Illustration for Yahoo Parenting by Paul Roman Martinez
This story is as told to Melissa Walker.
I was lucky — my first foster placement was my last one. I was 5 years old, and my foster family has been my family ever since. I had other siblings who weren’t as fortunate; they moved from place to place and never found a home. I grew up knowing that when I was old enough, I’d be a foster parent for another kid. It was a given.
My wife Lauren and I live in Southern California and have been married for 10 years. She always knew that wanting to be a foster parent was part of who I am. Of course we had the normal fears about who would show up and how long they’d stay, but we never doubted we’d go on this journey. I’m a full-time comic-book artist and Lauren’s in law school — there wasn’t a perfect time for us to apply to be foster parents. So last year, in the fall of 2013, we jumped in.
There are lots of non-profits that help with the fostering process, and we worked with one called Koinonia Family Services. They walk you through the paperwork and the rules, which is key, but becoming a foster parent isn’t as hard as people may think. The county checks your home to be sure it’s a safe environment for kids, and you do a few hours of training. Koinonia helped by pointing out resources in the community, like an organization that can help with gifts for the kids (some families get a placement of three to four kids right before a big holiday) or a non-profit that helps supplement enrichment classes like dance or music; we eventually used that resource for part of the cost of our foster daughter’s magic lessons.
Our little girl, whom I’ll call Anna (not her real name), came to us just four days ahead of her 8th birthday. She had a 5-year-old brother in another placement; they try to place kids together but it’s not always possible. She’d been with a temporary family for seven days, and when that temp came over to meet us and check us out, she told us, “This girl is awesome — the best ever.” We figured they always said that, but we soon found out it was absolutely true.
When Anna walked in, she carried just a few things with her, including a small pink lamp that she explained she had to have on at bedtime. She explored the house and played with our dogs. She found her room, with the stuffed bunny and hedgehog we’d picked out for her. We threw her a birthday party a few days later, and she met our extended family. Anna was grateful, but overwhelmed. I saw a faraway look in her eyes at the party, and I knew her situation was a lot for an 8-year-old to handle.
I started feeling like a dad on day one because of who she is — so open and adaptable, and wise beyond her years. I barely slept for the first few days she was with us. I checked on her constantly in the night; she woke us up with nightmares and questions. I told her I was a foster child myself, and that blew her away. I believe it made her feel more connected and less alone, and from that moment it was like she was thinking, “You’re my dad now.” The relationship was new to both of us, but she and I were as close as two people could be.
Anna was always positive and excited to learn new things. I love teaching, and she wanted to learn to draw so we bonded over my work. She’d come into my home office and lean on me while I drew, mesmerized, taking it in. We watched classic TV together — 1960s “Batman”, 1970s “Wonder Woman.” She now has multiple Wonder Woman costumes, some of which she wore to comic book conventions with me. Anna had gotten into the habit of watching TV that was a little too mature for her, so we focused on dialing that back, and showing her fun programs, even preschool-aged stuff, that enchanted her and could turn back the clock a little to let her be a kid. She was slightly behind on reading when she got to us, so we read together every night and got her above grade level. Meanwhile, I was loving revisiting the authors I’d adored as a kid, like Roald Dahl. Slowly, we replaced her pink lamp with a string of Christmas lights, to help seed the independent notion that any nightlight would do.
The parenting training we’d gotten when we signed up to foster was incredibly helpful. Traditional parents don’t get lessons, they just get a baby. But Lauren and I had attended classes with counselors, therapists and teachers who told us about how to be good parents. All kids have bad habits, but we were taught to “reset” those with clear, spelled out expectations. We actually sat down and wrote a list of rules for Anna so she’d have solid boundaries. Foster kids naturally test their placement parents, and we knew our job was to stay steady and say, “You’re okay, and it’s gonna be okay.”
Anna could stay positive all day long as long as she was busy. But at bedtime, fears and uncertainties about her situation would come up. She told me she was scared, that she loved me and Lauren but missed her mom and brother terribly. I said to her, “You have to think of it like a mall. At the front of that mall your mom had to let go of your hand, but I picked it up. Lauren and I are going to walk with you all the way through that mall and we won’t let you go. On the other side, if your mom is waiting for you, then we’ll let go when she takes your hand. But until then we won’t let go. I promise. You’re safe here.” Lauren and I couldn’t give Anna any answers about how long she’d be with us, but we knew we’d like to adopt her, so assured her that she’d either be with us or be back with her mom; those were the two outcomes, and both were happy ones.
Weekly counselor visits and books about foster care helped, too — “Maybe Days” by Jennifer Wilgocki was Anna’s favorite. The book spells out everyone’s role in a fostering situation, from the courts to the parents to the police to the teachers. I’d tell Anna, “Our job is to take care of you, and your job is to be a kid.” Her mom’s job? To do her homework for the judge to check.
When Anna had visits with her mother and little brother, she’d always ask her mom if she was doing her homework — and she was. Some parents really understand this wake-up call that they’ve got to change their lives or they’ll lose their kids. Although we were open to adopting Anna and her little brother, we found out after nearly a year that it wasn’t going to happen. Her mom had finished her work, and we got a call that told us in three weeks, Anna would be returning to her birth home. When a biological parent does right, of course, that’s how it should work.
Meanwhile, I was terribly sad. I’d always shown my feelings to Anna, telling her it was okay to let emotions out, to cry together to get in touch with fear or sadness so we could move past it. But she needed to be fully happy about returning to her birth family, and our job was to help that process — we didn’t want her to be sad for us.
The hardest day of my life was meeting Anna’s mom in a park to drop her off for her return home. We couldn’t promise we’d ever see her again — foster parents don’t have rights that guarantee that, and once she was out of our care, it wasn’t up to us. I’ve gone through sad situations before, but I’ve never had to hide my emotions the way I did that day. There was a moment when all her stuff was in her mom’s car, including the hedgehog and the bunny from her room at our house, and she was in the passenger seat waving goodbye. Anna looked at me, confused, like she didn’t know how to feel for a brief second. I immediately turned away and walked to the car with tears streaming down my face. Lauren and I drove in silence and then cried and held each other at home. It felt like we were losing our kid.
I wanted to respect the family’s space, so I sent an email requesting a visit and waited for contact from their side. A few weeks later, a call came from Anna. Her voice was so beautiful and so happy — she’s home, her family is complete again. I smiled through a silent tear, and I told her how the dogs were doing. She told me about a boy at her new school whom she has a crush on. She made me laugh and laugh, like always.
This year, we got to put together a small party for Anna’s 9th birthday. Her brother and birth mom came too, and Anna sat next to me the whole night, reconnecting with the extended family she’d come to know while she was with us — our nieces and nephews. I remembered her 8th birthday and the faraway look she had in her eyes then. This year, she looked nothing but happy in this roomful of people who love her and who’ll rush to her aid in a moment’s notice if she ever needs help.
Lauren and I will take in another child next year. I know that foster care may not be something everyone can handle; maybe it is too much to get that close to someone and then to lose them. I can tell you firsthand, it hurts like no feeling I’ve ever had.
Foster care is not for everyone. Of course, it’s for the kids. It’s to show them what a good life is. It’s to teach them good habits that they can then take home and share with the rest of the family. It’s to show them that no matter how tough things get and no matter how alone they feel, we live in a world where a stranger will say, “You can stay with me and take my hand, and I won’t let go of you again until you’re safe.”