I went into foster parenting with a touch of optimism, a dash of parenting skills and a whole heap of naiveté, none of which prepared me for the role of foster parent. One of my first lessons was the tenuous role I actually was allowed to play in two little girl’s lives.
I welcomed Jayden* and Alicia* into my suburban Wheaton, Ill., home on a sunny morning in August. The bedroom was prepared with bunk beds and a chest of drawers ready to fill with little girl clothes and toys.
We had a great set-up for adding children to our family of three sons. We had a large, comfortable home and lived less than two blocks from the elementary school where my sons attended. Our first few days together flew by as we visited the school and registered the girls for first grade and kindergarten. Jayden had just turned six and Alicia was five. That’s the first time I realized that the “real” parent was really the state of Illinois. All paperwork for the girls was routed through the court-appointed guardian in Cook County (Chicago). Because I was a foster parent, I soon discovered I was unable to sign, approve, or make decisions for the girls beyond what they would wear, eat for breakfast, or when they’d head to bed. Even a simple field trip form to have the girls walk with their class from school to a nearby park had to be faxed to some child welfare office in downtown Chicago and resent back to the school – a lengthy procedure.
But the worst night dealing with the state as these girls’ “replacement” parent was when my kids, filled with excitement and excess energy, went running through the house one Saturday night. I’d warned them thousands of times not to do this, but Jayden tripped and her forehead connected with the corner of the wall opening a nasty gash on her forehead. As I comforted a screaming six-year-old with one arm, I hugged her frightened sister with the other and dialed the local case manager for permission to head to the emergency room for stitches. She approved and we left for the hospital. After our arrival, we waited for hours as the hospital official faxed permission to Springfield, the state capitol, to have a state guardian give permission to treat Jayden.
When my husband and I agreed to fold Jayden and Alicia into our home, their case manager, definitely wearing rose colored glasses, called them two “normal” girls. I guess her version of “normal” and mine were worlds apart because I quickly discovered that: a) Jayden had cerebral palsy, and b) both girls exhibited signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. Also, they’d been in the foster care system since age 2 and 1, respectively. Their parents were serving in separate prisons for some type of drug crime.
These girls had experiences similar to a lot of foster children:
- They’d been moved to several foster homes and temporary placement settings since the night their parents were taken to jail.
- They were part of a sibling set of six children, yet they rarely saw their brothers and sister.
- One or both of my girls had been sexually abused in a previous foster home by another, older foster child.
I don’t have any solutions to the problems experienced by our young people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves living with the state of California, Georgia, New York, or some other as their new “parent.” I do know that may state child welfare systems are suffering from budget cuts, are understaffed and have to deal with a lot of new problems such as the meth epidemic and the AIDs crisis.
But, speaking as a mother, I find it categorically unfair to these foster children to “raise” them within a system beset by such problems, then “emancipate” them when they turn 18 with little more than a black garbage bag for their clothing and a high school diploma clutched in their sweaty palms.
If they are that lucky.
*Not real names.
Foster Care Facts: State By State
According to the most current AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System) Report, released in September 2010, there were approximately 423,773 children in the United States in foster care on September 30, 2009.
For state-specific information on the number of entries, exits and children in care on the last day of the federal fiscal year 2009, please see the table on the Children’s Bureau website.