Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Foster Care Journey in Arizona

Writing and images by Kathryn

(Disclosure:  I am not an expert.  This is just my beginning.)

Some of you may have noticed that it seems Marily has been doing all the work this last month at I Heart AZ.  And you are right.  Marily is a friend that has been there through the thick and thin of it all since we were both awkward little girls in 8th grade.  Marily has taken over for me for much of this summer because...

I'm a new mom again!  That means I'm getting up every two or three hours in the night and hoping that this little one doesn't decide to have a party at 3:00 AM (like last night).  I try to fit in my meals when I can.  My arms and voice seem to be the comfort that baby craves, which I don't really mind.  I'm soaking in dreamy smiles and chubby cheeks and that fresh baby smell and trying to forget about all the less important things that still seem to be calling my attention.     

But when I look down at these dark brown eyes and stroke this beautiful downy hair, I know this baby is not mine to keep.  I didn't give birth to him.  I don't even have custody of him.  I'm his foster mom.  I'm here for however long he needs.  Whether it is one month or two years or possibly a lifetime.  He is my Maybe Baby.     
My girls waiting to meet our new little guy.  I had just driven in the garage when my husband snapped this picture.  
Let me tell you, it is crazy adjusting to being the mom without really being the mom.  Crazy!  I've given birth to two sets of twins and tandem nursed them for a year each.  I figured that would be my crowning jewel, the information they could put on my tombstone to prove I did something valuable in life.  But now...now people want to know how fostering feels in comparison.  Obviously I'm not lactating and my body isn't in recovery from a recent twin pregnancy and delivery, but becoming a foster mother is VERY different, and not necessarily easier.  The emotions of it all are new to me and I'm navigating as best I can.  I'm driving to biological visits several times a week.  I learned how to sign up for WIC.  I'm learning what to say to people when this precious newborn looks nothing like me or my husband or our blond haired blue eyed gaggle of girls.  I'm adjusting to the reality of loving someone so much but not knowing how long I'll get to keep him.  I'm adjusting to so many maybe's that sometimes I think my head might explode. 

But I don't regret becoming a foster mom.  I know this is what I was supposed to do and I knew it wouldn't be easy.  I knew there would be days where I would lose sight of why my husband and I made this decision, but the right idea is not always the easy idea.

In 2012 there were 14,111 children in Arizona who were placed in out-of-home care due to neglect, abandonment or abuse.  14,111!

In 2012, seventy children died in Arizona from "maltreatment."  In 2011 it was 71.  In 2010 is was 70.  That is roughly three whole classrooms full of children who vanish each year due to abuse.  

I've heard, "I could never do that.  It would break my heart," so. many. times.  First statement is false.  Second statement is true.  Your heart will be stretched, broken, filled with so much love you can't stand it and crushed...but you could do it.  You can handle that.  Most of us were raised in such a way that we can handle the battle, but these children, no matter what you think your heart can handle or not, still need homes.  There will still be drunken rage, children born addicted to drugs, too young of children left to fend for themselves, sexual abuse, emotional and physical abuses, children needing stability, and the list goes on and on. 

I'm not saying foster care is for everyone, but, if you stop lying to yourself that your heart could never handle it, would you find a heart actually willing?

(And just to clarify - you do not need to be married to be a foster parent)

Why are you doing foster care?
Families are failing and as a result communities are failing.  We started foster care not to grow our family but to help other families become better and stronger and to heal.  As one seasoned foster mom pointed out, you need to always remember this goal!  Although it is not always easy to remember the goal when a child goes home after a year in your care, it can be comforting to know you did your part in the plan.  Even if biological parents have failed in the past, these are THEIR kids and they still have rights.  Kids crave their biological parents no matter what turmoil was in the past.  We have fasted and prayed for the biological family of our foster son and we try to boost them up at each meeting.  You have to be on board with helping these families reunify until a court says enough is enough and parental rights are terminated.    

Getting started:

The first step on the path to becoming foster certified is picking an agency.  This agency will train you, write your life report, and be the one to dictate a lot of how your foster experience unfolds.  So pick wisely.  You can search for an agency by Arizona county here. We picked an agency that requires more training than normal, but we felt it would better serve us in the long run (we hope).  We began training in March and finished at the end of May.  It took four week after our "graduation" for Arizona to give us a valid license.  We received our first placement a week and a half after licensing.  

The day we got our placement I had been out in the pool with our four daughters and heard my husband's car come home from work early.  Our agency called.  They had a possible child for us.  They had given my husband the little information known about this placement and we were allowed a few minutes to decide if this would be a good fit for our family.  With pounding hearts we discussed it and called them back with our answer:  yes!  Things were quickly set into motion.  Our girls were giddy with excitement and had a million questions.  We had answers for about two.  Within the hour I had thrown my hair in a braid, grabbed the infant car seat from off the top shelf where it had sat for the last four years, and was driving to pick up a child that I didn't even know the name of.  I almost felt like I should have a siren to clear all the other cars off the 101 - like I was on a top secret mission.  Such a surreal experience.   

