Moving On

Every time my life settles down enough for me to return to regular blogging, crazy stuff happens.  First there was the sudden arrival of newborn baby Z. - we were called at 2:30 pm and by 4:30, Eric was picking him up at the hospital.  Since normally one gets more than umm...two hours to prepare for the arrival of a new baby, we were a little discombobulated.

Then there was much back and forth insanity as the County and C. and K.'s family attempted to make possible a visit from across the US to our area.  We didn't know until last Friday whether it would happen - and all of a sudden it was.  For five days we spent almost all our time shuttling the boys back and forth and hosting their family member to make it possible for everyone to spend time together.  On Tuesday, in court, the family member was awarded custody of C. and K. (something that was absolutely the right thing, but that we hadn't necessarily expected), and two few hours later, the boys were on a plane back across the US.  There was barely time to say goodbye.

Fortunately I had packed their backpacks and suitcases, and swore up and down I'd send their things.  They came with toothbrushes, one spare shirt each, a pair of socks and one of underwear, and their school backpacks.  It will take six big boxes to mail their stuff back home.  I want all my kids to leave with more than they came with - I mean that in every sense, emotionally as well as physically, but building a basic platform of met physical needs is critical. Kids who have nothing feel they are nothing.  Kids with clean clothes and stuffed animals to hug and books to read and shoes that fit haven't got all they need - but it is a start.  That's why I work so hard at building a stash of toys, clothes, books, etc... - often the people they go home to have few financial resources, and while we aren't rich, we have more than we need.

The boys had been with us for almost three months, and in that time, we'd become a family.  We are fortunate - K. and C.'s family wants to keep in touch and let us stay in the boys' lives, but it is a huge change, not just for Eric and I who lost our sons, but for my children, who lost their brothers.  We are all sad to lose them, even though we are truly happy that they have gone home and are with their family.

Transitions in foster care are always hard, and almost always rapid.  You get a call and the adrenaline starts pumping - they'll be here in 2 hours with four siblings, or you have to pick them up before things close at 5.  The same with goodbyes - in a perfect world there would be visits and transitions.  In reality, mostly the kids leave as soon as the judge rules.  You know it can happen, but you struggle with what to tell them (not wanting to raise either hopes or fears), and also with what to tell yourself.  Then you are gathering up their things and taking them away.

In most cases, my kids have moved to live with family, in something called kinship care.  The computer era has made it possible to find relatives that no one would have every known about.  A new culture that values familiarity and stability means that relatives, or "fictive kin" - ie, someone the child has a prior relationship with - get priority.  I have never yet had to do the thing all foster parents fear - send a child home to a family member that hurt or neglected them.  I'm sure it will happen at some point, but generally they go to relatives.  Sometimes this is a wonderful thing - family work heroically to get the children.   There was the grandfather who spent 36 hours on a bus, the father who nearly bankrupted himself trying to get into a place for him to take his kids.

Sometimes kinship care is less ideal - a relative already struggling takes on children or more children to keep them in the family.  It can work, or not.  Some of my children arrive after these situations fail.  But ultimately the push now to keep kids in their family and community - as it should be.   That doesn't mean it isn't hard.  But it mostly is right.

I get more praise for doing this than I am comfortable with - the reality is that what I am doing is NORMAL - for most of human history, reaching out and taking in some extras was a natural reality of human existence.  If you had a surplus of something - food, shelter, time, love - there were always those in need.  For most of human history, short life expectations and high death rates meant that many children lived with kin or fictive kin for part of their lives.  Indeed, in much of the world right now what I am doing would be utterly normal.  Consider Uganda, where 95% of AIDS orphans were taken in by kin or fictive kin - even with orphanages overflowing, most of the children were taken in by family.  In Haiti after the earthquake, the countryside was filled with families overflowing with refugees.  This is what people do - we look around, and open up.

What's different about my role is that I don't have a biological relationship to the children I foster.  But what I've found is that it takes less than two weeks for the kids to be as much mine as any I have given birth to.  In all the placements we've had this year (and we've had quite a few), I've never had children I wouldn't have wanted to keep.  Biology just doesn't count for much around here.  Where it does matter is often to the children themselves - stripped of everything else they had, their sense of belonging is important to them.  Family may be fragile and tenuous, but they have a place there, and they long for it.  Sometimes it can't happen - there is no one for them. In that case, adoption is the right thing.  But more often, there is a place for them, if it can be found and facilitated, and when they are old enough to understand, that sense of place, however imperfect, is a gift for them.

