The Pro-Life Reality No One Wants to Talk About

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Parenting & Caregiving

The Pro-Life Reality No One Wants to Talk About

How I loved and failed several kids in America’s foster care system

As Told to Dara Pettinelli

The story below is an as-told-to account of a woman who was a foster parent for two years in the early 90s. Because the woman works at a publicly nonpartisan organization, she has asked to remain anonymous.

In my twenties, I lived in a neighborhood in Pennsylvania where there were some kids who would spend a lot of time around our house. I could tell their parents were never around so I would often wash their clothes and make them dinner. At the time, my now ex-husband was a public school teacher and I was on the school board and had worked in shelters, so we were both exposed to at-risk children. I wanted to understand more about kids in need so I spoke with a good friend of mine who was a social worker and she helped direct my husband and me toward becoming foster parents. I was a little naive about what it entailed, but at the time we had extra room in the house and had been talking about having children.

I was 27 when Jason, aged eight, became part of my family. He had an older brother (12) and a younger sister (six) who were placed in different foster homes at the time. It’s very hard to keep siblings together in the foster care system because not everyone can take on multiple kids. Each child had a different father who wasn’t around and their mother was an HIV positive drug user who walked out on the kids.

The eldest had been trying to be an adult and find food for his siblings, and eventually, someone realized they’d been abandoned and called Child Protective Services.

It wasn’t too difficult to qualify as a foster parent. We had to fill out an application, get fingerprinted, get our house inspected, undergo a background check, and be interviewed. We were able to specify the age of the kids we wanted. I remember being asked strange questions around childcare and discipline like, “Would you ever discipline your child by putting hot wax on them?” I was like, “Well, no, why would you do that?”

We were not the norm in terms of foster parents because we were professionals in the school system. There are people who don’t make a lot of money who become foster parents because the government gives you a minimal stipend for childcare costs. For most of us, the amount of money wouldn’t be worth it, but there are some people that’ll take in six or eight children. These kids will have a bed and get fed and get sent off to school but it’s not what any of us would think of as a home environment that can help those children thrive. The problem is there are so few people who are willing to be foster parents that there aren’t many options.

Two months later we got called to take an emergency case for a week. The mother was in transition and they were trying to find her housing. They didn’t tell us the child was only three and a half — we had requested school-aged children — but of course, we took him in anyway. It was heartbreaking — he was dropped off with all of his belongings in a garbage bag and clearly traumatized by all of this. There was bed-wetting and crying in the middle of the night. I swear, I must have held this child for seven days straight, he did not want to let go. Thankfully, they did find a place for his mother and that’s the best case scenario: when it’s all just a temporary emergency and the child is sent back to a healthy, loving parent or family. I know a social worker who left the profession because he saw too many children get put back into homes where they were being abused.

By the time Jason got to us, he had come out of another foster care experience. He had never attended kindergarten and had missed something like 70+ days of first grade from being moved around. He had also been bullied in school and couldn’t read. He would say things like “I’m stupid, I can’t do this,” and clearly he wasn’t. But that’s also when the lightbulb went off in my mind that being a foster parent was going to be a full-time-plus job if I was going to do it right. The amazing thing is when he did learn how to read, the kid took off like a rocket. He read everything. It was extraordinary to watch him recognize that he could do this. It was a lot of work, but so worth the effort to see him recognize his intelligence. He started to love science, he was watching PBS shows. It’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

It was about three or four months after Jason first arrived when we were asked if we could take in his little sister, Kimmie. So, of course, we talked to Jason about it and he said, like a typical sibling, “you know, that’s nice but she’s a brat.” Kimmie was a fireplug, she was super energetic and athletic, but clearly had more emotional issues than her brother and that was very tough. She was six years old when she came to us and would get into fits of anger, throw things, and say “I’m ugly!” “I’m fat!” There was an enormous sense of self-hatred and rage. She was such a beautiful little girl. When she was at her best, she was amazing — funny and sweet. I think Kimmie got the worst of moving around and her mother getting sicker and sicker.

Kids in the system come to you with all these experiences that the average child doesn’t have, and you as a foster parent are not really given a whole lot of preparation. I wasn’t informed that Jason and Kimmie’s mother was HIV positive and that the kids tested negative until Jason was already in my care. I understand they were trying to do the right thing for this child and were desperate to find homes, but you can see the level of stress on the system. They didn’t know that I was already well informed about HIV and it would’ve been a non-issue.

There are so many places where the system is broken. When you look at what happens to these kids as they grow up — the older they are in foster care, the rougher it is for them. I know that there is some research about what happens in terms of criminality and ending up in prison, and mental health issues. If you get passed from foster home to foster home, you have no connection. You have no sense of self-worth if you’ve been rejected so many times.

