Moms Rock: Restoring & Reunifying Families

One of the things I love about supporting the foster care community is that everyone can do something to make a difference.

I sat in a meeting earlier this week to discuss an upcoming event at FamilyCore. It’s our annual Moms Rock Party and is designed to honor and pamper moms who are working hard to reunify with their children who have been removed from their homes. This event is held during the Christmas season, a time which can be incredibly difficult for families in all parts of the foster care system.

I love that our agency makes this celebration a priority. Case workers stay late to decorate, serve food, and show these women that someone believes in them. I’m excited to participate this year in serving these moms because I know that motherhood is hard work, even with an incredible support system.

Parenting is easily the most draining (and most rewarding) job I’ve ever done. I’m constantly readjusting my strategies, realizing my flaws, and apologizing to my girls for the mistakes I’ve made. (Research says that rupture and repair in relationships actually helps their brains develop, so no worries. They’ll be fine.)

And I have the added benefit of a supportive husband. He parents so well and is my partner in all things. I can’t fully imagine how difficult it would be to raise our girls without him, yet these moms are often navigating parenthood without a partner or any other support system.

Many of these moms experienced foster care when they were growing up. Some aged-out of the system without a family that would walk them through all of those “becoming an adult” moments. Some of these women struggle with addiction. Others have mental health issues. Some just don’t have anyone who they can rely on as “their people”.

And yet, they’re trying, daily. They’re showing up. For weekly visits with their kids. For parenting classes. For all of the services that they need to complete to be reunified with their children.

These moms love their kids. They may not currently have the skills or support system to parent well, but that’s why foster care matters. Support for these moms matters. Quality care for their babies in the meantime matters. Restoring and reunifying families matters.

I’ve experienced a few corners of the foster care system. I’ve seen the important work a church can do to come alongside those in the foster care community. I’ve personally navigated the intense joy and immense pain of being a foster parent. I now work behind the scenes at an agency that is aiming to strengthen families for a better community.

But I don’t know what it feels like to be the mom who is working as hard as she can to reunify with the kids she loves. I don’t know what it feels like to be alone and like the odds are stacked against me.

Of course, there are some moms who just aren’t capable of providing safety and meeting the minimum parenting standards to welcome their kids back into their home. But I fully believe that many moms (and dads) can absolutely do it. They simply need support, just like the rest of us.

So, if you’d like to be part of restoring families, I invite you to start today by helping us with our Moms Rock Party. Buy a gift card for groceries or gas. Collect winter gloves or hand lotion. Make a dessert or donate your time to paint some nails.

Our staff will spend the evening reminding these women that they matter. Their hard work can pay off. And, if they stay the course, their kids can come home. It will be a hope-filled evening full of dignity and celebration.

Behind the Scenes of Foster Care

It was around 4pm on my second day in the office. My colleagues were moving in all directions – answering phone calls, following up with individuals and families in crisis, doing home visits, getting ready for court, offering support to one another, and managing whatever else the day was throwing at them. While it is a pretty fast-paced, sink or swim environment, I’m not too surprised to see the behind the scenes of the foster care agency world.

We fostered. I have a good friend who was a caseworker. I’ve delivered donated items for years and I’ve seen a little bit of what their employees do.

And I’m connected to other foster parents. I’ve been trained to help other parents raise kids from hard places. I’ve attended conferences, lead support groups, and preached sermons about the Church’s need to engage with this messy system.

What I hadn’t yet seen, however, was specific kids waiting to find a new home. And this, my second day of work, was the day.

I was sitting at my desk reading through policy manuals and implementation plans, when our licensing supervisor came into my office. She asked if I had some time to hang out with two girls who were moving from one foster home and needed to be placed into a new foster home. I immediately said yes and followed her down the hallway to the visiting room.

The girls were on the older end of the age spectrum, not babies or toddlers or early elementary students. They were sitting quietly at a small table, each with a bag of belongings near her feet.

I walked into the room and the supervisor introduced me, explaining that I’d be sitting with them while they waited to find out where they’d be heading.

