The One That Could've Been: Remembering How Heartbreaking Foster Care Is
I am notoriously bad at picking up my phone. Ask my mom or one of my lifelong friends, and they’ll give you a good eye roll and an account of all the times they couldn’t get ahold of me. But when the number for DCPP flashes on my phone, I pick it up each and every time. It means that there’s a need, it means that there’s a child. So even when I know I can’t take the child, even when I'm out of state on vacation, even when I'm having a family dinner at a restaurant, I pick it up.
We sat at dinner last night when that familiar number flashed on my screen. There was a six year old girl who needed a home. It was an “easy” no. We have our hands full, we don’t have room for a six year old, we’re at capacity by the state’s standards, and we’re out of state for the next week. “Sorry, I can’t take her. I’ll ask around, though.”
I contacted a few foster mom friends and immediately got a text back, “You know that’s Lillianna*, right?”
Lilianna was the little girl we had for a short term placement almost three years ago.
She was the one who loved Frozen, the one we got the welcome bag of small Elsa toys for. She was the one who asked if I would teach her to pray and offered up her own first little prayer on my couch. She was the one who talked about what it felt like when her daddy would brush her hair, before he got “sick” (a worker or foster mom’s euphemism for prison). She was the one who shook with fear at bedtime until I took her face in my hands and said, “No one has ever been hurt in our house before. No one. Ever.”
She was the one who needed an adoptive family. The one we said yes to. The one they moved from our home.
She left our family to be with her biological brother. His foster family was open to adopting them both. It was a foster care happy ending.
I wondered why God had brought us through the week of praying about if she should be our forever daughter, just to move her somewhere else. But I told myself to not be selfish, to be happy that she would be with her brother, to be happy that she would have a family. Over the past few years, I’ve thought of her from time to time with a smile. The one that could've been.
So last night, when I read Lillianna’s name on my phone, my stomach turned.
The words of the worker and the other foster moms I spoke to weaved together to create a tragic image. Seven homes. RAD. ODD. Lying. Stealing. Aggression. Violence. Impossible to place. Group home. And, finally, a small girl’s simple request: I want a mom with blonde hair.
I put down my phone and pushed her out of my mind. We’re on vacation. There’s nothing I can do. I have my family and my evening to enjoy. But after I returned to the quiet of our car, the thoughts of Lillianna flooded my mind and when my husband reached for my hand and asked, “Are you worried about Lillianna?” something in me broke. I squeezed his hand and wept, squeezed it tighter and wept harder.
In my despair, I could only imagine the worst case scenario. I could only think of what she could’ve had and lost.
If this precious little six year old is really deemed un-placeable, if one family doesn’t step up for her, she’ll be sentenced to the heartbreaking fate of a group home, to life without a mommy and a daddy and a family.
Why is she sitting in an office listening to the phone calls, hearing the repeated rejections--again--when she could be here, safely buckled in our car, on vacation with her family. Today could’ve been carousel rides and sand castles and candy store sprees. She could’ve had books on her mama’s lap and a juice box in the sun and a dress that matched her sisters.
Why do my kids get beach vacations and she gets diagnoses and removals and disrupted placements? It’s not fair.
I’m a foster parent because I love foster children. My heart is never broken by the world’s heartbreaking things like it is over the loss and pain of a foster child.
Yet being a foster parent has a way of hardening you to the realities of foster care. It begins to make the brokenness of it all seem just a little less broken, to make the abnormality of a child needing a family feel just a little more normal. It’s become common to me that a mother would choose an abusive man over her child or that siblings would grow up in different homes. I've come to talk about "placements" and "capacity" and "permanency" like I’m discussing commodities rather than children.
I’ve forgotten how heartbreaking it all is. Last night I remembered.
I’m grateful for a night of weeping. I’m grateful for the broken heart. I’m grateful for the reminder of how devastating foster care is.
And today, when I got another call for another child who was another “easy” no, it wasn’t easy. I felt the weight of what this phone call meant. I cried for him and his mother and their loss. I prayed for this child and pleaded with God for a family for him. I let my heart be broken.