I do not like to be told how wonderful I am for doing this, or how saintly.  I do this for purely selfish reasons - because I like it.  As Asher, my littlest grew bigger, even though he's only six, as Eli became a near-adolescent 12, I could see the days when my children would be grown coming - and wanted to extend my time as a Mom a little longer.  I don't do it save kids, I do it to save a part of myself that I enjoy.  I'm not a saint, I'm selfish - it just happens that what I want and need (more kids, a challenge, a more intimate view of a part of my world I wouldn't see otherwise) is good for the kids too.

Thus, att the same time we are all missing K. and C., there's an excitement at the project of cleaning out the room they were living in.  I wish I could have them back, annoying packrat tendency to keep every gum wrapper and all, but as long as I can't, I admit, getting rid of the gum wrappers is kind of pleasant.  And it is nice to be able to bring down the dolls that otherwise would have been beheaded as Clone Spies in games of "Sith Lord vs. Jedi Master." (While some boys like dolls, this batch was no respecter of baby dolls ;-))  I would have the boys back in a heartbeat, but I also begin to look forward to the next kids who need us, and the next reconstitution of our family into something new.

K. and C. gave me a lot of gifts as a foster parent.  They taught me how to handle some behaviors that are common responses to neglect and abuse.  They showed me how much my boys really do want foster siblings their own age to play with.  Their attentive caring for Eli, and the way they included him in the gang of boys made me realize that I could remind my own sons of ways to include Eli.  Their pictures sit on my shelves, their artwork adorns my walls, the space they made in my heart is now open for someone else - and they will stay there too.

One of the things hardest to understand about foster care is the question "How can you give them back?"  And I won't lie, it sometimes breaks your heart.  But loving children means wanting what is best for them, and as the song goes, "Broken hearts won't kill you, you'll just want to die."  That wanting to die doesn't last, thankfully.  Sometimes I'm not sure what is best, or what is best isn't possible, and that's hard as heck.  But often what's best for them is for them to go - I can see that what I can give K. and C. does not outweigh that.   I can give them back because I love them.  For the exact same reason I could keep them.

On Tuesday, when they went home, I called up an elderly relative of theirs who I have gotten to know over the course of court-ordered weekly phone calls.  I knew no one would have had time to call her and let her know what happened in court.  My first words to her were "Your babies' plane takes off in 45 minutes.  They'll be home tonight"  She cried.  I cried.  It was one of the best phone calls I have ever made.

They called yesterday when they made it to their new home, full of stories about their first plane ride and how excited they were to see their relatives.  I cried, again, of course, although I tried not to.  I told them how the baby goats were doing and what we'd been doing since, and promised to pack up all their toys and not forget one.  And I said goodbye for now - but we'll send birthday presents and talk on the phone.  It won't be the same - but they will remain family.

Then I went upstairs and put clean sheets on the beds that are not theirs anymore, and packed up the rest of their toys to mail to them, along with boxes of clothes and shoes, school supplies for fall and everything they will need (much provided my my wonderful extended family so they will never go short).  I took down the baby dolls and the preschoolers toys, rearranged the books and swept up the accumulated choking hazards that two little boys leave in their wake wherever they go, snuggled Baby Z. (who will probably also go home at some point in the next few months) and wondered when the phone will ring next.  Like the boys, I'm taking with me more than I came with.



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Thank you for this wonderful post. Our family situation has changed in such a way that our foster-care plans had to be put on hold for a while (to my great sadness), but your post is getting filed away in my mind to support me later when I need it.

I think you underestimate yourself. You do have some special quality that allows you to do this over and over again, whereas many others (myself included) would stop after suffering so much heartbreak. I know that I could not stand bringing children into our home and making them a part of our family only to have to send them away, even when it was to people who were good for them.

Then again, maybe it's easier for those who have kids of their own. The closet I've yet come to being a parent is being pregnant for a brief but glorious few weeks, and that left a hole in my heart that has yet to heal.

Wow. We have had such different experiences as foster parents. My kids come with so much STUFF. And our house is SMALL. It was always a challenge to fit their bags and bags and bags of stuff in. I am only half joking when I say that my goal was to send them out with LESS stuff than they came in with.

