It's 7:15 PM, and we are all about to eat dinner together when the phone rings. I pick up, and the voice on the other end of the line is Pam from Placement. "We have a six-and-a-half-year-old boy who needs a place for one night. Would you be able to take him?" Not the best time, I think to myself. It’s a school night, and the first day with a young foster child can be very challenging. But it's never really a good time. A quick questioning glance at my wife, and I say "Yes, we can probably take him."
I get some basic information about his circumstances. This will be his second placement. His name is T.J., and his previous foster family, where he has only been for a few days since being removed from his home, is unable to continue caring for him. He was physically abused by his parents, and is having some serious behavioral challenges. T.J. has a dependency hearing tomorrow, which will determine whether he will be returned home or remain in foster care, and his social worker will drop him off at our home within 20 minutes. I add another plate to the dinner table and wait.
Our kids, ages 4, 8, 14, 15, and 16, already know the drill. The younger ones are excited when we take a new kid, the older ones are wary. We start preparing the room when T.J. arrives. He is small for his age, with bright, curious eyes and a backpack containing one set of clothes and nothing else, not even a toothbrush. Our 8-year-old daughter immediately takes his hand and walks him the dinner table, while I go through the paperwork with the social worker. She doesn't have more information beyond what we heard on the phone. I sign the papers, she leaves and we all sit for dinner.
We eat together, T.J. hardly touches his food, then gets up saying he is done. I ask him to remain seated, telling him that in our house, you may only get up from the table when you are done eating and ask to be excused. T.J. is testing the boundaries, trying to get up again then deciding to remain seated. He eventually eats everything and asks for more. A little victory.
When dinner is over, I get him in his jammies and set his bed, while he fights our 4-year-old son over one of our son's toys. My wife tells the little ones a story, then spends the next couple of hours sitting next to T.J.'s bed, stopping him from acting out and comforting him until he falls asleep. Then we wash the dirty clothes he had in his bag and go to sleep, hoping for a quiet night. Day 1 is over.
Many news stories portray foster families as evil people who do it for the money, who abuse their foster children and show no feelings. While there are all kinds of foster families, all of us sign up for much more than just babysitting someone else's child. Without the experience of being a foster parent, it is difficult to appreciate how much it requires.
When you become a foster parent, you're not just taking a child into your home: with each child come licensors, child placement workers, case workers, biological parents and siblings, doctors, judges, commissioners, lawyers, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteers, and visit supervisors. The bubble you've always lived in has burst, and you are exposed to the terrible circumstances that got these children removed from their families. You need to deal not only with the children, but also with a broken, underfunded, intrusive bureaucratic system that treats you as a resource.
Being a foster family means your whole family - your spouse and your children (in our case biological, adopted, and foster children) are all directly affected by this choice. Foster children often have greater needs than other children, and you end up spending much of the time you would otherwise spend with your own children on meeting these needs. Your children have to share their house, their toys, sometimes their room, with strangers.
And you have to deal with the uncertainty. Even when a child is placed "just for one night," you don't know if she will stay for one night, one month, a year, or even more. It will depend on the actions of others in the system, while you play only a passive role in this respect.
T.J. ended up staying with us for only one night. We drove him to school the next morning, and at the court hearing that day the judge ordered that he be returned home.
So why do we do it? I truly believe that the care we give our foster children, whether it's for one night or for a few years, makes a real difference in their lives. It is worth doing, because getting to know these children gives us a perspective which helps us appreciate how lucky we are; because we are fortunate enough to be able to share what we have with others less fortunate; because, unlike giving some money to a charity to make us feel good, we know that opening our house to these children when they need it most means so much to them.
We got paid about 19 dollars to reimburse us for expenses incurred the one day we took care of T.J. Do the math. Do you still think we do it for the money?