A New Year, A New Life


New Year’s Eve. A night for letting go of the past, hoping for the future and counting the many blessings in life. No year brought so many surprises for me as 2011.

I embraced my role as a foster mom and all that entailed – foster parent classes, ceritifications in water safety, CPR and first-aid, professional and personal referrals, baby-proofing, child-rearing education and re-assessing my professional life to make room for three weekly visits with caseworkers and biological parents along with the court records that each visit required to be filed.

It was an immense undertaking, but we were ready.

Then, we found out just as we were about to cross the last “t” that we were expecting.

One might think it would be an easy shift. A better outcome.

But there’s that lingering desire deep inside transformed by compelling stories that longs to be a foster parent.

In the midst of such confusing emotions, we dealt with new weirdness: unwelcome parenting advice, weight-gain assessments, career pressures and a family torn between wanting to be involved but not knowing the child’s sex.

My growing belly and the active girl inside nevers lets me forget for a moment that I must overcome and ignore all fearful obstacles. My life does not belong to me alone anymore.

There’s as much solace in that notion as anxiety.

I try to take each day as it comes and drown out the doubts as I prepare for my most incredible life achievement: child birth.

On Tuesday, we’ll meet our doula who will be our one constant child birth expert throughout the miraculous experience. The Navy system does not assign you the care provider you’ll deliver with –  you get whoever is on duty.

In life, you get so few opportunities to feel the complete understanding and meaning of life. When this year began, I resigned myself to never having a baby.

I thank God for giving me a chance.

For all the difficulties, confusion and heartbreak, I thank God. How else would I have ever so appreciated this experience as I do?

We only get so many days on Earth; never miss a moment to be present in the good as well as bad times. Each second is a precious lesson, a chance to know yourself and be better.

So long, 2011. Thanks for the curve balls. You kept me on my toes.

“No One Will Understand What You’re Going Through”


Angels Foster Family Network classes really take you on an emotional ride.

One session, we talked about our first experiences with grief and loss. Thankfully, I was the last one to talk and I breezed through the suicide of the brother’s friend quickly because everyone was drained.

In another session, we talked about actual foster baby cases that dealt with everything from physical and emotional abuse to basic care neglect and failure to thrive.

Thankfully, most of the faces in the room went blank when the words “spica cast” were used, which is a cast on an infant from ankle to under the nipple area due to a femur break. Breaking an infants femur, due to it’s relative flexibility, is pretty tough.

The reason for these emotionally-charged classes: we will indeed experience grief in knowing how these children came to be in the system, loss when they go back to their birth parents and perhaps the worst – anger. Anger at a system that sometimes fails these kids, who we will most assuredly love.

We are not fostering babies with the express intention of adoption and knowing how we’ll deal with that sadness becomes vital to how well we do as foster parents.

Our most recent session a couple nights ago brought us face-to-face with foster parents, their foster babies and a birth mom whose baby is currently in foster care.

The first couple had tried to get pregnant for seven years – seven! They finally decided to check out being foster mommies and the orientation sealed the deal. Their cases ran the gamet from having a baby for a couple weeks to more than a year before reunification. In one case, the reunification failed and they’re now adopting him and a second baby, whose reunification also failed.

The child they reunified with was born with severe heart defects, which they were unaware of at the time they first picked him up. A system loophole allowed him to reunify with his father, a known drug user, and the baby somehow ended up in the care of another family member. He was taken to Children’s Hospital when he became very ill. That’s when Angels called the foster parents to meet him at the hospital and found him “grey, almost blue.”

The other mom said, while holding her 10-month-old: “You have all these thoughts in your mind what these bio-parents are going to be like. It’s nothing like what you think; sometimes you end up feeling like you want to foster them too. They came from the same circumstances their own kids are coming from when we get them.”

The second couple foster just to help out families in trouble with no intention of adopting. They’re on their 9th placement with a baby girl, whose mom was there. Mom currently resides in a rehabilitation facility. Her first child lives in Mexico with his grandparents.

