“We found a boy,” the caller said. I was driving when the phone rang. Ohmygosh. I don’t know where I was, but I remember pulling over to take this call. It was important. Every single call from the agency was important right now.
“Wait. Can you wait? Can I three-way Ryan into this call?” He should be hearing this firsthand. I got off the phone and immediately texted a bunch of 9-1-1 messages for him to stop whatever he was doing at work and CALL ME NOW. With Ryan on the phone, we brought Mr. Goshen back onto the call.
“As I was saying, there is a boy we’ve heard about. We don’t have much information on him yet. There is no profile circulating. It’s sort of being passed along by a friend.” This is agency-speak for “insider trading.”
The private agency we worked with navigated a handful of regional divisions to place foster youth with potential adoptive families. This meant we were not limited to only bringing in a child from within our county. We had access to a wider pool. And, apparently, insider trading. Pro.
If a county received a child, they had a certain obligation to peruse the home studies of families which were local. This would make it easy to transport the child to parental visits, keep them in their local school, and with the same medical providers, etc. So, the local foster homes get first priority to receive incoming children. Con--for us. But in the situation where the child’s parental rights are being terminated and no visitations are ordered, the originating county has the ability to transfer the child out to a different county. With access to additional home studies, the local social worker can more easily find a suitable long-term placement.
Our agency worked like a liaison. Or a matchmaker. They would visit with the offices and build connections with social workers. The social workers would share information on potentially adoptable children and our agency could get a firsthand opportunity to say something like “I’ve got the perfect family for that kid.” Pro. Then, our home study gets passed directly to the person behind the scenes, and ultimately gets added to a stack of 20 others sitting on their desk. Con--bureaucracy was still in force.
One time, we were in the running for a match. They had two families that would go in for the initial disclosure meeting where you learn more about the child, ask questions, and then make another yes or no decision. The social worker scheduled the other family’s meeting before ours. ...And then we never had our meeting. The other family had said yes, and that was that. We didn’t even have a chance because we were second on her list, instead of first.
The lesson we learned was to always answer the phone first. Schedule first. Be there first. Almost to the point of “Act now, think about it later.” These aren’t words of advice to be applied generally. This type of aggression should be limited to a child you can fully commit to based on the barest minimum of information. My sincere hope is that your “barest minimum” is nothing like ours.
“Can you tell us about him?” I prompted nervously. Don’t sound desperate, Janelle. Relax. There was a pause, then “We think he is five. He has siblings, but they’ve already been adopted. He’s cute and he’s Caucasian. No parents are in the picture.” Okay, thanks.
That felt like a warm-up. Even the profiles had more detail than that. And that’s a generous use of the word “more.”
“What else? Any issues?” We pressed Mr. Goshen for more. “No, we have some records, but it’s all pretty clear. Allergies. Possible ADHD. Otherwise, there are no major medical concerns,” he reported. Well, dang. This sounded like an open-and-shut case! My heart was already skipping beats.
“Will there be a profile? Can we see a picture?” No and no. He clarified, “More information can be reviewed at the disclosure meeting. Do you want me send in your home study to set it up?”
Of course we said yes. Yes--to a vague description of a healthy child that only existed in foster fairy tales. And so, we were one step closer to our serendipitous placement.
Through a series of unbelievable events, Steven, our little boy, was at home with us. It had only been seven days, but we were growing simultaneously in fondness and trepidation. It was a honeymoon of sorts.
The doorbell rang. Shit, shit shit! Protective Services was here. It’s too soon! They weren’t supposed to be here yet.
After our afternoon play date, we had decided to move forward with this seven, not five-year-old, boy. How the agency could have had this very basic fact wrong still bothers me. I understand that the foster system is overloaded and often, social workers have too many children to keep track of. Still, a simple fact-check would have been nice.
By “move forward,” we had expected to begin a measured dating process. We may have had an all-day outing, followed by a sleepover the next weekend, and so on in greater quantities and frequency. Each event would be priming us toward a long-term connection. It also gave us an opportunity to make an immediate 180º on our decision with the least added trauma to the child, should something arise. We were comfortable with this process.
So, he came to us for a sleepover. But for some totally understandable reason, the prior foster family couldn’t pick him up the next day. He’d have to stay for the weekend. We understood. It would be a busy weekend with a little stranger in tow, but it was exciting! He came with a little child’s backpack. Three outfits. Pajamas. A blankie.
Ryan and I jumped on this adventure. We took him to see the ocean for the first time. We drove him all around for sightseeing. He was shy, giggly, bouncing off the walls... never sleeping… and never bathing... and never going to the bathroom. Except in his pants. He ate anything he could reach that was edible: crackers, fruit, cheese, plain toast. And he begged us for his favorite food: ten-for-a-dollar Ramen noodles. Dry pantry food was his primary target. It was a really fun weekend. Nothing was too serious, yet.
