Our first assignment as foster parents has come and gone, lasting only 5 days before daughter and family were happily reunited. It left my wife and I with a mixture of sadness, frustration, relief and joy. It’s also a reminder of what a difference just a few days can make for a person.
She was only four years old, and her name was Emily. Or Sue. Or Barbara, Kendra or Jessica or something. Pick a name. We’re legally required to keep the disclosures about those who enter our care down to a minimum. So, if you catch me using a first name to talk about a child in our care, just be aware that the names will probably be changed to protect the innocent.
About the only information that we ever found out from CPS was that Emily was caught in the crossfire of a bad situation between her parents. CPS decided to remove her immediately from that situation to place her into care at 3am on a Sunday morning. I’d add more detail about the situation she was removed from here, without fear or remorse. But, the fact of the matter is… we weren’t ever told much more than those simple facts. Which left us, the foster parents, with about as much to offer Emily as she had possessions to bring with her that evening. Pretty much nothing.
As I wrote about earlier, Liz and I had been “green lit” for our first placement for about a week. We had said yes to several other children in need over the course of that time. And we would then fail to hear anything back saying “OK, let’s meet here.” So, one lesson learned: we figured out that if you answer your phone at 3am and say “Yes, we’ll do this” to the case worker, you are pretty much assured that you will, in fact, actually be taking in a child within the next 30 minutes.
We agreed to meet the case worker at Chandler Mall at about 4am for the exchange. We didn’t realize how dark and dismal shopping malls become in the wee hours of the morning. It honestly felt like we were doing something illicit and unadvised; trading a child in an empty dark parking lot for some paperwork and a signature felt plain wrong. Not that anything about our situation was exactly perfect, though.
Emily arrived with only the clothes on her back. She was about as composed as a four year old can be for 4am on a Sunday morning after no sleep and without Mom or Dad in sight. She slipped into my arms readily enough from the arms of the case worker who did the first leg of her journey.
Holding an exhausted child in my arms whom I was meeting for the first time, I remember saying “Well, are you ready to head home to get some sleep?” and immediately cringing on the inside. Lesson four: never use the word “home” to a child whom you are taking into care. Emily wasn’t going home that night, and although I don’t think she really understood me completely (due to a slight Spanish/English language barrier), I think she probably felt me deflate a little right then and there. We put her in the booster seat and buckled her in. We said goodbye to the case worker for the time being and turned back for the freeway, headed back to our not-home.
It took exactly four freeway exits for the realization to hit Emily that she was in an unfamiliar car, driving further away from her Mom for reasons that she wasn’t able to understand. The numbness faded and the sobbing started. We learned our fifth lesson of the night: sometimes you just have no words. All it took was for Emily to cry “I miss my Mommy,” and we were sunk. All of the classroom training that Liz and I had undergone about attachment, loss and coping went immediately out the window. We were no longer the experts and for that brief moment, I felt as lost as Emily did.
But, even for the overwhelming sadness that she probably had inside of her at that moment, she still was trying desperately to hang on. Liz did her best to try to soothe her from the front seat, but really, Emily took it upon herself to take control as much as she could. It was a moment of pure inner strength, demonstrated by an exceptionally unlikely candidate. Sure, a sob or sniffle would escape, but she refused to say anything more after that first admission. She sat very still, hands at her side refusing to wipe away the tears, defeated and uncertain. But, she caught her breath eventually and had we decided to drive all the way back to our not-home, she probably would have fallen asleep.
After Liz and I had a “Holy crap, what now?” whispered exchange, we both decided that we needed to immediately get Emily a change of clothes and something that she could hang on to that would comfort her through the night. Addressing that need at four in the morning proved quite a bit easier than we thought, and let to lesson number six for the evening.
Four words I never thought I would say together in the same sentence: “Thank God for Walmart.”
We knew at the very least she could use some PJ’s, a toothbrush and probably a blanket or stuffed animal to help her get some sleep. Once we arrived, Emily climbed out of the car readily enough and seemed to recognize where we were, or at the very least what store we were about to walk into. She walked right between Liz and I hand-in-hand-in-hand and when I asked her if she wanted to hop up into the cart, she looked at me indignantly. Liz informed me that the child seat on the top of the cart was for younger kids and purses only. I just thought that the kid might honestly fall over from exhaustion if we made her walk any further. But, as I said, she was a lot stronger than either Liz or I realized.
I am still amazed at how quickly the sadness was displaced by something enjoyable once Emily realized that the purpose of the shopping trip was to buy stuff for her. Yes, she liked pink. Purple was the preferred choice for her mom which was OK as well. Skirts and dresses were the most fun. She was also very familiar with the pantheon of cartoon characters presented to her. Yes, Dora was nice and she was familiar with Hello Kitty, but she was (and probably will be for quite some time, hopefully) a Barbie kinda girl.
We learned that the Spanish word for underwear is a lot of fun to say and will make a four year old kid giggle no matter what the circumstance.
I swear that she was OK with wearing black socks with neon green highlights under her silver glittery shoes, although Liz told me later that I was crazy for allowing her to do it.
We assembled enough clothing for the next few days plus a new blanket, a teddy bear and a coloring book. (We very quickly mastered the art of the bait-and-switch as well. Yes, that $45 glow pillow-pet thing is nice, but how about this $5 teddy bear?) About the best purchase we made that night was a 99 cent small shopping bag adorned with Barbie and friends that she called her “purse.” She stored her crayons, her drawings for Mom, some of the hair ties and other important items in it as we toted her around for the next few days. It served as a reminder that, although she was not with her Mom, that things might turn out all right in the end.
When we were done, we went back to our house (not home) and got her familiar with her new surroundings. We moved a desk into her room and she immediately began to unpack her new stuff into the various drawers, nesting as much as possible given the circumstances. We swapped her clothes for the new pajamas and tucked her in for the night, although at this point the sunrise was well underway. We crawled back into our own bed and settled in with the double doors wide open. We caught her peeking her head around the corner at us several times, just to make sure where we were and that we weren’t leaving. She slept for about two hours, which was about ninety minutes more than either Liz or I slept once we returned from our rendezvous.
Our first night was a roller coaster filled with blind loops and sharp turns, decisions and lessons learned that I’m sure I’ll never forget. The next day was sustained entirely by the positive experiences exploring a new house, an new park, her new clothes and lots of new people. Liz and I continued to improvise some parenting skills, navigating tricky terrain. We are certain that when we walk this path again, that at least some of the trail marked by our own footprints will help us better lead the next endangered child to a safe and welcoming place for as long as they need to stay.