‘We buckled him into his booster seat in the social worker’s car and watched them drive away.’: Foster parent’s emotional response after beloved 4-year-old goes home to biological father

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“My husband I got licensed to be foster parents when we were 24 years old and newly married. We hoped to have biological children at some point, but were excited to serve as parents in a different capacity first. I was working as a social worker with teenagers who were in and out of home placement, many waiting for placement in a foster home after having completed what they needed to, but not being able to return home to biological families, for various reasons. Many experienced behavior regressions or hopelessness waiting for a foster home to become available; there just weren’t enough to meet the tremendous need. After finding myself perpetually frustrated and wondering why more people don’t get licensed to do foster care, I finally asked my husband, ‘Why don’t we get licensed for foster care?’

We completed all of the classes, the background checks, and the home study. While the majority of people get licensed to care for babies and young children, our hope was to provide foster care for teenagers. Our licensing worker suggested that despite our preferences, we be licensed for children birth-18, knowing that we would still have the ability to choose which placements we would take. We agreed.

Courtesy of Katie Krukenberg

Our first placement was a teenage girl, followed by a number of short term, respite placements to support other foster parents who needed temporary care for a weekend at a time. In the fall of the first year we were licensed, I was 6 months pregnant with our first child, and I got a call from our foster care social worker.

‘A unique situation has arisen. We’re in need of immediate placement for a 4-year-old boy, currently placed with another foster family due to an upcoming medical procedure the current foster mother has to have,’ she explained.

She assured me that it would be temporary, knowing that our due date was approaching in a few months.

‘I know you were only planning to take teenagers, but I think you guys might be the perfect place for this little guy to be.’

I was a bit reluctant, as young children were a bit out of my comfort zone, but I told her I would talk with my husband.

Courtesy of Katie Krukenberg

Somewhat hesitantly, she told me there was more information I should know.

‘The little boy, L, has experienced severe neglect up to the time of his removal from his home. He can’t yet talk, and isn’t potty trained.’

She said he had siblings that were removed at the same time as he was, but they couldn’t all be placed together due to the severity of their individual needs. She said he had made tremendous progress already during his time in foster care, which had only been a month, and that we would have the chance to talk with the current foster parents so they could share with us what we needed to know about his daily routine, things they were working on, likes/dislikes, etc… After a brief conversation with my husband, we agreed to take L into our home, believing it would be about a one-month placement.

L was a sweet boy with a dimpled smile and beautiful brown eyes. Although we were inexperienced in parenting young children, he was a patient teacher, and helped us to learn how to best care for him.  Loving him was easy, and I found myself very quickly coming to care so deeply for him that I knew it would be hard when it was time for him to leave. He loved Mickey Mouse and Cars, Fruit Loops in a cartoon character bowl for breakfast, and playing with cars and trucks.

Courtesy of Katie Krukenberg

After his bath and bedtime snack we would read books while we rocked in the rocking chair in his room. The room had been decorated as a nursery for the son we looked forward to welcoming, but was quickly transformed with a twin bed where the crib had been for the time that the room belonged to L. My husband, a nurse, wasn’t always home at night to help with the bedtime routine, but on the nights that he was, he eagerly handled to the book reading and rocking routine.

Courtesy of Katie Krukenberg

One night I went to check on them and found him rocking L, who was fast asleep. I told him that once he was asleep, he was usually out soundly, and could be laid down in his bed. ‘I know,’ my husband whispered. ‘I just don’t know how often in his life he’s been held and rocked. I’m just going to hold him a little longer.’ I loved my husband before this moment, but I loved him for all new reasons after it. To see him as a father was a new experience for me, and to be witness to his ability to love this sweet boy was incredibly moving. I’d married him believing he would one day be the perfect father for the kids we hoped to have; that night, I got to watch him be that man.

We learned shortly after L came to live with us that his foster mother’s surgery was going to require a longer recovery than originally planned, with the possibility that he may not be able to return there. While I hoped that the recovery went well, my husband and I were also overjoyed to know that we may not have to say goodbye as soon as we’d thought. A relief, given the way we had come to love L. With the baby coming, we talked about what we would need to do to be able to manage both, and told our licensing worker that if termination of parental rights occurred and L became eligible for adoption, that we wanted to be considered as his adoptive parents. There was some concern that a home with a new baby may not provide the needed environment for L and his needs – speech therapy appointments, play therapy, and a high need for teaching skills like potty training, dressing himself, and other developmental tasks that had been missed due to neglect. My parents began the process to get licensed as foster parents so that if L couldn’t stay with us, he could go with someone he already knew well and had come to trust and love. I felt a great deal of relief knowing that either way, we wouldn’t have to stay goodbye to L.