Granted, most of it was junk, but it was THEIR junk and they were old enough that they refused to part with it. Clothes that didn't fit, broken toys that they had long since outgrown anyway, and just random junk (like collections of school supplies so large the would keep your entire family in stock).

Our experience has been that foster kids can get so much stuff for free from a variety of sources--clothes, school supplies, toys, books, sometimes even electronics--that they just acquire and acquire and acquire. But because of their backgrounds, they are reluctant to let anything go.

It was a huge challenge for us in our 700 square foot, 2 bedroom, minimal storage house where we need space for two adults to work from home plus had two foster kids as well.

It's great that you are so giving with your foster children. And surely some of it is meeting a real need. But as someone who has been on the receiving end of so much stuff from kids in care, you may want to think about just how much you send the kids away with. A season's worth of clothes that fit (you have no idea how much they may or may not grow by the time the season changes), personal meaningful mementos, and a few special toys should be the limit. Otherwise, it's just a too-much-stuff problem for someone else to solve, someone whose house might not be nearly as spacious as yours.

By Former Foster Mama (not verified) on 19 Jul 2012 #permalink

FFM that's a fair point, but is very alien to our experience. Most of the kids we have come with NOTHING - mostly not even remotely appropriate clothing, no toys, no nothing. If they do come with any clothing (none have come with toys or anything like it, much less electronics), it is usually five sizes too big or too small (an adult women's coat on a 7 year old, a child arriving in shorts and a t shirt in late November, shoes at least 4 sizes too small with toes sticking out...).

We've had 16 kids in 6 placements in a year, and none of them has come with much of anything. We did have one sibling group who had five minutes to pack a suitcase - you can imagine how well a 12 year old packing for her four siblings did. Nor have we had people offering us anything - other than the friends and family who help us build our stash. Oh, that's not true, they got free hats at a baseball game once. That's about it.

They also come in our case into a home that has four other children in it - and the children have stuff. Not as much as a lot of kids, but plenty - so limiting them to a few special toys would create an egregious difference between them and my children.

It isn't my job to get rid of their stuff for them - that is their family's issue, and frankly, I know the kids would be hurt by my not sending their possessions (gum wrappers excluded).. They can decide what to keep and give away, but I know for a fact that this family has NOTHING for their children and nearly went broke trying just to get them out there. So I think I'll let them worry about space considerations.

I'm curious where you are living, since we've had such utterly different experiences of foster care. If there is anyone wanting to lavish stuff on foster children, I certainly haven't run into it.


I should add that most of our kids have been first or second removals direct from abusive or neglectful parents, rather than pre-adoptive placements moved from other foster homes. When they do go, they go into kinship placements which tend to even less well supported than foster homes here, so I never have much worry about sending too much. Even small homes need boots, underpants, blankets and a few books - and most of our kids have never had such things.

Rebecca, I'm sure it does in some measure make it easier to have my four biological children, although there are many wonderful foster parents who have children of their own and do this as well. I know quite a number of them.

I think what makes it possible for me is the knowledge that I'd be sparing myself something that is asked of very young children - the kids still lose everything, they still have to make the multiple moves, they still suffer all the trauma of abuse and neglect, then removal from the only families they've ever known, the loss of their home, parents, extended family, often siblings... If I spare myself unhappiness, they still have to endure. I think of myself as much better emotionally equipped to handle heartbreak than a 7 year old or a 4 year old ;-). As long as they have endure heartbreak, why shouldn't I to make theirs better?


And when kids come into the home, you never know what will be important. My son entered our family at 9 years. Three years later he still has a box of old, ripped, out-grown clothes that he isn't ready to give up. Some of them were clothes that he had when he lived with his birth family, some he had been specifically given during visitations while in care. I may not see the value, but he does.

Having people that love you, regardless of biology, is a blessing. I'm make sure my son knows that he is loved, by his birth family, his foster family, and us. He cherishes his relationships with both his birth family, and his foster family. Having continued healthy contact means that he learns that people don't aways go away and provides him with links to his own history.

We live in a wealthy community with a ton of non-profits that give handouts of stuff to foster kids. Bicycles, electronics, books, clothes, school supplies, more clothes, bedding, toys, you name it. I guess this can vary from community to community.

