Foster Care...The First Placement
This is about my personal experience with my first foster kiddo, the issues I had & a bit of what you can expect, well not really, my first kiddo was off the charts. Be warned I'm sarcastic, have developed a painfully odd sense of humor about all of this & even in a bad situation I find something funny. You were warned...
After 16 months of classes, background checks, physicals, home search & intrusive questions about my sex life that for some reason needed to be outlined all the way back to high school...I was somehow deemed fit enough to not lose, maim, or accidentally kill a child left in my care. My license came in the mail & our home was officially opened....Yay...crickets...now what? Now you wait!
You are waiting on a call that will change your entire world...at least for a while. The fastest way to get a placement is to buy non refundable plane tickets or plan something super expensive that kids absolutely cannot go to. I swear this works like a charm.
What to expect when you're expecting
...a call that is.
Read & relax...if you absolutely cannot wait for your life to turn upside down then go play with kids at the kids shelter & yes that's actually a thing that exists.
By this time you have gone thru this painfully long wait & you are ready for a kiddo - like 6 months ago. Your first stop most likely before you even get out of classes will be the online forums & then you will find photo listings. Now the info I'm about to give you is about MY states photo listings (Missouri) others states have different policies.
So if you are in my state & go hunting online for prospective kids to adopt you should know that it's a lot like the personals for online dating. There are code words & a whole series of things you will need to understand before even remotely thinking about inquiring on one of these kids. The kids in the photo listings are currently in foster homes that have chosen not to adopt that child (and you need to know why) or they are in a group home. If you are reading this as a new or soon to be foster parent then you are not even remotely prepared for kids directly out of a group home...seriously Don't do it. Almost every one of the kids that go to adoption are adopted by the foster family that they have been with. If not there is a long list of people...if no one is jumping for the kid then there is a reason. I promise. Photos listings online are the absolute last resort.
You want to chill out, finish the kids room & wait for a call. I promise your life will get full very soon. Don't rush into getting the wrong child quickly when the perfect kid for you is just a call away.
Knock that off.
I know it can be a rush when that call comes & your heart skips...but the child you are about to pick up has just been pulled from a foster home or their family. They are most assuredly Not happy, so please don't walk in there looking like a grinning idiot...unless you're getting an infant then it's perfectly fine.
If you are being matched with an adoptive kiddo it's over a play date & it's fun. But they don't suddenly move a kid in a day without a serious problem.
DFS is on the phone!
On a Thursday night around 6pm I got a call for a 15 year old boy. He doesn't talk much, lives a county over & he likes camo...family is a mess. FYI when a case worker tells you the family is a mess you should expect nothing short of a full on Jerry Springer episode.
Our age range at the time was 14 & up, preferably boys so this seemed like a good match. We offer to go pick the kiddo up from DFS because the case worker had sounded exhausted. They always sound exhausted & are always overloaded with cases. I was about to find out this particular case sucked up 30% of her time & she had 35 other kids on the case load.
My mind was racing...what is he like? I hope he likes cats? I wonder if he has siblings? I hope those spare clothes I got fit him (Ha!).
I walk in the back door of a DFS office & the friendly case worker leads me back to her cubicle to see a boy who doesn't look a day over 10 with a bright red tear stained face clutching a growling 17 pound chihuahua.
"Um...you didn't mention the dog?"
"Oh I didn't know it was his, they had a ton of dogs running around."
"Um well we don't do dogs...I don't even like dogs."
"OK, no problem just leave the dog & we'll take care of it."
I'm quickly trying to figure out what "take care of it" means in my head when the kid bursts into tears.
"No, it's fine we'll take the dog! But just for 2 weeks....Ok kiddo?"
The teary kid nodded.
FYI I still have Blackie...the best dog on the planet.
You got this covered!
You - Have - No - Idea. If you bought more than a toothbrush then you are going to be in for a real surprise. I just prepared my home for a totally normal kid in our desired age range. What I just picked up is a 15 year old kid in size 8 boys clothes. My interests..Art, Travel, Marketing. His...Guns, Hunting & Fishing. This will be fun...and scary...but mostly fun. It's cool, you can flip out when your alone in the bathroom while he unpacks his knife collection. No, he really had a knife collection. I had to put baby locks on Tide but this kid gets to keep a weapon stash. And this is the first of many things that will kind of tick you off about the system.