(And in the future, if you see a picture of my family with a blurry faced baby, just know he is about the cutest thing in the world, but, we need to keep our Maybe Baby protected.)
First look!  And wow - that first boy diaper was a beast.  I was peed on and used about half a pack of wipes.  I'm getting better at it though.
To get to the point of having a placement required months of work.  During training we completed 60 class hours, 5 hours of CPR and First Aide, and many many hours of homework and interviews.  Basically be prepared to talk and write about your ENTIRE life....I seriously don't know how crazy people pass the system to become foster parents cause the paperwork is intensely detailed:  financials, life history, family history, work history, house history, criminal history, medical history, insurance policies, our philosophies on parenting, how we handle stress, etc.  Every answer will be scrutinized like there is hidden meaning (My husband loved that part...not).  There was also time and money spent getting our home license ready:  pool buoy, shepherds crook for the pool, magnetic locks for everything toxic, gun safe, trigger locks, more locks, fire extinguisher, carbon monoxide detector, and medicine safe.  Of course decorating a room again for a foster child was not required, but you'll find yourself spending money on home changes to make way for a new one (or two or three...).

I kinda felt like making it through the licensing process should have earned me a badge that says, "Key to the City: Certified to make good parenting and life decisions.  You can trust this lady.  She is not crazy."  But, as foster parents, you'll find you still aren't given much leeway on making decisions for the child without needing approval first.      

Build a support team and have advocates:

This is my number one advice!  Your agency will be a big support, but sometimes it is nice to have a personal support team.  I have friends and family that have fostered.  I know I can go to them with questions.   I keep in contact with others who were in training with my husband and I.  Finally, I belong to a Facebook group for foster moms.  These are my lifelines when I feel like I have no clue what I am doing in this system!  Get support from others who have "been there, done that" if this is what you want to do.

Know your family, know yourself, know your limits:

You will hear stories that make your stomach churn.  Believe me, when you say you are planning to do foster care, everyone has a horror story to tell you about this broken system.  Sadly a lot of them are true. 

But...know that you can specify what kind of kids you are ready to foster.  For us personally, we chose age 0-2 years.  We knew with the age of our biological children we were not yet equipped to care for those children who are older and have been sexually abused and we felt strongly that our biological children needed to be older than any foster children we welcomed to our home.  Was this taking the easy way out?  Maybe, but we knew our family, knew our dynamics, and knew that these parameters would help us to be the best foster parents we could be at this time.  You can request a certain age, race, gender, disability, reason for entering care...but do keep in mind, the history of these kiddos is not always known when you get a call for placement. 

Every family is unique and has special talents and abilities that allow them to care for certain children.  Find what group you are comfortable with and don't let anyone make you feel bad for going with a certain group.  If you stretch yourself too much you may find yourself in a situation where you give up on fostering prematurely.  These foster kids do not need another failed family. 

Do you have the time?  Are you a team player?  Mi casa es su casa?

Most months expect at least 1 -2 in home visits from the state and your agency.  This month I've already had 6.  And paperwork does not end with classes.  I still have weekly paperwork.  Everything needs to be documented, which in my case is even the number of times I use diaper rash cream.  If I want to travel out of the county with our foster son I need to request that from the case worker and sometimes the court, weeks in advance.  Good thing Maricopa County is huge.  Also, there are doctor visits, bio family visits, court hearings, sometimes therapy...these foster kids need your time.

You will have case workers that ARE the legal guardian of the children in your care whom you have to work closely with.  They call a lot of the shots, like it or not.  Thankfully, I love our case worker.  Also in my case, I have spent many hours with my foster son's biological parents while at doctor visits.  Thankfully they seem to like me.  In my friend's case, she is yet to meet the biological parents of her foster son.  And working with the government...well, we all know how fast and efficient working with the government can be.  These are aspects of the system you need to be prepared for. 

Can you sacrifice?

This explains itself.  You might not get to travel as freely as you used to.  You may have to give up some of your own plans.  You will have less "me" time.  Your biological children if you have any will need to learn to sacrifice too.  I have great daughters and they are very understanding that a lot of my time needs to be spent on Maybe Baby.  In fact, they have stepped up and are great helpers reading books, singing lullabies, rocking and holding and loving on a baby that needed some big sisters.        

Money:

No one ever wants to ask about money, but yes, the state does reimburse you (gives you a subsidy) for being a foster parent, the child will be on state provided insurance, and I hear there are tax incentives too.  The amount of the subsidy depends on your agency and the needs of your foster child.  However, keep in mind when you think about foster care or think about others who do foster care:  Most foster homes are not in it for the money!  And if you are, go look for an easier job.  Seriously.  Subsidies go fast when you consider extra gas money, electricity, money for conveniences because you have less time or are just tired, and money for food, clothes, toys, activities and vacations that help the foster child feel as normal as possible.  In order for me to do foster care the state asked me to stop teaching preschool out of my home which was a loss of income for our family.  Basically, fostering feels like a job at times because of the nature of it, but, you won't be making minimum wage.  I think most families just try not to end up in the red. 
_____________

If you've made it this far, maybe you are upset to realize foster care isn't always sunshine and rainbows, maybe it has made you realize I need more sleep, maybe it has lit a fire for you to research agencies and check out the Arizona state foster site here.  I do foster care because I know there is a need.  I know I have unique talents and a unique family that these children need.  I know I am far from perfect.  I know I am not a perfect mom and I don't have the perfect house.  But I know I can make a difference in a family.  I know that even just a short time in stable care can alter the course of a child's brain development.  And crazy as I sound, I believe I can actually save the world, one child at a time. 

Now put that on my tombstone.  
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