Monday, May 11, 2009

Mandatory training: check!

We wrapped up our mandatory Department of Child and Family Services Training! It felt uncannily like traffic school. For most of the training, a DCFS social worker sat at the front of the room and read to us from a binder. We got through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Seven Stages of Grief, and a host of grim and off-putting statistics about foster care/adopting older children and the behavioral challenges of post-institutional kids.

The oddest thing about this training is that we are sitting in the ground floor conference room of an institutional foster home in east Los Angeles, effectively doing time so we can get the rubber stamp of approval from the child welfare bureaucracy, while above us there are seven floors of abandoned kids living in an architectural cross between a maximum security prison and a public grammar school in a bad part of town, with barred windows, locked gates, oddly deserted recreation rooms and lots and lots of security desks. I have a gnawing feeling that spending an hour or two talking to a small panel of these kids would probably yield a lifetime’s worth of insight.

Thankfully, the final two hours were spent with a guy who has been mentoring a child through the agency we work with, and who helped this boy look for a permanent adoptive placement. He was enthusiastic, emotionally engaged, and specific about what drew him to the boy he set out to help, and how their relationship built over time.

Which leads me to what I like about the agency we’re working with, Kidsave. They aren't an adoption agency - instead, they facilitate a program that introduces prospective adoptive parents to older children in foster care who are ready for adoption. The idea is that you "host" a child in your home on weekends, or (if you're interested in their summer program for kids coming from Columbia or Russia), for several weeks in the summer. You may also choose to advocate for and mentor an older kid who is looking for adoption, introducing the kid to people in your community without signing up for adoption yourself. That sounds a little odd, until you realize that a lot of these older kids really want to be adopted, and they are hidden away in group homes and foster facilities with little opportunity to meet and form relationships with adults outside the system.

You attend events where you plant trees or visit a museum alongside a group of kids. If and when a natural connection emerges, you check in with a kids’ social worker and find out what her needs are and what kind of life she’s looking for – adoption, a place to hang out on the weekends, a long-term mentor, etc. The social worker sees how the kid feels about you. And if you are getting on together, the kid spends weekends at your house. Over time, that might lead to the kid living permanently in your house through adoption. Or it might lead to a life-long friendship that defies bureaucratic definition. Whatever. The agency does a good job of staying focused on the bottom line, which is that kids need connections to adults who care about them, in whatever form they come.

The process is socially awkward, and I wince sometimes when I imagine the potential for the kids to feel like puppies in a pet store or worse while we jockey to impress them with what cool prospective parents we all are. Am I wearing the right kind of jeans? How do I start a conversation with a stand-offish teenage boy who has sequestered himself under his iPod headphones? Do I seem to "white"? Too old? Am I acting too interested? Not interested enough? At times it sounds like speed-dating. But the agency holds us at bay and gives the kids the right to choose. These kids have been shuttled between temporary living situations for most of their childhoods. It's only fair that these events be designed to make them as comfortable as possible, and that we feel like the ones on display.

We'll see how it goes. Next up, the DCFS home visit to get us approved for hosting a child overnight. Before the social worker shows up, we have to clean, get any household chemicals stored out of reach (even though these are older kids we have to comply with DCFS guidelines about child-proofing), and make an evacuation plan in case of fire in our home. Then we get to the fun part - getting to know the kids.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What Else?

We gave a lot of wrong answers in foster-parent class this week. We didn’t mean to do it, but once we got started we were like a train heading downhill and helpless to stop ourselves.

The teacher was belaboring a point about how every loss is accompanied by a gain. I suppose the larger point had something to do with how these kids experience profound loss early in life, and our job is help them identify the opportunities that are unfolding for them. But we don’t spend a lot of time connecting the dots.

He had a simple chart going on the wall. “What do you lose when you learn to walk?” he asked. “Being held,” someone said. “What do you gain?” he went on, drawing it out the way you do for a kindergarten class. “Muscles,” I muttered. “Freedom,” a marketing consultant in his mid-fifties offered. Freedom made it up on the wall.

“Okay, what about when you reach puberty?” the social worker asked. “What do you lose?” Childhood and innocence went up on the board. We moved on to the next column. “What do you gain?”  We were starting to get the hang of it.

“Sexuality,” my partner piped up with great confidence. The social worker looked at him as if he had started to unzip his fly. He quickly looked away. “What else?” he asked the room, his voice going up at the end of the sentence in semi-desperation. Autonomy ended up on the board. I remembered ruining two of my parents’ cars before I turned 17 and wondered about that.

For some unfathomable reason, we followed this line of questioning right through to the bitter end. “Old age?” he asked. “What do you lose?” I tried again: “You lose your future?” I thought about my grandmother telling me at 93 that she knew what was coming for her. The teacher put one hand on his hip, cocked his head to one side. "O-kaaay?” he said, rhetoricaly.  I knew what was coming next. “What else?” he asked in a perky voice as he spun round to the other side of the room, the side where the good people hopefully sat. “You lose your vitality and your ability to recover quickly from injury and your strength!” said a lawyer in his early 60s who had just been divorced and had mostly been silent up to this point in the class. “Good! Strength!” said the teacher.