Sadly, the things we really needed--actual payments to foster care parents (we're among the lowest in the nation, and certain extremely low when you consider the high cost of living here) and, more importantly, good health care for these kids. The medical coupons we have are so bad, you can only go to the two-tiered state university health center, where docs actually denied my girls routine vaccines--but gave the same vaccines to the richies with private health care who used their clinic.

But back to the stuff. I'm not objecting to the kids having some stuff. But I want to give you an example of the order of magnitude we're talking about. We had two kids, and a pretty standard-sized four-door car. When we dropped our kids off to move in with extended family, I could not accompany my husband, because there was absolutely, positively NO ROOM in the car for another person. In fact, there was not even room for all their stuff in that first trip. We had to load the car up a second time and drive another packed car full of stuff down to DSHS. We were lucky we squeezed it all in--and that was with the bikes on the bike rack.

At a certain point, this becomes an issue when foster parents or kin placements are not affluent enough to afford a large home. Where do you put all this stuff?

We did buy our kids a few things they needed, like good quality outerwear (we do a lot more outside stuff than their bio family or previous foster family did) and new lunch boxes for school. But I was surprised to see what a sense of entitlement our kids had--they were so used to so many handouts to foster kids that they came to expect more and more new stuff all the time.

Most of what they had (those bags and bags of stuff) came from these sort of non-profit handouts. I'm thankful they are there to support foster kids, but does present a challenge when the kids aren't just hanging on to the outgrown clothes and toys that bio family bought for them (this I totally understand and think is healthy) and instead are also hanging on to the clothes, toys, books, etc. that they got for free.

Maybe we just had pack-rat kids, because this wasn't one box. It was massive black garbage bags, many of them, per child.

By Former Foster Mama (not verified) on 20 Jul 2012 #permalink

FFM - where do you live that the kids don't get Medicaid? I don't always love the hunt for Medicaid accepting dentists and doctors, but my kids get good care, and I thought all FKs nationally got Medicaid? No coupons.

I agree, the payments are appalling - we make far less for keeping them 24/7 than we would for doing daycare for them - and less than it costs to raise them.

But we have never had anyone offer us anything, other than kind blog readers, people from our synagogue and my family - we provide all those things ourselves. And none of my kids come with anything - when they live with family they are not foster children so wouldn't be eligible for the same programs anyway, and all their families are desperately poor. I've just never seen anything like what you describe here - different places obviously are different.

I guess I don't think that three packing boxes per child are at all unreasonable - we're talking about a summer and winter wardrobe (and I have been successfully predicting what size kids would be in during the next season for 12 years with my own kids, so I'm pretty good at it and reasonably confident about it), boots, skates, baseball gloves, some classic children's books (they've never owned any books at all), a couple of stuffed animals, their school materials, and yes, some junky toys - because they had NO toys, and I'm fine with them buying plastic ninja turtles for a buck a bag at yard sales. We are not talking about broken things or valueless ones (barring the stupid ninja turtles, which matter enormously to THEM, even if not to me) other than a few sentimental things that matter to them.

I guess I feel like if you meet the minimal requirements for a bedroom for the children to foster, you can fit a wardrobe and a box of toys and books for each kid in there. Clearing out to accomodate a particular situation is the job of the parents, not mine - making sure they aren't freezing in winter (they were last winter) is mine.

We'll it's like Medicaid, but it's called "Medical Coupons" here. The problem is that very few providers take the "Medical Coupons," and those that do are often filled. Worse still is that the ones that take them offer an unspoken, but quite apparent, two-tiered care--doting on those with private insurance and virtually neglecting those on "Medical Coupons," because the reimbursements are so low. So we ended up waiting months for appointments, being denied an appointment when my kid had an infection that was oozing green pus, and not being able to get routine vaccines.

Meanwhile, the rich families with private care report getting cadillac care at the same university clinic. We would've gone elsewhere, but there was nowhere to go. The few other places that would take the coupons were filled, there is such high demand.

I want to be really clear here: I'm not talking about a few packing boxes. I'm talking about those giant heavy-duty black garbage bags, maybe a half dozen per child, maybe more. I've forgotten.

We did meet the minimum requirement for bedroom and closet size--with two kids sharing a room. It was unbelievably jam-packed with all their stuff. Total chaos, even with all the organizing bins and such I bought. I would've loved to have been the foster mom that gave them stuff, but there was simply no room--they got rain gear, bike helmets, a board game, and lunch boxes from me, and that was it. The closet was bursting at the seams, the bureau drawers could barely be shut. And still, my kids begged for more and more and more.