The room was mostly equipped for younger kids with blocks, coloring pages, and some picture books lining the shelves. Among the toys, I noticed one game I was familiar with that could appeal to older kids.

I made a mental note to donate a few games that older kids would enjoy and took a seat across the room from the girls.

And then I just waited. I let them acclimate to the room and the circumstances. I asked a question or two, aiming for noninvasive and connective questions that hopefully would break the ice a bit between them and me, the stranger who has now been assigned to supervise them until a suitable new home could be found.

A few minutes after my arrival, the younger girl asked about the card game I’d seen on the shelf. I told her I knew how to play and could explain the rules to her. She agreed and we started a game.

The older girl just drew in her notebook. Who could blame her? I tried to imagine the big emotions these two girls must have been experiencing. What would I want to say to a complete stranger who had just entered my story in the middle of an extremely difficult chapter? Probably nothing.

Another co-worker came in and offered to go get the girls some McDonalds for dinner, which I’m guessing she just paid for out of her pocket.

I made a mental note to ask our church to do another gift card donation drive, so this type of circumstance would be covered in the future.

A few minutes later, their case worker came in to check on them. Immediately, I watched the older girl’s demeanor change. She softened and relaxed just a bit. I could tell she felt known and loved by her caseworker.

I made a mental note to let my colleague know that she was making an obvious difference in the lives of her clients.

The caseworker told them that they’d found a home for the younger girl (she’d be heading that way in a little while) and were trying to figure out a good fit for the older girl. 

After she spoke with her caseworker, the older girl decided to join us as we started another round of the game. We played for a little while, all of us halfway engaged, but mostly just waiting to hear what the next steps would be. School was going to start the next day, so I’m sure the girls were each wondering how this major change was going to impact their first day.

Before I knew it, it was almost 5pm, and my work day was scheduled to end. The caseworker who had gone to grab the girls some dinner returned with the food and took my spot supervising them. A home for the older girl still hadn’t been found.

I grabbed my water bottle, said goodbye, and prayed a silent prayer for their future. I grabbed my belongings from back in my office, went down the stairs, and got in my mini-van. I sat in silence. I reviewed the last hour in my head and thought about those precious girls still sitting in that room.

I’d been hired to recruit foster parents, specifically for teens, sibling groups, and kids who have specialized needs, and this was the reason why. Those girls sitting in that room waiting to hear what their next steps would be, they’d now be my specific motivation as I begin my new job.

Their story deserves to be told. All of the stories of children in our community deserve to be told.

And I believe that it’s time for our community to step-up. It’s time for us to engage a system that only works if we all do our part. It’s time to lengthen the list of families who are ready and waiting for a child. It’s time for us to support those who are currently fostering, so that they can continue to care for these children. It’s time for more than enough beds and more than enough homes.

It’s time.

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a licensed foster parent, please contact me at chite@familycore.org. I’d love to get to know you, to help you understand the ins and outs of the system, and to invite you into a journey that will change your life and the life of a child.

Cultivate Honesty by Creating Felt Safety

Honesty is hard.

Both kids and adults struggle with this practice. We avoid conflict because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or make someone angry. We tell little white lies to get ourselves out of trouble. We say things we don’t really mean in order to look good in front of other people. We take credit for things that aren’t ours to claim. How’s that for a happy opening?

Our girls struggle with honesty just like many other kids. It isn’t necessarily just because they arrived in our family through foster care and adoption.

But one of the things we’ve learned in parenting them, is that more pressure or persistence on our part to find the truth can lead to the exact opposite behavior that we’re aiming to cultivate. While we want them to want to be honest because we’re a family and it’s healthy and it’s the way it should be, those reasons are not enough to convince a child whose come from a hard place to let their guard down and trust that things will be ok if they tell the truth.

And truth be told, forced honesty can be the worst. In our home, threatening consequences does little good and lots of bad. And while I was the kid who was afraid of what my parents would think if I lied to them, our girls are afraid of what we might do if they’re honest with us.

They’re afraid of what we might do even though we’ve tried to show them that we’re safe. 

