THE FOSTER CARE COMMUNITy
Ten years ago, I began attending a new church, and on my second Sunday, the pastor jokingly announced that he and his wife had ten children and were in need of a nanny. I approached him after the service and told him I was a professional nanny and in-between jobs. He explained that they had just received a foster placement of a sibling group of five, and I volunteered (yes, volunteered) to be their nanny. For the next year I cared for five beautiful children until they were placed with an adoptive family. I then decided that I wanted to foster myself. I applied with the agency that my pastor had used and soon received a call, but not one I was expecting. The director of the agency was on the other end, and after exchanging pleasantries, she simply asked if I wanted to help one child or a hundred. I was confused at first, then quickly realized she was offering me a job with the agency. For the next 7 years I worked as a foster home developer and placement coordinator. When the “tide turned” and I found myself working in another field, I decided that I would apply to be a foster parent again.
Michaella, Christian, and Ava were my first placements. They came into care 66 minutes after I was licensed for three kids. I got my license at 11:22 a.m. on March 3rd, 2017, and received the call for placement at 12:28 p.m. Michaella was out of the age range I initially was open to––just because I was terrified of the school schedule. Daycare is consistent and doesn’t take spring break and summers off! But I said, “Let’s do it.” It’s funny how when you’re faced with a real life in your hands, some silly school schedule fear seems trivial. I found out later that I was the only open home in the state with three open beds that night. Had I not said yes, they would have been split up and put into different shelters.
A friend posted about Austin Angels shortly after I received my first placement and I commented something to the effect of “ME, ME, ME PLEASE ME! I need support!!”, because I had no illusions or delusions that I could do this on my own. After speaking with Kathleen and hearing the support a Love Box group would offer, I decided to join.
I started with a large group of people willing to help. It quickly dwindled as trauma behaviors started to emerge. Once the members of my Love Box group got set up to provide babysitting; I rarely had to ask because they called me and asked to take the kids out or have them over for a sleepover. In addition we had a shared list on our phones that I updated each month with our needs: laundry soap, shoes for one of the kids, help cleaning the house, a game for the family, and numerous other things including a handwritten note to each child from a different member with each box. Through this program I have gained friendship and community––people to text when I need to vent or joke or ask for prayer.
Some of our most fun adventures have been arranged and provided by Austin Angels. One of the latest was an afternoon boat ride on Lake Travis. We scheduled it for the afternoon after the adoption was granted and we were able to celebrate with the whole family! There have been so many sweet moments with our Love Box group, but the one that stands out was from earlier this year. I have severe asthma and had an attack. These attacks are debilitating and require hospitalizations and numerous ER visits. We were managing everything okay until we weren’t. I called a member of our Love Box group and hastily explained the situation. After receiving a reprimand for not calling them sooner and me guiltily and lovingly receiving it I heard the words, “What do you need us to do?” We needed someone to pick up the kids and keep them for the evening while I, again, went to the ER. She said she’s got it and would call me when the kids were picked up and settled. And they did just that. I had no worries and could focus on my health for the evening.
We have enjoyed hanging out at our Love Box leader’s house––playing corn hole, roasting marshmallows, and meeting more of the group, going to the Austin Aquarium, and a picnic at Central Market, and hundreds of things that I can’t recall at the moment. They even did a “girl’s night” just for this foster momma. I needed a night off out with friends and we had a blast. I went out for dinner then did a little geocaching!
I think each family will have a unique set of needs and approaching the connection as a relationship will set each family and Love Box group up for success.
"there are many types of support available to foster families, but the intention of building community has been the greatest blessing we have received."
The greatest challenges of fostering have been gaining their trust and listening to them recount their lives “pre-me,” but these have also been some of the greatest joys––being able to walk with them through healing.
I was never closed to adoption, I just pictured being the home that would have multiple placements, and I was ok with that. The last part of “standing in the gap” is until reunification or adoption. To keep siblings together until one of those occurred. When our case neared the end, it looked like a separation adoption was likely. I was, to be blunt, mad. My life is prayerfully led, and I’d checked in on occasion just to see if these were to be my children. My answer was always a no. Until one day in a prayer of frustration I ask God again, “Do I adopt them?” And a very clear yes was spoken to my heart. So clear that my prayer of frustration stopped, I stopped, then I started a prayer of confusion (ha!). “You said no the whole time, am I hearing you correctly now?” I received no answer.
