Readers often email me, send me messages or leave comments with specific questions about the foster care system or how Mike and I handled certain aspects of life as foster parents to four-year-old BlueJay.
I love that you guys want to know. Thank you for taking an interest in our lives, and thank you to those who answered my call for questions on my Facebook page. It truly warms my heart to know you all care about BlueJay and that you want to better understand a system that can be very challenging to understand.
I’m going to break this Q&A up into two parts to keep it manageable. If you have other questions, please leave them in the comment section below and I will be happy to answer them.
Q: Could you write specifically about understanding BlueJay through a trauma-informed lens, how that changed the way you understand him, to changing (if any!) the way you connect with him?
Before we met BlueJay, Mike and I both went through many hours of training related to this topic, and we both read The Connected Child, which is a wonderful resource for understanding kids who come from a background of trauma and how their needs differ from children who don’t. Kids from trauma often feel a heightened sense of fear and stress; that fear and stress can manifest itself in many ways, depending on the child and the situation. Tantrums, aggression, running away from the home and food hoarding are just a few examples of common behaviors displayed in kids from trauma.
We focused first on finding ways to connect with BlueJay to build a bond and attachment so that we could begin to disarm his body’s natural fear response and help build an atmosphere of what is known as “felt safety.” Basically, that means creating what feels like a safe environment for him in which we build his trust.
And yes, we had to parent him a little differently than we have parented Ryan. For example, Ryan is a child who, at that age, calmed down most effectively when he was removed from a conflict or stressful situation. He needed space and quiet away from others to regulate his emotional response (think “time-out”). BlueJay needed to be able to stay close to us and feel our presence while he calmed down. In fact, he calmed down the quickest when we would lightly hold his hands, make eye contact and take deep breaths together (think “time-in”).
Q: Was there a third party therapist/advocate who was able to weigh in as an unbiased opinion as to what would be best for BlueJay?
Yes, BlueJay had a court-appointed Guardian ad Litem (or GAL). In the many months BlueJay lived with us, his GAL never once reached out to us. In fact, I didn’t even know BlueJay had a GAL until several months in when I first learned what a GAL was and asked a caseworker whether one had ever been assigned to his case.
I was able to get his GAL on the phone only once after repeated calls to his office. He and I spoke that one time, briefly, and I requested that he advocate for a reasonable transition to the relatives’ home, mainly because BlueJay had had so little contact with them and was starting to show signs of anxiety over a potential move. I suggested starting phone calls, Skype calls or even for the relatives to send us a few photos of his new bedroom so BlueJay could start to picture in his mind what the new home looked like.
The GAL told me he would do his best. I was never able to get him on the phone again, despite multiple attempts over the next several weeks leading up to the final court day. In court, he told the judge that this was “one of those difficult cases” where the boys have been in good foster homes and have become bonded to their foster families. He said that ideally, a transition would be beneficial for them, but given the distance to the (relatives’) home, he just didn’t see how it might be possible.
He was supposed to be their advocate but he never once talked to or met the boys or made any effort to minimize the trauma they would endure with yet another abrupt move from a longterm home. It is one of my greatest disappointments in the way BlueJay’s case was handled.
Q: When do you tell family and friends that you think the child will be reunified with biological parents or extended relatives? Do you let them know time is short so they can savor or wait until things are more certain?
I’m not sure there is a “right” or “wrong” way to do this, but we personally couldn’t have imagined not keeping our families as up-to-date as possible. Our parents, siblings and close friends always knew when we had a court hearing scheduled and we always informed them of the outcome as soon as possible afterward. Not only did we need their support, but my feeling was that they had a right to know what was happening, too. They considered BlueJay to be a part of our family and treated him as such from the very first day. In return, we felt they deserved to know what was happening in order to have their own time to process it (and in some cases, to allow them enough opportunity see him one last time).
Of course, individual family dynamics, as well as the specifics of individual cases, can play a major role in this decision. I recognize that this approach may not work for everyone.
Q: How much do you explain to a kid that age? And how do you say it?
We didn’t tell BlueJay that he was definitely leaving until we knew for sure. In the last couple of months, he seemed to sense that a potential move was coming soon (or perhaps his biological family members were telling him as much during visits), and he showed signs of anxiety over such a move. He often asked me whether he could stay with us forever; I responded that we loved having him live with us, but I couldn’t say for sure that it was forever.
Eventually, I introduced the concept of “the judge” to BlueJay. I said the judge was in charge and was the one who would make the decision about where he would live. I said the judge had three choices: For him to go live with his parents, for him to live with his (extended relatives) or for him to stay with us. I said that we all loved him very much, so these were all good choices. That no matter what, he would be living with people who loved him and very much wanted him to be with them.
I tried to approach each conversation in a we’re-all-on-your-side type of way. That all the grown-ups in his life love him and want the best for him, but that sometimes, it’s hard even for grown-ups to figure out what the “best” choice is. I said the judge cared very much about him and wanted to make a good choice and that’s why it was taking him so long to make a decision.
I tried to let BlueJay lead these conversations as much as possible, and I always answered him honestly but in an age-appropriate way that focused on the idea that he had so many people in his life who loved him. If I didn’t know the answer to a question, I would simply tell him I didn’t know but that I would try to find out. And then I really would try to find out and follow up with him with an answer.
Q: How did BlueJay react on moving day? Did he realize what was happening? Did you guys have to “force” him to go to them, or whoever, or did he willingly go?
We first told BlueJay what was happening the night before the move because we had only found out that afternoon ourselves. I also talked with him about it several times the next day because he kept asking again and again for me to explain it. I don’t think he fully understood the permanence of it. My belief is that he thought he was going to the relatives’ home for a sleepover, despite my best efforts to prepare him.
Thankfully, no, we didn’t have to force him. Fortunately, a visit was scheduled with BlueJay’s parents that morning, so he he was transported by a county employee to see them and his extended relatives met up with him and his brothers at that visit. The relatives then drove back to our area with the boys and we met in a neutral location to transfer their belongings. We spent a little time playing and talking with the kids and then we helped them get buckled into their seats. I think the fact that BlueJay didn’t have to go straight from our car to their car ultimately helped to smooth that transition.