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It was the beginning of December when we got the call. Five siblings dropped off at a local DCF office by their parents. They had the clothes on their backs, some tattered belongings, and little heads filled with questions and fear. We went through our list of available homes and on that cold, gray Thursday, there was nothing. None of our homes were open, and certainly not a home for five siblings. We’ll let you know if anything opens up, we told the panicked Family Resource worker.
A week and a half passed. Lo and behold, a home opened up. They couldn’t take all five siblings, but we were granted permission to place three together. The children, ages nine, six, and four, had been moving home to home for the past ten days, something referred to as “Hotlining.” The youngest two, ages one and two, were separately bouncing home to home. Finding a landing place for any of the children would be a step forward, for sure. Less than twenty-four hours later, three wide-eyed children entered our office and met their new foster mom and the team of people who would be working with them.
A week later, another break-through: a home that had been in the licensing process received final approval to open! They were a returning foster family, having taken a few years off to parent their biological children, but were excited to be in the right place again to open their doors to children in need. A quick phone call to DCF revealed that the youngest two siblings, now after almost three weeks of “Hotlining,” were still in need of a permanent place to land. A quick call to the family, a review of the children’s known history and needs, and we had a yes. Our foster family was brave but reeling, the zero-to-sixty nature of foster care at its most dizzying. There was little sleep and a lot of redirection involved in those initial days, as the trauma whirled through the air. Every time someone came into the home, the two year old would get her shoes, assuming she was getting ready to be packed off to another unknown place. The little boy cried and clung to his foster mother’s legs, terrified she was going to leave him.
The whole time we focused on the children, we fought with ourselves. The first impulse we all shamefully had was to question the parents. How could they do this? Who drops off five children right before Christmas? What is wrong with them? In spite of our best intentions, our countless experiences with amazing parents who have needed help and support, our base reaction was blame and condemnation. And it was the foster parents who calmly, coolly corrected us.
Quickly into the case, we learned that the family had become homeless. They were living in a rented box truck until the weather turned and the parents knew there was no way to keep their children safe. The drive to the office had been torture, to say nothing about the drive away from the five children they loved. They did not know if they would be able to regain custody, did not know where their children would go. One parent had experienced addiction issues and feared relapse was imminent. One had experienced foster care as a child and was fearful of what this would mean for their family case. Initially, they avoided contact and their whereabouts were unknown. What we came to realize was that they feared the unknown. They had made the hardest choice possible, in the interest of their children’s well-being, but didn’t know what to do next.
Outreach began slowly. Foster parents sent notes for visits to report how the children were doing. They sent artwork created in school, updates about potty training, and pictures from Christmas morning. One made ornaments for the parents that matched the ornaments hanging on their family tree, so that the parents would be connected to their children in spite of the distance. The parents warmed up and felt stronger. Their struggle was significant and trauma from their past came to light. DCF had significant concerns and the Service Plan, the list of tasks identified that a family must complete for reunification to occur, was lengthy. One parent was not prepared for the struggle and faded out of the picture. Family visits were painful, the remaining parent having to explain the absence, explain the loss. That parent had to address past issues in therapy, had to confront patterns of abuse that had occurred and how that would impact future parenting/partnering decisions. It was hard, gut-wrenching work that anyone not in those very shoes cannot truly understand. Yet the parent pressed on, head down against the wind, moving forward.
Months and months passed by. Seasons flowed from one to the next. The parent began to trust, began to open up. Our foster parents served as surrogate parents, offering advice on getting a job, helped search for apartments, and boosted confidence. Once it was approved and was clearly appropriate, our foster parents met the parent in the community, invited them to join in on family outings, brought them to church every Sunday. Both sets of foster parents met up throughout the week, ensuring that the children were connected. There were struggles at times. Co-parenting is never easy, and for three separate families to come together to act as one is quite the feat, but it happened. June brought the end of school. The children’s parent, who had been invited to attend the bus pickup for the first day of school of the older three, was invited to see them get off the bus on the last day. The picture says it all: standing taller, shoulders squared, smile brighter, more assured. The children bloomed because the parent bloomed. It took eighteen months, but that summer, all children reunited. They keep in touch with the foster families, because they are FAMILY. The parent still calls for advice and emotional support. They still get together to visit, but the children know that their home is with their parent. Home is together.
June is National Reunification Month. We will be the first to say, it is easy to sit on the sidelines and pass judgment. It is easy to jump to a simple conclusion, even when you know better. What is hard but endlessly more gratifying is to realize that there are times we all need help. There are life events that happen that knock us out of our shoes and leave us breathless. But it is the courageous souls who take the hand extended, find their footing, do the work, and make it to the summit of the mountain. To those climbing the climb, whether you are at base camp or waving triumphantly from the top, we thank you for the bravery you show and your commitment to your children. Thank you for letting us be a part of your family. To our foster parents who remind us to think twice, thank you. We are better and growing stronger by following your example. And to the kiddos who let so many people see you shine, stand tall. You are amazing.
If you’d like to be part of a family’s journey, please contact us today.
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