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.

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*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.

FosterParentImage

 

 

*Names have been changed.

 

Chapter 3 – The Classes

June 9 2012

Dear Judge,

My stomach turned as I stood next to the chair where the middle-aged man sat in front of the small conference room. Our instructor had positioned nine of us one-by-one next to the man she designated “the child.” I was a sibling, another was the mother, a father, an aunt, an uncle, school friend, teacher and a grandparent. We each had a hand touching him. I wasn’t sure where she was going with the exercise and the anticipation was growing. Again, one-by-one she told each of us to leave the “child” and take our seats until the man was once again alone with the chair. She asked him how he felt up there by himself. He said “lonely.” The lesson was intended to help us understand what a child might feel like after being torn away from their family and friends. She wanted us to fully grasp how scared and alone a kid of any age would feel regardless of the reason they were being taken away from the only life they’ve ever known. Even if that life was unstable and dangerous, it was still the only security they’ve ever experienced. It was a profound statement and I could feel my insides tighten and my shoulders stiffen as my thoughts wandered to my own daughters.

“Introductions”

We attended all-day classes every Saturday for five weeks at a private agency located in Oak Park, IL, a suburb just west of Chicago. We spent each weekend with the same small group of people going over the ins and outs of foster care in Illinois.  Even though the instructors drilled in our heads that the primary goal was return to home, it appeared that every person in the room was willing to and probably hoping for adoption.  There were six couples including us and three singles in our class, all from different private agencies.  Of the six couples only two of them did not already have children biologically.  The Pastor and his wife were the only two who I felt were comfortable with the temporary arrangement of fostering.

On the first day of training we had to go around the room with introductions and a brief statement on why we were there.  A couple of the singles who were in attendance had already taken custody of family members who entered the system and they were just completing their required training to keep their nieces/nephews/cousins/grandchildren. It was a single young girl named Raquel who touched me the most. She sat across the table from us with her dark hair pulled back into a pony-tail and she wore hospital scrubs. Raquel was a NICU nurse in the city of Chicago.  When it was her turn to talk she took a deep breath and fought back the tears before she even opened her mouth. She went on to explain that she was working one night and a 9 month old little girl was brought in with failure to thrive. She weighed only 12 pounds and her head was flat on one side because she had been lying in the same position for so long, she had brain damage and her prognosis was unknown.  Raquel explained that she immediately felt a connection with this baby and after three months of caring for her she knew that this was her daughter. Not one family member had ever even come to see the little girl. Raquel was here to complete her requirements so that she could take the baby home with her. She showed us pictures of the little one’s first birthday celebration in the hospital and you could see the maternal love on her face and hear that parental pride in the way she talked about her soon-to-be daughter. From the pictures it was clear that there were some medical issues, but she was sitting up, smiling and was up to 19 pounds.  That was the first time I cried during the training. Raquel became one of my personal hero’s that day.

When it was my turn I spoke with a shaky voice, “my name is Stephanie and this is my husband Daryl.  It’s kind of a long story why we’re here and we are still in the decision-making process but to sum it up I think that we are a really loving family and great parents.  We have a calm household, we never yell and we have a lot of love to share.” I had to cut myself off before finishing for two reasons. The first one is because my eyes were yet again welling up with tears. The second reason is because I seriously felt like an idiot with the words that just came out of my mouth. Did I really just tell this group of strangers that we never yell?  Really, Stephanie – where did that even come from? Of course I raise my voice sometimes and I’m not quite sure what inspired me to make that comment but my husband was all too happy to correct my statement when it was his turn.  His response was without shakiness but with a grin, “well, I don’t know what house she lives in because it does occasionally get loud, but we do have a loving family and we have not made our decision yet because to be honest, I have a hard time thinking about caring for and falling in love with a child only to have a Judge tell me I have to return them to a parent that I’m not convinced is ready to care for him or her.”  The instructor used this as a catalyst to explain to us how hard this process can be.