Until we got a phone call on a Friday, saying that L would be going home to his biological father the following Monday, along with his siblings. The reasons for this were complicated, and not the way things usually go due to some unique circumstances with the case. Normally when children return home, it is because work has been done to ensure they will return home to a safe environment, and reunification is due to the successful completion of the plan in place to ensure this is the case  But that was not what had happened in this circumstance, and it made this news all the more devastating. I felt shell shocked, and my husband looked like he was too. The powerlessness of not being able to stop this from happening was overwhelming and paralyzing. How could we begin to say goodbye to this sweet boy that we loved, especially knowing there was no guarantee that the environment he was going home to was the type of environment that he and all children deserve?

Courtesy of Katie Krukenberg

We spent the weekend soaking up every second we could with him, doing all of the things he loved. It was nearly Christmas and we let him open the gifts that we’d gotten for him, and tried to memorize the joy with which he played with his new toys. We bought tons of easy to open and eat snacks to send along, as well as clothes in the next size up and an extra set of his favorite pajamas. We hugged him often, and read him extra books at bedtime. After he was asleep each night, my husband and I held each other and cried. I prayed for the strength I knew we would need to be able to say goodbye.

The next day I made one last trip to the store to buy some additional items we wanted to send along, including prints of all of the pictures we’d taken while L was with us. I hoped his parents would see his smile in the pictures, and know that we’d loved him deeply during the time we’d been caring for him. I hoped he’d look at the pictures and remember us. When I returned home, it was nearly time to take L to the place where we’d meet the social worker who would be driving him home. As I walked in the door, I saw my husband making a final sweep through the house, picking up the last of the Hot Wheels cars and Thomas the Train cars to put in L’s bags. When he looked up at me, I could see that his cheeks were covered in tears as he silently cried while completing this task. My strong husband, who had been selfless enough to love deeply and not hold back, was now suffering from a broken heart that matched my own. We had experienced two miscarriages prior to our current pregnancy, and had grieved deeply together during those times, but this was a new kind of pain we had to endure together.

We each took turns holding L in our arms for a long hug. I looked him in the eyes and told him I loved him, praying that my words and my love were soaking into his skin and he could carry them with him where he was going next. Then we buckled him into his booster seat in the backseat of the social worker’s car, and we watched them drive away until we could no longer see the car. It’s a very weird thing to have to just return home and resume life as usual after a loss like this. It’s not like there would be phone calls or visits to look forward to. For all we knew, that may have been the last time we ever saw our sweet little boy, and to not know what life held in store for him from that moment on was almost unbearable. That night as we sat on the couch crying together, I looked at the clock. It was 8:00, the time we’d usually taken L to bed.

‘I hope he’s had his bath, and he’s snuggled into bed in his pajamas after having had his favorite book read to him,’ I said.

‘I don’t,’ my husband said. ‘I hope his dad loves him so much, and missed him so badly that he’s still just holding him and telling him how much he loves him.’ We prayed that either of these might be the way our sweet boy was spending the first night we’d spent apart from him in months.

Courtesy of Katie Krukenberg

I do a lot of training for people considering foster care or adoption. I try to tell them all of our favorite stories – the moments where this work really mattered, and times where I was able to see the fruit of the effort that we invested into being foster parents: kids academically doing well in school for the first time in their lives, or in recovery from drugs and alcohol. A child who now has a place to write when he fills in forms that say, ‘permanent address’ and kids who know that someone in the world cares about them, and the healing that can come from that.

This story, the one about L, is also one I tell, but for different reasons. I know the ending is hard to hear, because it was painful to experience. But it hurt that badly because we loved SO deeply, and I will never stop believing that to be loved this much is a right that all children should be entitled to. And as hard as it was to say goodbye, I know that at least for a short time, I can say with certainty that L was loved as much as any child can be, and I firmly believe this matters. There is so much in this world that we can’t control – but ensuring that all kids have a place to live with people who cherish them shouldn’t be, even when it’s hard to say goodbye, for whatever the reason. I often hear people say they don’t think they could be foster parents because they think they’d get too attached. If this is something you find yourself saying, then in my opinion, you may be perfect for it.”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Katie Krukenberg of Bismarck, North Dakota. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more about Katie’s adoption backstory here:

‘Who do you belong to?,’ asked the wedding photographer, to our 19-year-old foster son.

‘The man smiled and said, ‘So he is your last then, the baby of the family?’ The tears I had barely been containing while grocery shopping start pouring again.’

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