The Paradox of Letting Go in Foster Care
Foster parenting contains, by its very nature, a strange dichotomy. On one hand, you're expected to love and care for a child as if it was your own. On the other hand, you're expected to let that child leave your home after weeks, months, or years - whenever the circumstances are deemed appropriate.
As foster parents, we attach only to detach, we build a safe foundation only to reliquish the kids we care for into the unknown, and we love and then let go - most of the time never seeing the children placed with us again. The question that people ask me most frequently about fostering is some variation of this: "Isn't it hard to give them back?"
And so, with a big (virtual) deep breath, here is the short answer: yes. It's very hard.
But there's also a long answer, and it's a bit more complicated. See, as foster parents it's our goal, our pledge, and our reponsibility to act as part of the collective network that works to create a permanent, safe, supportive home for the children in our care. Sometimes that permanent home is with us. Sometimes that permanent home is with another adoptive family. But, more often that not, that home is with one or both biological parents or another birth family member or friend.
We are a safe place for a child to be nurtured, cared for, and provided for, just like any home should be. But, for us, it's all on a temporary basis, unless we're told otherwise. So, is it incredibly hard to love a child and then never see them again? Absolutely. But we're not giving them back, we're moving them forward. We're making a family whole again, and that's a beautiful thing.
For foster newbies, here's the process in an incredibly oversimplified manner. Whenever possible, the goal of the fostercare system is reunification of the family. Generally, this is done by offering a parent a plan to complete. The plan is generally a combination of several different things, from substance abuse counseling and rehabilitation to safe housing and employment, parenting classes, domestic violence training, mental health treatment, etc. Once the plan is complete and the agency and court agree that reunification should happen, children are transitioned back to their families.
Even though it's incredibly difficult to let go of a child we've bonded with and provided for and loved, it's hard to deny the happiness involved when the process is successful. If reunification occurs, and a parents is successful, the system has worked. That's what we're all aiming for, and that's what makes it possible to feel joy in the midst of loss.
Some birth parents recognize the importance of the foster family in the lives of their children and maintain some type of contact. Many don't, for reasons that are their own, and as foster parents we aren't entitled to any information. Sometimes a sympathetic worker may pass on a few words - she's doing fine! He's really happy! For most foster families that I've known, the future of the children they love remains a mystery.
For us, that was harder than letting go.
That being said, there is an added layer of difficulty here, beyond bonding, beyond love: sometimes foster families disagree with the decision to reunify or to move to a family member. As an integral part of the process, we hope that our concerns are taken into consideration, but ultimately we have to accept and trust that the best interests of the children are being represented by the agencies, legal respresentation, and court systems.
It sucks. Again, we're asked to be of two brains here - advocate for the children we care for, and then accept the decisions made for them by others. I've been there, and it's an incredibly powerless feeling.
Our first foster placement left us after a relatively short time - six weeks, a blip on the radar, really. But as brand new foster parents who had never had a child in our home before, we fell hard for him and we were completely naive of how everything worked. Given the circumstances of his case, we assumed he'd be in care for quite some time, but he went to live with a great aunt. As we learned about her and her circumstances, we became incredibly unsure that she could provide what he needed and keep him safe.
And it turns out we were right.
He was back in foster care less than a year later after the aunt could no longer care for him. He was later reunited with his mother, but back in care for a third time less than six months later. In the interim, he's developed behaviors that are inappropriate and potentially dangerous to other children. We had to make the heartbreaking decision not to take him into our home and put our two kids at risk, and even though I know it was the best thing for them, it still totally sucked. When I told the social worker that we just couldn't do it, I was standing in the middle of the grocery store parking lot, sobbing.
I think about him every day, although I haven't seen him in almost three years. I regret not being able to care for him the second or third times. And, naturally, I'm pissed off that my gut feeling was right and the decision that was made may not have been the best. But no one has a magical insight into the future, and I know that everyone involved in his case cared for him and his well-being, and that they followed established protocol. It just wasn't as successful as hoped.