We grew to love the children very much. Even though they’re not genetically yours, you’re with them every day and they feel like your kids. They were incredible young children clearly working through a lot of issues. Jason’s father used to call him up and promise to come visit but never did. We’d have to work through that emotional process together. The kids would tell us stories like about the time they got kicked out of an apartment because their uncle had little white bags of flour and you know it wasn’t about little white bags of flour. But we got them both into things like little league and dance classes. We took them to museums and to the shore and probably jammed in a whole lot more because we didn’t know how long they’d be with us and we wanted to give them everything we could. Seeing Kimmie’s face when we took her to the beach for the first time was just the coolest thing. The minute she could see the water she just started giggling and could not stop.

Within a year of caring for Jason and Kimmie, the social worker asked if we would be willing to adopt them. We talked to the kids, the school psychiatrist, and everyone involved to make sure they were on board and we decided that yes, we wanted to do this. We were beginning the adoption process, and three months later we got the call that the kids’ aunt, whom they hadn’t seen in three years, wanted to take them. And because she’s a blood relative she had the right to take them. So now these kids who were calling us “mom” and “dad” by that point, who had stability, were now going to a relative they hadn’t seen in three years? A six-year-old doesn’t even know who this is!

The aunt called in October, but the kids were supposed to be with us through the December holiday school break, and I asked the social worker several times to confirm that they’d definitely be staying with us because we needed to give them time to adjust to wherever they’re going. We were promised they were going to be with us, and then two or three days before the break began, we got a phone call telling us to pack them up; they’d be going with the aunt. Now we were in limbo-land as far as what was going to happen. So we packed them up and tried to talk them through it. Then midway through the break, we got another call informing us that the aunt wanted to send them back. So now you’re supposed to drop everything. They came back. They were then even more confused. I’m so grateful to the school psychologist because I went right back to him and I said, “Look, I don’t know how this is all going to end up but I really need you to talk to the kids. Keep an eye on them.” We used all of our resources to try and help the kids understand.

Kimmie really started to act up those last four to five months we had them. We’d have to leave restaurants because she’d just start screaming at the top of her lungs, “You’re not my mommy!” It was pretty horrifying and challenging. But I can’t blame her — they’re children and none of us had any control over anything.

As a foster parent, you basically have no rights. If the kids have to take a trip to the emergency room for any reason, technically you’re not allowed to sign any papers regarding their care without consent. You have to wait for a social worker to come and in our case, when Jason needed stitches, our social worker never showed up so I signed the papers anyway. Our social worker was very dedicated, but when you have hundreds of children you’re supposed to be responsible for, it’s impossible. She didn’t show up as often as she was supposed to and she told us “from everything I see, you guys are doing a great job. I just have to keep up with some of these other cases.”

Their last day with us was really hard. You try to put on a brave face for them and tell them it’s going to be ok. You ask them what they want to wear. You ask them what they want to eat. You stack all their stuff by the door. You make it all seem OK. I put on the very best face I could for them and held it together until that last moment when I dropped them off at the social center and said goodbye. I’ve been through a lot in my lifetime: I’ve lost friends, had health issues.

The day I gave those kids up … I still get emotional. It was the hardest day of my life. It never goes away. If the person they go to doesn’t want them to have contact with their foster parent, you’ll never have contact with them again. I’ve tried looking them up on Facebook but they have a fairly common last name and I also don’t want to intrude on them emotionally. I will always wonder how they turned out. I will always hope that they had a good life and the little time we had with them was a positive influence.

When I talk to my friends who are pro-lifers, I ask them: “If you care so much about these unborn children, why are you not a foster parent?” Why is there no real focus on these children once they’re born? It does kind of drive me a little nuts that you’re encouraged to rescue animals and are exposed to those commercials with the poor dogs in the cages, because the truth is there are children all over this country in those situations and there is so little conversation about it. I respect anyone who walks the talk: if you’ve adopted or you’re a foster parent and you’re doing all those things, you’re walking your talk. But I have a problem with people who take a pro-life stance and don’t connect it to the other side. It’s not enough to put clothes on a child’s back and food in their mouth. There are real psychological implications when a child isn’t cared for. Some kids get through all of it with the right kind of care, but you need really special parents and you need people who get the training and have the support behind them to do it.

I’m a pretty strong person and I’m not afraid of a challenge, but emotionally it ripped me apart not to be able to protect those kids. I cannot emotionally go through what I went through again.

There have been senators from states like Ohio and Tennessee that have brought this up at a governmental level in terms of the impact of the opioid crisis on the children, but I still don’t think there’s enough noise. There are children who need to be adopted in every state. These children are waiting for families, not wanting to be separated from their siblings. Some have real challenges, either mental or physical or both, and to not understand how they are thrown away is so deeply sad to me. I wish there were super simple solutions, but dumping more and more children into a system that I think is deeply broken is going to hurt us as a nation.

I always talk about the famous experiment of the frog and the hot water. If you put a frog in room temperature water and you turn up the temperature ever so slowly, the frog will never jump out. It will die. To me, that’s a lot of what this is. This is a huge issue that gets worse and worse and we don’t seem to talk about it enough because it’s not something we can solve in a month or year. It’s complex, and it looks expensive on the front end. The reality is these children need more attention, more focus, and a lot more love than they are being given.

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