There are a lot of wrong answers in foster parent class. You don’t get any points for originality. It’s a lot about compliance with requirements. I appreciate that. There’s a lot of paperwork involved in shepherding a kid through the system and most of it is designed to protect the kid, or at least to document whose fault it is when the system fails to protect them. After class, the would-be foster parents gathered furtively in the parking lot. “Let’s each get kids, then all get together for foster family poker!” one suggested. “We have a swimming pool – I think a kid would like that?” another mused. There was hope and anxiety and an edge of hysteria in our voices that probably had to do with having been sprung from six hours of tedium on a sunny spring day.

I hope we do it. I hope we watch our post-institutional kids swim in that pool in Santa Monica, or keep them up past their documented bedtime playing foster family poker. I hope that despite the nagging feeling that nothing we do is enough to make up for the past for these kids, we remember that something is mostly better than nothing. And I hope I never ask a kid a question and when they offer up an answer, pause and say “What else?”

Beginning at the beginning

I’m starting this blog as a chronicle of my foray into foster parenting in Los Angeles. It's a journal of sorts, and hopefully, a candid account that tells the truth about being a newbie foster parent.

Recently, I told my mother that we’re starting our foster parent orientation and training program. She told me that someone in her community became a foster parent and the girl had to eventually be removed from the foster parent’s home. She suffered a history of abuse and by the age of 12 she was sneaking out, having sex with much older men, and rejecting any attempts at discipline.

When we tell people we want to be foster parents, most often they respond with concern and consternation. I think they assume I can't get pregnant. Why else would someone want to foster or adopt an older kid? Stories of impending natural parenthood are usually greeted with congratulations and optimism, but it seems that helping to raise someone else’s child (the ones who are treated like nobody's child) attracts grave pessimism.

I can think of plenty of biological parenting parallels for the stories I’ve heard about foster care. My grandmother struggled to raise four boys whose young adult lives were marked by addiction. My colleague’s young daughter resents her father’s absence and takes it out on her mother in violent outbursts. I’ve had friends who grew up with pretty stable parents and yet came to tragic ends - their suicides were crushing.

Biological parenthood hardly seems to be a recipe for uncompromised success. I’m not a parent yet, but I can see that no matter how it comes about, parental "success" is always relative and fleeting. The straight-A student might develop anorexia. The high school athlete might marry young and wind up divorced and confused at 30. Human beings have messy lives. Event the most fortunate of us suffer, fail and inflict petty injustice on each other from time to time.

I haven't had much opportunity to explain why I'm doing this, but when I'm talking to myself about it, I say that I feel ready to start with someone who already has a history. I hate the thought that we fear and reject children whose lives have been hard, in favor of kids who are shiny and new. It feels consumerist, and more to the point, it feels like a lie. If a baby is a blank slate for projecting our aspirations to innocence and perfection, an older foster child seems to serve the opposite function; the pessimism I hear echoes our fear of human darkness, anger, weakness and pain.

I don’t know that what we are doing is “right”. I don't want to prove my moral mettle, or impress my friends or my god. But when I think about taking in and taking on a child who is already half grown-up and fully complicated, I feel a rush of maternal feelings that have always eluded me when I try to imagine having a baby. We haven’t struggled with infertility, and I’ve never been pregnant. My partner and I feel meant to do this, and it just descended on us over time with a heavy, stubborn certainty. Some days I feel excited about it, and some days I feel terrified. But like all such things, the decision seems not to rest on any momentary emotional state.

In some way, it doesn't seem like a decision at all. It just feels like it has to be done, by someone, and it might as well be us. There are more than 30,000 kids in temporary foster care in Los Angeles, most with little chance of being reunited with their birth parents. More than half drop out of high school, only 5% go to college, and 25% end up homeless. Thousands age out of foster care without anyone to help them make the transition - to loan them a deposit on a first apartment, or buy them their first car, or advise them about an important job interview.

I feel strangely touched when I think about the possibility that someone else’s child might someday sit with ease at our dinner table. I feel a fierce protective instinct when I think about advocating for a kid whose education has been interrupted by personal chaos beyond their control. I go to the institutional "foster care facility" where we're doing our training courses, and I look at the deformed bureaucracy that professes a desire to do the right thing and dehumanizes these kids every day, and I feel my mind and my heart and all of my personal resources click into overdrive like a machine or an athlete getting ready for competition. I feel beyond myself. I feel that there is a very good possiblity I will "fail" in the ways that one measures such things, and I don't care. The system is building the conditions for failure every day, and maybe I can interrupt it just long enough for someone to catch a break.

We’ll see what happens. The foster care system is already sending us clear messages to beware, be realistic, and be ready. But for me all that matters is to try.

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