Foster parents like us willingly pay a heavy price. The GOP wants us to pay more.
Photo: Nishant Choksi
One day in the summer of 2009, during a walk alongside a neighborhood creek with my wife and our one-year-old son, I mused out loud that maybe we should become foster parents. I had just finished seminary and was working part-time. We weren’t quite ready for a second child of our own, and though we had long considered adopting, it seemed like more than we could commit to at that unsettled moment in our careers. What we did have was a house in the suburbs of Chicago, a pair of modest middle-class incomes, relatively flexible work schedules, bleeding-heart tendencies, and a son whose newly docile sleep habits and sweet disposition probably made us feel more seasoned at parenting than we really were. Fostering seemed like a good way for us to help meet an urgent social need, even if only for a while. “Somebody has to do it,” I remember saying.
After hearing me out, my wife agreed that we should look into it. A couple more walks and some days of research later, she was driving the process more vigorously than I was. She requested all the information, got us fingerprinted, and sent out our reference forms. By spring, we were licensed by the state to receive a child.
It was nonetheless a shock when someone from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services interrupted my dentist appointment one afternoon that summer with a phone call to ask if I wanted to add a one-year-old girl to our household. The baby had come into the hospital a few days earlier under circumstances that aroused the suspicions of the staff, so the state had taken her into temporary emergency custody. She would be released from the hospital that evening to the first available foster home that agreed to take her.
Not being in the habit of doubling the number of children under our care without my wife’s full participation, I frantically called and texted her. After a long ten minutes with no response, I decided to say yes to the state investigator, knowing that my wife would be more upset with me if I let the girl go elsewhere. (“Never mind, said yes,” she read on her phone after getting out of the pool at the gym.)
That left us about four hours total for nesting—about the amount of time we had spent discussing the relative merits of different breast-pump models when we were expecting the birth of our son. We bought some formula and baby food, shoved some books out of the way in our spare room, and updated our Facebook status. Then my wife went to pick the little girl up from the hospital and came home at seven p.m.
Sophia turned out to be somewhat less than a year old, small and toothless, with sparse, wispy black hair. (Some details throughout this story, including Sophia’s name, have necessarily been changed. A foster child’s case is confidential, and a foster home is in some cases a kind of safe house.) We have a picture from that first night: our son, then age two, is looking down at her warily while she sits in my lap gumming a rattle from Ten Thousand Villages, wearing a stained onesie and a fiberglass cast that covers her right leg. The only thing we knew about her injury was that it had somehow brought her to our house. It was the first time I’d seen a baby with a broken bone.
Sophia slept poorly. Within a week I had settled into a nightly routine of driving her out to the western reaches of the Chicago suburbs to lull her unconscious. She did not cry, but only shrieked at discomfort or confusion. She did not like to be held. But these challenges were, it quickly became clear, only half the struggle in our new role.
In a way that we never really anticipated, welcoming Sophia into our home led us into the wilderness of red tape and frustration navigated every day by low-income parents who struggle to raise children with the critical help of government programs. That same week, the office of the bone specialist who had treated Sophia’s broken leg at the hospital tried to get out of scheduling her for an urgent follow-up appointment. Like many medical practices, his endeavored at all costs to avoid working for Medicaid’s paltry reimbursement rates. (The office went so far as to deny ever having treated her; eventually, however, they gave in.) We went through a similar amount of stress trying to put Sophia into daycare. We had to run down a pile of government paperwork, prove our employment, and then simply wait and hope that our daycare center would accept the state’s stingy pay. And yet, frustrated as we were, we couldn’t exactly blame the doctors and daycare providers for being heartless. As the state’s stinginess pushes more of the costs of caring for foster children onto them, it’s no surprise that they start to balk.
It’s a major bureaucratic process to remove a child from her home and family. The state insures the child, pays for daycare, investigates the claims of abuse, and retains legal custody, but it cannot actually put a baby to bed at night. And so, on the other side of this most intimate public-private partnership are usually people like us, left alone with a stranger’s child and a garbage bag full of clothes and wondering what’s going to happen next. And what happens next depends, to a stomach-churning degree, on the state’s willingness and ability to keep up its half of the bargain.
So it was with an unusual sense of urgency and dread that our family watched the 2010 Republican wave and the austerity budgeting that has followed in ceaseless progression. When Paul Ryan’s budget, approved by 235 Republicans in the House, proposed dramatic cuts to federal Medicaid spending, it was as if they were trying to make it even more hopeless for us to find a doctor to treat Sophia’s health problems. When Scott Walker in Wisconsin sought to cut the workforce that administers foster care in his state, we went up to Madison to join the protests in solidarity, because we knew how helpless we would be if there were no caseworker on the other end of the phone to answer our own urgent pleas for help and guidance. And the threats have continued, as House Republicans repeatedly propose cutting trillions of dollars in domestic spending to reduce the debt while making room for sustained upper-income tax cuts. The way this hits home for us is simple. A foster parent joins hands with the state in order to take care of a dispossessed child. For the last year, the state has been trying to slip free of our grasp.
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