Foster parents like us willingly pay a heavy price. The GOP wants us to pay more.
Three weeks later, we welcomed the two brothers into our home—which, with our son and foster daughter, already did not feel short on children. The boys came with fistfuls of prescription drugs, grocery bags full of clothes, state Medicaid cards, and a list of phone numbers. That was pretty much it. The one-year-old needed daily breathing treatments with a nebulizer, a face-mask contraption that helps asthmatic children inhale their albuterol while looking like tiny Darth Vaders. And the poor state of his older brother’s teeth shocked us. At bedtime, the older boy craved all the most sentimental storybooks we had about parental love. After I had read him the story Snuggle Puppy three times, enduring halitosis that no amount of brushing could conquer, and tucked him in and said good night, he simply sat in bed and recited it to himself. Outnumbered three to one, our son insisted that he, too, was “a foster boy,” and would not be persuaded otherwise.
Eventually the baby came down with conjunctivitis and I took him to the doctor. (Setting up the appointment required some haggling about who I was and whether he could be prescribed anything.) The nurses practically wept to see him, oozing prodigiously from his nose and eyes and limp from low oxygen levels. In his weakened state, he needed frequent and large doses of albuterol (twenty vials over the next three days). His doctor gave me the most tepid of reassurances: “He’s not doing great, but he’s doing well enough to go home.” And home—or what passes for it in this child’s life—is where we went. His brother woke up early the next morning to throw up, which he did repeatedly and with an uncanny lack of complaint. My parents, who had come from out of town to help me, supervised the emptying of his vomit receptacles while I caught up on some work. The next day, the boys’ regular foster mom—whose long-planned vacation had been taken up answering my frantic calls—picked them up.
Foster parenting takes a heavy toll on the idealism that drives it. We worked ourselves up to do a good deed for these boys, but it could hardly have seemed like a mercy to them. They were relatively new to foster care and had already been through one failed placement. Ours was the fourth roof they’d slept under in six weeks. We were just another pair of adults with an expired futon mattress, mismatched sheets, and unknown motives. Foster children obviously have suspicions about adults. “My parents don’t love me,” the five-year-old confided to my wife one night, after a day of gamely spinning fantasies about all the things they do for him. “I’m sure they do love you,” she told him, “but they can’t take care of you right now.” It was true, but it was cold comfort to a small boy.
Over a year later, Sophia is a vivacious chatterbox of a girl. The daycare staff who once quailed at her arrival now treat her as the darling of the paint-smock set. Visits to the doctor are, mercifully, rarer than they once were. And the economics of fostering have become a familiar part of our family’s accounting. She receives monthly WIC coupons for four gallons of milk, two loaves of whole-wheat bread, a jar of peanut butter, a dozen eggs, 36 ounces of cereal, 128 ounces of juice, and $6 worth of fresh, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables each month (for a grand total not to exceed $49.41). The state sends us a reimbursement check for $392 each month for her care. Her doctor visits are paid for by Medicaid, as are prescriptions that would otherwise cost us hundreds of dollars out of pocket. The state pays for her to be transported to and from visits with her biological parents, and for her daycare. A caseworker supervises our home and handles our calls for help when Sophia has night terrors or a visit with her parents goes badly. A part-time nurse at the health department works with us to manage her health care. The state is paying for her dance class, and as she gets older, the state will send her to summer camp.
On the other side of the ledger, we’ve spent hundreds of dollars on diapers, clothing, and toys. We bought a lot of PediaSure and multivitamins when her growth was poor, and we paid for her prescriptions when we had an urgent need and were out of state (Medicaid does not travel well). We pay for all the food she eats apart from what WIC provides, including meals out prompted by desperation or celebration. We’ve thrown her two birthday parties. Cumulatively, we’ve driven her hundreds of miles for doctor appointments, and hundreds more to get her to sleep. We’ve spent five mornings in the basement WIC office when we were supposed to be working. And naturally we have given her whatever share of a happy, enriching childhood that we can, with countless trips to the zoo and the DuPage Children’s Museum.
It’s an irony of foster care in America that the only politician who has made this juggling act visible in recent years should be Michele Bachmann. The Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party firebrand has often invoked her experience as a foster mother to twenty-three young women. She represents both the genuine evangelical zeal for at-risk kids that sustains the system and the hostility to social programs that threatens it. All of those girls were on Medicaid, which Bachmann voted to cut dramatically. The private virtue we claim to admire can’t escape its dependence on the public weal.
These days, when our kids instinctively comfort each other after a tumble at the town swimming pool, it’s easy enough to forget that our family is accidental and probably temporary. Parental affection can stretch itself farther than I could have imagined in those early days of round-the-clock shrieking. But we can never go long without realizing that Sophia’s difficult tendencies do not come from us, that she is likely to leave us someday, and that we are operating at the limits of our emotional, economic, and social capacity. Without a commitment by the state to cover the basic costs of her care, we would, like every other foster family, be asking ourselves daily whether we could keep doing it.
As social programs are unwound, foster parents watch our families being unwound with them. For most of us, our “altruistic motivations” always threaten to outstrip our resources. Foster parenting teaches us how to live as so many low-income families already live—check to check, coupon to coupon, appointment to appointment. The difference is that most foster parents hold middle-class passports, and they can cut short their sojourn among WIC recipients and Medicaid administrators at any time. No one knows what exactly will happen to Sophia and the nearly half-million kids in her situation if they exercise that privilege. If Republican lawmakers have their way, we may well find out.
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