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October 30, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’m not a fan of foster care. In some cases of course, it’s necessary. Some parents truly aren’t good for their kids, either temporarily or permanently. In those cases, some form of foster care seems to be the only option.

But much foster care is anything but necessary. Largely because of financial incentives provided by the federal government, states now often err on the side of taking children from parents. All too frequently, less obtrusive interventions into family life are ignored by child welfare authorities. Kinship care is ignored and worse, fathers are ignored. According to an Urban Institute study, when children are taken from single mothers, fathers are even contacted by CPS workers in barely 50% of cases. This preference for foster care over all other forms of care for abused or neglected children is a shortcoming the system needs to correct.

That’s because, on average, foster care is worse for children than parental care. Numerous studies indicate the fact which holds true even when biological parents are somewhat abusive. That’s for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, the simple act of taking a child from its familiar home and parents is traumatic. From its earliest days, that child has formed attachments to its parents the breaking of which constitutes an emotional/psychological blow.

Add to that the fact that foster parents often aren’t any better than the ones they’ve replaced, and the situation is ripe for psychic injury to the child. Then there’s the fact that many foster kids come to homes with other foster kids, many of whom have serious psychological problems. Those children often abuse other foster kids. The result is a much higher probability that a child in foster care will experience physical or sexual abuse there than elsewhere.

Finally, there’s the fact that foster kids age out of the system when they’re 18. At that young age, they’re pretty much on their own, despite the fact that even children in the best, most stable and loving of homes are seldom ready to take on the world at that age.

All in all then, foster children do worse across a wide range of measures than do non-foster kids.

That’s why I’m not a fan of foster care.

But I try to remember that, within all that data, all those averages, are hidden many, many foster parents who provide needed love and shelter for kids who don’t find it elsewhere. Obviously Meghan Moravcik Walbert and her husband are two of those foster parents. This article is one of a series that’s appeared in the Motherlode blog of the New York Times (New York Times, 10/20/15).

I’ve done one previous piece on Walbert, because she writes well, thinks well and lets her readers inside the reality of foster parents and their perhaps-temporary/perhaps-permanent relationships with their foster kids. It’s an odd world in which every act of love occurs with the knowledge that it all may end tomorrow. The impulse to love and commit is ever-present as is the awareness that doing so may be emotional folly. Or may not be.

Walbert and her husband have now had their foster child BlueJay for six months. He’s three years old and, as she points out, much happens to a child that age in that time. And inevitably, all those changes are marked by the parents with whom he lives. They’re not exactly his parents, but the parental love, the doting, are irresistible.

Six months is a long time when you’re 3. In six months, he has completely worn through one pair of slippers and is starting to wear through a second pair. He has outgrown shirts and pants that seemed to fit him just yesterday.

He has logged four haircuts, a couple of particularly intense public meltdowns and countless skinned knees, earned in the time-honored childhood tradition of always running, never walking, from Point A to Point B.

In six months, he has learned how to zip up his own jacket; if you try to zip it for him, he will promptly unzip it and start over. He can now correctly identify a whole slew of colors, and his perseverance in the face of this particular struggle fills me with pride.

He has learned the concept of cause and effect. He has learned to cradle an owl-shaped kitchen timer in his hands, to listen to its rhythmic ticking and to take deep breaths to calm his body when he is upset.

We’ve had six months’ worth of “firsts” with him. His first trip to the beach. Our first time watching the sunrise together. His first day of preschool. Our first time shopping for a superhero Halloween costume.

I already find myself thinking, “Wow, he looked like such a baby,” when I see pictures of him from our first couple of weeks together. I find myself surprised at the extra length of his legs and the deeper focus in his eyes.

What parent hasn’t had all those sensations watching their three-year-old grow? But Walbert is BlueJay’s foster mom, not her biological one. That means the system of foster care in which she’s involved herself makes specific demands on her, demands that can seem almost inhumanly severe. Walbert and her husband must love BlueJay as their own, knowing that he’s not. They must act like his loving parents, knowing a child welfare worker may take him away forever at any time.

The reality of this type of parenting is that every joyous moment has a thread of loss woven through it.

Every “first” we experience with BlueJay is a loss for his birth parents. Every day and week and month that marches by is a day and week and month they will never get back. At the same time, my husband, Mike, and I are endlessly aware of the bittersweet fact that every “first” we enjoy with him may also be a “last.”

Most important, we don’t know how big the hole in BlueJay’s heart is and how much we’ve been able to fill it. We don’t know whether he constantly wonders why he is with us and not with them. We don’t know how acutely he understands that so far since his life has not followed a typical path. We don’t know how he internally compares himself with our 5-year-old biological son, Ryan.

While we do our best to help him feel safe and loved, we don’t know how deep his confusion runs and how much the passage of time either eases that confusion or compounds it.

In the next couple of months, it will become clearer whether BlueJay, his biological brother and his parents will be reunited or whether other permanent options will begin to be considered.

No doubt about it, Walbert and her husband are the good news about foster care. They obviously love their little foster son and do everything they can to give him what he needs, even if that may be beyond their, or anyone else’s, abilities. And yet, for them and for BlueJay, the reality of foster care is one of basic uncertainty. No one knows their true relationship with him, because, as with every relationship, the future is built into the present. Is this a long-term deal or not? The answer to that question is important for everyone in every relationship. It’s the one question neither Walbert, nor her husband, nor the social workers nor, most of all, BlueJay, can answer.

Such is the nature of foster care, even in the best of circumstances. We should honor good foster parents like Walbert and her husband for taking on a job that’s such a joy, such a hardship.

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