There are appointments I look forward to and ones I dread, there is almost no middle category here. Doctor appointments to get the kids on track and to make sure I get accurate information about their medical history? Look forward to it. In a previous life I was sure I was going to become a physician. The nuance of medicine, the interpersonal challenge and ability to connect when folks need it most- this was the compelling career path for me (the road that led me to social work is a winding story for another time). Early intervention and testing appointments? Love them. Court? Legal meetings? Probation officer meetings? Dread them. They're tedious and drawn out and I find that so little of the legal system is designed in the best interest of kids. There are adults audibly arguing, many delays and often so little resolution. For what it's worth, there are many reasons I'm familiar with the pace and dynamics of courtrooms as I testify quite a bit for my job, I've worked alongside kids testifying on their own behalf, and our kids are in court a bit. I know where the good coffee place is as well as the not-so-good but much closer one and everything in between.
But here's the thing that really hurts about these appointments: you stand in crowded hallways with all the other Family Court kids and adults and you palpably feel what it's like to be a kid sitting on a bench while your life hangs in balance. Now that I'm a parent, though, I'm seeing this very sad place through a different lense that yields a heavier impact.
Lemme Break This Down
Way back when I was in grad school I worked in residential programs. I was a milieu worker, which means I wasn't a therapist, I was the day-to-day caregiver and helper for kiddos who lived there. I worked for a few years at a program for kids 5-14 years old and got to know many of the kiddos there well. They tended to stick around for many, many months, if not years. As with many folks working in cities, you see familiar faces a lot when you travel and work in the same circles, so now I often see kids I knew almost a decade ago either in passing or on internet adoption recruitment pages, in the paper (which is usually tragic or painful news), or sometimes on the street where they're vibrant and full of life and doing exactly what I wished for their 20-year-old selves to be doing. All that to say I know a lot of amazing, almost adults and I know a bit about the path they're traveling.
A few weeks ago I brought our kids to court for a routine event which was suppose to be quick and easy. As an aside, We make a point of bringing our kids to all appointments (which, man, is a tough gig because theres so damn many). We do this for a few reasons:
1. They know us and trust us (or are starting to develop that sense in their belly that we can be trusted). This means that in strange situations we are more of a comfort than social workers they only see once a month.
2. If something weird or upsetting happens we want to be there to help make sense of it all. Mom shows up intoxicated and yells a lot? Lawyers get loud and threaten one another? Kinship relatives get into a physical fight because they do not know how to bear the pain of watching a child taken away from the family? We want to be there to help our kids in the moment and then to talk through what we saw, not whatever version we get that might be light on the details after.
3. We have routines in our house (I know we are so repetitive about that...). We want the things that our kiddos know to be familiar and comforting around when they need them. That means we pack our favorite books, coloring sheets and shows on the iPad for a special treat and to kill time while we wait. That means we have snacks because we know when Mr. Toddler needs to power up and what he likes to eat that will not leave him in a sugar crash 45 minutes later. Court is also the time where the group of all our kids' siblings are together, so the two that live with us are right alongside their older 2 siblings who live in another home.
All of the Feelings
Lots of stuff goes on inside me when I see Mr. Toddler & Tiny's brother and sister. Amazement at seeing what our kiddos might look like or be interested in over time, guilt for not helping more as their home is often described as "basic needs are met and nothing else," and some peace knowing we are doing our best and cannot (with a capital NOT) take two more kids. It's hard though. The oldest sibling looks so burdened and rarely smiles. Her hair is a bit wild, her clothes ill-fitting. She often wanders up to random strangers and asks for candy. The second oldest, barely school-age, stays in his favorite social worker's arms and clings to her, pretending to cry or feign sleep when she puts him down. No one packs food for them, so I pack for four and try to guess what might be comforting or helpful for them (cheap trick: [Disney] Frozen anything is almost always the right answer). The contrast stings. Our kids are with a parent who knows their quirks and how to contain nerves. Big brother and big sister are with social workers who do not know much about them and struggle to keep them from running around, not yanking phones from adults to play with and wandering off. It feels like these four sit alongside each other so excited to have time together and then become overwhelmed by how different their places in the world are now. Our kids stick to me like glue and quickly become overwhelmed by their siblings' energy and the foreignness of court.
