My wife Stephanie and I lost two daughters this year.
One evening, we said our goodnights and Stephanie tucked them into bed according to the firmly established bedtime ritual. The next night, their room was empty.
This marked the end of our first experience as foster parents, when the two girls who had been with us for a year and a half went back to their biological family.
Signing up for foster care is volunteering for this kind of loss: If all goes well, the child will end up back with family or relatives.
Or maybe not. The motto for foster care might be, “Who knows?”
I think this uncertainty is a big reason people shy away from being foster parents.
Contemplate taking in a child you don’t know, and there will be no shortage of doubts. Aren’t foster kids often troubled? What if they throw tantrums and break things or kick the dog? What if I fail at being a foster parent and end up as the villain in some kid’s memoir someday? What if they corrupt my angelic biological child? What if some other unspecified terrible thing happens?
Fortunately, the state doesn’t just drop kids off at your doorstep and wish you good luck. We participated in a number of required training classes, which at times seemed like a lot of work but definitely came in handy later. We were also CPR-certified and had our home inspected to make sure it was safe. (We have a whole set of fire extinguishers now.) And, we had guidance from the state at every step.
Still, I often grumbled about having to jump through so many hoops. But it’s not much to go through compared with the unspeakable reasons some kids end up in foster care. We’re all vulnerable to the chaos of life, but kids especially so. Whether their parents make harmful choices or end up in tough circumstances through no fault of their own, kids suffer too. Whatever happens to their parents happens to them.
According to the Delaware Division of Family Services, more than 500 children in the state are in foster care at any given time. As foster parents, we regularly receive emails about new children coming into the system.
So far, I’ve mentioned a lot of the fears about foster parenting—and we did have episodes of screaming, defiance, sulking and general lack of cooperation. You know, kids acting like kids. These were children carrying more trauma than I’ve had in my lifetime, so to me, their behavior seemed remarkably good.
The girls were imperfect children who added so much to our messy, imperfect family. The oldest girl was sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes more withdrawn and anxious, although she hid it well. She loved horses and making friends at school. The youngest was a firecracker, a ball of energy and spunk who could push your limits and make you grin while doing it. She loved kittens and playing with dolls. They fought and played with our two biological sons. Together, we celebrated birthdays, opened Christmas presents, took school photos, went on family trips, told jokes and read books. That year and a half wouldn’t have had so much enjoyment without them.
Maybe the hardest part of welcoming foster kids is the lack of control. You can’t control the hurts they bring with them. You can’t wave a wand to fix the issues that brought them into care. You can’t decide what’s best for their future. And if they do return to their family, you can’t do much at all to help their lives turn out well.
Then it dawns on you that you don’t have control over your biological kids’ lives either. You won’t be able to ensure their lives are rich and rewarding, make their decisions or prevent them from being hurt someday.
Pain and joy mix in the life of any parent, and foster parenting is no exception.
I’m proud of the girls’ mother, who worked hard to create a safe home again and welcome them back. If we felt pain at their loss, imagine what she went through when her girls were taken into foster care. Not every child has a loving parent who wants them, and I’m happy these girls did.
While I haven’t seen the girls since they went home, I recently heard from one of them unexpectedly. In school, her class made Father’s Day cards with a handprint on them that read, “I gotta hand it to you: You’re the best daddy in the world. I love you!”
She sent hers to me.
To learn more about foster care in Delaware, visit the Department of Services for Children, Youth & Their Families website.