Thursday, October 8, 2015

If I Knew Then

As I’ve mentioned before, Heather and I are in the process of getting licensed for foster care. In our case, it’s what they call kinship care, meaning that we had a preexisting relationship with the child in placement. She was one of the neighborhood kids we met when we first moved into the house where we now live, and she has been a regular among the gaggle of teenagers who routinely haunt our home. More recently, as the situation in her own home was reaching a point where foster care would be considered necessary, she has spent more and more time in our house, and more and more time with our family. When the call came in asking if we would accept placement, there was nothing to consider. We said yes, without hesitation.

That was in July, and we have now begun October. It has been a wild ride, and we are really still at the beginning. There is so much to complete, keep up with, and keep track of, plus I’ve met more new people in the past couple months than I normally would in a year. Thankfully, they are all very understanding of the fact that I have yet to learn more than two or three names. They’re used to it.

I’m not used to it. Obviously. This process is not the kind of thing that you can really have more than a passing idea about before you’re in the middle of it. It is difficult, at best, to be prepared. If I knew then what I know now … To be honest, if I knew then what I know now, I would give the same answer with the same lack of hesitation. I can’t see how any other outcome is possible. If someone came to you and told you that this child you have known for years can live with you or she can go into The System, I think most of the people I know would answer the same way, if circumstances at all allowed. We take care of our own, and we often have a wide latitude in how we define “our own”.

Looking back at the first couple months, though, I do think I could have done some things better if I had better understood what I was getting into.

People, people everywhere! This one is very important to be prepared for if you are someone like me. I usually spend most weekends avoiding people to the best of my ability and recharging my People Batteries. Those batteries take a beating during the week, and quiet time is pretty essential to keeping me on an even keel. Quiet time can be hard to come by during this process, though, especially in the early days when everything is being lined up and, apparently, every people-related department in the state and local government needs at least three meetings apiece to make sure that you are who you say you are, and that you can be a more reliable parent than the parent who was at the beginning of the case. I’m sure I must be exaggerating, but it can be difficult to tell. My Go-To answer when asked something along the lines of, “Did we go over …?” has become, “Well, we did with someone, but I can’t remember which someone that was, so we may as well do it again, just in case.” It’s not intentional, on anyone’s part. It’s just a really people-intensive process with a lot of moving parts. Considering that the desired outcome is the safety and well-being of at least one child, this is entirely understandable. It’s just easy to get overwhelmed if you’re not expecting it.

Records are your friends. You’re going to lose track. That’s not just me (though I admit that I may be worse than average in that regard). It took me weeks just to figure out that some people worked for different agencies, and those agencies were not necessarily all communicating with each other. That isn’t to say they don’t try - for the most part, they do - they’re just, in a very real sense, every bit as overloaded as I am. They may have vastly more experience in this process than I have, but they also have vastly more families to keep track of. According to a recent announcement from our licensing agency (AASK - Aid to Adoption of Special Kids - two thumbs way up! If you’re in Arizona, they’re great people to work with.), there are currently almost 18,000 children in the Arizona state system, with only 4,600 licensed foster families. That is a balancing act that I certainly would not want to have to maintain, so they have my sympathy. Everyone involved in this overworked process is doing the best they can, so anything you can do to help the process helps to preserve everyone’s sanity. Keep track of who you’ve spoken to with which agency about what. If you’re in a contested case, you’ve probably already learned that it is important to document all of the negative encounters, but documenting the positive encounters can be just as important. At the very least, it helps to avoid wasting time, and time is at a premium through this entire process.

That includes keeping track of your own records. Getting licensed for foster care closely resembles the most comprehensive and exhaustive (not to mention exhausting) job application and interview process you have ever experienced. If you think about it, that’s exactly what it is. You’re applying to be a parental figure to a child who has already experienced a traumatic loss in that department. That is certainly the most delicate and challenging job I have ever held. As such, it is a good idea to approach it in that manner. Understand that you are going to be asked for every document and about every part of your background that would matter in a high level credit check and security clearance investigation. That’s what it is, and it’s a lengthy process. Being prepared can only help.

This too shall pass. For a little while, especially at the beginning, your life is going to feel upside down. This is to be expected. You are stepping into a whirlwind, and being asked to help guide that whirlwind through a process that is remarkably like steering by committee. No easy task. Whirlwinds, in case you didn’t know, are resistant to being guided under the best of circumstances. These usually won’t make anyone’s Top Ten list of best circumstances. Just keeping that whirlwind pointed roughly in the general direction of the goal takes a great deal of effort. You may feel overwhelmed, but you can do it. Remember why you started this process, and keep your eye on that prize. That child is worth the effort. If you didn’t believe that, you wouldn’t be where you are. The process will require patience, but being a parent requires patience. It goes with the territory. Whirlwinds use up a lot of energy, and they can’t last. Eventually, all of the extra work that you’re putting in will pay off, you’ll come out the other side, and you’ll be glad that you did it.

Would I do it again, knowing then what I know now? In a heartbeat. In fact, I would encourage you to look into the matter. If you are willing and able, there are children who are ready to see you as their hero. There are roughly 400,000 children in the foster care system across the United States. Approximately 20,000 of those children age out of the system every year without ever being adopted. Those are some huge numbers to take in, and no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Donate, volunteer, lend a hand. If you can, sign up. Do what you can, whatever that may be, and let’s make the world a better place for some children who desperately need it to be a better place.

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