Like any good parent you stocked the house with tons of books like Harry Potter, Narnia, Twilight & all the other tween-teen crap you could think of, Outstanding right? Nope...this kid hates reading & when he does it's on a second grade level.
So what's the moral of this? Don't buy anything unless you are taking infants. The sizes won't be right, wrong books, wrong reading level, the kid will into the opposite of whatever you bought. Save your cash & take the kid shopping once they move in. Also be mindful when you buy any kid items to note this is for the house or this is yours to keep. I assure you the kid will think every single thing bought will be his & going with him. This included TV's, beds, bedding & things you buy for yourself. It's better to be upfront and super transparent so you don't end up with hurt feelings if the kiddo has to move. Also document what is his...especially if you have several kids. They already don't have much so make sure their things do travel with them.
The first week...
When you get a new kid especially your first you are terrified, on the bright side so is the kid so it works out. You are both in what we call the honeymoon phase. This can lasts from days to a year depending on just how much the kid wants to let go. Once you've had a couple kids in & out of the house you will snap into parent mode much faster & not let things slide.
The honeymoon is lovely, the kid is acting like an angel, asking for a drink, asking to use the bathroom....offers to help clean abound & you already adore this kid! He's telling you the horrors of his last foster home & how mean they were. You start thinking that they are animals for treating this sweet kid so badly. Don't get sucked into this unless you know it really happened.
Turns out my kiddo was moved because he got in trouble & didn't want to be grounded so he told the case worker he was scared to go home (to the foster home). Which means he gets to move, doesn't get punished, gets new things & a whole new family to start over on. See how a kid could get moved around a lot in this scenario? Would you fight for him to stay or be ticked he stretched the truth about you & let him go? Indeed most just let them go. This kid is a hotline call waiting to happen & why risk him coming back? In reality he actually wasn't a bad kid...He just made terrible choices.
Anywho...you will spend the first few days getting to know the kid, tracking down all his doctors, appointments, meds, visit schedule, court schedule & transferring all his school stuffs. If he has an IEP (individual education plan) then you will need to set up a meeting & some testing before he can even enroll in school. Plan on a week of no school & lots of phone calls. Hopefully you have access to the last foster family so you can get the low down on the case & what the kid is capable of.
One fine afternoon while standing in line at the store with a cart full of food the kid starts begging, I mean like little kid style begging, for bags of beef jerky...that seem to be priced the same as silver per pound. I let him get one bag & the whining continued because he wants a bag a day! Um no, not spending $70 a week on jerky. His reply was interesting..."Just use that card, it's not like your paying for it" as he pointed to my debt card.
"Um ..What?" I'm literally confused at this point.
"Use food stamps"
"I don't have food stamps, I am using my debit card that goes to my bank account, I'm paying with my money."
"That's stupid, nobody pays for food!" The cashier gave me a look like I was a total low life...I kinda wish I was sporting my proud foster parent shirt right about then. I'm not sure he really ever got it...that we used our money & nothing else to pay for things.
He would also say things like "You need to call the landlord, I want new carpet."
"I don't have a landlord, I own this house"
As hard as I tried to explain he never even remotely understood the house was ours; we wouldn't move because he got bored with the yard; & we had no one to call when we wanted a new paint color.
He also had no concept of people paying taxes...he was horrified that we Paid tax. Well, he was horrified there wasn't a big tax refund to blow on something stupid. He couldn't understand where tax dollars come from.
In his world 4 people out of 5 in his home got SSI, Everyone received food stamps & medicaid. Bio dad also worked on the side. When the checks came in he would buy guns, motorcycles, & blow every bit of the cash... then 3 weeks later her would go back to the pawn shop & sell everything back for half the price so he could pay the bills. The kid had no concept of "you make a purchase & keep it". Frankly, I don't go to pawn shops so this is one thing I just couldn't watch or allow...spend $60 on a game & sell it a week later for $10. I can see how the cycle of poverty is working in that family though.
My expectations of parenting a teen were of a normal kid with a range of interests, friends & a giant attitude.