“The Instructors”

Diane, our teacher, was a single woman who was raised in a hostile home environment and knew early on that this was her calling. She was a tall, very strong presence. Not only strong in the way she spoke with the assertive, no-nonsense tone but also in the passion she had for foster children. She ran the private agency that we were training in.  I admired her commitment to foster children and realized what a very special person she, as well as anyone who commits their life the way she has, had to be.  Diane’s assistant was named Ethel. She was an older, gentle woman who I would describe as a wispy “free spirit,” but others might describe her as a little ditzy.  She was clearly a very loving, patient woman and had successfully raised three biological children of her own and fostered several troubled adolescents in her lifetime.  Ethel had some hair-raising stories to tell about some of the teens that had been in her home.  She told the story of one of the first teenagers she fostered, a 13-year-old girl who had been prostituting herself for at least a year.  Instead of telling her not to do it she took a different approach.  She encouraged her to love herself more and used every opportunity to teach her self-respect. Instead of telling her what she couldn’t do, she showed her what she could do. Ethel’s persistence and unconditional love for that young girl paid off and she eventually joined the Navy, got married and has a daughter of her own now and they see each other frequently.  Another one of her foster-daughters purposefully lit part of the house on fire and when the agency went to remove her from the home Ethel’s response was “no, she stays and we’ll get through it.” When a girl (she only takes females) is placed in her home she sits down with them for a “come to Jesus meeting” where she commits to them and makes them understand that she will, under no circumstances, give up on them. I believed her. She wanted us to understand that these children are broken and every person in their lives either gave up on them or didn’t care enough to fight for them. She could not stress enough to us that these particular children cannot take any more rejection or disappointment and once we commit we have to follow through regardless of the age of the minor. Even though I thought some of her methods were a little unorthodox I did have the greatest amount of respect for her.  When we left class that day Daryl turned to me and said “it feels like if these instructors do their job properly they will scare us out of doing this.”

“Heavier Heart”

My life was changed during the five weeks we spent in that training.  My rose-colored glasses turned a bit gray.  I don’t know how anyone can sit in those classes week after week listening to the shocking real lives of these children and come out ever looking at life the same way again. We heard story after story of abuse and neglect and unthinkable conditions that kids live through.  We were told about the four-year-olds who hide food under their pillows because they don’t know when their next meal will be. Some children have a garbage bag with all of their belongings in it that they refuse to unpack because they know they’ll be moved soon. The sexual abuse stories were the hardest to listen to.  There were many times when the room would just fall silent as we all dropped our heads and soaked in the reality that these helpless little people endured.

The tragedies (that I learned are their reality) scarred my heart in a way that I could never truly describe with words. When I finish a really good book it haunts me for some time, like a cloud looming over me. I compare the obsessions, but instead of a Liane Moriarity novel, it was real life drama that happened to vulnerable little humans that my mind could not, and still has not, escaped. Every life deserves to realize their own potential and be given the same opportunities, regardless the situation they are born into. Diane had so many meaningful things to say, but one that sticks out in my mind is “every child deserves a place to call home and someone to call mom and/or dad and no one should be denied that.”

Daryl and I would drive home in silence with heaviness in our hearts. We live in an established middle-class suburb of Chicago where you can still feel comfortable letting your children walk to the park without fear.  I love to turn into our subdivision and see all of the beautiful lush trees, well-manicured lawns, giggling kids taking a break from selling lemonade to run through a sprinkler in their front yard.  Now I can’t help but wonder how many innocent children will never know that kind of happiness.  My conviction was only growing stronger.

“All In”

I’m not sure at one point my husband decided that he was “all in,” but I have a feeling he knew all along that we were going to do this. I think that most people who enter into this journey and choose not to commit are just scared. I get it. It’s a frightening thing to think about what you could be inviting into your world. In the end we decided to move forward. We sat down with our daughters and explained to them, with as much detail as we could, what it all meant. Neither one of them had any reservations. I explained to them that I was nervous and excited and ultimately unsure how this would change our lives and if they had any hesitation at all I would respect their feelings. They both continued to stay strong with their support and excitement.

