So often when we talk about “the system,” we don’t have good things to say. We call it broken and failing and maybe we’ve even called it, and all the people working in it, worse at times. Foster care is never easy; the reasons for being in it are never pretty and there usually isn’t a nice neat answer tied with a bow for any case.
I don’t really like messy; I tend to prefer clarity. I like order and structure, a nice clear path to the final goal. But, I’ve learned that with foster care, that’s not always what I’m going to get. Cases they told us would last three months turned into multiple years. Precious little loves we were told we would have nine more months with were picked up two weeks later to go live with a relative. I have to admit that I no longer trust the timelines we’re given. I’ve been aggravated when our timelines have changed or mourned not having the time I thought I was going to have with a child. But in the end, when I look back at the last few years, when I think about the twelve children that have come into our home, I am always so grateful that things worked out exactly as they were supposed to.
A child that left too soon made way for another one that won over my heart. A child that I was struggling to love (or really just to tolerate to be honest) was supposed to go home and instead stayed two more months. Those two months completely changed me. He was a little boy with long dark beautiful hair that had some pretty intensive needs. He fought constantly with the others boys in the house, he screamed for hours at bed time, and refused to eat anything but McDonald’s chicken nuggets. I had his stuff packed and I was eager for the case worker to pick him up from daycare after court on the day he was supposed to leave. Plans changed like they do and he wouldn’t be going home. He would need to stay a little while longer. In those few months that we weren’t supposed to have together, he found his place in our home and in my heart. Where I was once desperate for him to leave, I struggled to hold back tears as we said goodbye on our final day, as did everyone else.
When things don’t go my way, I’m so quick to point a finger. I want to blame someone so I can continue to believe we have some control over our chaos. So a kid stays or goes or I don’t agree with the treatment plan or the progress that parents are making, another visit is cancelled, and even when I tell myself not to do it, I look for someone to blame. The judge who was too hasty. The lawyer that was too rigid. The case worker that cancelled a visit last minute. The Guardian who never showed up. The bio parents who made a bad choice. Maybe even the kid, which I know is ridiculous. Maybe myself. But when I get caught up in the hurricane of emotions that cause me to blame, I never feel better.
Is “the system” flawed? Yes, every system is in some way. Is it broken? I don’t know. I’m not even sure I understand what that means. I do know this though- it is people, the real everyday people, who save the day every time. People who show up and do their jobs day-in and day-out even when it is hard. Even when they are underpaid and undertrained. People who show up at my doorstep- the ones who are brand new and bright eyed, cheery voices welcoming me and bending down to meet the children who crowd around her and the dog that barks out of control. And also the ones who are seasoned and wise and could probably find their way to my house by heart. The ones who I already know need me to put the dog in the backyard before they will cross the threshold of my doorstep.
It is real people, with lives outside of the DSS office and families of their own to care for, who show up in the middle of the night or early in the morning to deliver our newest little foster loves and then come back however many months later to pick them up. Who answer my frantic calls and try to find the answer to my list of questions about a child they barely know or sometimes they haven’t even met yet themselves. They are often the ones who quickly pack up bags of diapers and clothes or a toothbrush from DSS storage. It’s not their fault that the diapers are the wrong size or the clothes don’t fit. Sometimes that’s really all that there is. And sometimes there is nothing at all.
When I feel like everyone is out to get me, that it is all a conspiracy to make my life harder, the irrational part of my brain has taken over and I’m no longer my fully functioning self, I try to remember these people. These people whose capacity to bear others’ burdens is far greater than my own. These people who look into the eyes of not only traumatized children sitting in a police station, but their parents and loved ones too who are realizing the magnitude of their choices and the resulting consequences, as they desperately try to find them a home at least for the night. These people who stay late more often than not when I can clock out at 5:00 every day. I go home to my family and cook dinner and relax because there aren’t teens sitting on my office couch that don’t have a bed to sleep in or a baby crying in my arms as I make calls down a list of people who don’t answer. Case workers aren’t just case workers. They are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents, friends, church members. They have a life outside the office that I don’t often see. And yet they continue to carry the burden of these children, these families, this system with them.
So here is my personal public thank you to the people who save the day:
To the foster parents, thank you for showing up. Thank you for opening your home to one more. Two more. For putting a call out to your Facebook friends for another crib or a bunk bed or size 2t girl clothes because you’ve only had boys so far and now there’s a pigtailed little girl who arrived with nothing. Thank you for late nights waiting on a new placement to show up who never does, for standing in long Walmart lines with a cart full of diapers and formula trying to figure out how WIC vouchers work and for smiling politely when someone comments on why your family looks different. I know you’re doing the best you can. Thank you for the part you play in writing new endings for children or at least new middles. You are making a difference.
My favorite part about all these people is that sometimes when all the stars line up just right, when you magically get all the pieces for the puzzle in the right place, all these different people can work together to support each other. All these people doing different jobs, from different backgrounds and experiences, playing different roles can act like an all-star team to champion the children in their care. And when you don’t luck out and maybe you can’t see everyone pulling their weight, thank you for believing the best in each other… even when it is really hard. The system may fail and you may be disappointed again, but people will save the day.