We’ve been in seasons with our girls where lying seemed to be the biggest behavior we were dealing with, and honestly, we were TERRIBLE at dealing with it in a healthy way. I’m sure some of this comes down to our personalities, our own upbringings, and our high value on honesty.

Everything we did to combat lying seemed to fall flat, causing our girls (especially one of them) to pull back and go within herself. No matter how many times I’d say, “We know that’s not the truth. Just tell us what happened,” it seemed to have the exact opposite effect we were going for. She’d make up a different story or change a small detail. We’d inch by inch coax the whole story out of her, and sometimes by the end still not know if the story was fully true. While we wanted her full transparency, all she wanted was for us to stop asking her questions.

So, after much failure, tears on everyone’s part, and some research to understand what the heck was happening, we began to change our tactics.

Because our girls came from an environment in which they weren’t being taken care of well, they didn’t learn to trust their caregivers. And who could blame them? When needs aren’t being met by the one in charge of meeting needs, of course their brains develop coping mechanisms. They become self-sufficient and find strategies to get their own needs met, even if those methods are often unhealthy. They needed to depend on someone, so they learned to depend only on themselves.

So our invitation, as their parents, is to establish felt safety. The trick here, is that felt safety isn’t the same as safety. Caregivers may absolutely be certain that their kids are safe. The doors are locked. Everything is child-proof. There’s always food in the refrigerator, clothes to wear, and a warm bed at night. We don’t use corporal punishment of any kind. They won’t get hurt for telling the truth.

But our kids, whose body and brain knows all too well what it felt like to be unsafe, are easily sent back into survival mode – fight, flight or freeze.

So how do you know when your kid has gone into that mode when you’re trying to discover the truth in a situation? You start noticing your kids’ behavior changes. When she thinks she’s done something wrong, what does she tend to do? Does she start to clam up, hide in a corner, or lash out? 

And then, the real work begins. You regulate yourself. You remain calm and patient instead of trying to convince her that she should feel safe. You offer food or water to remind her that you’ll meet her needs. You notice that you’ve hit one of her buttons, that she no longer feels like you’re on the same team, and you find any way you can to show her that you are for her and with her. You go to her instead of calling her to come to you. You start with connection if at all possible.

And you pull her onto your lap, because you’ve learned through experience, that this is often the key.

You know she wants to push you away and to flee the situation when it starts feeling hard, but you resist asking another question about what happened and you just hold her. You remind her, through your actions and your words, that she’s precious, safe, and loved. And when she finally calms down enough, when her brain has reset a bit and she’s able to access her reasoning skills and get out of survival mode, you can start again, slowly and gently.

This is the hard work of creating felt safety.

This practice goes against almost everything that I want to do. I want to push. I want to convince. I want to use logic and reasoning to get her to be honest. But you know what? It NEVER works.

Even if I get her to finally break down and tell me what really happened, all I’ve done is wear her down and hurt our long-term relationship. I’ve shown her that I’m the boss, she needs to comply, and that’s just the way it will be.

So sometimes, on my good days, I stop. I let go of my expectations for her to just comply because she “should”, and I see that sweet girl sitting across from me. I notice her hiding within herself wishing she could come out. We sit together first, then talk calmly. She still struggles, and so do I. It’s difficult to break habits and learn new ways to handle ourselves.

But when we do, I can visibly see the difference in her. She leaves our conversation feeling relieved and settled. She often ends up singing just a few minutes later. I assume she sings because she feels lightness and freedom by being able to show up as her full self and be accepted and loved.

As our girls grow older, honesty is going to be even more important. Right now I can control a lot of what happens in our day-to-day life. I’m making some decisions for them about who they spend their time with and where they go. But soon enough, they’ll be doing more of those things on their own. Sure, I want to trust their decision-making skills, but most importantly, I want to be trusted by them. I want to be their safe place, not the ones they avoid when things are hard.

When something goes wrong, when they make a choice with consequences they didn’t anticipate, or when things they thought they could handle on their own get out of control, I don’t want their instinct to be, “I hope Mom and Dad don’t find out.” Instead, my prayer is that they’ll immediately think, “I really need to call Mom and Dad.”