A Year in the Life of a Foster Mom

ID-10016827 It is the beginning of spring. The cherry trees that flank Bakersfield’s monolithic Department of Human Services building are blooming. As visitors approach the lobby doors, the fragrant white blossoms offer a final moment of solace, a peace before the storm. Inside, the din of screaming infants and toddlers makes it difficult to hear. Social workers stream through a code-protected door, shuttling to and from visiting rooms with parents and children in tow. You can judge the quality of a just-ended visit by the rigidness of a social worker’s face. Here, there are few reasons to smile. In Room 17A, a small reunion is commencing. Teisha Montal is holding baby boy Jedidiah, only 3 weeks old, for the first time since he was taken from her last week on neglect charges. This is the third child taken away from her; the first two she never got back. Here, in a different county under different rules, she has a chance for a better outcome. At 23, Montal (her name and that of her baby have been changed to meet confidentiality requirements) is still a young woman. While she has a record — possession of controlled substances, previous incidents with her other children — her social worker hopes that a regimen of court-ordered classes in anger management, motherhood and basic life skills will be a turning point. The purpose of this visit is also to meet the foster parent who will be taking care of baby Jedidiah while Teisha rehabilitates. Terri Nelson, a foster mom, has been at this for 15 years. She is in some respects a battle-scarred warrior. Due to the sheer number of cases, the evaluation and handling process is streamlined. It begins with the reporting of an incident. Usually by either neighbors or family members, investigators receive and investigate claims of neglect, abuse or trauma. If found, charges are brought, and the child acquires the protection of the court. A social worker is put in charge of the case and draws up an advisory report to the judge who then usually automatically approves any recommendations, simply due to the sheer number of cases at hand and the lack of time. For lesser crimes — neglect, minor abuse, etc. — and even unthinkable grievances — sexual assault, egregious physical violence or extreme neglect — the court mandates a series of educational classes in how to be a better person and parent. If the birth parent completes these classes, he/she has the opportunity to reclaim the child, no matter how severe the crime. In the meantime, the child is given a temporary home. Foster parents are an unusual set of people. Their motivations are many — liberal generosity, religion, the need for a meager extra paycheck. It is not an easy job. They witness tragedy, get little thanks, and endure stereotyping due to the wrongs of a few. Moreover, they make an emotional investment in a child who will never remember. Now, there are certainly bad apples. Crimes such as sexual and emotional abuse have been committed by the very ones whose mission is to provide respite. Yet for every bad foster parent, there are those like Nelson — undaunted in their desire to do good. As she arrives home, family members coo over little Jedidiah; the father takes one look at his feet and prophesies a basketball great in the making. For now at least, this little baby will have the fortune to experience what might be the only moments of normalcy in his life. ID-100140090 It is now summer. The air shimmers with the mirages of a desert July. Baby Jedidiah is 5 months old. On his way to a visit with his birth mother, he is resplendent in a matching shirt-shorts outfit. Nelson’s monthly foster care stipend barely covers food and formula costs, but she does not mind spending extra on the little boy who has become a part of her family. Jedidiah is fussy. He does not like car trips. He is too young to understand why, but he knows that they end in leaving the person he considers his mother and being thrust into the hands of an unfamiliar woman. As Nelson carries him into the DHS lobby, he begins to cry. “Damn kid has a mouth,” she complains to Nelson at the end of the day’s visit. Baby Jedidiah, whom the social worker held most of the visit, is all cried out, and clings limply to his foster mother’s neck as she mutely nods in agreement. The social worker, as usual, is already gone. There are too many cases for them to stick around and chat. It is obvious that Teisha is in no condition to handle the responsibility of raising her child. It is not even clear if she really wants him. The social worker knows all this. Yet an overwhelmed and underfunded system leaves little time for introspection. Instead, the policy in most cases is reunification, the mantra being “send the child home.” It is largely about economics — both of cost and of scale. There are not enough foster parents to go around. There are even fewer adoptive parents who are willing to accept long-term responsibility. Yet the system financially cannot be the warden of a thousand desperate children. Sending the child back home is the only feasible option. Social workers are also well aware of the damage a baby acquires during this process. Bonding between a parent and a child is not just important — it is instinctive. They need stability. Babies do not understand that their foster parent is a stand-in. They do not reserve their affections until they can bestow it on their DNA donor. The one who feeds them at night, plays with them in the day, and changes their diaper in the evening will be the one looked to for comfort when they cry. The emotional attachment is real. This bond is not a one-way street. It is hard to resist the charms of a cute bundle of innocence. Foster parents know this danger, and they take measures to avoid the trap of affection. Yet, Jedidiah proves irresistible to his foster family. He has a cheerful demeanor, a big grin, and a happy laugh. After five months, he is as much a part of the family as any other member. ID-1002780 It is winter. The branches of the cherry trees stand bare in their guard in front of DHS as Nelson carries baby Jedidiah to his last visit. He is festive in his warm Christmas outfit, snug against the cold. The air is not the only source of chill, however. For two weeks, Jedidiah’s foster parents have been lodging complaints with the social worker, the supervisor, and anyone else who would listen. Not many will. Foster parents, after all, are simply caretakers — glorious baby sitters without suffrage. As they pass through the grimy lobby door one last time, both are silent. The baby is almost stoic in his resignation; the laughter long gone from his eyes. Nelson pinches her lips as the social worker takes the child to Teisha. The inverse relationship between months of lengthening visitation hours and weekend visits and Jedidiah’s health have frayed her nerves. Yet Teisha, the beneficiary of welfare’s largesse such as free bus passes, a crib and other supplies, and increasing time with her child, scarcely appears any happier either. “He cries the whole time,” Teisha regularly complains (both about regular visits and weekend stays at her Title iii apartment). The effects of this process on Jedidiah have been devastating. As the official written complaints from Nelson say, Jedidiah comes back limp, nonresponsive, ashen and speckled with bruises from fingers that tug the cheeks with too much abandon. Such complaints have gone nowhere, though. At the end of the visit, the social worker informs Nelson that Jedidiah is going home next week. The system cannot afford to hold him any longer, and his social worker has too many other cases at hand. Besides, Teisha has finally completed her classes in anger management and basic mothering, and her baby is the graduation prize. Nelson, however, will mark the end of this process differently. After Jedidiah leaves for the last time, she will consider relinquishing her foster care license. When she finally does hand in her license a few years later, she points to the pain of this case, along with frustration with the foster care system as a whole, as being the central reasons. To witness her baby — for after eight months together, in Jedidiah’s eyes she is his mother and he her precious little boy — suffer to such an extent, and to know that he faces a grim future of neglect, violence and drugs, is too much to bear. Reasons like this constitute the heart of why there are never enough good foster parents. It is hard work. The process is ugly and thankless. The ones in it for the money could scarcely care less. But for those with hearts, such tragedy cannot help but leave scars. This makes those that do volunteer again and again all the more admirable. They pay a steep price, and for what? Jedidiah will not remember his foster mom, and neither will any other baby. Yet sacrifice they do. Like soldiers in an endless campaign, they march onwards for as long as they can, bleeding love. Written by a Foster Mom “Image courtesy of {dan, anankkml, Maggie Smith}/FreeDigitalPhotos.net”  

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