Continued from Part 1
I contacted our local Department of Human Resources and discovered that the timing couldn’t have been better. The 10-week course that was required to become a licensed foster home was about to start, so we signed up to attend the first class in May of 2011. The Group Parenting Selection (GPS) classes have a two-fold purpose. First, they are designed to train you on how to handle various situations that may arise in foster parenting. Second, they allow you to decide if fostering would work for your family, and for DHR to decide if they think fostering would work for your family. Each week it seemed like someone else dropped out, voluntarily or otherwise. It felt like we were on Survivor: DHR Edition.
I remember the first class vividly. Mandi cried all the way home. “This is too hard. We can’t do this to our kids. We can’t do this to our families. I can handle getting hurt if a child goes back home, but they can’t handle it. It would be like losing a brother or sister! They’d just be gone!” It was a long car ride, but the next morning after her coffee and morning Bible study Mandi had total peace about it. She said, “If God has ever spoken to me clearly, He did this morning. This is what we’re supposed to do.” God showed us that if children came into our home, for whatever length of time, we could love them and send them back home knowing that they are truly loved. We might only have a short time with them, but if we had never met them, we could never pray for them or their families.
The 10-weeks went by fairly quickly and the GPS classes were very informative. They dispelled many of the myths about foster care, which put our mind at ease, but they didn’t candy coat anything either. Our teachers were realists and had been foster parents themselves. They let us know up front that it’s hard work and most of the time it’s a thankless job. They also tried to take away any romantic, pie-in-the-sky ideas we had about fostering. “You will not get a baby, and if you do it won’t be only a baby, there will probably be older siblings involved as well as difficult parents that hate DHR and hate you. See you next week!”
At the end of the term some decisions had to be made. If you decide fostering just isn’t your calling, you can walk away and it didn’t cost you anything but a little time. Or if you decide to continue with the process you can specify how many children you’re willing to take (up to six depending on your living arrangements) and the ages you’d be best suited to work with. One couple in our class had an empty nest since their kids had married and moved out. They wanted to work with teenagers since they had experience with the youth group at their church. Mandi and I specified no more than two children and none over the age of five (keeping our kids birth order intact). A social worker did a thorough home inspection to make sure we didn’t live in a van down by the river. We got our license, and then we patiently waited for DHR to call with a placement.
I was in my office on a Tuesday afternoon, when my phone rang. It was Mandi calling from the pediatrician’s office where the kids were having their yearly checkup. “Don’t panic*, but I’m on my way to get you and we need to go to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. Titus’ blood sugar level is 295 and Dr. Burton thinks he may be a Type 1 Diabetic.”
*Anytime someone starts a conversation with “don’t panic”, the information that follows is generally something very panic worthy and it usually means that they are, in fact, panicking themselves.
I’ll spare you all the details about our night in the emergency room, but suffice it to say we spent the next day with heavy eyelids and heavier hearts. I was sitting in my office, trying to make it through the day when my phone rang. It was a social worker from DHR. “We have a baby that needs to come home from the hospital. He’s two days old, doesn’t have any brothers or sisters, and that’s about all the information I have for you. Would you guys be able to take him?” There was a long pause on my end and then I said without hesitation, “I’ll have to call you right back.”
Mandi and I were exhausted from the previous day and stressed about the possibility that our son might have a disease that he would struggle with for the rest of his life. The timing was terrible, but in the end we decided that if this is what God called us to do, then He would equip us to handle it. We called them back and said yes.
Two hours later a social worker showed up at our house with Matthew. It had been over five years since we had a newborn in the house, and this time we didn’t have 9 months to prepare for it, but there he was. A 5lb. 6oz. baby boy with a donated car seat, a onesie, and a complimentary pack of diapers from the hospital. That’s it. Our church family sprang into action, going through their closets and garages and within just a few hours we were blessed with a bassinet, some clothes, baby formula, and diapers. Then a few ladies watched Matthew for us while we made a quick trip to Walmart. (Doesn’t every major life event involve at least one trip to Walmart?)
Within the first few weeks of a new placement, DHR has a meeting with all parties involved in the foster care case to discuss the reunification plan. This meeting was the first time we met Matthew’s biological parents. Bio-dad*, who was in his late thirties at the time, stood about 6’2″ tall, had several tattoos on his arms and neck, a shaved head, and earrings in both ears. The face behind his glasses was weathered and he could have easily passed for a man in his fifties. Bio-mom was just a year younger than me at the time. She was very small in height and stature, with a short bob haircut that looked like she may have trimmed it herself. It was shaved in the back, much higher than her neckline was supposed to be. She was missing several teeth and the ones she had left needed some work. Her Edward and Bella t-shirt was a few sizes too large for her small frame and we discovered later that she was a big Twilight fan. Despite their unkempt appearance, they were both pleasant enough to talk to and Bio-mom smiled most of the time in spite of a few gaps in her grin.
*As I describe Matthew’s biological parents, please understand that I’m not trying to belittle them, or make fun of them in any way. I’m only trying to state the facts as we saw them. We viewed this as an opportunity to share God’s love with Matthew AND his parents. Regardless of appearances and circumstances, we could not ignore the fact that God created them and loved them just as He created and loved us.
Both bio-parents spoke with a northern accent. During the meeting we learned that they were both originally from the Northeast. He had four other kids from previous relationships, but this was her first born. They met in a Florida homeless shelter and she was “with-child” when they caught a ride with a friend traveling to Albertville, AL. They lived with this friend in a dilapidated one bedroom apartment and slept on the living room floor. Matthew was born on August 22, and at the hospital, nurses became concerned when Matthew’s diaper would go unchanged for hours and his bottle remained full after repeated request for them to feed him. When the nurses discovered the living arrangements and complete lack of basic baby supplies, DHR was contacted.
The goal of foster care is reunification with the biological family when proper steps have been taken to ensure the children’s immediate safety and well being. The main purpose of this first ISP (Individualized Service Plan) meeting was to outline the steps that the parents needed to take in order to reunify their family. They were really very basic and we thought Matthew could easily go home before Christmas. Bio-Dad needed to get a job in order to support his family. He said that his long term goal was getting on disability but he had been turned down several times since he’s not technically disabled. Once he had an income, they just needed appropriate housing, secure some kind of transportation for doctors visits and emergencies, and complete parenting classes.
After the initial meeting, we didn’t see them again for six months. They had weekly visits with Matthew, but a social worker would pick him up at our house, then pick them up and transport all of them to DHR for the visit. DHR kept us informed on their status as the case progressed. By Thanksgiving, Bio-dad had a job at a local chicken plant on second shift and they moved into a motel that rented rooms by the week, but that wasn’t exactly a permanent housing solution. When we all sat down at the six month review meeting, they just offered excuses about not having a ride to the parenting classes. DHR’s repeated offers to help arrange transportation and provide phone numbers for assistance seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Six more months went by without any significant change. Through it all, the bio-parents didn’t miss a visit with Matthew. They saw him every week for their 2 hour visit without fail, and seemed to be content with that. We didn’t interact with them nearly as much as we expected and during that entire first year we only met them on two occasions at the DHR offices and once when I saw them walking on HWY 431 and gave them a lift.
The first significant change in our relationship was around Matthew’s first birthday. It was revival week at church and on Tuesday night after the service the Lord kept bringing them back to my mind. I told Mandi, “Tomorrow is his birthday. I would want to see my son on his first birthday. Let’s invite them to church tomorrow night.”
I don’t want it to sound like we were super excited about it. Mandi was hesitant, and I was nervous. It was awkward and, frankly, a little scary. We’d been keeping their son for a year now and we really didn’t know how they would react to our call, but sitting in the church parking lot, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the number.
To be continued… (click here for Part 3)