“Fostering fills a place in our family, our hearts,” said the foster mom. Referring to two of her present foster children: “This is my baby, this is my baby. They’re all my babies.”

The young mom, who shed a few tears, said: “The first foster family who cared for her was really mean to me. They would sit at visitations, arms crossed and look at me like I was a monster. I’m not a bad person. We all make mistakes; some of us just more than others. I’m so glad I have this new family for my baby until I’m ready.”

Overall, she’s making excellent progress in her program and could be reunified as early as the six-month trial. She’s hopeful, saying: “It’s all on me to do this and I want to succeed. I don’t have any family of my own. She’s all I’ve got.”

Our caseworkers cautioned us: she’s not a typical birth mom.

The last couple still has their one and only placement. At 10 months, the little boy has seen his mother very little since he was born positive for drugs. At the six month trial, the judge rendered what he considered a generous offer to continue offering county rehabilitation services. She’s spent less than a week in any one program.

The foster mom expressed as much sadness as confusion about the birth mom, who had her first child at 15. She comes from a family of nine siblings, and from what she can tell, all but one suffers from some form of drug or alcohol problem.

“She’s made an attempt at visitations maybe two or three times in 10 months,” the foster mom said. “During a second round of visits, she suddenly showed up with a brand new baby blanket saying it’s his favorite. He was six months old at the time.”

Their county caseworker recently changed the recommendation to terminate services for the birth mother, which is a step toward termination of parental rights. Despite what might seem like a possible path toward adoption could easily take a turn, depending on the judgement of the court.

I asked the couple how their friends and family react to their being foster parents and their situation.

“No one will understand what you’re going through,” she said. “They just assume he’s staying because they look at the case as black-and-white. We know that nothing means anything unless the courts decides it’s so. We have to keep telling ourselves he could go back tomorrow.”

I asked them all the same question: “Would you do this again?”

All gave a resounding “yes,” saying that the satisfaction you feel in helping a child in need outweighs any amount of grief you feel in the separation.

As we left, I realized this isn’t just be about us being foster parents. It will affect everyone in our lives and in ways we cannot know.

Unlike coming from the hospital after a nine-month pregnancy, we could be sitting at dinner with friends when we get an emergency call to fetch a child from a variety of situations in a multitude of conditions.

Prospects seem as exciting as scary and all the while, you hope you might do some good.

The first couple took in one 9-month-old girl for a few months who experienced severe neglect. She was so stiff from lack of physical interaction and activity that she couldn’t crawl. In just a couple months, she went from crawling to standing and eventually, tried to walk.

“You’re so overwhelmed sometimes and then you have one of those moments,” one foster mom said. “It’s hard to imagine life without these kids.”

It’s the closest to saving the world we may ever come close to.

Foster Babies Sometimes Lead to RAD Kids


Our fist Angels Foster Family Network class two Mondays ago left us with the word “RAD” ringing in our ears.

What’s RAD? Your first thought might be 1980s surfer lingo, but in this case, it’s a bit more serious than catching a sick wave.

RAD: Reactive Attachment Disorder. All our relationships throughout life stems back to these basic feelings in utero of feeling loved, wanted and cared for throughout our first three formative years, or just the opposite causing a break in the human bond.

Without those three qualities, some children develop RAD.

Researchers continue looking into root causes, but basically even the symbiotic in utero relationship can be strained if the mother is experiencing trauma of her own: abuse, domestic violence and other prenatal issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse. The stress hormones pump through their shared connection; and unborn babies can also hear.

More than 25 percent of Angels children separate from mom in the hospital due to being born positive for drugs. The numbers drop off significantly, but include basically physical neglect, abuse and emotional maltreatment in concert with other domestic violence or crime. Other reasons for separation include sexual abuse, parents with their own developmental delays and abandonment.

Nationwide, most children end up in foster care due to neglect, which is when the child’s basic needs of food, shelter and care are not being met. Statistically, foster agencies across the country report that bonding with children of sexual abuse tends to be the hardest and most frustrating for foster or adoptive parents.