I also believe that God confirms his word 3 times. The next day at church it just so happened that my boyfriend (at the time, now husband) and I were able to go sit in service. This was atypical because one of the children would always need our support during kids’ church so we would normally hang around close to where the kids were. After several minutes of not being needed by any of the kids, we dared to go into service. At the end of the service our pastor called us both up to the altar. He prayed a lengthy prayer over me of which all I remember were the words “these are your children.” I gasped and rationalized “Okay, this could be the first confirmation, but it could also just be prayer that I’ve cared well for these children.” The second confirmation I can’t describe to you. It came only a few hours after the first. The absolute only thing I remember about the second confirmation was my immediate reaction of “Oh crap, that’s the second!”, and a giddiness that was a mix of emotions. I had a couple days to calm down and let doubt creep in, until one evening while making dinner, Ava, contently playing with toys near me, dropped her toys, toddled to me, hugged my leg tight, and said, “You’re my mom.” A sudden wave of relief consumed me and I just said “Yes, I am.”
Ava’s declaration came in the middle of a plan change to kinship adoption, which we supported. It was an interesting “God spot” to be in knowing these are my children, God said so, yet still being fully supportive of the perceived healthy family adoption that had now become interested. We stayed this path for a few months while the family member pursued licensure and we began a visit/transition plan with the family member. As the final transition date approached and the final licensing process entered things began... not adding up. I was getting calls from CPS asking about how the visits were going and my honest answer was “Not too bad––when they happened.” At that point we were supposed to be at full weekend visits and a full week over a holiday. Yet, the children hadn’t spent more than 20 hours consecutively with the family member, and had to cancel more than they were able to fulfill the visit schedule. We were less than 30 days away from move day.
At the end of the next week, I received a call (after 5 p.m. on a Friday) to NOT allow the children to go to their visit that weekend. “Ok” was pretty much all I managed at that point because I was taken aback by the abrupt turn. They had just stressed and emphasized the importance of the transition visits for the children, and the first weekend the family member agreed to a complete visit, we got a last second call to cancel it. “Is she ok?” “Yes, we will have more information for you on Monday.” (In my brain: “Y’ALL WORKIN THE WEEKEND OVER THIS???!??” Oh no.) Monday came and the plan for the children was now non-relative adoption, by us. The relative would not be licensed. Critical information was not divulged and from one innocuous comment I shared with the worker that the kids had shared about their visits exploded into a full investigation during the previous week. Pain, confusion, and heartbreak blanketed our whole family. We still had to go before the judge and CPS had to explain their new position. We were docketed long enough for testimonies to be given and after everything was in the open, the ruling was given and non-relative adoption was made the “official” goal. This was 2-3 weeks before Christmas, but for the most part, life, as we knew it, ambled on.
Christmas day came and we went to Joe’s (my then boyfriend) parent’s house to celebrate. A couple of hours into the celebration I was beckoned to the back patio and everyone was semi-circled around a white chair. I knew. I took the seat. Standing in front of me was Michaella holding a sign that said “Will you marry our daddy?” Joe, on one knee, asked me to be his wife and I said yes.
So, the engagement and adoption plan change all kind of happened at the same time. Mind you, at this point, I am still the only licensed parent. Joe, in CPS world, was a “caregiver”. So, diving into the “how’s” of what’s next, I realized we needed to get Joe licensed so he could adopt at the same time I did. So, we started there. Pretty quickly after starting him on that path, we started talking about dates for the wedding and if we should do it before or after the adoption. This is where you can queue “overwhelming stress” into my mind––and I didn’t like it.
I stepped back, prayed, and just looked at a calendar. One of those good old fashioned paper ones (ha!). My eyes settled on July 4th…No biggie really––that’s Independence Day, my favorite holiday. But, as I looked at the date, every question about wedding, adoption, “How are we…?”, “How can everyone?...”, just seemed to have an answer. And, the idea for a “Family Union Day” came to be.
"and the idea for a 'family union day' came to be.
Then I realized that would mean Family REunions every 4th of July––my favorite holiday. The deal was sealed. I asked Joe, and of course he liked the idea, so we began to plan. We went with an “Americana Family Picnic” theme––red, white, blue, and BBQ. We stopped for a bit to say “I do” to each other and “we do” to the kids, then just enjoyed each other, and all of our family and village in one place to celebrate with us becoming a family.
While this all sounds like a great ending to the story, our fostering journey does not stop here. Six weeks after our Family Union Day, we received notice of three children across the country that had been in care over a year and were needing an adoptive home. Their mother is an extended relative of mine. Many “OMG’s” later, we said yes. Our home study for them is this weekend!
- Renee, mom in Austin, TX
(Photos by Caitlin Mathews Photography)
Click the video below to watch a recap of the Cortez Family Union Day!