A Call to Foster
You want me to do what??? Being single and childless, I might have classified myself as the unlikeliest of candidates to become a foster parent. Not to mention, my job required extensive travel at the time. I had been living in South Florida for eight years when for several weeks during the fall of 2008 my church, Calvary Chapel Ft. Lauderdale, had focused on the issue of the growing number of children in foster care. At that time, an estimated 463,000 children were in the system nationwide, with nearly 30,000 of those children living here in Florida. It made no sense to me at the time, but from somewhere deep inside I knew I had to respond.
I contacted my church’s affiliate foster care agency, 4KIDS, and learned what I would need to qualify to become a foster parent. My checklist included: an empty bed, a driver’s license, 30 bucks, three open Saturdays for training, and a willingness to provide love, stability and hope to kids in crisis. I would later add patience to that list – not for the children that would eventually be in my care, but for the bureaucratic red tape which tightly binds every step along the way.
People often joke that children don’t come with an instruction manual, but the Department of Children and Families comes close with their MAPP curriculum. The training is arduous, but necessary, considering these children come from varied backgrounds and circumstances. Step by step by step, I followed the “calling” in my heart, scared but steady, never prepared for the joy and happiness that God had in store for me.
It was the first week of April 2009. I’d had my license 30 days by this time but still no placement. While I thoroughly enjoyed my nesting period, building everything from confidence to a refurbished bunk bed, I was ready to test my newly honed skills before the time-released scent from my fabric softener had fully worn off the organic cotton twin sheets.
Within days of becoming licensed, I readily accepted an invitation to my agency’s spring foster care picnic being held that first Saturday in April. I imagined bringing my fun-starved brood along for a day of face painting, pony rides and bounce-house reckless abandon. But on this particular morning, I woke up to an empty house. To say I was discouraged would be an understatement.
Feeling the four weeks past my due date with no power or ability to induce, I dreaded arriving childless to this event. I imagined dodging looks of supposed skepticism and speculation as to why I still had empty beds when the veteran foster parents reportedly, “Had our first placement within hours of receiving our license.”
A surprisingly self-conscious woman posing as an almost shamelessly prideful one, I grabbed a friend’s kid and drove to the picnic. My tween guest ran off to make friends while I tried to appear approachable. As I stood there alone, it was then that I noticed him. He was so sparkly and bright; it was like the sky opened up and a golden beam of light shone down on this beautiful brown-skinned little boy. His eyes twinkled as he kicked the soccer ball around while reciting Psalm 23. (All of this is true. That’s really what he was doing.)
Who is this kid? I wondered. I continued to watch him – trying not to stare, until he eventually approached a woman who I supposed was his foster mom. As he scampered away, I temporarily suspended my surveillance and walked over. We made small talk, which in the foster care arena can quickly evolve to personal stuff like, “What’s the latest with your case?” “Is he/she up for adoption?” “Who’s your judge?” “Would you consider adopting?” I found out this four-year-old’s name was James and that he had been in the Child Welfare System for eight months. I learned he was not up for adoption at the time, as the current case plan goal was to reunify James with his biological parents.
The foster mom was friendly, but reserved. When I asked her if she would consider adopting James, she explained to me that if she were to adopt a child, she would prefer a little girl. My heart leapt – I tried to act casual. “So listen,” I began, “If you ever need a break, I would be more than happy to look after James for you.” By this time, I had already begun to visualize his artwork hanging on my fridge.
We exchanged numbers and I immediately went on a fact-finding mission, trying to piece together who the decision makers were surrounding this little boy’s fate. Even if he didn’t end up in my care, I wanted to somehow make sure he’d be okay. In the event he needed a new placement arrangement, I wanted the earthly powers-that-be to know I was more than interested. I gave my name to the child advocate, the case worker and the current foster mother’s licensing specialist. Then after lunch, I gathered my friend’s daughter and slipped out of the picnic.
It was the next day that I was lying on the beach, relaxing, when my cell phone rang. It was my agency’s shelter, calling with my first placement: two little girls (ages 7 and 9) that had been found unsupervised and neglected. I remember thinking if I take these girls I likely won’t be able to help if James needed me. But this is what I had waited for, I thought. I quickly gathered my things, swung by the grocery store for chicken fingers and other kid-friendly fare, dashed home and then headed over to Safe Place, my county’s first stop when children are removed from their homes. When I arrived, I was surprised to find it was just like the instructors had shown in the training: a little child (or two) walks through the reception area with a bag in one hand and a stuffed doll in the other. Pathetic and perfect at the same time.
We got to know one another over french fries and burgers, and then we set off to get some new clothing and other essentials. We bonded quickly and I gladly poured myself into these girls for the next two days. Then without warning, while we waited for our tiny, EZ-Baked cake to cool, the phone rang. It was the childrens’ case worker with the news that the judge had decided the girls would be placed with their maternal grandmother. I was to have them ready for transport in one hour. I had another short-term placement a few weeks later and all the while, couldn’t get my mind off that little boy I’d met at the picnic. I replayed the memories of how he happily crawled into my lap, offering to show his strength in the form of hugs, while we laughed and shared a piece of cake. I prayed he was happy – wherever he was.
The Phone Call
By this time, I was sold-out for fostering! I was now in the habit of answering calls from my agency, “I’ll take them!” They would laugh and say, “You don’t even know what we’re offering you yet.” I didn’t care. You can imagine my surprise when my licensing specialist called me four weeks after the picnic to tell me that James’ foster mom announced she would be moving out of the area and that I was being considered as an alternate placement arrangement. They told me to pray about it. I remember putting the phone down and wondering – what am I praying about here? My prayers had just been answered… well, almost.
I think I waited 10 minutes when I called back and told them that I thought this was all God’s Divine Plan and that I believed I was meant to be James’ foster mom. Thankfully my agency is Christian-based and one that happens to give a lot of clout to that type of declaration. I was told that because I was licensed as a two-child home and James was going to be arriving alone, that consideration had to be given to the fact that the county would effectively be giving up one bed in that room, indefinitely.
I prayed overnight. The next day, I received word that a decision had been reached to allow James to be transferred to my care. He arrived on Mother’s Day, 2009. I’ll never forget that first day together. We were walking through a sporting goods store, shopping for a life vest (the irony of that purchase is not lost on me, by the way) and at one point James looked up at me and asked in somewhat broken English, “What I’m ‘upposed to call you?” I remember hesitating for a few seconds. And before I could answer he said, “I think, ‘Mom.’” My heart melted in that very moment, but we decided on “Auntie” for now.
In the last year and a half it has been my privilege to watch James learn to swim. And read. To start kindergarten. Then first grade. Slay the monsters under his bed. Say his prayers. Kick his first goal. He makes me smile every day. And I make it my primary goal to make him feel safe and secure while I to try to heal the pain of what brought him into care in the first place.
If you would have told me 10 years ago that one day I would be a single Foster Parent living in South Florida and never happier, I probably would have laughed in your face. But life sometimes has a funny way of being full of surprises.
I don’t know what the future holds for us – we’re taking it one day at a time. I try to live fully in the moment, appreciating every milestone reached, while remaining open-minded to the possibilities. Foster parenting is designed to be a temporary assignment; we know that going in. If we didn’t reserve a little piece of ourselves, we’d each only do this once. I don’t know if I still have my piece at this point… but I do know I have peace about my decision to become a foster parent. And if God is calling me to be James’ mom permanently, I’ll be honored and thankful to serve them both in that capacity.
Is the Lord tugging on your heart to do something special?