We entered foster care with pure hearts and intentions. We prayed we read parenting books, we took classes, we enlisted friends and family for support, and we researched for years before filling out our paperwork and obtaining our license. I still believe we couldn’t have done any more to prepare ourselves.
We told the truth in our interviews and put all of our issues on the table; we weren’t a perfect family, but we were happy and stable. I’d struggled with anxiety for many years as a child and into adulthood, but with the help of medication and therapy, I hadn’t had a panic attack in over 10 years. Although I was nervous about my ability to parent traumatized and special needs children, I felt both physically and mentally healthy.
My husband, Mark, had experience parenting five kids, our two boys together—ages five and six—and three older children from a previous marriage. Mark is a patient and joyful man with a demeanor that naturally disarms. With our marriage strong and ready, we opened our home to children in need.
We thought it best to begin with respite, a needed service in the system that assists full-time foster parents when they need care for their child(ren) for a short time. Our first child was David*, a 3-year-old boy, who we would care for a few days and nights.
David had a beaming smile and loved to snuggle before bed, but we found out quickly that he was a danger to himself and others. I was not prepared or trained to handle him in a way that kept everyone safe. None of his challenges had been relayed before us agreeing to care for him. So began our distrust of caseworkers and a string of lies and half-truths from people we were supposed to trust.
Despite our first experience, we maintained a positive outlook. We hoped it was a singular event and that our assigned caseworker, Jeannie*, and others we would work with would be honest individuals who understood how important it was to us that our home be a safe place for our all children, foster, step, and biological.
After David, we turned down several respite care requests until Jeannie contacted us about Ashley*, a 17-year-old girl who was about to graduate from high school. Jeannie thought that Ashley would do well in our family given that I was a mental health advocate. Although I’d experienced a short bout of depression myself in the past and I’d lost my mother to suicide, I had been through years of therapy and could talk freely and openly about both. Jeannie thought that our openness and understanding of mental illness as a disease, not a character flaw, could help Ashley with her challenges.
Ashley entered our family for the weekend to give her foster parents a break. They had several other children who had special needs and Ashley needed full-time supervision because she was currently under doctor-ordered suicide watch.
We locked up our medications, knives, and other potentially harmful items and welcomed her. Despite forthright warnings about Ashley’s challenges from Jeannie and Ashley’s current foster mom, the two days couldn’t have gone better. Ashley slept more than a typical teen and wasn’t very active, but overall, she was a joy to have around. We invited her back to our house the following weekend.
Weeks passed with Ashley spending time with us from Friday evenings to Sunday afternoons. During the week, she went to school and finished out her last days as a senior. Around that time Ashley showed marked improvement in her mental state and her doctor released her from suicide watch. We could then allow her to take short walks by herself and spend time alone in her room. Everyone was proud of her for the progress she was making.
We attended Ashley’s graduation and when she gave me a flower, signifying I was someone who had made a positive difference in her life, I cried. Things were going as well as they could on our end, but Ashley’s foster parents decided that they could no longer provide the care and supervision she needed. They asked for her to be moved to a new home.
A New Home
Not surprisingly, Ashley’s caseworker, Kaley*, contacted us to see if we would take her in. We loved Ashley and told her so, but we didn’t feel that we could give her the support she needed full-time. We wanted to remain in her life as a family who loved and cared for her and we didn’t want to weaken the bond we had built by attempting to parent her; we refused the placement.
Ashley was a lovely girl who had been beaten down and abandoned over and over by those who should have protected her. Because of the trauma she’d endured, she had problems and diagnoses that were no more “her fault” than the color of her eyes. Unfortunately, due to her struggles and her age she was difficult to place.
After weeks of calling and searching for a home for Ashley, a group home accepted her and she was moved to another county, which was 35+ miles away from our home. But we were committed to our relationship with her and I drove to pick her up the following Friday.
Ashley said that she liked her new living arrangements, but her actions proved otherwise. Due to her inability to get along with the other girls, the placement ended after only two weeks. Immediate removal was required by the state, but the agency had nowhere to put her. Kaley called me crying and begged me for placement in our home.
Guilt & Lies
Again I said no, not because we didn’t love Ashley, but because we did love her and we wanted to strengthen, not destroy our connection. My gut told me that if she moved in, it would not end well. I was already beginning to see signs of stress in her and I feared that her impending 18th birthday would compound the apprehension she was already feeling from her recent moves.
Kaley called again, desperate, and bullied me with worse case scenarios that could happen if Ashley had to be placed in residential care. She feared that all of the progress Ashley had made would be wiped out after only days in the harsh reality of “residential.”
After much back and forth, we agreed to the placement with a promise from Kaley that it would only be for two weeks. She said that she could obtain early placement in an adult care home, that she had already filed the paperwork, and the “right fit” only needed to be found. But her “promise” turned out to be a bold-faced lie.
