Sunday, May 31, 2009

On an Inspiring and Heartbreaking Story

This week has been hectic, to say the least. Some contractual issues at work have had me putting in longer than normal hours, both there and at home, and we have both been feeling the effects of the decreased “Daddy time”.

But this story is not about me.

When I walked into my office Wednesday afternoon (yes, I work at both a school and an office, but its all part of the same job), I was greeted by a colleague with “So have you heard my news?” Her expression did not leave any hint as to whether the news was good or bad, so my mind immediately jumped to the latter and I thought she was going to tell me that she had taken another job. This was (thankfully) not the case. She instead informed me that she had been granted temporary custody of a student who is now at my school, but used to be at her school. (I will give details somewhat sparingly as this child is in foster care and though I do not generally give names and locations, I would not want anyone reading this to be able to figure out who the child is, should they happen to live/work in my community.)

I asked her tons of questions, not the least of which was “How in the world did this come about?” She answered me calmly and gave me the details that I unfortunately cannot share. What came through was a sense of excitement. Not in a selfish or prideful (look at me) way, but excitement that she and her husband were going to be able to do something to keep this child from being bounced around from one foster home to another, which had unfortunately been the case during her short time in care. Through an unusual set of circumstances, they had been allowed to take her in and provide her with the love and support she was apparently not getting at her previous foster home.

At this point I will take a moment to mention that there are many very good foster homes in this country and specifically in the area where I live and work. It just appears that in this situation, the child had not felt welcomed or wanted in her current placement and was excited about the change.

This whole situation with this child and my colleague represented the epitome of the way the foster care system should work. Here was a family who got it, (even though they don’t know about this blog and therefore did not read this recent post). And here was a child who was finally going to feel welcomed in someone’s home while she waited for her family to get straightened out enough that she could return to them. It was a beautiful picture in my mind and I found myself very happy that they would all be together during this time. It almost seemed too good to be true.

I received an e-mail the following afternoon that said they would be moving the child to another home that evening.

I was upset, so I know that my colleague must have been devastated. I could not imagine why they would have taken the child out of her home when the situation was so right on so many levels. As it turns out, I discovered the reasons the very next day when I saw the student. When I talk to my students I am very careful not to ask questions of a personal nature, especially when I know there are extenuating circumstances as there were in this case. But this child is very forthcoming and told me the information of her own accord.

What it boiled down to was that social services did not like the way the situation had played out in the first place (the decision had been made by the courts) and used a series of very flimsy reasons to remove the child from my colleague’s home. I know this because the child told me as much.

What I also know is that talking about her one night stay at my colleague’s house was the only time the student perked up during our time together that day. When she talked about her other foster homes and her current placement, she did so with her head down and her tone subdued. But when she talked about being at my colleague’s house she looked directly at me, smiled, and spoke in an enthusiastic manner. Had this woman not been a friend and colleague, I still would have noticed the unmistakable contrast in her demeanor when speaking about her home and the other homes she had been in.

It was unmistakable. Undeniable. Unfortunate. Unnecessary.

It was one of those heartbreaking stories that you hear all too often regarding the US foster care system. Now, in my own defense, I had fully planned to sit down this weekend and write a post about how well the system had worked in this case (since I knew I would not have time till the weekend), but I never expected it to turn out this way. Neither did my colleague.

And neither did the child.

I had the opportunity to see my colleague later that afternoon. I did not mention that I had spoken with the student or what she had told me. I hadn’t planned to say anything about it at all, mostly because I didn’t want to pour salt in what was sure to be an open wound. But she opted to speak to me about it, and I was able to convey to her that the child had been truly happy with her (she was worried that the child would think they did not want her, when the decision to move her was out of their hands). She added details the child would not have known as to why she was moved, which made it seem all the more like a power play instead of a decision based on what was best for the child.

As I mentioned before, it was one of those heartbreaking stories.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking part came just before we parted ways when I asked her if she thought she and her husband might try to foster another child someday. Her response was that they both felt like they had been burned by a system that did not make decisions with the child’s best interest at heart. And that they did not want to do that to themselves, their own children, or the child/ren they might foster again.

It’s a sad truth in American society today. Many families who want to foster have been burned by or are afraid of the system and therefore choose not to get involved with it in the first place. It’s the very reason my wife and I had chosen to pursue international adoption instead of domestic. We had even talked about fostering kids who were not available for adoption, but neither of us felt like it was something we could do for reasons such as what you’ve just read. Unfortunately, there are many people/families who foster for the wrong reasons and end up making the child/ren feel unwelcome. This is not to negate all of the wonderful families out there who demonstrate everything that is good about the system. But it does add one more story which perpetuates the image of a broken social services system in this country. If we don’t step in to help in some way, it will never change.

And the children are the ones who will suffer most for it.


  1. How sad for that poor little girl. It always frustrates me to hear stories likes this. What is the point of a system that is supposed to take care of children when what is best for the children doesn't really matter?

  2. My heart aches for that poor, poor child. Finally a time for a family and then this happens!

  3. True true. I work directly with children placed in foster care, and sometimes the foster family is just a warm body (sometime not even that). it can be overwhelming how broken the system is. But then there are people like you and others that really care. Thanks.

  4. Heather - Like most systems in our country (from the government down), social services is a broken system at best. That's why we need to do whatever we can to advocate for the kids who are stuck there.

    Rick - As does mine. I am hoping she is in better spirits when I see her later this week.

    Chillin' - You definitely have more perspective on this than I do. If you have any ideas of ways we can get involved, please pass them along.