We learned in class to create and have ready at all times a “question list.” When you get a call for a placement you need all of the important issues answered right away. We have the right to say yes or no to any child we are asked to take and we needed to ask the tough questions right then and there, on the phone.  We decided that we did not want an older child because Taryn was still only 9 years old and we didn’t know what to expect with whatever trauma an older child had endured. We both work and have no family support in the area so we were torn on the disabilities we could handle.  I researched babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome and I knew that these children could come with some severe disabilities and I did not feel that I was mentally strong enough to handle some of the issues that could potentially present. Studies show that drug-addicted babies could lead a normal healthy life after the chemical leaves their system and I was willing to take on that responsibility. Our list of questions was about a half of a page long. We chose to accept a child between the ages of newborn to 5-years-old even though we were told in training that we would be called with any age.  Diane also informed us that the caseworkers would not always be honest when answering our questions. She said that they would say anything to find a placement for that child or that they simply didn’t know the answer and so they would make it up. We knew that we would only accept an African-American child. Knowing the struggles that inner-city black men face there was no doubt in our mind of the race. The gender didn’t really make a difference to me but my husband definitely preferred not adding another female and her fluccuating hormones to already unbalanced mix.

We met all of our requirements on July 9th and we received our license on August 31, 2013.  Now we just had to wait for the exciting phone call that would forever change the dynamics of our home.

“Next Time”

As you can see Judge, the classes were definitely beneficial and covered a lot of ground. I do feel like the instructors were as honest as they could be. The information made me view the world differently. I was able to put life into perspective in a way that I can’t put my finger on and I don’t sweat the small stuff the same way I once did. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten names and numbers of the individuals that we spent those five weekends with because maybe they could have been a support to us.

Fourteen days after we got our license we received our first of four phone calls from the placement department. I’ll tell you all about them next time.

Stephanie

*Names have been changed.

Chapter 2 – My Why

May 5, 2012

Dear Judge,

As I sit around the long conference table with rounded edges I try not to stare at everyone around me. I daydream about what journey has led them here.  Was it similar to mine? Are they wondering about my journey? Today is the first day of our DCFS training to “consider” becoming foster parents.  I have been researching this decision since January and finally convinced my husband to at least explore what it was all about.  I know this is a calling that isn’t going to abandon my heart anytime soon and I feel certain that one day I will be foster mom to a child who was meant for my family.  My husband, however, is not so certain.  He agreed to take the classes and reserve his final decision until after we complete them.  His biggest concern is the same as every single one of us crowded around this table, and that is falling in love with a child and having to return them to a home that isn’t ready, or will never be ready to parent. But it was my darling spouse that originally opened the door to this next portal of our lives, even if he didn’t realize it.

“The Decision”

Our original conversations about adoption began nearly 25 years ago when we were in the first stages of dating. It was one of our late night/early breakfasts at a diner in Iowa where Daryl went to chiropractic school when, over coffee and through casual conversation, we realized how much we had in common. We both had outside influences growing up (both biological and non-biological) that helped us become the successful adults we are today and we both knew that we wanted to have two children biologically and then adopt one in our respective future lives.

Fast forward 20 years and we had a pretty chaotic life with a business to run, two pre-teen daughters, and absolutely no family close to us. It was a serious conversation over drinks and dinner on a much-needed family vacation in Hawaii when we decided that our family was complete, we even toasted to it. It was just seven short months later when my big-hearted husband opened the door again.

I was shopping in The Party Store for Halloween costumes with the girls when my cell phone rang and it was Daryl.  He has this way of letting me hear the smirk on his face when he is about to say something absurd and I detected it in his voice right away as he blurted out “what would you think about adopting a baby?”  After almost dropping the phone I walked down one of the aisles and looked around the store to make sure no one could hear him and see the shock on my face.  I whispered, “Uh, A:  are you crazy and B: what the hell are you talking about?”  He proceeded to tell me that a woman he just met was pregnant with her 7th child and was planning on aborting because the father had recently died. All I could mutter back was “tell me that you didn’t offer to take her baby?” And with that smirk I could still detect in his voice he said “well, yeah, kind of.”

To make a long and tedious story short, this woman had come into the office for an appointment and when asked if she was pregnant before routine x-rays she responded “yes, but go ahead with the x-rays because I’m having an abortion.” She continued to confide in him that she recently lost her husband and had no intention on keeping the baby she was three months pregnant with. He got caught up in the moment and just wanted to help her so he cracked the door open for her to consider another option. We had several meetings with her and her family and even acquired an attorney to move forward, but in the end there were just too many obstacles in her way and she did end up aborting her pregnancy. When I found out her decision my heart sank for two reasons. The first one was because I was really getting excited about the prospect of a new baby. The second reason was because of our involvement in her life she had a late-term abortion and I felt that instead of helping we made things worse. The very next day I was on the internet googling adoption and fostering.

