I sat in a rocking chair in my living room, holding a child who had just been dropped off at our house by the Division of Family and Children Services.
This child’s cries were gut-wrenching — the kind of cry that comes from somewhere deep inside, surges through the rest of your body and allows your mind to focus on nothing but feeling. This child was devastated. Separation from parent, addict or not, is traumatic.
I’ve only witnessed one other person cry with the kind of emotion that words fail to describe — a father at the funeral of his son, a teen who overdosed.
I went to the D.A.R.E. classes. I knew drugs were bad. I was the responsible, goody-two-shoes who never touched the stuff. But I didn’t understand the way drugs can shred apart a family, tear apart souls.
It can be easy to judge addicts — those who steal to get their next fix, who lie to get their way, who neglect their children, seeming to prefer a drug in their bloodstream rather than to care for their own flesh and blood.
It’s easy to judge until you know those addicts, witness their struggles and see firsthand the havoc their disease creates. Maybe some can still judge.
After holding a child who wants nothing more than to be held instead by a parent who’s failed — I can’t judge. Judgment won’t heal that child’s heart or that parent’s addiction.
A parent must be held responsible for neglecting a child, but the best case scenario is parent and child heal together.
So in those moments I’m praised and thanked for caring for someone else’s children, I wish I could explain this journey and what I’ve learned about love. But there’s no way to package that into something appropriate for a brief exchange between acquaintances.
Give me a chance, and I’ll tell you the love these children have for their parents and why the system works to reunite them whenever possible.
When addiction fractures families, those children are left angry, screaming words they don’t really understand, or scared, clinging to whatever’s familiar.
Foster parents try to put their world in order.
It’s like setting up Fisher Price Little People in a dollhouse — parents in the kitchen, child on a chair in the bedroom, another child asleep in a bed, dog in the living room.
It might look normal.
But that house isn’t home for those children. Those parents are only temporary.
Then someone picks up the house and shakes it hard.
The foster parents try to put everything back in order. And it’s shaken again. And again. Something triggers a tantrum. A parent fails again. Or a family visit goes well, and a child remembers this foster home isn’t home.
While foster parents work to create a temporary home, parents work to put their own home in order. Only their world is shaken, too.
I don’t know their struggles, their baggage. I don’t know who keeps shaking their house or why. Maybe it’s them. Maybe it’s doubt. Maybe it’s past trauma. Maybe it’s addiction.
It’s hard to heal.
But I see children hurting from what their parents have done — and from being separated from them.
So, in foster care, we work to heal the family. The system doesn’t provide better parents, it works to make the parents better.
There are moments I’m terrified that whatever I’m doing isn’t enough — there’s too much that’s broken, and I can’t make them whole again.
The inability to control someone you love who makes poor decisions is maddening. The inability to make the world right for a child is maddening.
There are no solutions to addiction that don’t hurt.
There are no stories in foster care that don’t come with pain.
Giving up has hurt the most — ending that work to make a family whole.
A decision is made — in the best interest of children — that a family cannot be made whole.
I don’t get to make that decision. I live with its consequences. And it hurts like hell.
I hold these children and try to show them they can feel whole again. I hope they can feel whole again.
Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent.