CALLING THE PARENTS
With sweaty palms I dialed their cell phone number. It rang a few times and went to voicemail. I don’t blame them; if it’s an unknown number, I let my incoming calls go to voicemail too. “Hey, this is Robert, Matthew’s foster dad. We’re having revival services at our church this week, and Mandi and I wanted to invite you to come tomorrow night. I know you work second shift, but we’ll be glad to come pick you up if you guys can make it. We thought you might want to see Matthew on his birthday. Also… we want you to know that we’re here if you ever need anything. This is not just about Matthew, we care about you guys too. We think of you often and pray for you every night when we put the kids to bed. Let me know about tomorrow.”
They didn’t call back. We didn’t hear from them for a few weeks in fact, but the social worker who picked up Matthew for each visit told us one day, “I don’t know what you guys have done or said, but they love ya’ll. They speak very highly of you both.” Apparently just knowing that we were genuinely concerned about them and prayed for them regularly had an effect.
Every three months during the duration of Matthew’s case, we had the opportunity to attend the court hearings that extended his care in the custody of the state. Had the parents completed their necessary tasks, these hearings could also have returned Matthew to their custody. Being in the courtroom was always unsettling, and not just because of Matthew’s case, but because of the other cases going on at the same time. I had never been in a courtroom before, but it wasn’t like anything I’d seen on TV (funny, I always thought TV and the internet were spot on).
All of the juvenile cases were heard on the same day, so the courtroom was full of bio-parents, foster parents, social workers, and attorneys. There were 100 or more people in the galley waiting on their name to be called. The courtroom was never silent. While the judge was discussing one case at the bench with all the parties involved, parents were updating social workers on their progress, social workers were informing attorneys about upcoming cases on the docket, and bio-parents were all discussing their cases with each other. There was a constant murmur about custody, placement, judgements and appeals from the front of the courtroom all the way to the back. Ordered chaos.
There were some interesting characters in these dramas that were playing out all around us. One lady was sharing some information about an apartment she had found across town. “They’ll give you a discount if you don’t have a job, so I quit!” (Not sure about the logic there.) There was another woman who couldn’t get the attention of her social worker by waving her arms wildly so she poured her 20oz Mountain Dew® on the floor and stormed out. A man behind us joked to his 5 year old son, “They’re letting you go home with me today, so I can beat you all I want to now.” The little boy giggled; he was just thrilled to be going home with his dad. My heart grieved for the children in these situations, but also for the parents that had been so deceived by Satan. It would be easy to look around and see a room full of villains. Whether it was abuse or neglect, these were people who had done something so bad that it warranted removing their children from their home, but just like Matthew’s bio-parents, these were all people that were created and loved by God.
Matthew’s three month court hearing was on the September docket, which fell at the same time as the required six-month ISP meeting for DHR, foster parents, and bio-parents, so they were both scheduled on the same day. The night before, Mandi and I got our first call from Matthew’s bio-mom. “Hey, it’s supposed to be raining tomorrow morning and we don’t want to walk in the rain. Do you think you guys could pick us up for court?” We agreed and stopped by their trailer the next morning.
Matthew’s bio-parents had recently moved from the motel room into a trailer park on the outskirts of town. Their description over the phone was “the smallest trailer in the park” and we drove right to it. It was in a bad state of disrepair. It was technically a permanent dwelling, but DHR still would not allow home visits due to unsafe living conditions. The roof leaked so badly in the bedroom that they slept in the living room. The carpet stayed damp throughout the whole trailer which led to mold and bug problems. They were renting, so the repairs should’ve been taken care of, but the landlord was hard to deal with and could just as easily kick you out and have someone else renting by the end of the day.
It was a Tuesday morning and the weatherman was right; it was pouring rain. The front door opened before we even turned the truck off and Bio-Mom ran across the gravel yard and hopped in the back seat. It was only her, and she said Bio-Dad was going to sleep late instead of going to court. When we arrived at the courthouse, the hearing was the first thing on the agenda. It was much like all the previous hearings. Circumstances had not changed, Matthew would remain in state custody for three more months and stay in our foster home.
The ISP meeting was held shortly after the court hearing. We found a quiet hallway in the back of the courthouse where we could all have a seat. The social worker began with her dismay that Bio-Dad wasn’t at court or this 6-month ISP meeting. She explained that it had been 13 months since Matthew was taken into custody and DHR is required to change his permanency goal once he has been in care from 12-15 months. It was commendable that they didn’t miss visits with Matthew each week, but Bio-Mom still didn’t have a job, they had no transportation or suitable housing, and parenting classes had not been completed. They seemed satisfied to see him once a week and do things their way. Up to this point his permanency goal (DHR’s goal for Matthew) was documented as “reunification with parents”, but it would now be changed to “adoption”. If they didn’t make some changes soon, DHR would file a motion to terminate their parental rights and allow Matthew to be adopted.
For 13 months, Mandi and I had prepared ourselves and our family for the possibility, if not the likelihood, that Matthew would go back home. From the very first GPS class we tried to talk with our kids about the goals of foster care and explain things to them in ways that they would understand our purpose. We shared with them what we learned each week in class and explained that we may have kids come and live with us because their mommy’s and daddy’s were having a rough time but once they got better and could take care of their children again, the kids would go back home where they belong. As a foster family, our job was to love on those kids as much as we could until their own parents could give them a safe place to stay again.
Our kids understood everything well by the time Matthew came along. One night, when Matt was about six months old, Titus said, “I sure do wish he could stay with us forever,” and Evie quickly cut him off, “Nooo! He has a mommy and daddy that love him and they would miss him if he never went home!” Hearing her say it out loud stung a little, but she was right.
This knowledge that he would eventually go home made us treat him a little differently than our own kids as well. We would rock him until he went to sleep each night instead of laying him down in the crib to cry. We would pamper him a little more, perhaps. He just seemed so fragile and so much more vulnerable than our own children.
It had been a long, uncertain 13 months, but they were all put behind us in an instant when DHR’s goal for Matthew changed to adoption. It didn’t mean that the case was over by any means. His bio-parents still had time to get things in order and get him back, but for the first time we allowed ourselves to hope that we could be his forever family if everything didn’t work out for them. It made for an awkward ride back home. We tried to keep the joy in our hearts from expressing itself on our faces, knowing that in the backseat was a mom who was beginning to realize that if she didn’t start making a serious effort, she may not get to keep her son. She stared out the window as we drove in silence.
To be continued… (click here for the conclusion – Part 4)