This week has been a major blow to our family. Joan, the child we had living with us through a kinship arrangement, was sent to a group home at her court date on Wednesday.
We had an inkling this was coming. She has run away three times and thinks that we’re to blame for all of her problems. She has lashed out against us in totally understandable yet dangerous (to her) ways. Mostly, the courts found that with her constant absences and running away, the court can’t be sure that she’s safe. As that is our A#1 job as foster parents, and we weren’t able to do that one piece of it, they decided she needed to be in an environment where they can guarantee her physical safety.
The hard part is the conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we’re heartbroken that it’s come to this for her. She isn’t the kind of kid who will thrive in that environment. On the other hand, it’s a relief to not have to stress about her constantly, worrying if she’s o.k. or not. We’re praying that she gets the help she needs and the kind of therapy that can help her with her emotional issues.
It’s hard to know how to continue. Jill and Grace are, it seems, fine with having the stress out of their lives. They have enough on their plates, looking forward to their own very stressful court date in a couple of weeks.
Here’s where being a foster parent gets emotionally difficult. It’s hard to live with someone, especially a young person who is vulnerable and needs extra love, without getting emotionally invested. We keep repeating to ourselves something like “we’re not going to save them all, the choice is theirs to make”. But that’s hard to do when you see how difficult it is for them to process what’s going on. Of course they love their birth family. But they like us too, and enjoy what we can offer. And on some level that feels like a betrayal to them, which can quickly become the “fault” of the foster family.
When you’re dealing with older teens, you’re looking at the looming 18 year deadline. In most, if not all states foster kids “age-out” at 18. That means that the support that they’re getting and the stipend from the state stops. There are mechanisms in place to allow youth who haven’t finished high school to stay in the system as long as they are doing well, but those mechanisms usually have a lot of strings attached and sometimes aren’t offered to kids who have discipline problems or attendance issues.
So for the majority of foster teens who are still in the system when they turn 18, they have to spend the day after their 18th birthday down at the assistance office applying for Section 8, food stamps, cash assistance, medicaid and any other kinds of subsidies they might be eligible for. They may be spared this if there is a friend or extended family member willing to allow them to stay with them but they are usually expected to find a job or somehow help out financially with the running of the household. Given how difficult it is for any young person to find a job these days, and add to that the general issues with consistency, depression, anxiety, etc that foster youth have, and the outlook starts to be pretty bleak.
In PA there is an option for older youth called “PLC” for Permanent Legal Custody. This is halfway between adoption and foster care. The fostering parents become legal guardians, and the stipend continues to follow the child. The biological family retain parental rights. It’s considered a great way for families to continue working towards goals of self-sufficiency without the input from the state or the foster agencies.
In order for this to happen, the youth have to ask for it. It needs to be in place before their 18th birthday.
We have extended the offer to Jill and Grace. Since finding out, their mom has been bending over backwards to show them that she’s going to be a good and stable home for them. They are more conflicted and confused than ever, and we totally understand that. The next two weeks promise to be stressful, at least for them. We’re trying to internalize the attitude of “we can offer the permanency, and then it’s up to them”. If we can keep that in our minds and in our hearts, and not take anything they yell at us too personally, we should be able to get through the court date relatively emotionally intact. I’m trying to look at it this way: If this motivates their mom to get her act together, that’s ideal. Kids always do better with their birth families, as long as they are stable. If they decide to stay with us, that’s great for them too as we will definitely be able to be a stable place for them.
Either way, the outlook should be good for them. We hope.
Of course, there is the risk that they’ll go back to their mom’s and things won’t work out the way they hope they will. But we are absolutely not the people to make the decision for them. They are both old enough to work this out on their own.
We have talked about the different outcomes, Leonard and I. While we intend to always be a resource for the kids we foster, mentor or work with closely, we probably won’t try to be “regular” foster parents moving forward. We’ll either do respite, where we get the kid for a short period of time and can focus on having fun with them for a week or a weekend, or we’ll do adoption only. We’ll still focus on older kids, though older kids who come with younger siblings would be ideal.
All in all, this situation promises to be one of those “that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” situations. I’m going to need to do a lot of deep breathing exercises over the next two weeks.