The Realities of Letting Go
When attending the preservice classes for foster parenting the one word you hear over and over again is reunification. It is truly the ultimate goal for every child, to be in the home of their birth family, being cared for, loved on, and protected by them. I believe this with my whole heart, and have reunified two of my four girls. So many people say "I couldn't do it, I would get too attached, or you're so strong and brave." Sometimes you meet a birth mom and your jaw drops because they are not what you expected at all. They don't appear to fit into any of the stereotypical categories you think of when you hear someone has had their child placed into foster care. However this happened to me.
My first placement, my first daughter came into my life on May 19th, 2017, she was 8 months old. She had the most beautiful blue eyes and blonde hair. She was perfect and I knew she was meant to be mine even if for a short period of time. By the grace of God, her mother and I were able to chat for over an hour before our daughter even entered the room. Her birth mom explained the hard times she had experienced, where her other four children were and that with this child, she was going to succeed and get her back. I was the naive first time mom/foster parent that believed her. I agreed to her additional requests of twice weekly phone calls and keeping a journal so we could communicate back and forth with in between visits. I encouraged her when we were able to see each other at visits and even supervised outside visits. Her mom was so positive each time we talked and sounded like she was doing really well. Her case plan was moving along to the best it could.
Two months into the placement, it was like my daughter was truly mine, like I had been the one who birthed her. You couldn't tell the difference unless you were in our home on Monday's and social workers were doing their monthly visits or we were heading to the agency for visitation. Every other day was normal family time. I planned things for her, put her in swim lessons, and even took her to Florida on vacation with me. That is when my daughter's story changed.
We returned from our awesome, relaxing trip with friends to a non-answered phone call to birth mom's cell phone and a cancelled visitation with no reason. I did some research, foster parents also make the best detectives, and found mom on an inmate list. My heart sank and I cried for her and my daughter. The next month resulted in a lot of waiting to hear what the next step was in my daughter's case plan and when the term TPR was mentioned I became even more unsure of what her/our future held. I knew a family member had adopted her siblings but that there was also another family member potentially interested in adopting her.
A social worker visited and asked me the big question, "are you interested in adopting her?" "YES!" was all I could say, and then followed by "if no family members are available, then yes I am very interested." The social worker left and we went about our family lives.
Four short days later on a Friday afternoon, my daughter's guardian ad litem called and said she had to come visit that day and see her in my home. I had no idea who this woman was, she had never contacted me prior to that day. I left work early and picked up my daughter with minutes to spare. The GAL came in, I showed her around, introduced her to my daughter and talked about the progress she had made. About 10 minutes later in fewer that 5 words (or it at least felt like that) she stated that my daughter was to be moved with family and she was placing the order effective immediately and then she left. I was in shock. There was no one I could call to find any additional information on this decision, it was a Friday at 5:15pm for sakes, the ageny was closed for the weekend. I felt like the GAL hated me. I knew she was mad at birth mom and I thought she was taking it out on me. Even today when I see her name, picture, or run into her, I freeze.
That entire weekend, I lived in anxiety, fear, and grief. Family members came by to say goodbye in case she was moved Monday. I began packing her things and writing down her routines and preferences. I looked at every meal, bath, nap, and bed time as our last together. I cried silently rocking her, I prayed deeply putting all I had in God to do what was right even if it felt like I was being torn apart. Do you know how hard it is to be grief stricken and still be a parent? It is not easy, that's for sure. Monday came and a social worker visited, assuring me that she was not moving and that no family had come forward. She encouraged me to still have the play dates and birthday party I had planned for that coming weekend.
Three weeks later, minutes before walking into my daughter's semi-annual review hearing, the social worker informed me that my daughter would be leaving and there was nothing I could do. She did not have a time frame on my daughter's departure because there were two family members both suitable and willing to adopt her. She told me I would find out more later. I didn't find anything else out until almost a month later. The agency and GAL had difficulty deciding which family member she would go to and the anxiety I felt with their uncertainty crushed me more and more.
The decision finally came, they chose her biological aunt, her husband and their older children. It was honestly my preference as well since I knew she would basically be an only child, which she was used too. I knew nothing more of the family that would be making my daughter theirs. The agency was still unsure of a reunification date due to home studies and paperwork but they told me it would take 30 days or less and when it was finished, they would give me a call. Other than that, they encouraged us to go about as a family.
From that moment until I received the official call, I prayed fervently. I asked God to make this family better than me. I loathed the work week and the hours of 9am to 5pm. I prayed for time to tick by fast so I could rush home to her and spend another night doing our nightime routine or another weekend to make memories. While we waited, I prepared my heart and other things. I bought her some Christmas gifts, copies of her favorite books, I made her a blanket, and I slowly continued to pack her bags like I had started that very first time.
The call came the morning of my mother's birthday. An hour before I thought the agency even opened. A week before Thanksgiving. The social worker talked about a quick transition and we had plans set. Then she asked me what she always asked me at the end of our phone conversations....if I was okay? It took every fiber in me to say "yes." 1. Because I was with a client of mine 2. Because I didn't want to cry 3. Because I thought it wasn't okay to be sad or upset in front of social workers. She asked me again and I said "yes" more somber this time.
I texted my family and close friends as soon as I could get to my car. We all were grieving our loss for this little girl. Two days later, I met my daughter's new parents and God answered my prayers. It's not that they are better than me but they are so similar to me and my family. She does a Christmas tradition with her older sons that my parents started with my siblings and I, one that I only knew about because it's my family's tradition. It was God's way of telling me it was going to be okay. They left and then the next day showed up to spend the day with her. They took her to their house and let her explore. They brought her back to me that evening and she was exhausted. The next time they would see her, would be the last time she was a resident of my home.
They arrived late on a Tuesday after we all got off work, her new dad loaded the car with her belongings and carried her to the car. Her new mom and I chatted and I felt so at peace. What struck me the most was when she looked at me and said "I know how you feel, I have been where you are right now. We had her from birth to eight weeks old when the county placed her back with birth mom. I know the pain and heartache you are feeling. Know I am not doing this lightly. I am upset with you."
The next day I awoke to a text saying: "She is doing great. My boys want to know how you are holding up?" Her new mom and I texted back and forth quite a lot and continue to this day. It would be another two months before I was able to physically see her again as we wanted to make sure she was bonding and attaching appropriately with them. Now when we visit them she likes to get her lifebook I made her off of the shelf and look at it with us. She loves to give my current foster kids love and play with them.
Don't get me wrong, I shed thousands of tears, I stressed more than I could, I prayed harder than I ever had during this time. I know not all reunifications happen this way. When I signed up to be a foster parent I knew my village would grow, but what I didn't realize was the additional family that would be added to it. I know that had I not experienced this loss that I would not be in the finalizing steps of my current daughter's adoption. I also know that if I had to do it all over again, knowing what happens in the end, I would do it again. I would let my heart break a thousand times over to have the honor and privilege of being one of my daughter's moms, even if it was for only 6 months of her life. I would do it for any of my children.
What is one small reform you think would benefit the foster care community?
One reform that I think would benefit the foster care community is for agencies to provide opportunities to meet additional birth family members who can be positive role models for the foster children in your care. With my 1st placement, I wish we would have been able to maintain contact with the family members she is being adopted by so we could have built that bond and promoted those relationships
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I am a foster parent and soon to be an adoptive parent. I have had 4 placements: 2 reunifications and 2 currently in my home, adopting 1 of the 2. I am also a pediatric COTA/L working with children diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and other developmental delays. I am from Central Ohio and have been involved in foster care for 2.5 years now
Find her on Instagram @aghiloni