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Your Voice. Your Story.

Pandemic Has Extended Foster Son’s Reunification Day Way too Long

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Michigan lake
Jane D,
Michigan

“Foster care is already super uncertain and to add a pandemic into that just makes it so much harder. It's never easy, even if it's an adoptable case right off the bat. It hurts no matter what happens, because either way, even if you are adopting that kid from foster care, you still know that… logically, yes, that person should have their rights terminated.”

foster son's reunification representation; woman holding up child in snowJane had always wanted to be a mother. She had even gotten her degree in family studies. But the dream of having her own baby was crushed at the young age of 27 when some cancer cells were found in her uterus. She wasn’t able to do the normal hormonal therapy because she had a clotting disorder, so she was forced to have a hysterectomy.

She and her husband wouldn’t let that stop them from having a family, though. They had big hearts, and they saw so many kids in need of having families. They adopted a baby daughter. They also got involved in fostering kids. Over the years, they have had eight kids in their home. Six of them were with them for a couple weeks each time. Two of the foster kids were longer. This is the story of their experience caring for their foster son through the pandemic.

In June of 2019, their foster son had just been discharged from the hospital when he was placed in their care. He was only three days old and so tiny that the Health Department was worried that he would have developmental problems. At the time, the biological mother had terminated her rights to her older children, so the foster care agency communicated their expectation that Jane and her husband would be eventually adopting their foster son. The agency was so sure about this that they were given the go ahead to name their foster son. For the first few months, their foster son was considered an adoption case.

Their foster son was considered to be at risk. To help care for him, Jane enrolled in any type of free service that was available. The Health Department arranged for a woman from the nutritional program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to come by and keep an eye on their foster son. The woman would weigh, measure and do other things that would happen at a pediatrician’s appointment. They also had caseworkers from the foster care agency, and people from the Health Department. Fortunately, their fears of their foster son being developmentally behind proved to be unfounded. He eventually caught up with all his milestones. He was just a late bloomer.

They were happy to adopt him. At that time, they were still in the midst of adopting their daughter with a private adoption agency, and they were thinking of adopting more. Since the foster care agency said that their foster son would probably be an adoption case, they no longer had a need for the adoption agency.  

“Basically, it is not it is not cheap to adopt. So we had paid about 20 grand out of pocket to an adoption agency. Because we took him home, we had to pause the private adoption agency. But for the first few months that we had him, when we were still supposed to adopt him, we were having to say no to placements with the private adoption agency that we paid all this money to, because we were supposed to be adopting him. He was with us for two to three months, and then the agency decided to let his mom try to get him back. Reunification is how they call it.”

It was very frustrating. The foster care agency meant well, but in addition to the emotional toll, the change cost them time.

To prepare for the potential reunification, the foster care agency was having their foster son’s biological mother come over twice a week for one-hour visits. It was a test of the biological mother to see how well she would do, and in the meantime, the agency kept on insinuating to Jane and her husband that they fully expected the mother not to be able to handle taking care of her son. The foster care agency still believed their foster son would become an adoption case.

When the pandemic hit, not much in Jane’s life changed. She was a stay-at-home mom before it happened, and her husband switched to working from home, but the visits stopped. To prepare for the reunification, the biological mother was supposed to be increasing her face-to-face time with her son, but they had no contact with her, and the mother was no longer able to come over.

The agency eventually arranged hour and a half long Zoom sessions. There were three of them on the call – Jane, their foster son, and the mother.

“He wasn’t really doing anything at the time. I think he was starting to crawl, and a baby is not going to interact with you. So I basically had to crawl on my hands and knees and follow him around with the camera so that she could watch him playing.”

It was clear to Jane and her husband that the biological mother was trying. She was attending all the virtual visits and doing her best. However, the timeline for reunification just kept on being extended.

In foster care, there are typically court hearings roughly every three months to check to see if the parents are doing what the agency says they should be doing, and then a bigger court hearing would come after a year. About six weeks to two months into the pandemic, it was pointed out at the court hearing that nobody had actually been to the house the biological mother was living in. It had just slipped through the cracks. The agency kept on blaming the pandemic, but the excuse that the pandemic was preventing them from going didn’t make sense as people were wearing masks and emerging from their homes.

