We cannot help but feel surrounded by love in the days leading up to Valentine’s day. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolate line store shelves and children stuff tiny, folded cards into decorated shoeboxes after exchanging treats in class. We feel inspired to share stories of love; testimonies of the care we provide to one another. At SOS Illinois, love extends far beyond this season and shows up in unexpected, challenging ways.
This Valentine’s Day, we have invited professional Foster Parent at SOS Illinois, Jenny Wray, to share her testimony of the aching, rewarding selfless love she embodied while accompanying youth in her care through family reunification.
When my husband, John, and I first began to share our news with family and friends that we had decided to become Foster Parents with SOS Children’s Villages Illinois, one of the most common questions we received was something along the lines of, “But aren’t you going to get too attached? How will you be able to say goodbye when the children leave?”
My standard response outlined how I would try to approach these relationships the way a teacher does with students – you impart all the wisdom and love you can during the time you have them, and find reward in the hope that something you said or did would have a lasting, positive impact on their lives. I tried to appear confident about my ability to manage the heartache that I was secretly worried would consume me.
When I was 15-years-old, I had to say a painful goodbye to my 3-year-old foster brother who went to live with a grandparent and then disappeared from my life forever. It still fills me with sadness when I think about his departure from our family and I wish I had some way of knowing how things turned out for him. After that experience, I never would have expected family reunification to be the most powerful, moving, and gratifying aspect of my role as a professional Foster Parent.
The Necessity of Supporting Biological Parents of Children in Foster Care
When we hear that a child has been hurt or neglected, there can be a tendency to vilify and blame biological parents — to assume they have negative intentions, and are undeserving of our understanding and respect. I am sure that I came into SOS Illinois with my own set of judgments and a dismissive attitude toward these parents. However, this job requires our intimate involvement in the entire family’s life; we are there to supervise visits and phone calls, collaborate at child and family team meetings, mentor a parent who is getting their life back on track, and listen to what the children love and miss about their parents. Once you know someone’s story, it is impossible not to let them into your heart.
I have seen that more often than not, biological parents are loving caregivers who are suffering from the strains of poverty coupled with their own painful childhood experiences and/or addiction. Why is it so easy to give our compassion to helpless and vulnerable children, but when those children turn into adults, we often retract our empathy and place unrealistic expectations on them? We often do so without offering education, support, and resources to create real change. I believe that one of the best things I can do for the children in my care is show them that I respect their parents, regardless of whether they will be returning home or not.
With these actions, I’m hoping that when the children see me form a positive bond with their parents, they can learn about forgiveness and not be ashamed of loving a family member who let them down. The reality is that these children will never stop loving their parents and they need to feel empowered to do so. The biological parents are equally deserving of a supportive ally on this long and difficult journey to get their children home.
Acts of Selfless Love: Two Stories of Reunification with Biological Families
Story I: Tali*
In the past few months, I have had the privilege of being part of family reunifications for the first time. Two-year-old Tali* came to our home last March and we were told that it was a temporary placement while her previous Foster Parent recovered from surgery. In May, the decision was made to keep her with us instead of destabilizing and disrupting the progress she was making in our home. Her three older sisters lived down the street with another Foster Parent and also became part of our family, calling me “Titi Jenny” and visiting regularly.
While Tali was in my care,Tali’s mom worked very hard for more than two years to get her children back in her home. I saw her determination, patience, and love for her girls, and couldn’t imagine how she was able to persevere despite the shame, uncertainty, and desperation she had to feel every day. I’m so grateful that Tali’s mom was willing to co-parent with me along the way. Instead of viewing me as an adversary, she would tell her daughter how lucky she was to have two moms. It was easy to love this grown-up version of Tali despite her shortcomings.
After spending 8 months rooting for Tali’s mom, it was an emotional moment when she and I held hands in the courtroom and the judge ordered her children to be returned to her home. While we will most definitely miss the hilarious antics of Tali around our house, it is profoundly rewarding to have been part of her family’s success story.
Story II: Alana* and Alexa*
At the beginning of this year, our 12-year-old (Alana*) and 8-year-old (Alexa*) (along with their five other siblings) returned home to their mom and dad following a four year placement with SOS Children’s Villages Illinois, only part of which was spent in our home. Their mom has an intense dedication to her children and advocated for them with a ferocity that was often interpreted as aggression. Her emotional outbursts and misdirected anger only made me more determined to connect with her. As I know from caring for children in foster care, underneath anger lies fear, I can’t imagine a more normal reaction to forced and unexpected separation than being afraid.
While Alana and Alexa were in my care, I made sure to send photos and email updates to their mom regularly, called her to discuss the children’s successes or concerning behaviors, listened when she needed to vent or cry, and always made a point to identify her strengths to Alana and Alexa. It felt like another huge victory when I sat in the courtroom listening to all seven children shout their gratitude to the judge after she granted their official return home.
Permanency: A Journey Continued Together
As I’ve come to learn, one challenge that youth in care can face is feeling torn between two families; not wanting to show love or affection to Foster Parents for fear of it being mistaken as misplaced loyalty to their biological family. By aligning myself with the biological parents, I am letting my children know that they don’t have to pick sides and everyone wins. In both courtrooms, it was a win for us all. In the weeks following the reunifications, I realized that my commitment to these families couldn’t stop at that pivotal court date. Permanency is not achieved in a moment; rather it is a process that requires a great deal of outside support.
I came to find that the transition home could be the most vulnerable time for a family as they try to settle back in to life together. For Alana and Alexa’s mom, the large family’s joy at being reunited was quickly overshadowed by onerous financial strains and difficultly obtaining benefits that would allow her to properly support her children. Even the enrollment process at the new neighborhood school presented unforeseen obstacles. I did not want these to be deterrents in a successful reunification, so John and I have continued to advocate for and connect the family with needed resources. I check in weekly with the biological mom and FaceTime with the children to catch up and send love.
John and I also stay in touch with Tali and her family over the phone and went to visit their home recently. The three children who remain in our care grew especially fond of Tali and have had a hard time saying goodbye. Continuing to foster our relationship with the family gives everyone the comfort that, while our living arrangements have changed, we are still invested in maintaining a lasting connection.
While I’m sure there will always be a sense of loss when a child moves out of our home, it is accompanied by the heart-expanding reward of a child regaining their family. My hope is that when we build a positive foundation with biological parents, we can leave the door open indefinitely into each other’s lives. When I said goodbye to our kind-hearted 12-year-old earlier this month she reminded me, “It’s never goodbye; it’s always see you later.”