Sarah’s son and daughter were removed from her and her husband’s care when they were 5 and 11 years old, respectively. After nearly two years and a lot of hard work, they were reunified with their kids and today, their family is thriving. I asked Sarah several questions about her experience.
Tell me about what happened when your children were first removed from your home.
Sarah: The first time the Department of Social Services (DSS) knocked on our door, they took one look at needle marks on my arm and the lack of life in my eyes, found an empty bottle of prescription medicine filled the day before, and they needed to see nothing else. Within ten minutes of opening the door my children’s important things were being packed. The first time DSS agreed to kinship care, and within 30 minutes I was watching my babies pull away with their aunt, heading to their grandmother’s.
I was completely numb…in complete shock. Even in the grips of addiction, when heroin and prescription pills owned my life, I never saw this coming. I loved my babies with all of my being…or so I thought. I stood in the living room and hit my knees. Life had been ripped from me with minutes and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
However, the pain was not enough to beat my addiction and I continued to use drugs, even harder than before.
We broke our agreement to not take our children on our own. We picked them up from their grandmother and took them to a known drug hotel. What great parents, right? It gets worse. All night we did drugs in the bathroom with the two babies I brought into this world right outside the door. In some twisted, sick way I thought we were spending time with them because we would watch TV with them between bathroom runs.
Around six the next morning, there was that distinct police knock on the door. Standing next to the officer was yet another social worker. Yet again, within 10 minutes I was watching my beautiful, innocent babies carrying their own bags and walking out of our lives. Our daughter was in hysterics, yet there was a sense of relief on her face too. I will never forget her pain, or the look of my son as he turned his head and looked at me as he held the social worker’s hand, walking away.
The pain was unbearable. Not once, but twice I had shattered my children’s hearts. The numbness was back, my mind could not make sense of anything. It was as if I was in slow motion, like in the movies. The world did not seem real. My life did not seem real.
What do you remember about your first meeting with your kids’ foster parent?
Sarah: Luckily, the children were able to stay together, though throughout their stay in foster care they were sent to two homes. The first time I met their first foster mom was on our very first court appearance. Needless to say my attitude towards the foster parent was rude and hurtful. The only thing I could focus on was the fact that this stranger was now putting my children to bed, making breakfast, and doing all the little things that mean the world to children. I was jealous, mad, hurt…you name it, I felt it. All except the fact that this was my doing and this person did not ask to take my children. She did it because she cared, even though she knew nothing about them. She was willing to try and that was more than I was at that time.
Eventually the children went to another home, after over 18 months at the first. With the second family, I had the chance of previously meeting her at one of the many hospital visits my son managed to get himself into. She would show up to help the first foster parent manage the chaotic balancing act that were my children. My anger had subsided and I was well aware of my faults and weaknesses. So, when they were moved to her house I welcomed the transition with open arms. Communication was amazing between us and we became a team, encouraging each other and learning about the children together.
Tell me about visits with your kids. What were they like, both at the beginning and throughout the process?
Sarah: In the beginning, our visits were an hour long inside a monitored DSS room. My daughter was “normal.” She was angry and hurt, but all she wanted was her parents. She was loving, talkative, interactive. My autistic son regressed. Each visit we had to introduce ourselves and give him the choice of spending time with us or not. Sometimes he wanted to, others he stayed glued to the foster mother. I will never forget the first time I buckled the children into the car and had to force myself to shut the door. I wanted to scream, grab them, and run. But deep down I knew this was for the best. As I watched the car pull off, my babies staring out the window, the air in my lungs left, my knees grew weak and I hit the ground. That is when I called out to God, begging for help.
A few months after they entered foster care, my husband ended up in jail and I in rehab. Finally, our healing had begun. In rehab, our social worker brought my daughter for a visit. That visit changed everything for the two of us. Both of our anger instantly went away. I knew I was responsible for our situation and willing to do whatever it took to get them back. She understood her parents had a disease, that it was never because we did not love them. She was able to see the determination in my eyes….and her anger was replaced with hope.
Eventually, visits became longer and we were allowed to leave the building with our social worker. Then, as the work I was doing showed and the trust was built, unsupervised visits began. We played, laughed, talked. My son began wanting to be with me again (most of the time) and not wanting to leave. That remained the hardest part throughout the whole process.
What were some of the barriers you faced in the process of being reunified with your kids?
Sarah: The greatest barrier was learning how to be a responsible adult. Sounds crazy, but we had no idea how to live. [We had to] Learn that life was possible to live without drugs. Pay bills, live in a place more than a few months, own a car. These are simple things, but to an addict they are unheard of. Establishing a network of good people in recovery, gaining a relationship with our social worker and the foster parent, obtaining a job, finding adequate housing, buying a dependable vehicle, and proving we could pay bills and still have money for food, clothes, and medicine. These all had to be done before reunification was possible. These all take time, lots of time. One step at a time we managed to accomplish all these things. Though, at times, it seemed as though it would never happen. It was a “one step forward, two steps back” dance for a while.
What do you most want foster parents to know?
Sarah: I want all foster parents to know that we love our children. They are in your homes because we have made very bad choices in our lives, but we are not bad people. We will be angry, hurt, scared…but this is not because of you. Deep down we know our children are safe because of you. But, that does not make the pain any less.
You represent what we want to be. You have what we want…the children, the stability, the love we cannot show in the beginning. The children are heartbroken and unfortunately you will be the ones who bear this burden. Please be understandable and love them through it. Slowly show them (and the parents) you can be trusted and you are there to help them. Never try to be there parents, especially in the beginning. Instead, encourage the parents and let them know you believe in them. Try to establish an open line of communication with both the children and the birth parents. Never be afraid to gently push the parents in a guiding manner. Sometimes they simply do not see they are doing wrong.
Last but not least, you will grow to love the children as the birth parents do. It is heartbreaking even with the best possible outcome. If reunification occurs and a great relationship between you and the birth parents have blossomed, you may indeed still get to be a part of the rest of their lives.