I cannot stress enough how much we loved Ashley. She was vulnerable, kind, loyal, forgiving, and generous to a fault. She’d been through more than I could bear to think about. When I did, I was often racked with sobs and uncontrollable shaking. I had to put her past out of my mind just to get through the day with her. I couldn’t begin to imagine the feats of mental strength Ashley had to perform to function and put her trust in anyone after what she’d endured.
Knowing trauma is the cause of a child’s challenges doesn’t make dealing with those issues every day any easier. While loving Ashley was easy, parenting her was not. As I suspected, her connection with me led her to show me sides of her that she’d previously hidden. Her struggles scared me at times and I knew, without a doubt, that I was in over my head. Mark supported both of us tirelessly, but I was the one with Ashley day in and out while Mark worked and, since I had formed a tight bond with her, I was the person she trusted most.
I’d heard little from Kaley during this time. When I talked to her she seemed flippant and agitated. Before we knew it, we were three weeks into Ashley living with us and there had been no news on her move to an adult foster home or anywhere else.
It didn’t help that Kaley was set to leave her position and move across the country in days. We hadn’t yet been introduced to Ashley’s new caseworker and Kaley had seemed to have washed her hands of the whole situation.
It was clear that the prospect of leaving and becoming a legal adult was tearing Ashley apart. This showed in her behavior and before I could get a handle on it, I could no longer keep her safe. This shift happened quickly and I barely had time to react. I made phone calls and wrote emails asking for help, but none came.
When I began having severe panic attacks, after a decade without even one, I called Jeannie (who I’d been in contact with the entire time) and begged her to do something to help. I didn’t want to ask for official removal, which would feel like abandonment to Ashley and cause the agency to scramble to find a home for her, but I needed Jeannie to communicate to those in charge how desperate our situation had become. I needed someone to do something. I shouted, I cried and pleaded for help, and still, no one responded.
I felt like a mother with a drowning child. I could see my daughter being pulled under and I swam out to save her, only to find that I also needed rescuing. The undertow was stronger than I could have imagined and it yanked me down as I wrestled to get to my child. When I reached her, she fought my attempts to help her. She didn’t mean to fight; her flailing was instinctual and she did what she had to do to stay alive. So I trod water and kicked as hard as I could to keep us both afloat while shouting between breaths to those watching on the beach.
Thank God for Mark. He wouldn’t let either of us drown so he stepped in and did what I couldn’t do; he asked for removal. He knew that to save me, neither of us could save Ashley. We would have to allow someone more qualified and better trained to rescue her. We would have to watch as they took her away so she could receive the care she needed. My husband wrapped his arms around me while I heaved in heavy sobs because I’d failed a child I loved.
I’d given Ashley everything I could, but it wasn’t enough. I was not equipped to give her the tools or support she needed on a long-term basis. My perceived failure and abandonment of Ashely led to a mental health meltdown that left me unable to function or care for my children. While I’d had mental health challenges in the past, I now believe that the lack of support I received from an entity that is supposed to rescue, triage, and care for children and families is culpable for my health crisis.
I blame no one person. It would be easy for me to place blame on Kaley, but I can’t put the fallout of our situation squarely on her shoulders. The reason she lied to us was that she wanted to see Ashley happy and thriving. She saw our home as a loving and stable environment and wanted that for Ashley.
Kaley wasn’t good at her job. She was disorganized and flighty, but I believe she tried her best to help. Kaley’s hands were tied as much, or more than ours were. She had to wade through piles of paperwork, laws, policies, and a tangled mess of red tape to accomplish anything. She answered to several supervisors and worked with countless other organizations (government and non-profit alike) to place any child on her caseload. Like us, Kaley was set up to fail.
Finally, there is no doubt that our agency shares in the blame for what happened. But, I maintain that ours was one of the best in the area. I chose it because I’d read their procedures and appreciated the way they cut out some of the policies that troubled me about other agencies. They worked for change and I valued their efforts. They simply didn’t have the resources to give us help when we needed it. Like so many others, our family plummeted through one of the gaping cracks we often hear about in the system. What happened to us is a sad example of the failures of the U.S. foster care system and that is where my anger lies.
I will never, and have never, blamed Ashley for what happened. She is more a victim of this disaster than anyone. The system further traumatizes children that have already been abused or neglected. There is no way around it; that is the truth.
However, we cannot throw up our hands and walk away. The only way to fix it is for more people to become aware of the problem and choose to get in there and get dirty. I’m not asking everyone to be on the front lines like I was. I’m quick to admit that foster parenting is not for everyone. But, what I won’t do is excuse anyone from the battle.
My plea is that people would not turn away from the suffering children in their communities, but join the fight, and work on the kids’ behalf from both the inside and the outside of the system.
I’ve chosen to use my voice to advocate for change, to recruit those willing to be on the front lines (foster parents), and garner support for those families. I hope that by sharing my story, we can stop placing blame on an ethereal monster and begin pinpointing why and how the system wounds already suffering children. I want to be part of a movement that mobilizes trained, committed champions to save children and families from further trauma and irreparable damage within the walls of once stable homes.
*Names and some details have been changed for privacy and anonymity.
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