I had failed, that’s all I could think. I was a failure as a parent, a foster parent and a decent human being. In training, they all but said that if we disrupted it was all our fault because we weren’t trying hard enough. (Disrupted means asking a child to be removed from your home before they are reunified, sent to live with relatives, or moved to their forever home). I had tried so hard, but I just couldn’t take it anymore and this child and our family was suffering because of it.
No matter the reason, I felt like a failure. If I had just figured out what was really going on earlier, it could have been addressed in a more positive manner. If I was a better parent, he would have wanted to fix this thing that was damaging his relationships and reputation at school and with other kids at church. If I was a better foster parent, I would have realized how much he was lying and hiding things. If I was a better parent, he would want to do his schoolwork. If I was a better parent, he wouldn’t flip out and have rages and fits, throwing himself on the floor and destroying his room. If I was a better person, the rages and fits wouldn’t terrify me and make me anxious.
I woke up dreading each day. From getting him up and dressed for school, to picking him up and never knowing what kid I was going to get. Was I going to get the happy go lucky kid who was excited about science club or the angry kid who would scream and beat his fists against the seat all the way home? I was living in dread he would harm himself, me or my mom. My heart would race everyday and I would be on the verge of panic attacks all day long. My FitBit would congratulate me on having my heart rate in fat burning mode, but I wasn’t exercising, I was just laying in bed waiting for the next thing to happen. I dreaded being alone with this child. Every time I turned around, he was throwing himself at walls and door jams and furniture then turning around and asking me where a bruise he had came from. Maybe I was projecting, but I knew he was getting ready to accuse us of something. This had the potential to impact more than just our ability to be foster parents, but our futures if accusations of child abuse were leveled against us, no matter how untrue they were.
When he kicked out the screen on his window and ran away, his caseworker took four days to call me back. I’m guessing it was because he wasn’t still missing because I had gone out and found him. Every day I didn’t get a call back, I felt myself feeling more helpless and hopeless. When she called me back and told me if it happened again just to call the cops and let them pick him up, I almost threw up. Did no one else care what was happening with this kid? That he needed more help than I could give him?
When I finally gave up and put in my ten-day notice that we were disrupting and he would need to be moved somewhere else, I had never felt so relieved, but also so horrible at the same time. Another former foster parent had told me never to send a kid to a higher level of care, because that was where the abuse and neglect happened. But what was I supposed to do? Let this child and my family suffer because we couldn’t be what he needed? I felt like a terrible human being because I was giving up on this child, but I knew we weren’t in a sustainable situation, either.
Then I found out, ten days was ten BUSINESS days and not 10 CALENDAR days and I broke down in tears. This added almost a week to our ten-day notice. At a meeting with his caseworker and her supervisor, the supervisor spoke to me so condescendingly and told me I had had “unrealistic expectations” about foster parenting and how kids deal with being in foster care and how they heal and improve. I felt degraded and disheartened and like a failure, again. His caseworker stood up for me when the supervisor tried to pressure me into keeping him longer and agreed that he needed more help than we could provide. He needed some serious help because, as I found out at that point, most of these behaviors didn’t originate after he was removed from his home. He behaved this way with his birth family as well. This wasn’t related to the trauma of being placed in the foster care system. It was other childhood trauma that wasn’t being addressed in his current therapy regime.
Knowing this, knowing I couldn’t really do any more for him, you would think I would feel better about my decision, that I would feel less guilty or less like a failure. But I didn’t. Even having other, seasoned and experienced, foster parents tell me they couldn’t deal with the things I was dealing with didn’t make me feel like less of a failure.
I almost quit. I almost gave up as a foster parent and, for a time, on life. I walked around like a raw, open wound for weeks after I dropped him off at his new temporary home. I was devastated by the loss of my first child as well as by my failure to be what he needed. It was like a bad breakup, I guess. People would ask about him. I had no answers, because once he was out of my home, I was cut off from all information about him. I could only hope that he was in a better home, with better parents and getting the help he needed.
After some time, we felt ready to attempt fostering again. It was a totally different experience. Not perfect by any means, because we aren’t perfect and neither are children, but a much more positive experience overall. But we almost didn’t take the chance because we were so disillusioned by the system and by how we were treated and how at a loss we felt when it got super hard.
My advice to foster parents is don’t just rely on the official system to support you in foster care. Build up a community of fellow foster parents (my church has a support group for foster and adoptive parents), a support system of friends and family who will help you with taking breaks and listening with no judgment when you pour out your heart with your fears and doubts and failures, and seek your own therapy or counselor to talk with if you need it.
I am still healing from this experience, and I will always carry guilt and loss over him in my heart, but I do know that I only failed a little bit, that it wasn’t all my fault, that I’m not a horrible parent or human being or even a bad foster parent. I just wasn’t the foster parent he needed.
This is not a cautionary tale, just a bit of truth and hope for the future.