What I didn’t realize when I started heading down the foster care path is that the children taken into foster care are supposed to have their first visit with their biological parents within the first 48 hours of being removed. Sounds crazy, right? Let’s rip you out of your parents arms only to take you to see them 48 hours later but only for one hour and then let’s rip you out of their arms again. And then let’s repeat that once a week re-traumazing you each time, OK? Sounds highly dysfunctional, right? Well that’s how foster care works.
Now every state, every county, and every case is different. In child endangerment cases visits may not happen right away (or at all). If mom/dad are incarcerated then there are no visits. There may be no mom/dad in the picture and visits may happen with another relative. Though visits are ordered there is nothing enforcing the parents to show up so you may have a case where they never show. Visits usually start out taking place at a CPS office with an “observer” in the room with them. If you have a case from another county (very common here in Austin since surrounding, more rural counties just do not have enough foster parents) then you might drive hours to take your foster child to their visit. You may drive hours and then the parent no-shows. The visits may involve other siblings placed in other foster homes, kinship homes (a relative fostering a child), or adoptive homes. It’s a total mixed bag of possibilities including many I didn’t cover.
Our case? Well the judge in fact called it the “Hallmark case” praising the parents for their efforts. They came to probably 98% of their court-ordered visits. So every Saturday morning at 8:00am I dropped off the boys at a CPS office just a few minutes away and I picked them up at 10:00am.
The First Visits
Our first visit happened one week after the boys arrived. Per guidance from the CPS Case Worker I drove up to the back of the CPS office and handed the boys to another CPS worker we had never met. Until CPS gave me the “clear” that the parents were not hostile then this is the protocol so there are no run-ins in the parking lot or lobby. I was full of anxiety. I mean, these two babies were just thrust into my arms a few days prior and now I’m handing them off to a total stranger! Well, turns out, in foster care, there is a lot of handing your foster kids off to strangers. It’s really sad. If you’re a parent today, I’m pretty sure that is something you would not do. But in foster care, it seems like a normal expectation. And yet they are supposedly trauma informed.
The next week, guess what? Another CPS Case Worker we had never met came to get them. I also never knew what went on during the visits. No one could tell me. Our case worker was never there so I couldn’t get information on what the parents were like or whether or not it was “safe” for us to meet. Once the boys were brought back to my car they seemed fine though; no one was crying or visibility upset.
In typical CPS style, the visits moved to a different CPS office with no back door option but still pretty close to my home. I couldn’t get a hold of anyone to figure out what I should do. By this time my CPA Case Manager had met bio dad and her impression was not alarming so I went forth and walked into that office with the boys. I was eager to meet them after all and ensure them that I am on their side. Now, I have no idea what mom and dad look like but I nervously wait in the lobby. And then in they walk. Just imagine how awkward is this moment. Imagine, three weeks ago your kids were taken from you and placed with a woman you knew nothing about. This woman is caring for your kids. You have no idea if she’s doing a good job or a bad job. You have no idea if your kids are terrified or not. You have no idea what she’s feeding them (if she’s feeding them). I can’t imagine what was going through their minds. I would’ve been a mess. But these two acted like nothing was a big deal. I shook dad’s hand and introduced myself to both of them. Neither seems overly excited to see their kids. Everything was status quo. J hugged his dad (only dad) and then I handed X to dad. Mom seemed to hang back. We stood there awkwardly for a minute until thankfully someone came out to rescue us from the awkwardness to direct them to a room. And then I left.
Two hours later I walk into the lobby to find them all waiting for me. Bio Mom immediately stands up, holds out 6-month-old Baby X to me football-style saying, “I think he’s tired.” I scooped that baby right up! I smile and try to make small talk and help her feel at ease but THIS. IS. AWKWARD. I was perplexed to say the least by her demeanor, her timid/nervous body language, and what seemed like she wasn’t too thrilled to see her kids.
During these visits I had a fascinating discovery. When I would pick up J (almost 3yo) from daycare he would show exuberance on his face (sometimes call me “daddy” because that is the only word he knew for caregiver I guess) and run to me with joy right into my arms. When I took him to visit with his mom and dad he just stood there with a calm smile. So you may think this means he doesn’t feel as comfortable around them or doesn’t love them as much, but that is not the case at all. The next time I observed Mom and Dad instead of J upon arrival and that’s when I realized it was all about the adult’s response. Mom and Dad didn’t show any excitement in their body language. There wasn’t even a smile all the time. Sometimes they seemed a little angry or sad but always tired. They were always tired. Well when I pick up J from daycare, guess who’s acting like its the BEST PART OF MY DAY?!!?? That’s right. And J was just reciprocating my actions. Fascinating isn’t it? I began to realize how every move I make was teaching him how to respond.
I longed to know these young parents. After all, they are the two most important people in my little boys’ lives! I wanted to know everything about these boys but how could I ever fully know them if I didn’t know their parents? Reunification is the goal in foster care and the boys deserve to have the best life possible so then the only way to truly achieve that goal is to build a relationship with the bio parents. It all started with a letter. For the first couple months my interactions with the parents were brief, awkward hello’s and goodbye’s. I always made sure to smile, make eye contact, and say something positive about their boys each time. But how do I reach them? Thanks to a seasoned foster mom who had the brilliant idea to send a note each week with the boys! And so, each week I wrote about the milestones and fun anecdotes and shared bits of my story here and there. I told them why I decided to become a foster parent. I ensured them I was for them not against them. I told them I wanted to know more about them and that we were praying for them. And we were. Every night I prayed for them with the boys. And J prayed for them too. I always spoke positively of them around the boys and was always rooting for them. And when it got hard, when I got angry at the circumstances, I reminded myself that these parents are just grown up versions of these kids except that they weren’t removed and they weren’t fiercely loved and protected by anyone. There is plenty of grace for them too.
And then one week, not only did I hand them a letter, Dad handed me a letter! And my heart was so full! On a folded up piece of notebook paper was their handwritten story. I sat in my car reading as fast as possible, taking it all in, tears flowing and then suddenly it was like time halted – the chaos, the sleeplessness, the sacrifices – and it all became worth it when I read, “Thank you. We trust you and we are so glad it’s you.”
After months, letter-writing turned into visits with me instead of at the CPS office. I advocated to CPS and the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) for a Sunday visit that involved them attending church with me and then having a visit together afterwards so that’s what we did. What a joy to have them sitting in church with me! Words cannot describe! I used every opportunity to get to know them, support them, and show them that I cared about them (not just their sons). And when it came time to transition the boys home, I invited them into my home so they could experience the life their boys were living the last 8 months, learn their routines, and feel what it’s like to be part of a healthy, loving home. A home that puts dinner on the table. A home that smiles and hugs. A home that puts the boys’ safety and well-being first. Yes, they sat at my dinner table. Yes, they gave the boys a bath in my bath tub. Yes, I was all in. And I saw Mom and Dad open up. They started to ask questions and wanted to learn from me. How strange did I feel telling them how to parent their own kids?? SUPER STRANGE! But ultimately I was honored because they wanted to do better, they were trying, and it was a privilege to be a part of their story.
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