In A Foster Care System That Feels Broken, People Save the Day Every Time

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:

  • The judge who carefully considers each case and listens with wisdom to the progress that is or is not being made. Who confidently makes choices they believe to be in best interest of the child and their family without having a crystal ball to truly know how it will all work out. Who bears the weight of those decisions for better or worse, stepping into the messiness of child welfare each morning with renewed passion for the work. 
  • The lawyer who steps forward for the biological parents and tirelessly advocates for their reunification with their children, the loves of their lives, with hope and promise for restoring the family to fullness. Who helps those who often have not been given an easy shot at life, who do not have extravagant resources or wealth to help them advocate for themselves.
  • The case worker who had to cancel a visit because there were ten kids sitting in the office waiting for a home. Who missed the call because she was at the hospital with a newborn baby experiencing withdrawal. Who missed dinner at home again with their wife and kids because they were in the office working hard to finalize plans for an adoption or placement or just trying to catch up on the endless stack of paperwork. Thank you for loving the kids in your care and building relationships with them just as we do.
  • The Guardian Ad Litem who drives all over the state to visit kids separated from their families, their siblings, their homes. Who makes endless calls and visits and sometimes even brings gifts. Who shows up in court and boldly acts as the voice of the children, children who do not have a voice, children who already are so vulnerable. And do it all without a paycheck. You are the real MVP.
  • The biological parents fighting hard to get their kids back. To make big changes in their life because love does hard things and they love their kids. Who show up to meetings and appointments and visits and court hearings where they’re probably made to feel shamed and blamed and maybe even wrongly accused. Keep fighting the good fight, keep working those treatment plans, keep bringing your kids’ favorite meal to visits, keep answering the phone. Thank you for your commitment to reunification even when the system seems slow or confusing. 

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. 

Kaley
Kaley
Kaley has been a foster parent since 2017. Kaley, Bob, and their dog Rosie currently reside in Greenwood, SC. As Director of SC Operations for Care2Foster, Kaley focuses on recruiting and supporting families as they take their next steps learning more about foster care. She is passionate about supporting foster families with authenticity, vulnerability, and hope. She is also President of Greenwood Foster Parent Association.

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