Most kids in this wold get by. Those who thrive had a little help along the way from someone, somewhere. I hope I'm a part of the someone, somewhere for our kids. I watch their siblings sitting around untethereed and alone and my heart hurts. They're up against so much. They're doing so much of it alone. Foster care is tough stuff for me as an adult, yes. But what I find myself sitting with most at these moments are how you don't really know what loneliness looks like until you watch kids- 4 year olds, 12 year olds, 17 year olds sitting alone on benches waiting to hear where they will be sleeping tonight, if they're going to go back to the home they knew, or if now they will have some other "permanency plan." Watching kids say goodbye to birth parents, sometimes the pain of these goodbyes hits me in the gut. I believe there is good and kindness in this world. I believe that deeply and with great conviction. I also believe people can do terrible things to kids, ugly, selfish and soul wounding things. Many kids carry burdens heavier than they should ever have to bear. Court days are the days I get real up close and intimate with this heaviness.
Blast From the Past
Court days are tough in and of themselves. There's one unexpected piece from this particular court day that I just can't seem to shake, though. Here's the scene: We are sitting outside the courtroom, playing quietly, all four kids, me and 2 social workers. Our name is called and the whole group of us gets up and heads toward the significant wooden doors. Mr. Toddler is clinging to my neck like a baby koala. I'm trying to be a bit future focused to lighten the mood, talking to him about the playground we're going to after all this. His oldest sibling bolts ahead and runs the opposite way we are walking and the second oldest is still begging to be carried and has tears in his eyes. This scene unfolds while we are walking into the courtroom and suddenly this skinny, lanky teenager with big eyes and a striking jawline walks out. He pauses for a split second and stares into my face. I smile and say his name. There's no time for anything else. I watch as he's escorted out by police officers who are gripping his arms, shackles ablaze.
My head knows him, my heart remembers him. I used to read him to sleep at night. I was the staff person who sat with him for several hours once while he raged on after hearing his Mom chose to skip out of the rehab program she was mandated to attend and complete if she wanted him back. My head knows him, my heart remembers him.
I keep walking forward, carrying my bags and our kids. The proceedings happen. We finish up, my two kids head to the playground as promised. We go to our home. Do dinner, bedtime, bath, books, and I read my kids to sleep.
There are some truths in this world that I set course by and here's the one this court day reminded me of again: there is a divide between kids who get enough to make a life for themselves and those kids who do not.
And I don't mean material things- I'm talking about internal worth. Some kids work harder for their entire life to get pieces of what comes easily and gracefully to kids who got what they needed exactly when they needed it. That quiet voice that says you're exactly who you should be and, damn, you are such a gift to this world. I mean feeling that you can walk into a room and believe you'll have important and worthwhile things to add- that this room right here, right now, is better off because you're in it. I'm talking about the thoughts that go through your head in the quiet hours of the night that hopefully leave you in awe of who you are and what you can do. We could talk for days about the injustice of this, the small ways we try to right this wrong. But the truth is, this kiddo I knew many years ago deserved everything my kids do. Everything. He deserves someone still to be right beside him in whatever way he needs. And he didn't get it. He probably still doesn't have it.
I walked into court with my kids trying my hardest to be a buffer against the life they're up against and navigating so bravely and as I walked out all I could muster in my head was "this is the divide." This is the place you sit alongside the kids who are getting what they deserve and the kids who are fighting to just stay above water. So on court days, whether I like it or not, I sit right on benches and my heart is overwhelmed with this divide between the haves and the have-nots. I walk into spaces having one focus and am rocked back into a place of feeling like I'm remembering what I already knew and it's just as painful this time around too. In the therapy biz we call these moments "another opportunity for growth." Sounds nice, doesn't it? Those experiences that cause us to stretch ourselves and become more compassionate and soulful versions of ourselves. To integrate our life with that of others in this world. But in this moment, this day I don't feel growth. I don't see opportunity. I just feel heavy hearted. And deeply hopeful that Tiny & Mr. Toddlers' siblings will have someone, somewhere, and that this will be enough.
-Foster Mom (the therapist)