Foster Care & Footed Pajamas

It’s 14 degrees outside as I write this, which is twenty degrees warmer than this morning when I was celebrating Valentine’s Day at our dining room table with Dustin and our girls.

It was a quick, fun morning, and while I wished I could stay home and avoid the cold, I was looking forward to coming into work. I reminded the girls we’d have a special dinner tonight to finish up our celebrations.

“What is it?” they asked.

“You’ll see!” I said as I hurried out the door. Truthfully, I’ve been looking forward to homemade pizza with heart-shaped pepperoni all week.

I got to work and had a busy morning, but this afternoon, I decided to check on our foster parent resource closet. I wanted to see what clothing sizes we need for kiddos who come into care with nothing but the clothes they are wearing.

“All of the sizes,” I quickly realized as I straightened up the few items that were left on the shelves.

As I refolded and relabeled a couple of sweatshirts, I noticed one particular pair of really snuggly pajamas. The kind with the feet and one-long zipper. My girls always insist these won’t be a problem in the middle of the night when they’re groggy and making their way to the bathroom. But knowing my younger daughter, I tend to imagine otherwise. So, much to their dismay, I usually opt for buying them two-piece pajamas.

These cozy footed pajamas really did look perfect for the bitter cold day we were having. And as I grabbed them to check their size and put them in the best spot on the shelf, I realized they were just a little bigger than what my 8 & 9 year old daughters wear – a size 10. The design was super cute – pink with polka dots featuring a cute cartoon-like dog that lots of elementary girls would probably love wearing.

I wondered which little girl would end up with them. Which little girl who was leaving her home at a moment’s notice would wear those pajamas as she climbed into an unfamiliar bed on her first night away from mom or dad.

I wondered how difficult it would be for our licensing team to find a placement for her. Would we have an available family who was willing to welcome a little girl who was most likely 9 or 10 years old? All of our homes are pretty full right now, not to mention the fact that in child welfare, 9 or 10 years old is considered an “older child”. 

But when I looked at those pink polka dot footie pajamas, I didn’t picture an “older child”. I pictured my girls, still young and playful, snuggled up in their bunk beds, surrounded by their favorite stuffed animals.

I pictured them happy and chatty, asking for their bedtime song and for Dustin to pat their backs. I pictured them settled and cherished and loved.

I thought about our good days together over these last almost five years. So many special days like today filled with laughter, small gifts, and over-the-top food. And I thought about our rough days – the ones filled with tears and big feelings and my expectations that are probably too high for everyone.

And then I said a short prayer while I held those pajamas. Nothing major. Just a silent one asking God to be tangibly near to the little girl that will wear those pajamas.

When I pray those types of prayers, I guess what I really mean is, “God, will you move in the hearts of the foster parents that this particular little girl needs. Will you help them and strengthen them and give them the courage to say yes? Will you help that sweet girl who is walking through some kind of difficulty right now to know that she is loved, even when life around her might be a mess? And somehow, can these pajamas be a tiny reminder to her that she is loved and cared for, not just by the family that welcomes her in, but by the God who created her? And will you help me in all those same ways?”

I guess it isn’t a simple prayer after all.

Foster care isn’t simple. Moving homes isn’t simple. Changing families isn’t simple.

But you know what is simple? Buying footie pajamas.

So maybe I’ll stop by the store on my way home, and grab a few pairs.

After all, they’re still little, and I’m so lucky to be their mom.

It All Matters

No one that I know has just woken up one day and decided to become a foster parent, which is probably good (it’s definitely not something to be entered into on a whim) but it’s also too bad.

As a foster parent recruiter it would make my job much easier if I just came into the office each morning with a full inbox of emails from people inquiring about the steps to becoming licensed and welcoming a child into their home.

Now, of course, I do get inquiries. And I follow-up with those people as quickly as I can. But even those individuals who are on the other end of the phone asking questions and setting up a time for me to come look at their home, didn’t just wake up that morning and decide to give FamilyCore a call.

They have a story that has led them to that particular moment.

And that story is usually years and sometimes decades long. While these stories are, of course, unique to each person or couple that is taking this step, there’s seems to be a simple common thread: somehow, they’ve caught a glimpse of what foster care is like and think – “I could do that and it would be worth it.”

Sometimes the person has grown up in foster care and now wants to provide for kids who are going through the same experience. Sometimes they’re a teacher or health care professional who works with these families and wants to serve as they aim to reunite. Sometimes they have known a foster parent and have watched that journey unfold. Sometimes they have had difficulty having biological children and are exploring other ways to care for children. Sometimes they had brothers or sisters who joined their family through foster care, and they want to do what their own parents did by opening their home.

Whatever the story is, it’s somehow connected to the very real need that is present and the change that can happen when good people get involved.

