Foster parents have a lot of frustrations.
There are the zillion appointments the kids must attend, but that’s only if you can get them the services they need. You can spend a lot of time trying to find an available therapist who accepts Medicaid. Even after you start services with said therapist, you can spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the payments to the therapist stopped and what you’re supposed to do in the meantime. Same goes for child care. Between the Division of Family and Children Services, the private agencies involved, the services you need, the contractors that work between some of those folks, it can all be one big web of frustration.
For me, though, some of the biggest frustrations I’ve experienced as a foster parent have been the judgment people pass on my kids’ parents.
I get it — the kids are in foster care for a reason. Most often kids are in foster care due to neglect, and quite frequently that involves drug use, sometimes domestic violence and maybe mental health issues. The way those and other factors manifest themselves in someone’s life can create a dangerous situation for children. Yes, often parents make poor choices. They must be held accountable for those choices, and most of all the kids must be in a safe space.
However, my job has never been to judge the parents. And it’s certainly not the job of bystanders to pass judgment on situations they don’t understand. There is in fact a judge for that — someone in a black robe in the juvenile court who, with all the evidence at hand, decides whether the parents can take care of their kids or not. In some cases, there may also be criminal charges against parents, and there’s another judge to handle that.
My job, though, has always been to take care of the kids in the meantime, while those parents work on a plan that hopefully gets them the help they need so they can be better parents and get their kids back home.
The goal of foster care is reunification between kids and their families. Yes, it’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s not as hard when you see the smiles on the kids’ faces as they hug their family and move back home.
It doesn’t always work out that way. Parents fail, and they and their children pay the price.
Maybe now is the time to jump in with some judgment for those parents? I don’t think so. Not for me, at least. Because while all that is going on, those kids may be angry at their parents and hurt by those parents, but at least in my experience, they also still love those parents. And those parents love their kids. And if they all get stuck in the anger and hurt, the outcomes will only be worse.
Yes, parents should show their love by stepping up and doing what’s required to get their kids back. It’s just not always that black and white; sometimes the problems that plague parents are complex and not quickly or easily solved. The problems that plague the whole foster care system are the same.
Consequences must sometimes be dealt out by the court in an effort to remedy the situation, but court judgments alone do not remedy what’s broken. There’s a lot of emotional work that comes before and after the official judgments are dealt out.
That emotional work may require a lot of tears, some anger, but in the end, the only solution to moving beyond it in my experience is letting go, offering forgiveness. But it’s not a one-time decision.
As a foster parent, I come into a family’s situation when it has reached a breaking point. I’m not exactly impartial in the situation, but my emotions aren’t as wrapped up in the mess as theirs are. I choose to forgive, to work with them toward something better than the mess that landed their kids in foster care.
The case moves forward, but there are often a lot of stops and starts. And the consequences of the situation play out in the kids’ emotions and behaviors. Their behaviors worsen after visits with their family — it’s a lot of emotion for anyone to handle, but especially for kids who don’t and can’t understand some of what is happening. My emotions start getting wrapped up in it all, too. Forgiving is hard, but I pick up the pieces as best I can. And I forgive.
And that forgiveness from me doesn’t erase the consequences the parents may face — legal death of their relationship with their kids as mom and dad.
Families are severed, and there’s a boatload of pain and confusion to go around when that happens. But the consequences are only part of the story — they don’t have to be the whole story or the end of the story. Because the kids who have lived through all that pain and anger need stories full of redemption and hope, and I will do my best to give them those stories. To replace the anger with love. To replace the hurt with forgiveness. And to do it every day and another 77 times.
Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.