The kid fit none of those...he acted very young, he cried a lot...we are talking daily & several times a day. He cried when we didn't have the right Pop Tart flavor, he cried that he had to read, he cried when he didn't get his way & frankly I was left thinking this is not what I signed up for. I was looking forward to rebellious teens that were wanting to be independent...not a kid that stuck his hand under the bathroom door whining for me to come out! Is it to much to ask a 15 year old to let me pee in peace?
Well guess what, I just needed to get the hell over it because he was not going to be what every other 15 year old was...ever. Neither were any of the other foster kids, they all had something that kept them from being functional, social, or like their peers. You learn very quickly to lose the mindset of what he Should be doing & change it to what he Can do. Even if they are bright, funny & look totally normal...there is always something holding them back a little.
I think this is harder for people that already have kids. You end up comparing the kids & that is simply not fair. With an infant you begin setting them up to go to college from day one...this kid - you are just trying to get him to be OK. Because he's currently a total mess so getting him to just OK is a huge task!
When you look at a teen that dropped out and has cruddy job that is not doing much....not super impressive. Until you realize he's also not getting in trouble, he's polite, funny, works hard, & has lots of friends. That is a win! That kid is doing wonderful! Compared to 5 years ago that kid has made leaps & bounds just to get to OK. Don't compare him to his peers unless you want to compare what they went thru as kids.
Ok, so the kid was obsessed with camping, it always started the same way & ended the same way - with the kid in tears. I can be a good sport about setting up a tent in my yard...Oh, 3 tents? Fine. Oh, every single day for infinity? Fine. The kid would get up at 8 am all summer & start in on us about can he go camping...now here's the trick, no matter what you say he will cry. If it's raining he will cry. If you mention that he came in crying last night from camping he will cry...are you seeing a theme here? *To keep you up to date he has Borderline Personality Disorder, so setting up lose-lose situations is not something he can help at this point* So because it keeps him busy I let the kid trek out to the yard to set up what we affectionately called "Tent City". This city is comprised of 4 coolers, 3 full sized six person tents, a fire pit, & everything he owned out of his room! FYI this kid is a hoarder so this is a 4 hour move to the yard.
No problem right?
I Wish! The kid is deathly afraid of the dark, bugs, things that move in the woods, & basically everything that involved actually camping. So everyday sometime around dusk he started crying that "it's dark", "can't you move the car to the back yard & shine the lights on the tent?". Followed by more crying & then a string of crazy talk about how he's "never camped in the dark" (he went camping weekly as a kid) & "we were mean because it was getting dark". This kid must think I'm some sort of God to control light & dark...Nice. It ends with him coming inside in tears & the next morning, just like groundhogs day, this tent nightmare will start over. I say that is mostly a funny way...Personally as long as they are safe the kids can camp, play and do what they want in summer. It was the drama attached to it that started wearing me down.
After a full summer of this "situation" I was afraid we would start attracting hobos to Tent City & it was becoming an eyesore. Plus after 5 months of trying he had yet to sleep in a tent. Sigh.
One day I made a joke about a bear in the back yard & the kid froze, he actually went pale...a light bulb went off in my head...Ha! I thought, I'm going to fight crazy with crazier! "Yep, we have lot of bears in Missouri" "Look there's even bears on the flag!" (Googling MO bears) "look at all these Missouri bears!".
Just like that my "tent problem" went away. However, then he wouldn't get the mail alone or even walk to the bus stop by himself! But hey, still better than the tents.
Sorry folks...I was all tented out.
The Medical Stuff
With little more than a nod & a trash bag full of their gear you now get to decode the puzzle of this kid. You are trying to figure out what they like to eat, what they like to do, what they're behind in, & how you can work with people to fix what can be fixed. FYI you cannot fix everything or even make some stuff better for them. Do your best and try to be there.
Many foster kids are really good at random stuff like hot wiring a car, organizing a shed, cutting down trees but they can't pick out the state they live in on a map. Your first instinct is to start catching them up educationally, but that is a small part of what is broken. They will be emotionally much younger than their peers, behind in many areas, and may have a poor view of reality. The reality of why they are even in care.
First focus on the meds. New foster parents will take their kiddo to the doctor within the first 24 hours of a placement. They will ask you if the meds are working...you have known this kid for 24 hours. Every new home gets a new set of foster parents & they call the shots on meds. Scary right?
My kiddo had ADHD, was 78 pounds, & 4' 7" tall at 15. Nothing about that seems right.
I found a growth doctor who mentioned the ADHD meds could be part of the issue. So I dropped the meds, I figured how bad could he be? Turns out this kid didn't have ADHD & had been medicated since he was a small kid....came into care with a label & it stuck. So ADHD is a non issue. However he does need growth shots, which turned into a need for a brain scan to rule out the thyroid....which then led to a need to have brain surgery for an unrelated situation. I told Bio mom & her response was she "didn't notice he hadn't grown". Since he was TEN? Alrighty then lady.
His mom was present for the hospital pre-op room chat. First time she had ever talked to the doctor. The neurologist went into detail about the golf ball sized hole they would cut in his skull, how they would remove 3 pieces of vertebrae, & how long it should take. She looked directly at the chief neurologist & said "So is this surgery serious?". The look on the guys face was nothing short of priceless & frankly his deadpan reply almost made me explode with laughter. He said "Ma'am I will be cutting on his brain...that's the thinkin' part". Her reply was "Oh". Seriously even the nurses almost lost it. We all have to take a moment and walk away.
The kid had his surgery & then was able to start his growth shots. Yay! So the growth shots worked perfectly, he grew about 5 clothing sizes in 8 months. FYI the purple in the pic is just glue, it does look super disgusting though.
So when you have a case that's Springer worthy you almost have to sit back in awe of the sheer screwed up-ness that could create That kind of hot mess. My very first kiddo was one of 7, however he would only speak to the younger sibling & mentioned wanting to kill several of the others. The case stretched into other states covering horrific abuse that would make Mother Theresa want to stab the bio dad. Everyone was pitted against each other in an epic battle of "bat crap crazy"! The last foster home kiddo lived in was the ex wife of bio dad who cheated on her to produce said foster child (can you hear the banjos?). They needed a dry erase board to work out who was related to who in court...after 3 people stood up for the "who is this boys mother" question. It never occurred to me that this was a tricky thing to answer.
I'm actually pretty fond of all of his siblings even the older ones, We had 2 of them rotating in & out of my house for about a year. His mom was not super bright but pleasant enough unless you mentioned any of her other kids, then it was a free for all of hate. However she didn't Look like a monster. You almost expect them to look evil once you see what they have done, but they look like anyone else. Bio dad was in lock up waiting for his trial when the boy arrived. He was subsequently convicted. Any emotional progress made with the kid was lost when his dad got convicted. I was the one that told the kid, it was a painful moment & we had been waiting around the house all day for the verdict. I privately cheered the conviction of a monster & mourned for the child that was about to have his world shattered just a room away. He did nothing, he was a victim.
The other victim was his slightly older sister. I adored her. I brought her snacks to the group home, clothes, & made sure she got gifts on holidays. I listened to endless hours of crying, hysteria , & cheered her on as she tried to get it together. I sat in the hospital room all night when she was having a bipolar/reality break. I made a girl who was dealing with unimaginable trauma (the epic guilt of an abortion at 11, and turning her parental unit in) laugh..."You didn't really want his baby, it would have had goat ears, 3 heads & six butt cheeks...have you ever diapered a 3 butted goat baby? Do you know how much 3 heads will eat?" Was it the most horrific joke ever? Yep....I'm totally going to hell for that one. But it snapped her back to reality made her laugh so hard she couldn't breath. It was a good night.
She is now a happily married mother & doing wonderfully. I am so proud of her! If she can get up & function everyday then there is hope for every single kid out there.
The Spiral Down
School can be a challenge, typically they are totally OK or they absolutely aren't.
My kid could barely add or subtract, & read on a 2nd grade level. He also hated school, hated learning, & would go out of his way to not try. He would point to Oreos in the store & say "what does that say?". He could read it but had become so trained to do nothing that he didn't even try. He had learned helplessness & liked being the victim....he also liked to command your attention. Lots of nonsense questions.
I did what I could to bribe, trick, & barter, to get info into his melon. It was a really long summer...REALLY long. He was super clingy & wouldn't leave my sight. But he managed to go up to a 4th grade level even with all the family drama, switching schools, brain surgery, & meds change.
