ones seeing the admission and hospital stay through as if he were our son. She said that the baby was with the doctor now and we would be updated any moment.

She wasted no time moving onto the next topic as if she hadn’t just dropped a grenade in our laps. Nina handed me a red binder as the green-eyed woman filled us in on Malachi’s family. Bio-mom was cognitively impaired and would be needing some extra help from the foster parents. She didn’t fully understand what was going on and has a long way to go to prove that she can handle six kids. The red binder would explain more and she encouraged us to familiarize ourselves with the contents. Every attempt has been made to find a family member to take the children but every person that bio-mom has presented as her family proved to be a lie. Five of the six children were said to have the same father but he was nowhere to be found and was not expected to resurface.

The doctor opened the door like she was running from a fire and aggressively blurted out “the baby is fine, the lab tech ran the test wrong and he’ll be ready to go in a few minutes but I have an emergency so I have to go.”  I took a breath as if I had been holding it in the entire time. Wow!  Okay, so here we go.

Cheryl and Darrin arrived next. They were going to be taking custody of Jay, Malachi’s 18-month old brother. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. The couple seemed to be around our age and had a biological daughter at home who was the same age as Jay. Nina informed us that she would be contacting us in the next few days to schedule our first home visit, a visit with bio-mom and a sibling visit. Visits with mom would be once a week and the home and sibling visits would be once a month.

When a child first enters the foster-care system there is a one-time $300 voucher that goes with them and because Malachi had never been placed we got that voucher to purchase a crib, car seat, and whatever else might be needed. It wasn’t going to begin to cover it but we didn’t expect to get anything. We signed for the voucher and the form that states we are taking the placement, and then she handed us a letter qualifying us for WIC if we wanted to use it for formula and baby food. That was it, two signatures and a letter later, and we were ready to go meet our foster son.

We strode through the double doors at the end of the hallway to an area that reminded me of a hospital. The hallways were white and bare and it smelled of antibacterial soap and medicine. We entered the first door on the right into a room with hospital cribs lining two walls and baby swings and bassinet scattered throughout. It was eerily similar to how a movie portrays an orphanage. My eyes were drawn to a newborn swaddled in a swing and I wondered if that was our Malachi.  As we walked toward him, a woman standing on the right informed us that Malachi was in the back getting cleaned up and would be out in a minute. We made our way to the back of the room and stopped to wait by an old-school play-pen that was currently occupied by the most stunning-looking little boy I have ever seen. He was sitting very quietly with just a diaper and socks on. He had long light-brown hair that was in a very unkempt frizzy afro. He peered up at us with really big piercing blue eyes. I whispered “hi there buddy, how are you?”  He just studied us intently with no expression on his face as he took his socks off.  The woman tending to the baby next to us said “this is Jay, he is Malachi’s brother.”  I glanced at my husband and we both knew that if we saw him first we would have taken them both for sure. Not because he was gorgeous, but because we were drawn to him.

A voice from a small corridor that connected the room we were in with another room that was identical to this one beckoned us to “come on back.” As we approached the tiny area we saw Malachi. He was dressed in a shabby Mickey Mouse onesie.  The instant my eyes laid on him I felt the need to protect him. He appeared so tiny and fragile.  He didn’t have much hair and so his forehead looked big, almost like he had a receding hairline.  This, coupled with the puffy cheeks and furrowing of his brow made him look like an old man.  My beautiful precious old man!  When the woman placed him in my arms, my body remembered what to do and I fell right into mommy-mode. My heart immediately grew to accommodate a new love. Tears filled my eyes and I wanted to let it go but instead swallowed the lump and handed him to my husband so he could place him in the car seat carrier.

While we fumbled with making the straps small enough to accommodate his 8 lb 8 ounce slumped body we listened to the woman tell us a little about him. I was so preoccupied with staring at the miracle that was in front of me I can’t even tell you what the lady looked like. That was when we found out he had a hearty appetite and did not care for sleep. She gave us a few diapers and the tiniest little bottle filled with formula and said that he would be ready to eat again in about an hour.  He also came with a tube of antibiotic crème for an eye infection. I was supposed to apply the ointment three times a day for seven days but was assured it was nothing to worry about.

And just like that we were parents to an infant again.  Daryl carried the baby to my car and as he was securing the carrier to the base he looked at me with a look that read terrified and said “wow, this is crazy.  I can’t believe we’re doing this.”  I didn’t even have words to respond to him so I just smiled and kissed him good-bye as he headed to work and I headed home with our son.

“Welcome Home Malachi”

As I drove away from the shelter I felt so many emotions but the strongest one was excitement.  I knew there were many things to be anxious about but I chose to focus on the happiness because if we did end up adopting Malachi I wanted the memories of this day to be nothing but happy.  I knew that I was supposed to keep in mind that our goal was to return him home to his mother but I couldn’t think about that right now. Not today.

When I pulled into the driveway I settled into the happiness a little more with a long deep breath and could not stop smiling. As I made my way through the front door I called for Ravyn to come downstairs. In true pre-teen form, she was moving at a snail’s pace and I was growing more eager by the second. When her eyes latched on to the carrier in my arms her fake-sick frowning mouth turned into a wide smile and after a short stand-still-in-shock pause, the snail turned into a fox as she rushed down the remaining few stairs. For the first time in her 12 years she was speechless as she stared at him and so I filled her in on all of the questions I knew should be coming out of her mouth as we headed to the couch to unwrap him.  My girls have never been around babies and I think Taryn is the only infant that Ravyn ever held, but she was surprisingly comfortable with him as I snapped pictures of them together to send off to my family.  I couldn’t wait for Taryn to come home.

I had laid him on a blanket on my bed upstairs and we just watched him for the longest time. The 3:00 hour approached and Taryn walked in the house like it was a normal day.  I was giddy when I met her at the door and said “mom has a surprise for you upstairs.”  Taryn loved when I played the surprise game and we did it all of the time, but it usually ended with some skittles or M&M’s, not a newborn baby. She immediately got happy and settled in to our surprise routine, “okay mom, let me get me shoes off and close my eyes while you lead me to the surprise.” I took her by the hand and guided her step-by-step up the stairs with her anticipation growing with each “step up, step up, step up, step up.”  When we reached my bedroom I put my hands over her eyes so she couldn’t peek and at that point Malachi made a little baby grunting noise and Taryn ripped my hands off of her eyes to see what it was.  After her eyes adjusted to the site she stood in shock with a very calm “who’s that?  Is he ours?” She was so gentle with him and gawked in awe.

The rest of the day was euphoric and filled with a few arguments over who got to hold him as he slept.  After a few friends stopped by to meet the newest member of our family, we settled in and got ready for our first sleepless night.

My mind never strayed too far from the fact that as much as we felt like we were bringing home a new member of our family I was not sure if this would be permanent or temporary.  I answered a lot of questions from friends and family with “I don’t know” and from those questions I began to prepare my list of concerns for the case worker who would be coming for our first home visit in the next couple of weeks.  For now, I would just continue to fall in love with my little old man!

“Next Time”

When the green-eyed DCFS worker handed me the red-binder I had no idea how much detail would be in there. If I had known I would have probably started reading it right away. I’m glad I didn’t though, because those first few days with my son were magical and I am grateful that I didn’t taint it with the reality that his siblings lived with leading up to their removal. The hostile environment that Malachi spent in the womb is scary. I’ll tell you about it next time.

Stephanie

 

*Names have been changed.

Chapter 4 – Placement Calls

November 1, 2012

Dear Judge,

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.

“Mia”

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.

“Jason”

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.

“Brothers?”

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.

“Next Time”

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.

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*Names have been changed.