Saturday, September 24, 2011


Not long after R and A had come and gone in that one whirlwind day, we got a call asking if we could do a respite weekend for another foster family.

It's difficult to understand sometimes, but the children placed in my home are not truly "in my custody." We may be responsible for their every day needs, for making sure they get to school everyday, for seeing that they are fed and clothed and bathed, for getting them to every doctor's, counselor's or state appointment, but they are still "wards of the state." As such, the state gets to determine who can supervise them. For every news story about a foster child who died or was abused while in care, there seem to be 3 layers of laws intended to prevent such a thing from happening again. No babysitters under age 18, all caregivers must be fingerprinted, background checked, and drug screened, anyone who keeps them more than a few hours must go through the multi-hour foster parent training. This means I can't ask the teenager next door to babysit while my husband and I go grab a pizza and talk to each other and I can't ask the mom next door to host a playdate so that I can go the dentist alone.

Respite weekends are the foster care's attempt to give foster families some "days off." Parenting foster children can be a constant wearing at the ties of the biological family. These strange kids don't follow our rules and they seem to get a lot of extra attention --- that's hard on our birth children; it's exhausting keeping up with the extra needs of children who've been through the trauma of separation from their family -- that's hard on the physical health of the parents; there seems to be little "private time" between adults and less energy to do something with it when it does happen -- that's hard on the marital relationship. So, we're supposed to be allowed "one weekend of respite care a month" where the foster children spend the weekend with a family certified to care for them and the biological family gets a chance to reconnect and rest. In practice, those weekends don't happen regularly, because finding the caregiver is difficult.

At the time of this call, we were certified foster parents without a placement. Which made us ideal respite caregivers. We were asked to care for 3 children, ages 1, 2, and 3 in our home from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. Mr D was going to be busy with work all day Saturday and I was scheduled to attend foster parent training that day -- would that be a problem? No, they could be added to the childcare at the training. We didn't have enough beds ready for 3 children of that age. Also, not a problem . . . "it's just for 2 nights." And then the truth comes out, "you're really the only option we've got." OK, then.

The day before they were supposed to come to us, I got a call from the foster dad. The kids are sick. All 3 are running fevers and the foster mom is on the way to the pediatrician. The whole weekend might be off; he'll let us know. Friday night, we know they definately aren't coming as they are all on antibiotics. At that point, the foster dad is still hoping they'll be in good enough shape for us to have them Saturday and Saturday night. It's his biological daughter's 16th birthday and all she wants as a celebration is a nice dinner out.

Saturday morning, they weren't well enough to send them to childcare. Could they drop them off at our place around 6, go to dinner, and come back and pick them up around 8? Initially, I said yes. Then, I talked to Mr D, who pointed out that all they really need is a babysitter for the evening. Wouldn't it be better if one of us just went to their house? Then the sick kids could go to bed at their usual time. I called the foster dad back and proposed this and he jumped on it.

I spent about 4 hours at their house. They had the kids eating dinner when I arrived and told me their bedtime routine. After they left, I cleaned up from dinner and played with the kids for about 30 minutes. Then I gave them each a bath (translation: I supervised while they played in soapy water in the bathtub), got them into PJ's and put them to bed. When the foster family returned, they were effusive in their thanks for the evening out. It wasn't until we'd had our own longer-term placement that I understood how refreshing just a few hours can be.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Edmund is our youngest. He's Mr Happy-Go-Lucky, never met a stranger, the world is a wonderful place. He's full of energy and enthusiasm and he can't sit still to save his life.

His birthday falls a few weeks after the school age cutoff, so he started kindergarten as the oldest kid in the class. And the biggest. He's always wanted to do everything that Peter does, so he was also far advanced academically. I worried about the start of kindergarten, because I knew he'd be bored and I was afraid he'd be a discipline problem because of it. He was already comfortably reading 2nd and 3rd grade level books before kindergarten started and he could do simple addition problems in his head.

The first week of Kindergarten, I got a call from his teacher. "Just wanted to talk about what I'm seeing with Edmund." Oh, no, I thought, Already? what's he done? What's going on? "I've got nothing in this classroom that's going to challenge him in reading, so I need your permission to do some 1st grade testing with him." Oh. OK.

Ultimately, she worked with him so carefully and so hard that he was ready to jump over 1st grade and start 2nd grade a year early. The assessment they do to decide if this is a good move for a child looks at their social, physical and emotional development levels as well as their academics. He got a 20 out of 24 on it, and the teacher who did it pointed out that it wasn't possible for him to get all points because some of them are based on your SAT scores.

Beginning foster care has been the hardest challenge for him, I think. He's gone from being the baby, although I frequently forget just how young he really is, to being a stand-in "big brother" for kids who may or may not want one.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Susan is our second born, our only girl. She's in late elementary, an avid reader, a dog lover, and has Asperger's.

