Losing the right to parent your child for any reason is painful and scary. If the foster system’s goal is reunification first, we cannot be solely about parenting the struggling child in our home. Reunification is also about supporting the birthparents to succeed and be a safe place for them to return.
This guest post from experienced foster mom Takayla Jackson is a charge to us all to show compassion and care to the parents of children in our care.
Our first foster placement was a little girl. I remember her face as the social worker took her from the car and walked towards my daughter and me. My husband was at work, but the arrival of foster kids is never perfectly planned. I remember my excitement! We were finally getting a placement, and my husband and I were going to be the best parents this little girl could ask for. We were about to help someone whose parents needed a little extra help and a child who needed a little bit of extra love. This was going to be amazing.
I Thought We Were Ready
We’d been a licensed foster family for almost four months, and I was anxious to help reunite families or adopt, whichever came first. We had been getting mentored, so in my mind, we were ready. I was wrong.
The child approached, and the social worker introduced her. I got down to her level, did my high-pitched “I’m friendly” voice, and introduced myself and my daughter (they were both 3 years old). The little girl would not let go of the worker’s hand. They came inside, and the worker spoke to me briefly about the child – mainly what she knew about her likes and dislikes. As quickly as she arrived, she was gone.
“Please don’t leave me. I wanna go with you. Don’t leave!” the child begged. But the social worker said goodbye, told her she was in a safe home, and left. It broke my heart. I was thinking to myself, “What did I do wrong? Was I not friendly? Was I overly excited? What was wrong?”
Never once did I think, “This child does not know you. You are a stranger.”
Where’s My Mommy?
Eventually, she settled down, mainly because my daughter was there, and they were playing upstairs with toys. They laughed like they were best friends, almost like they had known one another their entire lives. It was practically magical until it was time for bed. I put her to bed, and she fell asleep – no problem. Until she woke up in the middle of the night, scared and crying.
I jumped out of bed and ran to her. “What’s wrong, honey? Are you okay?” I asked, attempting to comfort her. “I want my mommy,” she cried. “Where is my mommy?” She came into my room, went to the window, and started looking for her.
My daughter woke up then and asked where her mom was. I could not answer either one of them. I did not know what to say. I wasn’t trained to answer that question in a way that makes sense to three-year-olds.
This little girl was in a stranger’s home. She was calling out for her mommy, but her mommy never showed. How do I comfort her? She did not even want me to touch her. She was so self-sufficient at the tender age of 3 but so delicate.
Facing My Judgments
I wondered what her mom did to lose custody of her. Why was she here with us instead of at home where she belonged? I asked myself what the story was in those teary brown eyes. Why couldn’t she have her mommy? I judged her mommy—what had she done to put her child in this awful position.
The stereotype that comes with being a foster or foster-to-adopt parent is that birth parents are incapable of taking care of their children. We commonly believe they have done something awful to lose custody of their children. That often leads to the judgment that birth parents don’t deserve to get their children back. Even foster families with the purest intention of reunification can struggle with these complex stigmas.
[sws_blue_box box_size="515"] How to Establish a Relationship with Birth Parents [/sws_blue_box]
After years as a foster parent, I’ve learned that not all birth families abuse, neglect, or live in unsafe environments with their children. There are as many reasons for removal as there are parents and kids. Sure, some have made harmful decisions. Some are selfish, and some have abused or neglected their kids.
Birth parents might also be homeless because they lost their jobs. They might be struggling through a mental health crisis or an addiction. Birth parents can also be victims of false reports of child endangerment.
Whatever the reason they’ve lost their kids, they are often scared to death about their children being in a home with complete strangers.
Putting Myself In Her Shoes
I tried to imagine being this child’s birth mother. How would I feel, not knowing where my baby was going? Will they comfort her the way she needs? There are just as many horror stories about foster homes as there are about birth parents. The parent whose child is removed is probably thinking the worst in those moments.
Birth parents fear and judge foster parents. Foster parents fear and judge birth parents. We often blame each other because the system’s adversarial nature has implanted seeds of fear and mistrust. Ultimately, both sides are supposed to be about the safety and security of the child. But those seeds take root and too often choke out the best of intentions and our desire to work together.
Despite my fear and my judgment, I chose to assume the best. I wrote this little girl’s mom a letter. I told her that her baby was safe with us. I encouraged said I was rooting for her and did not want to keep her child (meaning adoption), but I would if the child needed me.
Coming Together to Do Our Best For The Child
When we met at the first visitation, the birth mom thanked me for my letter’s reassurances. She told me the stories she’d heard about foster parents. I told her the stories I’d heard about birth parents. We decided together to put aside our prejudices for the sake of this little girl. She wanted to do better by her child. Our family committed to helping her do that by caring for and supporting our foster child while she learned.
This little girl ended up returning to her mom, and we were pleased with their reunification. We’ve maintained a relationship with them even though they’ve since moved to another state.
Every Child’s Story Is Unique
Shortly after she left our home, we were called to take in a newborn baby boy. He came with an entirely different story — one that made me wary of his birth mother. However, I had the chance to speak with her directly when we were at a court date. She cried about her circumstances and loss, and of course, I was empathic.
But I have to admit I was also guarded due to the nature of removal. I spoke to my husband about my reservations, and we reminded each other: we must not regard people with ill intent until they reveal a reason to be concerned. Since then, we share videos and pictures with his birth parents. On his first birthday, we gave them a life book for his first year. They really appreciate all we have done since we’ve had him in our home. We are now in the process of adopting him.
It Is Always About The Child
As a mother, a foster parent, and a human being, I can only be accountable for the way I treat people. As a Christ-follower, I strive to live my life in a way that honors Him, and to be the best person I can be. My goal is to show love to everyone in the best way I know. It’s not always an easy task. But while I’m part of the foster system, I am doing it all for the kids. At the end of the day, that’s what being a foster parent is all about.
Thank you, Takayla, for sharing your experiences as both a foster and now a prospective adoptive mom. We are proud of the work you do for the kids!
Image Credits: cosciansky; Mhamad Kleit; Fabiana Zonca