“The Cradle”

My travels through the internet led me to The Cradle, an adoption agency in Illinois. I signed us up for one of their all-day meetings to see what it was all about, but we never actually attended.  As I read through many bios’ of the couples waiting to adopt a baby I began to realize that this was not for us.  It felt wrong to compete with these couples for a baby when I could physically have another on my own if we chose to and most of these couples could not.  Adoption was their only choice. I also wasn’t convinced that we needed to adopt an infant. That is when I started to research foster care. The more I found out the more I was drawn in.

“Licensing”

Most of the information you find online explains the process of becoming foster parents, but it doesn’t give much information on how many are adopted and what the actual time line is. There are several private agencies throughout the Chicagoland area.  I called the few that were closest to my home to find out more about what was involved.  I left a few messages and did not get a return phone call for weeks.  Knowing how desperate the state of Illinois is to find homes for the thousands of children in the system in Cook County alone, I was surprised that it was so hard to reach an agency. When I finally got someone on the phone I explained that I had some questions about the process and was trying to decide if this was right for our family.  The tone of the woman on the other end was sharp and accusatory when she asked me “are you willing to take a special needs child because we have a lot of those, in fact we have two right now we are trying to place.” I was a bit stunned with this question and stuttered my rambling response, “well, we are currently in the decision-making phase and would like some more information, but I guess it would depend on the severity of the disability, I am really just looking for more information.”  She took my name and number and said that she would have a licensing worker call me back.  I never got that call.

At this point I was telling myself that maybe this was the Universe telling me that I should leave well enough alone.  But I couldn’t.  I felt such a strong pull in this direction and couldn’t explain why.

It was through pure persistence that I finally got a licensing worker from an agency located on the south side of Chicago to come to the house and meet with us.  When she arrived she handed me her card and we sat down to discuss the process.  The first words out of her mouth were “you do understand that with foster care the goal is always return to home, right?”  My husband asked her if this was the “poor man’s adoption”.  Her response was “it’s the hardest way to adopt.”  She proceeded to explain to us that it takes a couple of months to get through the licensing process and then after placement it could take anywhere from 9 months to 5 years for a judge to release parental rights for adoption. I asked her if a child is ever returned to their bio-families after several years and she said “definitely, the longest I have personally seen is 3 years.”  I cannot grasp what it would be like to live three or more years of your life with one family and then be forced to move to another. It just doesn’t seem fair to formidable minds or to the families opening their homes and hearts. The agency caseworker gave us the fingerprint card and paperwork and said that the first step is to have a thorough background check done.  As she left our home she handed me a few more cards and said “if you know of anyone who might be interested in fostering please give them my card, we are in desperate need of good families.”  That was the last time I saw that specific worker, she was gone by the time our background check was done.

“My Why”

After doing some really heavy thinking on how hard it would be to care for and become attached to a child, love them and open myself up for heartache, I inexplicably felt more confident than ever that this was something I needed to do. The question “if I don’t do it, who would” haunted me. It nagged at me that there was a specific child I was supposed to raise. I began seeing “signs” everywhere… big billboards on the highway asking for foster parents, commercials that tugged at my heart-strings as they showed kids looking for their forever homes. I love the Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror,” and I started hearing it all of the time. The lyrics were speaking to me… like, all of the lyrics. I started to hear of more people who were fostering. Things just started to make sense to me. My father adopted me as a toddler so I knew that biology made no difference in parental love. I’ve never felt confident about what it was I wanted to do with my life but I always knew that I wanted a family. I used to dread the question “what do you want to be when you get older?” My high school yearbook says I wanted to be a social worker and I only said that because I didn’t know what else to say. There is no “career” that ever spoke to me or that I felt passionate about. I didn’t go to college right out of high school because I didn’t realize it was an option for me. My mother lost both of her parents by the time she was 15 and was taken care of by her sisters after that. If she didn’t have four older sisters she could have been a foster child herself. It felt like I had figured out what “my” purpose was.

Because my husband loves me so much and because he wasn’t saying “no way,” he agreed to take the 27 hours of training which we split up over four weekends. He did the fingerprints and health requirements and conceded with “let’s see how we feel after the classes are over.”