Her spot on the autism spectrum is very much on the "high-functioning end" with some social skills that she's still struggling with and some fine motor control issues that we are working on circumventing. She has trouble understanding that she cannot always believe everything someone else says.

She is passionate about her faith in God and is the most excited of all of the children to be involved in foster care. She knows, on an intellectual level, that she is blessed with a happy loving home that other children do not have and has leapt to the challenge of providing that to others. She's just not sure exactly how to behave with them.

She is surprisingly good with O as well, and will play with him for as long as he's interested, then leave him alone with no hard feelings when he wants to move on to someone else. I worry that she is a little too prone to believe everything L tells her, but am grateful that our first placement has involved children with minimal behavior issues.

Monday, September 12, 2011

In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning

When we decided to get into foster parenting, we knew we might be given a child who did not yet sleep through the night. We were prepared for night time feedings for a baby; we were ready to train a toddler prone to wandering the house at odd hours to stay in their room at night.

We were not prepared for last night.

When L and O arrived, we showed them their rooms. We explained that these rooms were for them. They were certainly allowed to play with someone else in someone else's room, but we laid out a very simple rule. If a bedroom door is closed, you do not open it yourself and come on in. After L knocked on our sons' bedroom door at 6am, we clarified the rule. If the door is closed in the morning, the child in that room is not yet up and ready to play; you must wait until they open the door themselves.

Another night, Mr D was awakened by the sound of music in the hallway at 2am. He walked out to find L in the hall, singing loudly along with her mp3 player (which had the volume all the way up). He sent her back to bed. The next day we had a conversation about what she may and may not do if she wakes up in the night. (May: Use the bathroom and return to her room. May not: Leave her room for any other reason.)

Yesterday morning, I heard L telling one of the other kids that she'd "sleepwalked" the last two nights and "woke up in O's room!" Huh, I thought. I had my doubts that she was really sleepwalking, but made a mental note to check on who was sleeping where for the next several nights.

When we we went to bed last night, I checked each room. Everyone in their own bed, asleep, doors closed. I awoke at 4:30am and laid in bed, not sure why I was awake. Then I heard a door close.

I looked in L's room -- door open, no children. I looked in O's room -- door open, no children. I looked briefly downstairs, then went back up to our sons' room. Light off, boys asleep, O in the corner playing with L's DS. I whispered piercingly, "O! It is 4 in the morning! You are supposed to be in your bed, asleep!" I took the DS and walked towards the other end of the room, expecting to see L. Not seeing her in the gloom, I whispered her name, "L!" She immediately moved towards me and casually acknowledged my presence.

I continued the harsh whisper, "What are you doing in here?! It is 4 o'clock in the morning!" I began herding both L and O towards the door, as she said -- in a normal, conversational tone of voice -- she was "just looking for something." I have rarely been so angry at a child. I put O back to bed and told him the rule I used to give my early bird son; if it is still dark outside, it is not morning and you should go back to sleep. Then, I went to L's room, where she was now snuggled under the covers.

"We have talked about what to do when you wake up in the night. We have talked about not going into other people's rooms when they are not awake. There is no good reason for you to have been in that room just now, is there?" "No, ma'am." "You need to go back to sleep. We will talk about this in the morning."

I never got back to sleep.

In the morning, I reiterated the rules. I told her I had taken her DS from O and I hadn't decided yet when she was getting it back. I warned her that if this happens again, I will be taking other things.

I am too exhausted to finish this post.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Who they are - O

O is a 3 year old boy. He is talkative and cheerful, with a quick smile and an infectious laugh. It's difficult to understand everything he says, because most of his consonants are skipped or slurred. But his vocabulary is huge. And he is always talking. Always telling you about everything he sees, everything her remembers. Always asking, "Why?"

He picks up the rules quickly. He may not always remember to follow them, and he may not like them much, but he knows them. After he's been with us for 2 weeks, he begins to show us his displeasure at having the ones he doesn't like enforced. "Naptime!" is met with a scowl, crossed arms and a seat on the steps. But we haven't seen a temper tantrum yet.

He loves to play with cars, trains, trucks and toys that make noise. Oh, how he loves toys that make noise.

The hardest thing to see about him is the ease with which he has accepted being in the strange house, with no one he knows. He carries the phone around the house, trying to "show" his father his room. He asks occasionally, "Mommy not here?" but my response that she isn't doesn't elicit a reaction. He parrots back "miss you" on the phone calls, but I'm not sure he means it. He lights up at being told he gets to see Mommy (or Daddy) today, but doesn't seem distressed to return to us afterwards. He's lived in so many different places in his short little life that being somewhere different is . . . normal.

He adores his big sister. Watching the two of them confirms for me that this is one area where the foster system gets it right; to separate these two from each other would be cruel. They've lost everything else that was ever concrete in their lives. They need each other.

