The past six months would have been an emotional ride for anyone, such as myself, who has less than a fleeting and casual relationship with his emotions. Something akin to two strangers on a commuter train exchanging eye contact for a moment too long. That awkward awareness of the other one’s presence and a need to break the silence, but, choosing instead to repress the urge. Perhaps settling for an affirming nod in exchange for some hope that you won’t be robbed at knife-point the moment your feet land on the cool tarmac, just outside the purview of the other passengers aboard the train. But guarding oneself and repressing emotions have no place in the heart of a parent; instead, these are replaced with hope, fear, and a feeling of utter helplessness and panic.
You see, over the last six months, I’ve been engaged in somewhat of a zero-sum game. In order for me to win, someone else had to lose. The only comfort I can take in the hardness of my heart towards this reality is in believing with ever fiber of my being that my winning was the only way I could protect the children in my care from an uncertain future. A future in which their trust, that I worked so hard to gain, is shattered in what would amount to being the only abandonment they would likely remember. If you recall, they were only eighteen months of age when they entered the foster care system, and they’ve now been with me close to the same amount of time.
It’s been nearly eighteen months since they arrived, scared and confused. Fifteen months since the night terrors they suffered stopped recurring. Twelve months since the first time they acknowledged me as Daddy. Since that time, they have grown from size 4 toddler shoes into size 11 little kid shoes. Moved from diapers to big boy underwear. From potty chairs to potty trained (at least during the day). They say more words every day and express themselves in new areas of exploration, learning to dress themselves, feed themselves, and wash themselves. They love Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol and have recently developed a passion for everything Superhero related. Namely, Spiderman and Ironman. And they chase each other through the house making web shooter sounds and balancing themselves in the mid-air of their imagination with flight stabilizers in their imaginary Ironman suits. They are everything I’ve ever wanted for them. They are happy, healthy, and well-adjusted children. Just kids allowed to behave as kids. Free from the fear that everything they’ve come to know and love could be ripped out from under them at a moments notice.
But I have been living with that fear day and night for months. Allowing my new and unwanted emotional companionship to swing me from the heights of fatherhood to the depth that blacken souls with murderous intent, willing to go to any length to ensure that your protection remains intact. Only to settle into the worst feeling of all. The feeling of powerlessness to influence circumstances far beyond your control. Waiting far from patiently as decisions in court are continued for reasons that both haunt and terrify you. Brushing up against your biggest fears that reunification is going to happen, simply because State legislation mandates it, without the slightest concern for what happens next.
When children reunify with their birth parents, that may be the greatest gift to a broken family struggling to be once again made whole. I, myself, have seen this play out to great success and could not be more supportive of that outcome for those families. In other cases, this outcome becomes traumatizing, and the children re-enter the system again. This time a little angrier, a little less trusting, and a lot more fearful. There was a time when children would get removed from homes for unmitigated concerns and the parents would have little to no chance of regaining custody of their children. Today, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, where the primary goal is reunification. Not from an ideological perspective but from a legislative one, in which little room is made for the circumstances of each child as individuals. If the parent(s) does X,Y,Z, than the court rules in favor of reunification. If not, they move to terminate services for reunification. Why is it so cut and dry? Because there are thousands of children in the foster care system and that is the only way to get cases moved out of the way so that the State can handle the influx of cases coming in. It’s an imperfect system full of wonderful people trying desperately to do what is best for everyone, drowning in a sea of legislation, red tape, and paperwork, with one hand tied behind their back. It may likely be the most underpaid Government job in existence and no one leaves it completely unscathed.
The foster parent has both hands tied. And both will be tied as they watch the children they have bonded with, cried with, laughed with, and bled with, get strapped into a County vehicle and driven off to uncertainty without so much as the promise of weekly or monthly visitations. It is, without a doubt, the worst and most difficult part of being a foster parent. Second only to being reminded that this is what you, in fact, signed up for. That the 24 hours a day devoted, not only to the care of a child, but, also, to the needs outside of those necessary to a child’s mere survival — the reading of books together at night, the countless meals prepared, the trips to the park where you begin to see their confidence soar, the dozens of required and unexpected Doctor’s appointments, visits from Social Workers, program facilitators, and an onslaught of additional strangers who wonder through your home, from licensing to adoptions, many of whom become friends through it all, but can offer very little comfort where final decisions are concerned. Add to that the continuing education requirements and inspections necessary to remain licensed, as if everything else weren’t tiresome enough. All this, every day, without so much as a pause button — may offer them little more than a reprieve, and you can still lose them eighteen months later, due to a decision made by a Judge who doesn’t know them and is bound, at least in part, by cookie-cutter legislation.
This has been on my mind every waking moment for the past eighteen months, far more intensely for the past six. So much so that I didn’t know what to write about in this blog anymore. We’ve had amazing experiences as a family, and I can’t wait to share them with you, but they are constantly overshadowed by a cloud of uncertainty and fear.
But this is not a sad post.
Because two weeks ago the Judge ruled to terminate services. A decision that had been postponed four times, each one bringing additional anxiety, fear, and frustration with it. We are not out of the woods yet, but this was a huge milestone moving us one step closer to adoption. And, while I know that what is great news to me comes at a loss to someone else, in time, I think that even the family of these two boys will see that this was for the best. In time, they will get to watch these boys grow up, play sports, learn to play an instrument, excel academically, and learn to become men who protect each other and those around them. Who become contributing members of society and break this wretched cycle once and for all. You see, my intention has never been to take children by way of a hostile take-over. My goal was to be a dad. To raise children as my own. But my goal doesn’t exclude the birth family from being a part of that. I have been blessed with tremendous resources, and I intend to deploy those resources in the service of two toddlers whose names I cannot yet share with you. My goal is not to erase their past or to blot the names of those blood relatives from their family tree, but to graft in a new branch and to nourish the soil in the richness with which I’ve been blessed.
I look forward to working with them to agree on a continued roll in the lives of these children. But that chapter is still unwritten. Before that can happen, there are still two monumental court hearings that have to take place and a minimum of six month time in limbo, but we are so much closer now than we were. And that ruling marks the first true peace I have felt in months.
The boys are appropriately none-the-wiser.