“We didn’t really have a choice. They still hadn’t gone to her house. And so we had to intervene at that point. Mind you, the agency was still telling us that we were probably going to foster because they didn’t expect her to do well. So we had to put our foot down … because they kept saying we’re not going into homes yet. And we told them you either have to go into her home to finally determine whether or not it’s okay, or you’re going to have to come into our home to remove him, to put him into a different foster home because we can’t keep doing this.”

Then, in June, another issue came up. For reunification, children have to become acquainted physically with their biological parents, but this wasn’t happening because of the pandemic. At the hearing, the judge asked the agency if they were starting to let parents see kids face-to-face, and the agency acknowledged that in some cases close to reunification, biological parents were being allowed to do face-to-face meetings with their parents. However, Jane’s foster son’s mother wasn’t yet allowed to do that. The judge then asked what determined whether someone was good enough for a face-to-face, to which the agency had no answer, so the judge ordered them to allow the biological mother to start doing face-to-face visits with Jane’s foster son. The foster care agency fought it. They didn’t want to do it, but in the end, they relented.

Looking back at the hearings and the continual extensions on the reunification process, Jane sees the experience as horrible. It was just a difficult place emotionally to be in. And she knows as well that the biological mother was having an equally horrible experience. Using the excuse of the pandemic as a backdrop, it seemed as if they were just waiting for the biological mother to give up.

“The caseworker came and told us in front of our family members that we’d be adopting him and to call him whatever we wanted to name him. He was essentially our son for the first few months of his life. And even when they let her start trying, they were still telling us that they expected her to fail.”

Over this time, Jane was getting to know her foster son’s mother pretty well. They were doing their weekly Zoom calls. Jane would tell the mother about her son’s habits, what size clothing he was wearing, how he was sleeping, how much he weighed, and other things. They were kind of hanging out.

In August, they had a big court hearing. Normally, foster parents don’t speak up at court hearings. Jane and her husband ended up writing a letter to the judge saying that they felt that there was no real reason for their foster son to remain in their care, even with the pandemic. It just felt as if the foster agency was extending the process and making it longer than it should have been. The judge then ordered their foster son to go back to his mother. The agency continued their effort to prolong the reunification by saying that the mother had job instability, but everyone was having job instability. The argument did not have enough merit. Finally, the reunification was approved.

Jane thinks that because the mother was doing everything the foster care agency had asked in March, if the pandemic had not been around, her foster son could have finished the reunification process back in June. That was a lot of missed time. Their foster child’s mother missed out on more than two months of development. Seeing development over the phone cannot substitute for actually being there. The mother missed important milestones like her son pulling himself up and walking. These experiences can’t be brought back.

With the reunification approved, the mother started coming once a week. Then she was getting two hours, twice a week. They added a third visit, so she was getting two hours, three days a week. A week after that, the mother was getting her son for two full days at her house, which meant that the agency would pick up their foster son from Jane’s house and drive him to his mother’s house an hour and a half away and then drive him back. After that the mother got her first overnight with her son. Two overnights followed in the following week. And then eventually their foster son was reunited with his mother for good. 

Jane still has a good relationship with the mother now. Every few days Jane gets a text message from her with a picture and a little update of how they are doing. The mother is very appreciative of what Jane and her husband had done.

“I think if the agency had handled it correctly, it could have been over and done within six months. But they didn’t. It just hurts my heart for his mom, too, because as much as we wanted to keep him selfishly for us, we’re sad, but also we are really proud of her. She’s come a long way.”

Jane says that they’re done with fostering, especially during the pandemic. It’s just too hard. With the in-person visits, there are too many outside factors that can’t be controlled. They’ve decided to reopen their adoption process with the private agency that they had been using before. It is more stable.

They are absolutely not against taking care of foster children. Due to her husband’s job, they move around every few years. After they are more settled, they will get recertified and foster some older children. They want to help the kids that they can. They’re thinking of adopting an older child, but not now. Having to move around doesn’t bring stability and they would lose the foster care support system.

“Foster care is already super uncertain and to add a pandemic into that just makes it so much harder. It’s never easy, even if it’s an adoptable case right off the bat. It hurts no matter what happens, because either way, even if you are adopting that kid from foster care, you still know that… logically, yes, that person should have their rights terminated. You see them more. You do a lot of training. And there’s still a human. Your heart still hurts for that loss, even if you know it’s better for the kid to be with you. It’s just a lot. I don’t know that we want to do that again until the world kind of settles down a bit.”

Read another story about how a physical therapist is struggling to find balance while being a stay at home mom. Or watch more stories on fuconomy’s youtube channel.