By the end of summer bio dad got his sentence ... 35+ years & that set the kid back yet again...this time really far back. He shared the same name as his dad & this time it hit the news, the kids at school saw it. Whatever friends he had left were now gone, he was "that" kid. He started getting in fights & flipping out at the house. He learned really fast that they send him home for fights. If he made it to lunch without hitting someone it was some kind of miracle. He was ticked, he had been lied to, he felt abandoned, & nothing anyone could do would fix this.
Right about this time I got an email for my now adopted son...I remember reading it in a haze because the kid had been in an epic fit of yelling, crying, & insanity for hours...over a sucker. The email was pretty standard by line 2 it was talking about grand theft auto, arson, mayhem....but that he was really laid back! Hmmm... I could handle laid back, shot an email to the case worker & had more info within an hour. Seriously THAT sounded like an upgrade to the situation I had on my hands.
I heard one foster parent compare fostering kids to slowing boiling a frog in water. That statement scared me before kids & now it's just funny....and true.
The kid begged me to take him to Six Flags, for months, begged. Fine, it was the end of summer I already had the tickets & even though he was being a raging butt ... I was going to take him & have fun.
Once there we proceeded to the first ride when the kid announced he didn't like roller coasters, had never been on one, he wanted to go to a different theme park with different rides (mind you we had been inside the gate for 5 minutes) & you would have to kill him to get him to ride one. Well sir, that can be arranged....laughs...but seriously.
As the kid paced, panicked, & whined like a 2 year old in a checkout lane, we made our way pretty promptly to the head of the roller coaster line. The kid started to shout he wasn't going to ride .... and right then I put my hand square in the middle his chest pushed him backwards & slammed the shoulder bar down before he knew what happened. Yep, I pushed him on a roller coaster. I am an adult that forced a kid on a ride...it feels as ridiculous to say as it was to do. He was now strapped into the Batman ride, legs dangling & flailing about like a looney. The 16 year old running the ride glanced over at the crazy kid screaming "I'm going to die!". I yelled "he's fine, just go" & thankfully teenagers don't check facts.
By the end of the ride the kid had a massive grin on his face & was fine...till the next ride. He flipped out with every ride & I pushed him onto everything...he rode them all at least twice happy as a clam on the second round. I had bruises from him hitting me, knots on my shins, & a splitting headache by the time we made it back to the car 10 hours later. I was exhausted. That kid fought me on every damn ride....and had the nerve to say "when can we come back?" as soon as we got in the car. I'm glad I went thru it just to give him a good day that he remembers quite fondly, but that was not happening again anytime soon!
I took him to his first theme park where he rode all the rides ...and he had a blast. We were going to have fun if it killed me, or him.
How much would it take for You to deal with this? That whopping payment of $372 per month looking like easy cash still? I didn't think so.
The long goodbye
Kid 2 moved in pretty quickly & sure enough he was soft spoken, funny, & laid back. I felt bad for him because kid 1 was turning the house into a war zone & the noise level out of that one kid was enough to make you a touch insane. Kid 2 got a set up downstairs with a TV & game system...so kid 1 yelled thru the vents. It was like a twisted prison movie....we laughed but it was the nervous kind of laugh.
Kid 1 managed to go to school 3 days of the last month he was with us ... the rest of the time he was suspended. I was home alone with him all day & I'm pretty sure my friends & family were ready to have me committed because I was losing it. He stood in his doorway & yelled for hours...he had nothing to say really, he was just flipping out with anxiety attacks & it morphed into a OCD situation, followed by more clingy-ness, yelling & misery, for all of us. We took him to specialists, tripled up on his therapy, anti anxiety meds, he just got worse. Three trips to the ER resulted in nothing & they couldn't take him.
One on really bad afternoon kid 1 jumped to his feet & cocked his fist back like he was going to punch me. I really wasn't concerned, but definitely surprised. Out of nowhere kid 2 slid between us & in a very calm barely audible voice said "If you touch her, I'll break you in half & stuff you under the bed"...Kid 1's eyes went wide and he calmly sat down...then said "You aren't allowed to touch me!". My response kept him quiet and calm the rest of the day..."No kid, I'm not allowed to touch you, he can do anything he wants to you....and he looks a little crazy". Once out of the room I made it clear to kid 2 that he shouldn't touch him but we both had a good laugh at the situation...because what else can you do but laugh? Props to the young man that tried to help his soon to be mom.
