‘You are not their only parent. You co-parent with addicts, who have harmed, forgotten and neglected these kiddos. I have had children years before learning their middle names.’

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“There are over 420,000 kids in the United States who are in foster care, that number is overwhelming and unacceptable to me. These kids find themselves sleeping in a stranger’s home, in a facility and living out their days with little stability and lots of trauma. The need is great. Why so great? Because so few believe they have what it takes to be a foster parent. I believe we are scared to enter in, we have misunderstandings, we assume and we look the other way because it seems hard, messy and complicated. I have had the opportunity to speak to many families who are trying to figure out if foster care is the next step for them. I have had them over for dinner, met them for coffee and answered their questions, calming their fears. These are the realities I often cover in those meetings.

First thing I tell people is that the system is broken. Foster care is a necessity due to brokenness, when something is in existence due to a need, it can’t ever be fully void of that initial need. The brokenness of addiction, neglect and abuse, has caused the state to get involved and that complicates everything. Foster care begins with a noble purpose, to rescue a child(ren) from a toxic or dangerous home. But then, from that point forward it’s all about management, case plans, attempting to help parents get healthy, sober and stable enough to get their kids back. It is a long, drawn out process that is costly to all involved, the child(ren) carrying the biggest piece of the burden. In order to protect from burnout you have to find within yourself something to cling to besides the system and all the red tape. For me a combination of my faith and them, is what gets me through. I am here for them, to advocate, to love, to provide a safe space for regardless of how long. They are the reason I show up and do this. I simply tell people you cannot foster parent to fix or even change the system. You can’t do it to just build a family, you can’t do it for the money, you must do it for them. Them alone, letting every word, tear and trauma-induced meltdown fuel you to press in.

The achy reality is you are not their only parent. You are but a member of a herd of parents, biological and former foster. You are another step, stop or forever. You co-parent, to differing degrees with people who are addicts, who have harmed, forgotten and neglected these kiddos. Parents who are consumed by the cravings, their own hurt and selfishness, seemingly unaware that the kiddos carry the brunt of the consequence of their choices. You partner with them, for doctor visits, back to school, visit pick up and drop offs, as you all work towards reunification. You interact based on your comfort level with bio-parents and that can include weekly updates, letters passed back and forth, shared baby well check ups and consent for hair cuts. In my state (and I would assume all states) the number one goal is reunification with biological parents or biological family, if parents can’t provide safe care for the child. This is the goal from day one, until it is proven otherwise, by missed appointments, failed UAs and blown off visits. Reunification as the primary goal in all cases is hard, the price tag is the kiddos to pay. This is the part of foster care that feels the messiest. We are wiping away the tears of missed visits, heavy hearts and little to no coping skills due to the lack of security and stability over the years.

Little boy in foster care sits at table in home crafting
Melissa Pennington Photography

Your house has an open door policy, monthly workers come to your home to see your child(ren). Every other month support visits need to happen. Yearly you have an unannounced visit where they look in your cupboards, question your mountain of laundry and tell you where to store your things. You are are asked questions about income, backgrounds and preferences. You, your home and your family becomes an open book. They search and ensure you are a safe home for these kiddos. Expecting your home to be clean, orderly and stable. The reality is that is the environment best for these kiddos to heal but at times, they are quick to judge the dishes in your sink and the fact that you forgot to lock up the medicine. You have to be open to that invasion. I have had plenty of weeks, depending on my caseload, where 3 or more state workers are in your my home that week. My reality is I have nothing to hide and I have a very open home generally but at times it can feel like I’m under scrutiny.

Most choices are completely out of your hands. We are there to provide a safe space for these kiddos. Loving them and raising them as our own flesh and blood, but when push comes to shove, we have little to no say in what actually happens. We are to advocate for them, we document, share and become their voice. Depending on the case and your worker, you may never feel heard, feeling as if your opinion is just that, an opinion. You buckle little loves into car seats week after week for painful, confusing and exhausting visits. Only to get them back hours later in a heap of tears and ache as you do your best to rally and make it through the rest of the night. You love these little ones, learning their favorites, kissing their owies, tucking them in night after night over months or even years and then in a moment you get a call and it changes everything, the cost of this reality is known. As foster parents we know what we are getting ourselves into, we step into their world knowing the cost. Knowing the cost vs. living the reality is so different. You underestimate how much you will fall for them, how hard you will fight for them, how many meltdowns and toxic thought processes you will walk them through. You fight for them and with them, but at the end of the day, that is all we can do, until you say goodbye or the court report reads termination of parental rights and adoption can become the end of this story.

Woman sits on ground with foster baby in lap beside four other foster kids reading a book
Melissa Pennington Photography

You don’t always get the answer you need or want. Our workers are overworked, the demand, need and reality of the system is great. They often don’t have the resources to get done what they need in a day, a week or a month. Sometimes, kiddos get dropped off and you have so little information on them, over months you gather where they have been and who they are. I have had children months and years before learning their middle names. Behaviors documented in reports are not always what you get. Being a foster parent is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with only the blank side of the pieces, its it’s a lot of guessing and trying and occasionally you will get the piece to fit. The process is long. Two years is not uncommon, especially for older kiddos. Those years are filled with visits, missed visits, disappointments, court hearings, little movement, question marks and no level of certainty. All of this happens as you are falling in love, fighting for resources and cleaning up after the storms of trauma.

Foster care is messy, hard and uncertain. There are bumps along the way and lots of heart crushing moments. This journey has changed me. I have learned a ton, my perspective has shifted and the very world looks different. When I started out on this journey 4 ½ years ago as a single woman, I underestimated how much it would bless my life. I have had the honor to mother 12 little people whether it be for days or forever. I have had the honor of adopting 4 incredible kids out of foster care and countless others I have seen reunited successfully to bio parents and sent forth to be adopted by bio family. It has not been easy and I have experienced some of the deepest aches of my life because of it. On the flip side I have seen and known a beauty and love so intense that all other fails in comparison. It is what makes my heart joyful and broken all at the same time.”

Three foster children stand against brick wall holding signs announcing their adoption
Melissa Pennington Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Julianna Klepfer, a 30 something, single, foster/adoptive mama. She lives with her crew of seven, ages 11, 9, 7, 4, 3, 18 months and 6 months, their two dogs and 6 chickens in the hills of Iowa. You can follow along with her ever changing family at My Joyful Broken Heart.

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