We had several conversations with our daughters about what it would mean and did our best to be as honest as possible with what we knew. As they did their homework I would pretend to cry incessantly and when they would get annoyed I would explain that a healthy baby cries a lot, but if we were to get an infant who was born with addiction issues or with any special need it was possible that they would cry A LOT more! Ravyn was 12 at the time and Taryn was 9 so they would just roll their eyes at me assuming I was being dramatic. As confident as I was that this was the direction my life should go, I knew that this had to be a family decision.

“Next Time”

So you see Judge, I firmly believe that people are put into our lives for a reason. Sometimes they are only there for a fleeting moment but the impact they make is profound. I believe in God, but I am far from religious. When I think about the events that led up to us taking those classes I know that there was some sort of intervention. Maybe it was divine, or possibly just human interaction that made me hyper aware of the opportunity that was right in front of me. I’m not sure.

In my next letter I will tell you about those classes and how they changed my family’s life forever.

Stephanie

 

*Names have been changed.

Chapter 1 – Adoption Day

Adoption Day

With tearful eyes and one of those really good and genuine hugs, a friend recently choked out the words “my wish for you on adoption day is that you go to sleep that night breathing easier.” I look forward to falling asleep tonight because I have no doubt that will be the case! I feel lighter and my mind is clearer. Today, Malachi is no longer a foster child. Four years and six months later and he is legally our son.

When we made the decision to become foster parents our biggest fear was falling in love with a child and having to hand him back over to someone not equipped to parent. Reunification with biological parents is always the goal with family court and we did know that up front. The word “hard” does not begin to describe the reality of foster parenting. But then again, the word “love” does not even remotely begin to describe how I feel about my son.

I have become very familiar with every emotion that my brain can comprehend and now I feel like an expert at juggling several of them at once. I didn’t know it was possible to get news that could make me feel anger, frustration, hope and excitement in the same breath. In addition to the intense adoration and development of love that happens when you watch your child grow, my mind has been full of emotional instability during every stage of his young life. I anticipated that today would be nothing but joy, and even though I am definitely over-the-moon happy, I am also experiencing some upset that I wasn’t expecting.

Maybe it’s because I don’t really believe that it actually happened. There have been so many setbacks and mistakes made throughout this wonderful, miraculous but VERY bumpy journey, that I keep waiting for someone to call and say that there was a conflict of interest or that a form wasn’t signed or that there was a part of the process missing altogether (all things that have happened). I definitely wasn’t counting on feeling ANY form of sadness on this day, but the fact that there are so many children who need stable homes is forefront in my mind, just like it has been since we started this life-changing adventure.

I can’t help but reminisce today about the day we picked our little man up from the shelter downtown Chicago and the one-day of prep that I had to get ready for an 9-day-old infant. The excitement, fear, anxiety and utter shock I felt those couple of days has been forever tattooed in my heart.

That first day at home was intoxicating, exhilarating, scary and surreal. As guarded as we wanted to be, it was impossible not to fall in love right away. The time since then has been spent like any other family with a new addition – minus the visits with bio-mom and dad, sibling visits, licensing visits, case worker visits, medication logs, parenting classes, attorney meetings, required development screenings, fights with said caseworker, hoops to jump through for quality healthcare, diagnoses that I’ve never heard of, DCFS case reviews, court dates and several other ridiculous requirements that have nothing to do with anything important. I am so grateful and proud of my daughters at how awesome, supportive and helpful they have been with the whole process and the strain that it put on our family… they are the mega stars of big sisters.

My favorite part of early motherhood with my girls was nursing them. I loved the way their innocent eyes studied me and how their tiny heads fit perfectly into the crease of my arm with their bodies curved around my mid-section. It was magical then and it was absolutely the same feeling when I fed Malachi his bottles. There was unquestionably no difference in the maternal bonding. I felt protective and defensive and I loved him more every day, every moment. I cherished watching him explore the world and observed with adoration as his little personality got bigger and more charismatic. He has taught me so much about living in the moment and how powerful love is.

From day one, the constant barrage of required visits with bio-mom and dad, siblings, caseworkers and licensing home checks were extremely stressful. I had done quite a bit of mental gymnastics to prepare for the onslaught of emotions that would come with “sharing” him with his bio-mom, but in the end it was an epic fail. Not something you can prepare for. It was a bewildering thing to feel the teeter-totter of emotions that went between compassion for this woman who was doing her best with what she’d been born with and the melancholy of what might actually happen if she’d been given another opportunity with my son. Her son. The shame I felt when I started to look forward to her failing was not a shining moment for me as a woman or a mother.