I’ll spare you the descriptive words used by our fabulous case workers at Angels who explained how to spot sexual abuse. But let’s say, it’s tear worthy stuff.

Angels contracts its services to the County of San Diego system, as regulated by the State of California. But they operate under a different business model.

We agree, as an Angels family, to care for a little one – mostly infants – until the court-ordered reunification succeeds or the parental rights are terminated and the baby becomes available for adoption. In cases of reunification, that could take 16 months and for adoption, about two years.

The County allows for multiple children to be placed and there’s no commitment on the part of foster parents to provide care until the case resolves. Angels aims to provide just one home, rather than multiple temporary homes, to reduce the disturbances in living situations.

But it’s a heavy commitment – both of time and of heart.

Our class of about 15 couples seems dedicated, capable and split down the middle of those hoping to adopt and those wanting simply to provide a loving, nurturing home to these fragile children.

More than half of Angels babies do not reunify with their biological parents. What we’ll know about the biological parents will be limited to the reasons for separation. Should we make it to the adoption stage, we’ll get the “telling” of the parents – a case history of their lives and how they came to lose their kid. Often, these are sad stories showing a cycle of abuse they themselves experienced.

Though we love all the support we’ve received from family and friends, what we can tell you about our foster baby will also be limited. No identifying information can be made public about the child so long as it’s a foster child. Basically, you’ll have to visit us and take a turn (or two) holding that little darling.

And that’s a good thing. I’m learning more about the power of bonding than I ever would have before.

Bonding doesn’t just mean holding or touching, though those are powerful indicators. Bonding begins with the voice in utero and the eyes upon birth. It’s the two initial indicators a being has of connection with other humans.

Example: Ever talk to someone who looks around a room when you’re trying to engage in conversation upon first meeting? How does that make you feel? Often, I walk away thinking they were completely disinterested in me and generally lacked the confidence to look me in the eye.

Those signals tell of a deeper issue in human bonding, which begins at our basic foundations to experience confidence, love and trust. Without the ability to feel and develop those connections with other people, forming healthy human relationships becomes a tougher hurdle. In comes the feelings of isolation, abandonment and in rare, extreme cases, pathological behaviors leading to a complete lack of empathy for others.

Imagine never feeling sorry that you hurt someone because you never felt anyone cared if you were hurt? Sounds pretty lonely and can lead to those other dangerous, at-risk criminal behaviors.

After two and half of hours of these classes, I leave feeling down and drained. But it also motivates me to really dig deep for these little ones who might benefit from my contact in their lives.

Growing up in a family where my parents are still married and they raised four healthy, self-sufficient kids gives me a different perspective of “family” than these biological families.

One that tugged at my heart strings is about a toddler, though Angels doesn’t place many, who watched her foster mom make dinner in stone silence one night. As they sat down to dinner, the little girl finally asked cautiously: “Are you going to jail now?” The foster mom looked at her in confusion and asked why she might think that. The little girl pointed at her beer bottle.

At three, a child’s brain is nearly a 90 percent formed adult-sized brain. They’re little sponges soaking up every experience and in tough situations, trying to survive.

Early intervention in formative years becomes key and while some fear the “drug baby” scenario, we’re learning those kiddos have as good a chance at bouncing back as any other kid provided they’re in a supportive environment. Some of the tougher cases to rectify with corrective behavior tend to be the toddlers who experienced abuse and neglect over a couple years.

Tough, but not impossible.

As I go blind on paper work, I read through our lesson plans that discuss the sort of behavior issues we might face at the end of this eight-week journey. Even in my loving, two-parent family, was I prone to “aggressive behavior,” “yelling” and “tantrums?” You betcha.

No kid born is without challenges and as my friend Erin keeps reminding me, no path to parenthood is easy. At the end of the day, it’s about having a family and that sounds pretty rad (surfer meaning, of course).

Got a question about our experiences? Feel free to contact me at erica.b.holloway@gmail.com.