And then we tried to contact the prior foster family to arrange for a meetup and child switch. No response. Tried again... no response. Since it was a weekend, we had no access to the social workers. So, as it was, we kept this boy another night. I honestly thought we were going to be in trouble over this decision.
Monday came along. “So, um, we had a nice weekend, but um, we still have him,” I explained to the child’s social worker, Martin. I didn’t know what the protocol was. This was awkward.
This next week, Ryan’s father was in town. In fact, we were expecting him anytime. We knew he was an unvetted adult. No background check would be done on him before he was around this child. This is a “no-no” in the foster world. I mentioned this to Martin. “Let me see what I can find out,” he said and ended the call. Under the circumstances, they would make an exception to this practice. It seemed like the rules were more like “guidelines,” right now.
Some time later, the social worker called back. “So, what we’ve learned is that they aren’t coming back,” he said. Again, I had to mull over the meaning of the words to myself, slowly. They… the other foster family… Can they even do that? “What?” I pondered aloud. “What does that mean? Like, what do we do with the kid?” We had not planned on this. There was nothing that could have prepared us for this. “Can you keep him until we learn more?” He implored. Well, yeah. Sure.
What else were we supposed to do?
After a quick phone call to Grandpa Improviso informing him of the extra visitor, we set to unpacking boxes of clothes and toys and reassembling the child’s room to be less for a two-year old, and more for a seven-year old. Goodbye monkeys.
That first week was a blast going swimming and exploring the big city while Ryan worked downtown. Grandpa’s delightfully distracting presence helped this boy to mask many of his less desirable qualities. Ryan’s dad assumed nothing, asked nothing, and just loved on the little boy. Just like that. We had no answers, anyways.
Days went by. The phone rang. Up until this moment, we literally had no idea what was happening with the boy’s files, the transfer process, and such. We had no paperwork for this boy at all. No court documents saying we were his caretakers. No insurance card, should there be an medical emergency (and there was). No permission to give him allergy meds. Nor any Pepto-bismol for his self-inflicted constipation-diarrhea cycles. Our hands were legally tied. We were essentially strangers, or unintentional kidnappers; you chose.
Martin explained over the phone, “So, they haven’t followed through with our instructions. But, per the court order, the boy must go back home. It’s important for him to find closure and say goodbye to the other kids.” He went on to explain that something was suspicious about this and that out of the best interests of the child, we should be prepared to have the boy returned to us long-term, immediately, after that foster family wraps up whatever they need to.
Now might be a good time to add in the fact that the prior foster home was of an extended family member. That’s right--actual relatives were abandoning him. They had calculated this move.
It clicked for me. His siblings were adopted. He was not. Red flags were going up. These people suck…
Friday came along and we had a chat with the little boy about how he would go back to his family for a short visit. He would need to spend lots of time with the “other kids,” whom we now knew to be his siblings. He would need to tell them he’d be safe in his new home and he could show them the pictures from a little album we’d made. And then, in three sleeps, we would be there to pick him up.
What we didn’t say is that he would never see his siblings again. We didn’t know that detail, yet.
This is now on my list of “worst” days, ever. The social workers were supposed to arrive at 2:00 p.m. Ryan was coming home early from work to make sure he could say goodbye. We were planning to eat lunch together as a family.
The boy’s little backpack was all ready to go in the foyer. I snuck a little card into the front pocket. I had jotted something in big letters because he couldn’t read well. So I drew some hearts in there too. Love, Mom and Dad. We were just waiting for Ryan to come home.
And then the social workers showed up. Two hours early.
The little boy shrank in a panic. Martin and some other social worker we had never met calmly took his things and waited expectantly in the foyer... like “Ma’am, we need to take him home. Please say goodbye.”
But Ryan wasn’t home, yet! I tried calling. No answer. What do I do? Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry… I was thinking of anything to stall them. At least for long enough to get Ryan on the phone. Call me back! Hurry, please!
I hugged the shell-shocked boy who had plastered himself to the living room wall like he wanted to be swallowed up inside of it. I rattled off the essentials: I would see him again soon, be good, three sleeps, etc. Don’t cry. He looked stoic. Steeled and cold. He didn’t cry.
Then, there was nothing else I could do. It was time for him to go. Out the door they went.
Now I was the shell-shocked one. I just released him to an unloving home. To people who specifically did not want him. And Ryan never got to say goodbye. Oh, honey. I’m so sorry.
And then my phone rang again. It wasn’t Ryan. Martin said, “I have a very sad boy in the backseat who would really like to talk to you.” He handed the phone to a hyperventilating child, wailing in the background. He finally broke. “Mommy?” He cried. I cried. I broke too. “Yes, Baby?” The mournful howl that followed said everything.
In-between breaths, I reassured him. “Baby, Mommy loves you. And I miss you. It’ll be alright. I’ll see you again soon, don’t worry. Go and do what you need to do. We’ll be right here waiting for you.”
I wasn’t ready for this.