After he's been with us a month or so, he gets more challenging. "Don't do that" is responded to with "but I want to!" while continuing the action. He's still getting out of bed at night and trying to sneak into his sister's bed. He wants to sleep "with his eyes open." But the defiance is still very age-appropriate. He's testing our limits -- do we mean what we say? What will we do if he doesn't obey us? -- and we are doing our best to remain calm and firm.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Who They Are - L

L is a 7 year old girl. She seems, initially, like a "normal" child. Sometimes she's too loud or forgets to put things away; she always responds to correction with an apology, a cheerful attitude, and an immediate correction . . . which may or may not last. As time goes on, though, we realize that she is always watching. Always walking the balance of finding the "right" thing to do. She never says anything negative to anyone about anything else. She may say she doesn't want to do something, doesn't like that food, shouldn't have to go to bed then; but, she never complains to someone else.

She has a need to always be -- or have -- the best. At everything. Her school is bigger than ours; it's pre-K through college. Her mommy is very good at cooking. And sewing. Her grandfather built that church. She's been to our school before, she thinks for a grade it doesn't offer. And the stories change when she talks to someone else. To us, "her school" (which one? in 3 years, she's attended around 8, not including daycares) is bigger and better than the one she will attend with us; to her mother, the school here is "really, really big!"

L knows everything. She's read all those books that our 11 year old is reading. (And yet, she's still sounding out some of the words in her grade-level appropriate book.) She's changed schools so much because she's just so smart and the teachers didn't have anything to teach her. (And yet, she cannot do the grocery store math problems that my same-age child can do.) It is clear that she is very quick, very observant, and probably quite bright. But somehow, she has the impression she has nothing left to learn, while her school disruption has left her with gaps in knowledge that she should have been taught, but wasn't.

Nothing is ever her fault, regardless of whether the event needs blame. A call of "These cars need to be put away!" is immediately answered by her with "T got them out!" She removed her toy from its charger too early "by accident." Her brother, O, falls while running in the house (against the rules) as she flees, telling him to "chase me, chase me!"; it was "O's fault" he got hurt, because "he shouldn't be running."

She has to be a part of everything. A conversation with another child is constantly interrupted by her answering for them. I tire of gently saying, "I wasn't asking you."

We are slowly easing her towards understanding that not everyone has to be good at everything. That everyone makes mistakes and it's OK to say, "oops, I messed up." Slowly, because some of this is her trying desperately to be in control of something - anything! - while her whole world is falling to pieces around her. The other kids in this house have 2 parents, still married, who clearly love each other, so she must have . . . everything else.

Mr D says she's manipulative. I don't like the word, although I know what he means. Manipulative implies a negative intention, which I don't think she has. She has learned to manipulate others by playing on their sympathies in order to get what she needs or thinks she needs. After her mother tells her she doesn't want to hear about her ex-husbands new wife, L only mentions the new wife to tell her mother she got her stuck in the tubes at the playground and "isn't that good?" We have to help her learn that we will meet the true needs without the manipulation and that she cannot manipulate us in to fulfilling her desire for things that are not needs.

What we'll never know: How much time we have to teach her these things and whether we succeed.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

What is "Abuse"?

And so L and O came to us.

They are relatively "easy" as foster kids go. They are here because of instability -- they were constantly changing homes and schools -- and because Mom got arrested. Originally, they were placed with their grandmother, the foster system always preferring to place children with family when possible. But Mom took Grandma (her mother!) to court to insist that they be returned to her. That wasn't gonna happen, so here they are in my home.

There is bad blood between Mom and Grandma and between Mom and Dad. There's a raging custody battle that's lasted years and Dad lives out of state. Their little lives have been turned upside down and inside out for years. L is a 7 year old girl who is a sharp cookie. You can see her absorbing everything and trying desperately to keep everyone happy all the time. But they haven't been "abused" or "neglected".

Well, they haven't been beaten. They haven't been sexually abused. They seem to have always had clothes to wear and food to eat. But . . .

Seems to me it's "abuse" for a 7 year old girl to have to listen to her mother tell her it's all her grandma's fault that she's having to live with strangers. Or that Daddy is lying to her. Seems to me there's something wrong with a situation where Mom would rather her kids be in the care of the foster system than with her own mother.

Seems to me the only way a 7 year old gets 7 cavities (3 of which are bad enough to need crowns) is by some sort of "neglect." Especially since both Mom and Dad had the same reaction: "What? Have you been brushing your teeth, girl?" Umm... shouldn't you KNOW? She didn't develop 7 cavities in the 2 weeks she's been here.

It's clear to me that the 3 year old has been taught to ask for things and ignore the answer. "Can I let the dog out?" he asks; I say "no, we're about to go somewhere" and he reaches for the latch anyway. And then is startled when I stop him and repeat that I said no.

It's clear that the 7 year old thinks that any love her brother gives someone else is less he has for her. She must be the center of his universe and she needs him to only show affection to HER. She gloats when she gets some sign of affection from anyone -- whether it's a hug or a word of praise -- as though it's always a competition to be the one who is loved the "most."