My foster daughter Sandy was delivered to my doorstep by the City of New York just three days after her birth. Four years later she remains trapped in the foster care system with no end in sight. We’re coming up on our fifth Thanksgiving together. Our fifth Christmas. Our fifth New Year’s Eve celebration with the only family she’s ever known. Foster care is supposed to be temporary, but my foster daughter knows no other life. She lives in permanent instability.
Over two years ago, the foster agency, city attorney, Sandy’s attorney, and the judge all asked if I was willing to adopt Sandy. I said yes, signed the intent to adopt form, and the court officially changed Sandy’s plan to adoption. However, 20 case workers later, a new judge on the bench, and court hearing after court hearing passes, and no decision has been made.
In fact, court hearings aren’t even actually about my foster daughter — her name is rarely uttered. She’s invisible — lost in one of the country’s largest foster care systems. Recently, the new judge has suggested that she plans to unify Sandy with her birth parents. Yet, the technical goal remains adoption. Attorney friends tell me to plan on Sandy languishing in foster care for at least three to five more years. She could be 10 years old before she’s out of the system.
Here’s what I wish the judge knew about her:
Sandy has a sister, Clementine, who is only three months younger. They’ve been raised essentially as twins since birth. They love each other dearly and have a bond that is beyond words. No matter how many times I separate them during the night, they always end up sleeping together in the same bed. Sandy and Clementine will likely never see one another again if Sandy is unified with her birth family. The sisters would have spent more than four years together as a family built by the city — but in the end their bond potentially will be discarded and completely disregarded.
While it might seem as though Sandy has had it easy compared to other foster children who have suffered abuse and been bounced around from home to home, simply being in foster care results in permanent developmental damage. While it’s tempting to spout off research studies and statistics, the impact foster care has had on Sandy is obvious after just spending a few minutes with her.
Sandy has a lot of questions. She’s confused. Last week she started pre-k and she’s ready to learn how to write her last name. Which name should she practice — her current last name or mine? No one knows. I ask for advice at the foster agency and the staff just shrug. I can’t keep asking her teachers to hold off on starting this skill. I also can’t teach Sandy our address or the name of her school due to the orders of protection with her family, lest she might repeat them. This means I’m holding back my other daughter from learning these pieces of basic information too.
Also on hold is family therapy for us. If Sandy were adopted, I would have us all in counseling by now for guidance as a transracial, adoptee family. I’m adopted as well, so the girls have grandparents on both my birth and adopted sides. We all have different ethnic backgrounds. We’re a young family just beginning — or not. If I knew that Sandy is definitely being unified with her family, she could begin therapy for that transition. But until a final decision is made, nothing can be addressed.
Being a foster child is a full-time job and there isn’t time for much else. While court hearings are used up by The Deciders (judge and attorneys) scheduling the next court hearing, I sit quietly and listen each time as one attorney says she “can’t do” August because of vacation and the next attorney “can’t do” September because of holidays.
Meanwhile, Sandy never gets a vacation day.
Since she was 3 days old, Sandy has been schlepped rain or shine, blizzard or hurricane, fever or flu, an hour each way to the foster agency for court-ordered supervised visits with her birth family. Twice a week for two hours doesn’t sound like a lot until you process that as of last night, Sandy has spent a total of 416 evenings at the foster agency (not counting all the other reasons I have to take her). That’s over a year, or more than a quarter of her life. Each time Sandy’s trial is postponed for reasons unrelated to her, it’s another three months that her life is pushed aside. Sometimes I wonder if anyone understands how long three months is in the course of a child’s life. Do they think I just pop her into the freezer and then thaw her out in pristine shape when a decision is finally made? She is not unaffected as these precious first years of her life fly by.
In terms of supervised family visits at the foster agency, I also wonder if any of the judges or attorneys have ever visited a New York City foster agency. It’s most definitely not CSI-style one-way mirrors with an empty room and one child playing quietly. Instead, it’s mayhem. Rooms are overcrowded with the city’s most traumatized children fighting over toys and food. There is almost always an adult screaming threats and another crying hysterically. It makes sense given the circumstances of families in crisis and being ripped apart combined with the perpetual shortage of trained staff.
However, I wish the judge knew what kind of impact this has on Sandy. I do my best to protect her but she regularly witnesses trauma and violence during her family visits. The pattern is predictable. The chaos turns to screaming and shouting, tempers escalate and punches, psychosis, and sometimes weapons come out. Children and babies (including Sandy) are locked in rooms for their safety for long periods of time. The police are frequently called. There’s always crying. So much crying. Sandy has witnessed parents assaulting other parents, parents assaulting case workers, parents assaulting their children, parents assaulting police officers, and children being extremely physically aggressive with one another without any intervention. And that’s just what I’ve witnessed her experience during drop-offs and pick-ups.
Institutionalized is a word I don’t hear much anymore, but I think it accurately describes the effect foster care has had on Sandy. Not long ago we were out shopping and she strangely kept asking for different case workers by name. I didn’t pay it much mind until she said that we needed a case worker so she could go to the bathroom. Sandy thought that in regular life, like at the foster agency, we needed a case worker to supervise us to the bathroom. Heartbreaking. What else is going on in her little mind? Sandy’s preschool teacher has mentioned that although Sandy’s never talked about her family, she will frequently collect all of the toy dolls that wear suits and label them case workers and have them make decisions for the other dolls. If only the judge would spend a few days with Sandy and listen to her self-talk and watch her pretend play, surely she’d find more than an hour every three to four months to hear trial testimony, right?
Recently, Sandy has started to realize that she doesn’t have a permanent family. Almost daily she asks questions that no 3-year-old should be thinking:
“Why does Mommy T (her biological and legal mother) say you’re not my real mommy?”
“Are they going to take me from you?”
“Am I going to live in a different house?”
“Will you and Clementine be there, too?”
All I want to do is wrap my arms around her and provide reassurance that I’ll always be there and the only home she’s ever known will always be her home. But I can’t. Sandy has already learned how to code switch calling me “Mommy” at home, like her sister does. I’m the mommy she can point out to the other kids on the playground and say that she has. Yet, at family visits her birth mom wants to be called “mom” and me referred to by “Rebecca.” She obliges, but at home she switches and calls her birth mom by her first name. Sandy lives in perpetual, developmentally stunting limbo.
Every single extra day that Sandy remains stuck in foster care matters. She has been robbed of a normal childhood in so many ways. In addition to spending a full year of her life within the windowless confines of the foster agency instead of playing in the snow or sprinklers or taking dance classes — her activity is restricted seven days a week.
While typical children experience tumbles and scrapes at this age while exploring their environment, such abrasions are scrutinized and bring even more unwanted attention to a foster child’s lack of permanency. Sandy’s babysitter and I have to be abnormally cautious because every scratch and bruise is noted during family visits and investigated. Multiple foster care staff examine and question Sandy about each “boo-boo.” This results in Sandy fixating in an unhealthy way on each bump and scab for days and days. Should Sandy ever require stitches or break an arm — injuries that were considered a rite of passage when I was a kid — it would put me at risk of losing her due to “lack of supervision.” Everyone agrees that such an event would be emotionally disastrous for Sandy.
I wish the judge would at least meet Sandy, even just once. Perhaps she would understand the urgency to decide her permanency and family.
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