It’s at this intersection of dire need and unrelenting hope that I believe my job exists.

As a foster parent recruiter, I fill my days with a variety of tasks. One of the main goals I set for myself is to bring awareness by building connections in our local community.

Sure, I want to find individuals and couples who are willing to welcome children into their home by becoming licensed foster parents. But in order to do that well, in order to find the right people at the right time, I’ve begun to think of myself as first being a part of their story – I’m that lady they heard talk once. I shared about the child welfare statistics in our area or the opportunities to serve or the stories of impact. I posted something on Facebook about foster care and they happened to click on the article to actually read it.

To me, this sharing is one of the building blocks of a successful foster parent recruitment strategy. No one is going to jump in to meet needs that they don’t know exist.

And we don’t just need more foster parents. We need you, with whatever gifts and talents and experiences you bring to the table. 

So I spend some of my time talking about the ways we can show up. Not by jumping in at a level that is beyond our real life capacity, but at one that matches who we are and what we can actually contribute. I believe that if we show up to the invitation, good things will happen.

The needs of the foster care community are vast and varied. This means we can show up in all sorts of ways.

We can show up by making meals or rocking babies or reading stories or organizing a closet or cleaning visiting rooms or offering a listening ear.

We can show up by running a diaper drive or hosting a training session or teaching a teen to cook or advocating in the courtroom. We can show up by baking a dessert or running a powerpoint presentation or putting together a care package or designing an event flier.

And you know what? When we show up, we begin to impact a system that can too often feel impersonal and messy. When we show up we infuse that system with personhood and connection. When we show up, we offer not only our time and our talent, but most importantly, our hearts.

And the best part of all is that things really do change. Sure, systems can be overwhelming and slow moving. But systems are just made up of people who are longing to be noticed, supported, and loved.

So let’s show up. Let’s do what we can with what we have. Let’s believe that things can be different for these families and kids. When we do, good things happen.

Workers feel more appreciated. Parents feel more seen. Kids feel more supported. Foster parents feel more sustained.

All of it matters. All of it.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

My View from the Copy Room

My office is in the copy room at work.

This means that the hustle and bustle is constant. Co-workers are in and out, updating files, printing court reports, making sure their kids’ placements have been properly documented as they’ve moved to yet another home in their foster care journey.

Sometimes they’re chatty. They share about a tough case or celebrate when some kiddos finally find permanency. Sometimes they ask about my girls or our church.

I really enjoy my co-workers. They’re personable and dedicated, and I’m proud to be on their team.

Some days, like today, are a bit different in my office. People seem even busier than normal. They’re still in and out to use the copy machine and printer, but there’s less chatting and more rushing. I notice their quickened strides and tired eyes.

Today, I can almost feel the stress they’re experiencing as they hurry to complete all they have to do, looking forward to a weekend that they’re so desperate to reach.

I can sense overwhelm in the air. I think it lingers just above our third floor happenings everyday, but on particular days, it seems to settle in, descending like a fog.

It’s days like these, when the air is just a little bit thicker, that I assume we can all feel it. This work always matters, but sometimes there’s a deeper sense of the immensity of the job.

Kids have to leave homes at a moment’s notice. New cases come pouring in. Caseloads grow too quickly for anyone to do much more than tread water and hope for the best.

These workers, who buzz around the office, are crucial to the child welfare world and our community at large.

They’re the ones visiting children in their foster homes – once, twice, sometimes three times a month. They’re the ones building rapport with foster parents, getting to know their clients, and coordinating ever-changing schedules. They’re the ones sitting in the hospital waiting room on the weekend when there’s no bed for the teenager who needs to be admitted for their own safety.

They’re the ones showing up to court, thick files in hand. And they’re the ones who sometimes wait hours for the judge to call the case, all the while mentally calculating how many extra hours they’ll now be working this evening to make up for the delay. 

And these workers, who come in and out of my office with exasperated sighs, carry stories. Stories of trauma and abuse. Stories of struggle and pain. Stories of redemption and hope. And stories that haven’t been made quite right. 

It’s no wonder that this job had such turnover. Who could carry it all? The brokenness of this world can be too much at times.

And yet, these case workers, my co-workers, keep showing up. When I arrive back at my desk for my next day of work, there they are.

Back to the mess and the hard. Back to the kids who depend on them to be their advocates. Back to the parents who are working diligently toward reunification. Back to the cases that take years to close. Back to the workload that continually seems to expand.

I’ve never had the honor and burden of doing case work, but I’ve been around long enough to know, this calling is not for the faint of heart. 

So to my friends and co-workers who show up daily, thank you. Your commitment makes our community better, and we’re grateful for the sacrifices you make.

You are seen, and you are loved.

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.”