The last day...
I woke to my husband telling kid 1 not to bother me as I was still sleeping. As I heard the tires crunch out of the driveway kid 1 pushed open the bedroom door screaming about shampoo...who gets that worked up over shampoo? Always a good way to wake up. Once up I started working in my office, kid 2 had escaped the house & I had a friend over also working. The kid was in fine form that day - he was shouting that he was going to drink shampoo (seriously WTH) & after a quick label check I handed it back to him & said as casually as I could...go ahead, it's organic. At this point I figured ignoring the drama would at least calm him down. Nope. He raged for a few hours & then it went totally quiet & he shut his bedroom door (something I'd never seen before). So naturally I had to check on silence. He was lighting paper wads on fire. Awesome. Off to the hospital with you.
*Because of his Borderline he required attention and insane amounts of structure to keep every second busy or he would lose control. Once I went "medium chill" and stopped reacting to his antics he took it up a notch. None of this was under his control, his brain is just wired this way.*
During the past three hospital visits for his out of control behavior, I was frantic! His screaming for 12 hours a day had driven me into such a state of emotional mess...Even a navy seal would break! I was arguing with the nurses and doctor that the kid had a problem. The kid loved it! He sat back calmly watching me going bonkers...again Borderline reaction. The medical staff was on my side, don't get me wrong, but they didn't see enough of a problem to hospitalize him. He lived for drama. His life was not going well unless he was at the center of raging insanity. This just felt normal to him. Quiet and calm were uncomfortable and terrifying.
This time was different, I looked tired, beat up, & was pretty calm. The nurses were actually concerned about me & how I was doing. The kid on the other hand was bouncing off the walls angry. The calmer I was, the crazier he became. He wasn't in control. Once he moved up the escalation of behaviors to fire setting, and he displayed his rage, they took notice. It took 4 grown adults to strap him into a chair and wheel him to the psych ward...I walked behind with paperwork for the intake nurse. It's 3am at this point the place has dimmed lights & it's quiet. Until I hear a child yelling my name...it took me a full minute to understand this was kid 1's little brother standing in front of me. What are the odds of 2 brothers needing inpatient the exact same day in separate homes with no contact?! Unknown to me at the time their older sis was in the adult psych section upstairs. Three, 3 kids in one family with no contact all living apart went bat crap crazy in one day. On the way home I contemplated that perhaps this was the day to buy a lottery ticket.
It took me a full week before I could pack his stuff, it was sad, disturbing, & we had the peace in the house that I almost forgot existed. It was over...he was moving on.
I'm a Total Failure
There is literally no other feeling that you can have when a child you have poured your heart into for a year self destructs. I know it's not rational, I know I helped him in some way. I know I didn't cause this. But I still felt like a absolute tool for enjoying the peace & quiet of his absence. I should have called it months before, but I kept trying to hold it together thinking it would get better. He was my first foster kid & made my life into a Springer show.
Turns out this is Not the norm of fostering, this is the worst case scenario. A child with profound emotional issues, a family torn apart, & a hot mess no matter which way you turn it. Then there's me, a super stubborn problem solver that didn't give up. No one died, the pets are all fine & in the end it's all Ok. We have all recovered from our experience with kid 1.
This one kid sucked up more time & resources than 6 kids & was far harder! I know I've had 9 under roof at one time....but that was an absolute breeze next to kid 1. But see this is where the story gets interesting...because of kid 1 I took a chance on kid 2 a year later I fought to get his little brother Kid 3 moved in then, their older brother - kid 4. Kids that look terrible on paper but were awesome in person, kids that are now part of my family & whom I totally adore!
Sometimes you have to go to hell & back to find out what you really need are 3 punks that can hot wire golf carts & don't know the meaning of..."Ooo that looks dangerous".
Happily ever after...
Yep this story ends with adoptions, a house full of boys & Nerf wars. It's almost a Disney movie!
So your wondering was it worth it? Yep, & I'd do it all over again. Twenty plus kids later & that first one was still the hardest...I'm so glad I didn't quit! Fostering kids is one of the most rewarding & challenging things I've ever done, it's made me a different person...it's made me a mom.