My cell phone rings, lighting up with a now-familiar phone number. I swallow hard, swipe the screen and answer: “Hey, kiddo.”
The voice on the other end belongs to a 10-year-old boy. A boy who lived with us for three months. The boy we fully expected and intended to make an official part of our family. The one we were supposed to keep forever.
There’s another term for this, and it is one that weighs heavy on my heart: Failed adoption.
It’s not our first time caring for a foster child. Our first foster son was three years old when he came to live with us for almost a year and eventually was moved from our home to live with extended biological family members. When he left, leaving us with raw if not broken hearts, my husband, Mike, and I changed course. We didn’t want to put our biological son, Ryan, who is now 6 years old, through the loss of another child he considered to be a sibling.
Adoption, we decided. We would adopt a waiting child whose parental rights had already been terminated. A child who needed a forever family as much as we wanted to add to ours.
The first time we met James* earlier this year, he was standing with our caseworker across the room of a crowded McDonald’s. He turned toward us, meeting our eyes for the briefest moment before looking back down to the ground. That was all it took; that one split second. One glance and I wanted him to be in our lives.
A month later, after weekend visits together and a flurry of appointments to get him registered for school, he officially moved in. Just two weeks after that, the first major behavioral episode left us all confused and breathless and scared.
You can think you know everything there is to know about a child in care. Or that what you don’t know, you will find a way to navigate. You can read through the pages upon pages of family history. You can spend hours on the phone with his former foster parents. You can prepare by talking to his caseworkers and his court-appointed advocates – people who have known him far longer than you. You can hope for the best but prepare for the worst. You can be committed to seeing all of it through, no matter what, for as long as it takes. Because this child isn’t just a child – he’s your future son.
But you never know how trauma might manifest itself in a new home. You can’t begin to imagine how the very structure of your family or even your own personality might fundamentally trigger his deepest sadness, anger and anxiety. When things get even harder than you thought they could be, you can ask for help. But in an overwhelmed and understaffed foster care system, the resources you need are hard to come by, if they exist at all. You can make 10 phone calls in one day and still you find yourself circled right back to where you started, stuck in some disturbing child welfare version of “not it.”
He was with us for a quarter of a year. Only long enough to celebrate a handful of holidays and birthdays together. It was but a blip; it felt like forever. We waited for things to get better, but instead they got worse. More frantic phone calls, more pleas for help, more radio silence.
When we finally had him removed, it was supposed to be temporary. He needed a higher level of care than we could provide, that much was clear. We needed evaluations, a more robust therapeutic program, a crisis response plan that would actually yield response in a crisis. Six weeks after he left, when we learned essentially none of that could be accomplished, we had to decide – what is failure?
Were we failing him by giving up, as so many others in his life had before us? Would we fail him – and Ryan – even more by allowing them to grow up in an environment where none of us felt safe; where we all were barely surviving, let alone thriving. Worse yet was our greatest fear – that he would come back and the cycle would start again and, for the second time, we’d have to pack him a bag.
“I just wanted to hear your voice,” he says now into the phone. He still calls me “mom.” At least for now. I estimate I am the fourth person he has bestowed that name upon, but I think I won’t be the last.
We talk almost every day. Where he is now, he has fewer rules and more freedom. He stays up late and sleeps in. He rides his bike through the neighborhood and plays basketball with his new friends. In this home and its unique structure, he is the youngest, which seems to suit him. It calms his anxiety and triggers less of his trauma. His voice over the phone has a relaxed quality to it. I cling to that sound, hoping it somehow lessens the failure.
“I’ve been thinking about you, too,” I say. “Tell me about your day.”
(*James is not his real name.)