Nature versus nurture… that is the question. Five years ago you could not have convinced me that nurture would not win every time. It’s easy, right? Provide a stable home filled with love, discipline and follow through. You teach values, respect and consequence and good behavior just falls in place. Reality has completely kicked my ass in this regard. Malachi has taught me SO MANY lessons but I think one of the biggest ones is never to judge a book by its cover (or a “bratty” behaving child and their parents in public). It’s such a cliché but it’s so accurate to say that you never truly know what’s going on in someone else’s life. I am acutely aware that we have many battles ahead of us and we face those hurdles with optimism and confidence. There have been times when I have been blurry-eyed, bone-aching exhausted and disheartened with the process, the assistance (or lack thereof) regarding the special needs that have come with my son, and the challenges of actually dealing with those needs, and I picture how life would be so smooth if we hadn’t made this choice. I have actually allowed myself to whisper “what did I do to our life?” Within seconds of allowing that thought to creep into my already drained frontal lobe, I would feel an obnoxious and almost painful nausea creep throughout my body… and then sob into a mound of guilty goo. As I melted down I would picture where he would be if not here and then I would cry a bit more. He is right where he is supposed to be. The choice we made to foster is the same as the decision we made to get pregnant. The ultimate commitment.

He is my son and has been since November 1, 2012, but now that his name is legally the same as mine there is no one that can take him away from me, or threaten me, or force me to take him somewhere I’m not comfortable. I never again have to get permission to take him on vacation and provide the sleeping arrangements planned for the hotel, give him a medication or take him to a specialist doctor. I don’t have to violate my babysitter’s privacy by asking for their social security number so that I can hand it over to the state of Illinois. I no longer have to welcome people into my home to check on my parenting and act as if I am their babysitter. Strangers can’t invade my space and ask me if I’m feeding him the same foods that I feed “my own” kids or check his closet to make sure he has clothing. No more explaining the way I discipline him and then taking advice from a know-it-all, 20-something-year-old with no children on how to properly handle ADHD tantrums while staying within “DCFS guidelines.” If I am not happy with a doctor we are seeing I can just find another one without being placed on a nine-month waiting list and pending approval from the state.

I often hear compliments like “he is so lucky to have you,” or “I hope he realizes how blessed he is.” I do appreciate the kindness behind those sentiments, but want those people to understand that WE are privileged to have HIM. He is such a light in our lives… sometimes an overly energetic and difficult light, but definitely a bright one. There really is something so special about him. He greets me in the morning with his head cocked to one side, middle finger up and pointing like he is discussing a very philosophical topic and with a furrowed brow and narrowed serious eyes he says “how was your sleep mom?” Regardless of my mood he makes me smile or laugh every single day with his over-the-top excitement as he tells me one of his train facts or the way he assuredly, but politely tells me “no thanks mom” when I instruct him to pick up his toys. I adore him. Now that adoption day is over I can watch him develop and grow with a lot less weight on my shoulders. I am so eager to see what my little man will do in this world. We are honored to be his parents.

Our reality is best stated quoting the chorus from a song the famous big purple dinosaur sings: “A family is people and a family is love, that’s a family. They come in all difference sizes and different kinds but mine’s just right for me.”

As happy as I am today, I am still heart-broken for the thousands of children who will not be afforded the same opportunities my kids have.

Thank you to ALL of our friends and family who have supported us throughout this process. We are so lucky to have such a strong network of people who love us. Your kind words, hands of help and cheerleading did not go unnoticed! We wouldn’t change our current lives and our decision for the world and cannot imagine life without our beloved and precocious Malachi.

What’s Next:

When I realized how little control I had in my son’s life, it became therapeutic for me to write “letters to the judge” so that I could communicate to the one person who, in the end, was going to make the decision about where Malachi would ultimately spend his life. I never intended on sending the letters, it became a chronological diary that helped me cope through the past four years. This has been such an eye-opening and perplexing process for me that I feel compelled to share it. My goal is to publish those letters on this blog one at at time. The topics range from why we decided to embark on this journey, the classes taken, all of the visits and obstacles that stood in our way and why it took so long to reach this awesome day. The good, bad and the ugly!