Kevin and his co-conspirators starting from Land of Gazillion Adoptees have deemed this “Why the adoption establishment annoys me” week. In my little corner of the foster and foster/adoption world, the thing that’s most on my mind is support for reunification/family placement or lack thereof.
One of my favorite new-to-me bloggers is Mary of Noah Baby Blog. She and her husband are raising (as legal guardians) and may eventually be adopting her sister’s son. I believe some of little Noah’s siblings are in placements with other relatives, but at least two are in foster care. Mary had a fantastic recent post about the support that she gets versus the support that his siblings’ foster family gets. If she got even some of the financial support (say, partial pay for daycare while she and her husband work) that the foster family does and will probably continue to get if their adoptions are finalized, as we do (to my surprise!) for Mara, she and her husband would be able to afford to raise Noah’s siblings with him. Instead, the family is split up and there will probably be TPR and the siblings will be adopted by a family that has no legal requirement or even encouragement to keep them in contact with their brother.
All of the kids who’ve been in our home for respite or otherwise have been here because they were in relative placements that failed. I understand why the state aims for relative placements first, because it’s good to keep kids in familiar environments and connected to their families whenever possible. It’s also much cheaper for the state than foster care, at least in places where there isn’t parity in terms of the amount of training and subsidy offered. Val and Alex were in a relative placement before they came to us and are in one now until their parents are able to do the last few things they need to on their case plan, though since the economy is bad enough that “find independent housing” had to be removed from that case plan since there was no way even with two incomes their parents were going to be able to find and afford appropriate housing in this environment, the kids’ parents are living with them and their custodial relatives.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the class privilege Mara has because she lives with us and how we can help her siblings. Last month, we took three of them to the college where Lee teaches to watch a basketball game in part because it was a fun, casual time to hang out and in part deliberately because each time they’re on a college campus will make them feel more comfortable about eventually belonging on a college campus. But then there’s Mara, who goes to preschool on a college campus and sees it as totally normal (as I did as a faculty child) and went busting into a closed-door meeting in Lee’s dean’s office to drop off the valentine she’d made for the dean. I’m not trying to imply that the life we’re giving her is better than the one she would have had if she’d been able to remain with her family, but it’s different in many ways. She’s getting exposed to different things, but she’s not around other kids all day when we’re at home, doesn’t know how to play marbles like her little brother, doesn’t wake up every morning and look at people who look like her. It would have been better for Mara to stay with her family, and the system recognizes that and privileges intra-family placements for that reason. In this case, her available family members were honest about their limitations and after Samara was unable to meet Mara’s special needs, which were more significant then than they were when she came to us after another foster placement, they knew enough to ask for more help even though that meant losing access to Mara and in fact losing contact with Mara for over a year.
Mara misses her family and particularly her siblings every single day, and she’s very open about telling us this. From what I’ve learned since meeting them, at least the one who has a particular bond with her also mentioned her almost daily in the years they didn’t see each other. At this point, we’re seeing her siblings once a month, but I think we really need to step that up. And one reason we need to do more is that, as I said before, her aunt is feeling burned-out and overwhelmed. Honestly, I have a hard time imagining anyone who wouldn’t feel that way when raising eight kids (four of them Mara’s siblings) solo while working full-time and living in public housing without a car. I know the kids’ grandma helps out and various neighbors do too, but all of them are people living in poverty in this awful economy, people who are themselves overwhelmed and scraping by. I’m not privy to what sort of stipend if any the state gives her for taking care of Mara’s siblings, but I know that ours is a state like Mary’s where that amount wouldn’t even come close to the post-adoption subsidy for Mara’s care. I know that child support isn’t getting paid when it’s supposed to, and so day after day Mara’s family is dealing with economic insecurity and exhaustion.
Mara and her siblings are all hurting because their parents couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, weren’t allowed to parent them. That’s the hard fact that all foster and foster-like placements begin with and flow from into whatever comes next. I don’t know the details of any of the stories but Mara’s, and I’m learning that more and more of those were different than we’d originally been told, but I know the broad strokes of things. Samara, who’s been raising Mara’s youngest sibling since birth, is in the uncomfortable position of having only temporary guardianship because she’s not a blood relative to this three-year-old and lost her long-term relationship because she and the man in her life disagreed about whether she should take in Mara when she did. The aunt raising the oldest children is being worn out because of lack of support and
If we care about families, which I’m not convinced we as a culture do, we need to support parents even when they’re poor or young or overcoming addiction or dealing with hard times. We definitely need to support the aunties and grandparents and friends who step into the gap when parents and their children need help. We do indeed need to support foster parents, empowering them to act as advocates for children in their care while also being honest about what kind of job they’re taking on and how much is expected of them. I haven’t even mentioned adoption yet because adoption should be a last choice. Mara’s family, including her parents, tells me that they think Mara’s case was there, that there was no way for anyone else to come forward to keep her in the family. I can’t make the money appear to change that history, but I do think it was mostly money and the time it takes to manage large households like both Samara and her other aunt are doing already that kept Mara from going to or staying with them. Does that mean I think her adoption was unethical? No, but in a better world it might not have been necessary. All I can do with that, though, is go on being her mom and calling her aunts and buying a birthday present for her sister and her cousin and taking the kids sometimes so their caretakers can have a break. I can’t give her her family as it would have been, but I can choose not to take her away from her family as it is now, big enough to include all of us.
You see that I’m not really taking on blame here and I’m not blaming Mara’s social workers, either, all of whom cared about her (and, in the case of the family worker, her mom too) and did what they could to help her. I think this is a widespread blame, which is what makes it an “establishment” issue. Adoption was a good thing for Mara in that it’s going to keep her in our home, in our family. She doesn’t have to worry about moving again, doesn’t have to have a social worker visiting every month and writing a letter every time we take a vacation. I think it absolutely would have been a bad thing if we hadn’t been able to find and connect with her family, though. For her as a four-year-old, this is absolutely core to who she is and having the mom she generally calls My Francesca and we call her mom doesn’t in any way take away from having her Mommy and Mama in our house. She knows the logo of the place where her dad works and gleefully points out another location on the drive to school every day. Her identity and role in those families didn’t get terminated when her parents’ rights to her did. But the state did what it thought was best for her and placed her for adoption with us, just as her siblings were placed with relatives rather than placed in foster care, as they should have been. It’s the difference in the way we’re treated that just isn’t right, isn’t fair, isn’t in the children’s best interests. But until we start caring about poverty and what it does to children, that’s not going to change.
I’m so grateful for people like Mary, for Mara’s relatives, for Val and Alex’s relatives, the people who step up and offer their couch to a relative who’s just gotten out of prison, a child who needs a place to stay, a neighbor who needs a favor. Lee and I sometimes get those, “Oh, what a great thing you’re doing!” comments, but we’re doing this deliberately because we chose to and planned for it and arranged our lives (with varying degrees of success) to be able to do it in the way we wanted to. We weren’t in Samara’s situation of just being told, “Oh, your little one’s sister is going to be put in foster care if you don’t take her in, so will you?” (I mean, we could very well be in that situation, but we know that going in and we know what resources we’d have at our disposal if we said yes like I suspect we would.) I’m not saying the people who do relative care are saints; they’re people with all the complexities and frustrations that all people have plus the addition of suddenly having kids with the same needs as other kids in foster care but typically less safety net to support them than many foster parents have. Children are indeed being left behind, and I know I’m trying to step up and do what I can to make sure that Mara’s siblings and cousins won’t be among them. But the change we need is so much bigger than that.