I went into foster parenting with a touch of optimism, a dash
of parenting skills and a whole heap of naiveté, none of which
prepared me for the role of foster parent. One of my first
lessons was the tenuous role I actually was allowed to play in
two little girl’s lives.
I welcomed Jayden* and Alicia* into my suburban Wheaton,
Ill., home on a sunny morning in August. The bedroom was
prepared with bunk beds and a chest of drawers ready to fill
with little girl clothes and toys.
We had a great set-up for adding children to our family of
three sons. We had a large, comfortable home and lived less than
two blocks from the elementary school where my sons attended.
Our first few days together flew by as we visited the school and
registered the girls for first grade and kindergarten. Jayden
had just turned six and Alicia was five. That’s the first time I
realized that the “real” parent was really the state of
Illinois. All paperwork for the girls was routed through the
court-appointed guardian in Cook County (Chicago). Because I was
a foster parent, I soon discovered I was unable to sign,
approve, or make decisions for the girls beyond what they would
wear, eat for breakfast, or when they’d head to bed. Even a
simple field trip form to have the girls walk with their class
from school to a nearby park had to be faxed to some child
welfare office in downtown Chicago and resent back to the school
– a lengthy procedure.
But the worst night dealing with the state as these girls’
“replacement” parent was when my kids, filled with excitement
and excess energy, went running through the house one Saturday
night. I’d warned them thousands of times not to do this, but
Jayden tripped and her forehead connected with the corner of the
wall opening a nasty gash on her forehead. As I comforted a
screaming six-year-old with one arm, I hugged her frightened
sister with the other and dialed the local case manager for
permission to head to the emergency room for stitches. She
approved and we left for the hospital. After our arrival, we
waited for hours as the hospital official faxed permission to
Springfield, the state capitol, to have a state guardian give
permission to treat Jayden.
When my husband and I agreed to fold Jayden and Alicia into
our home, their case manager, definitely wearing rose colored
glasses, called them two “normal” girls. I guess her version of
“normal” and mine were worlds apart because I quickly discovered
that: a) Jayden had cerebral palsy, and b) both girls exhibited
signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. Also, they’d been in the foster
care system since age 2 and 1, respectively. Their parents were
serving in separate prisons for some type of drug crime.
These girls had experiences similar to a lot of foster
They’d been moved to several foster homes and temporary
placement settings since the night their parents were taken
They were part of a sibling set of six children, yet
they rarely saw their brothers and sister.
One or both of my girls had been sexually abused in a
previous foster home by another, older foster child.
I don’t have any solutions to the problems experienced by our
young people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves
living with the state of California, Georgia, New York, or some
other as their new “parent.” I do know that may state child
welfare systems are suffering from budget cuts, are understaffed
and have to deal with a lot of new problems such as the meth
epidemic and the AIDs crisis.
But, speaking as a mother, I find it categorically unfair to
these foster children to “raise” them within a system beset by
such problems, then “emancipate” them when they turn 18 with
little more than a black garbage bag for their clothing and a
high school diploma clutched in their sweaty palms.
If they are that lucky.
*Not real names.
Foster Care Facts: State By State
According to the most current
AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting
System) Report, released in September 2010, there were
approximately 423,773 children in the United States in foster
care on September 30, 2009.
For state-specific information on the number of entries,
exits and children in care on the last day of the federal fiscal
year 2009, please see the table on the
Children’s Bureau website.