And let's just say that if you find the reimbursement rates appalling where you live (a less expensive community in the state of New York with better reimbursement rates), you'd be truly shocked to learn how low the rates are in the super expensive community we live in.

I think our experience may have been different because the kids came from another foster placement--we were going to try to adopt them, but they ended up being adopted by family. That said, they acquired an ungodly amount of stuff while with their other foster mom, and the burden fell on us to accommodate the insane volumes of stuff when they moved in with us.

All I really wanted to say was that there does come a point where sending kids off with a lot of stuff isn't a help to the receiving family but a hindrance. If you only see kids coming directly from removal, you don't get the longer-term picture on how the stuff issue plays out.

By Former Foster Mama (not verified) on 20 Jul 2012 #permalink

Right, but I guess I think the circumstances are pretty different - my kids aren't going to other foster placements in middle class families. If someone was going to adopt them, it would have been us ;-). I do think dejunking before the move to the extent it is possible given the needs of the kids is important, but the reality is that the kids have issues, and stuff is one of them - that's why I didn't throw out the gum wrappers until after they left.

The garbage bag thing always horrifies me too - so disrespectful to kids to have to transport their stuff that way anyway.

I have never had a kid headed to the kind of multiple move sequence you are talking about - I'll keep it in mind, but so far the circumstances are very, very different.

The same is true of the medical care - very different here. It can be a huge hassle to find someone to take it, but the doctors have been excellent, actually - much better than I anticipated. I guess I'm lucky I don't live around a lot of rich people ;-).

Oh, our kids weren't going to middle class families. That's part of my point. Wealthier people live in bigger homes that can accommodate all this stuff.

I'm so happy to hear you can get your kids decent medical care where you live. It was SO hard here for the foster kids.

We were lucky when my son was born--he got into a Medicaid HMO, and the HMOs policy was to blind the caregivers and even the gatekeepers to our Medicaid status. So we got super fair treatment for him.

Alas, can't get foster kids into the HMO Medicaid because the waiting list is HUGE. We only got in because we got the same HMO on our Cobra subsidies and parents in the HMO system can get their Medicaid babies in.

I think despite our widely different experiences, we can agree that there's a whole lot of foster care reform that's needed.

By Former Foster Mama (not verified) on 20 Jul 2012 #permalink

Our current placement, a 2 yr old girl, is going to be headed to family in a few weeks. We are certainly going to miss her nd would be willing to adopt her if we could. But to all the people who say they could never do foster care because they would not be able to feel so bad bout seeing the kids leave.. It's a really selfish reason to not help out kids. I'd much rather feel sad when kids leave, and know that we gave them a great home while they were with us, than not have them here at all! We need good foster parents here so bad.

Granted, most of it was junk, but it was THEIR junk and they were old enough that they refused to part with it. Clothes that didn’t fit, broken toys that they had long since outgrown anyway, and just random junk (like collections of school supplies so large the would keep your entire family in stock).


My son entered our family at 9 years. Three years later he still has a box of old, ripped, out-grown clothes that he isn’t ready to give up. Some of them were clothes that he had when he lived with his birth family, some he had been specifically given during visitations while in care. I may not see the value, but he does.

My two cents; these are signs of incipient hoarding, with which I have issues. Watching the hoarding show on TV has helped me identify why I get all teary about an old shirt that I no longer wear, and instead of hanging it back in the closet I can put it in the donate bin. (Bad of me, but I let the charity decide it's not worth reselling.) It is hard to learn that the things are not the people or the events they represent.

One of the major catalysts in hoarding situations is a serious life trauma; divorce, death in the family, and in the more egregious cases people turn to things because they are more reliable than people. It would seem to me that being in foster care could trigger hoarding behavior.

@ildi: Yes! You've hit the nail on the head. I hadn't even thought of that, and our family has hoarders on both sides. Very different traumas, same hoarding result. My husband and I both have hoarder moms. If you haven't lived with it, you have no idea how debilitating it is.

I wish that there would be some acknowledgement of this and some treatment for these kids. Unless they end up in super affluent families, most of us don't have the space to accommodate the behavior, especially if we want to buy (or otherwise acquire)\the things our kids actually need.

By Former Foster Mama (not verified) on 23 Jul 2012 #permalink

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