Foster Care: Saying Goodbye
A few years ago, I drove a little baby I loved to the home of someone I didn’t really know or trust, and left him there.
I think I’ll forever remember the “Mom, what gives?” look of confusion he gave me as I turned away. I drove home thinking, “This is not me. I do not do this. I do not leave my baby behind!!!”
But at that moment it was me, it was a me who had no other choice. The baby I loved was not in my legal custody, I did not have the option of keeping him, and it was my job as his foster mom who had raised him from newborn to first birthday, to leave him with birth family for a week at that time, and later permanently.
That goodbye was soul-searing for me to the point that I sometimes think of my life as two periods before and after that loss, because grief changes you. I hope that grief has helped me become a stronger person with a deeper faith and love. Sometimes, to be honest, I fear that it’s also made me a little more hardened and cynical than the naively optimistic person I was before.
This week I’m preparing to say goodbye to a foster child again. This time around it’s different because it’s only been a few months and I’m not as deeply bonded (am I? it’s hard to even tell sometimes). And it’s also more complicated because ending this placement was partly our choice.
In other words, I am sending a child away from my home, which on top of all the normal guilt we moms feel, makes me feel like a really horrible-in-the-worst-way, that’s-it-I’m-abandoning-you, type of mom.
When I first got the call this summer, standing beside the swimming pool, talking first with the caseworker, then with my husband, then with the caseworker again, we decided to accept this placement tentatively, on a trial basis. We’ve only fostered babies before, and this time we had said we would accept a child up to age four, and this call was about a girl a few years older than that. But still we said yes, we would give it a try.
And I don’t regret that yes, because I know that the last few months have grown us in good ways, and I hope they have been healing and helpful to this little girl as well. We had a “honeymoon” period of a few weeks when we were all getting settled in together (though if you had told me then it was a honeymoon period, I would have laughed, because it was really, really hard, as in thinking to myself several times a day “I can’t do this” hard).
Then unsafe behaviors began, and my whole view of normal shifted. Other parenting concerns I had in the past—toddler tantrums, defiance, asking why, sibling arguments, bedtime troubles, all the daily drama, etc., etc., suddenly paled in comparison to—how do you respond when you are suddenly attacked by a child who is big enough to do you harm? How do you manage unsafe behaviors when there are small children in the home?
What makes these questions so hard to consider is that most of the time, we have really sweet moments with our foster daughter. We snuggle together and watch movies. We go to the pool and the playground and the apple orchard. We laugh together over jokes and developed a super power of eating multiple leaves of spinach at once. We talk about Jesus and pray. We sing and listen to music and dance. She spells my name “mis lesu” and writes me notes and I write her back. We have bonded deeply.
But there is no quick fix for years of neglect and abuse in a child whose deep fears and hurts can suddenly spiral into violent rage. It’s been way out of my comfort zone to be the target of someone whom I’m only trying to help. I want to give nurture and love, and sometimes it is received, but other times it is pushed away and hated because I’m not her birth family who she longs to be with.
One of the challenging concepts of foster care, but something that helped me so much to understand, is this—trauma affects maturity. In other words, a 20-something woman with a traumatic history may behave like a 12-year-old. This was a lightbulb moment for me when I was trying to help a 20-something homeless woman, and I just wanted her to be a normal person and accept my help and get a job and get an apartment, if she was so serious about getting her baby back. But behaviorally, she was 12, and you don’t expect a 12-year-old to get a job and an apartment. No matter how well-intentioned they may be, and no matter how much they may love snuggling their baby, living like an independent, responsible adult is something that would take a long time for them to grow into.
In the foster care system, we have a lot of birth parents who act as if they are 12 or 13 because of their own traumatic backgrounds. And their elementary school-age children may act as if they are 1 or 2 because of the abuse and neglect they have experienced.
This is really problematic. I can totally handle it when my 1-year-old is having a tantrum. I can carry him to a safe place, or buckle him into a car seat or shopping cart. There is a limit to the damage he can do. But imagine that behavior in a child who is much older, who is capable of unbuckling her seat belt and attacking you while driving, or who can open the door and run pretty fast down the street.
We need so much compassion here, because it’s easy to slip into judgment—oh my gosh, this is horrible behavior—when we need to have eyes to see beyond the anger to the years of hurt that have caused it. That 1-year-old tantrum needs that 1-year-old response of, “I love you, you are safe, here’s your blanket and your sippy cup.”
But a few weeks ago, we decided we needed to say good-bye, primarily because we have three birth children in our home who are affected by this. I realized that the needs of our foster daughter are so great that whenever she is home, my emotional focus is on her, and I am simply going through the motions with my children, hoping they will behave well so that they won’t aggravate an already-difficult situation.
And one day when I was driving home, I looked in the rear view mirror and realized that my oldest had his hands over his head and was staring at his lap, retreating into sullen anger, and my four-year-old was using words that she didn’t know a couple months ago, and my husband and I talked about it, and it was clear—this is not a good fit. If we foster right now, it needs to be children who are younger than our birth three.
We second-guessed that decision, but this time it was our caseworker who confirmed that this little girl would do better in a home without small children.
It is clear in my mind, but not in my heart, which is still shouting at me, “No, I love her! I can help her! What is going to happen to her if we send her away?” To say I have conflicted emotions would be an understatement. I’m kind of a mess right now.
The last few months have opened my eyes to the incredible need for more foster parents. In my season of life, struggling with Lyme and raising three young birth children, I cannot foster a child with such deep needs. She needs to go somewhere else. Where? Our department has found another home for her, but there are so many others like her.
Sometimes we think we need to go on a missions trip to Africa, or adopt from China, to meet deep needs in the world. I think international missions trips and adoption are wonderful and I am deeply in favor of both. But sometimes we become so focused on the faraway or exotic, that we forget there are deep needs in our own communities.
Within a few miles of your home there is probably be a child being neglected and abused, needing a safe place to live. In your affluent American county, there may be a child living without electricity and running water, but more importantly, living without love and security.
Who will help them? Stepping into the foster care system is full of pain and uncertainty, and pretty much the only guarantee is that your heart will get smashed up, but hopefully it will get bigger and better in the process. And the pain of loss can be equaled by the joy of knowing that you have saved a life, that you have made a difference, that you have done something that really matters eternally, that you have experienced the presence of Jesus on the front lines.
Anyway, all of this is to say—please pray for us this week, because good-byes are hard, and this one is really complicated.