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!
Tomorrow is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
It is a harsh reality that foster care is connected with so many other social issues of today - one of which is human trafficking. Human trafficking is a market-driven, global industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars in profits. The supply and demand is fruitful, and is a crime that is notoriously under-reported.
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery when someone is exploited through force, fraud or coercion for the economic gain of another, in the form of:
Not all those who are trafficked are physically forced - in fact, most human trafficking occurs through psychological coercion, tricking, manipulation, or threats.
This criminal industry affects every type of community across the country and is present amongst various ages, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds; however, according to the Polaris Project, roughly two-thirds of reported survivors in 2018 were women and girls. According to the nonprofit organization Children at Risk, Texas is a leading hub for human trafficking, which spans across all of our major cities and even exists in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods.
One of the ways to get involved in the fight against human trafficking is to learn the indicators. Sometimes victims are hidden in plain sight - at a construction site, restaurants, hotels, etc - which makes it important for anyone to know and identify the signs of a human trafficking situation. Be aware of red flags such as evidence of physical abuse, fearful behavior, or rehearsed or scripted answers, and be sure to call 911 or the Human Trafficking Hotline to report any suspicions.
Another way to get involved is to support and empower our local foster care community. Reports show that roughly 60% of trafficking victims here in the United States have a history in the child welfare system. Two of the top five reasons for human trafficking are due to 1) unstable housing and 2) runaway or homeless youth - both of which are common circumstances for youth in foster care. Children in foster care often lack consistent support and a watchful eye, and can fall prey to tricks and manipulations by predators. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, traffickers will even send out one of their young female victims to group foster homes to lure others to leave. They are then led to a life of prostitution, abuse, violence and exploitation.
At Austin Angels, we know that young people who have grown up in the foster care system have received less financial, emotional, and social support than their peers, are less prepared for life after foster care, and are more likely to fall victim to life-threatening situations such as human trafficking, homelessness, incarceration or suicide. This is why our Dare to Dream Program was created to help local youth in foster care navigate life's challenges and provide them with one more healthy adult to call. Our volunteer mentors provide wisdom, advice, encouragement, and community that help empower and guide our youth towards a healthy, happy and thriving adulthood. We tell mentors that the simple act of telling their youth “I believe in you,” or answering the phone when times get hard, can change their path completely - and hopefully avoid these statistics that plague our system. Our children deserve better than this.
For more information about how you can support a youth in foster care, visit https://www.austinangels.com/daretodream.html. Click on any of the links below to learn more about the human trafficking crisis.
Today is National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, a day to recognize and thank all of the incredible men and women who put their lives on hold and on the line for their communities. And we couldn't think of a better day to tell you the story of our friend and local police officer, Erika, who truly went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure a newborn baby was cared for during his most vulnerable days.
One day on the job, Erika met a woman who became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a baby boy. The baby was born addicted to methamphetamine. While the family was still at the hospital, Erika received a phone call asking her to take the baby home with her that night, or else he would have to be placed into the foster care system. So with mom's approval, Erika took the one-week-old baby boy home with her.
The first couple of nights were a bit chaotic, as many families experience with a newborn baby. But while most new parents have already spent the past nine months preparing for the arrival of their new baby, caregivers like Erika don't have the benefit of this predictable experience. A nine-month preparation period can be reduced to as little as hours of warning before the child(ren)'s arrival.
Many foster parents do not even know much information ahead of time, including details like gender, age, how many children need placing, how many belongings they are coming with, and/or what the child's health and medical needs are (in Erika's case, the baby was born addicted to drugs, which brings added complications). This time can be especially difficult for those parenting their first infant or toddler, who need the same variety of items that are often provided through a traditional baby shower - car seats, strollers, diapers, bottles, formula, and high chair are large expenses that foster parents may need to suddenly pay.
In addition, working parents may have to adjust their work schedules with little to no notice, and quickly plan for childcare assistance. In order to continue fostering, Erika had to put the baby boy in daycare, and unfortunately didn't have the funds - but needed to do this in order for the baby to remain in her care.
"You're giving them life and love
Erika's friend Monica put her in touch with Austin Angels. We quickly let our community know about Erika's needs, and thanks to you, we were able to raise enough money to pay for three more months of daycare, which allowed Erika to continue caring for the baby until he was placed in a forever family! Erika says of the support, "They came in and pretty much saved the day for us as a family."
Not all heroes wear capes, and Erika is for sure evidence of this! So today on #NationalLawEnforcementAppreciationDay (and every day) be sure to thank your local law enforcement officers for their service, and for continuing to make sacrifices for the betterment of their communities.
Click the video below to watch Erika tell her story in her own words:
I became a foster parent by accident, a happy accident.
A little about myself: I am a special needs teacher in Austin. I’m single, have no biological kids, and worked a part-time job in my spare time.
I received a professional courtesy call in February 2017 in regards to a student of mine. She was placed in CPS custody the night before. I knew nothing of the case. Was this a temporary placement or a permanent placement? All I did know was that I was scared for my sweet little student who had no language and was alone and scared that she had no one who would advocate for her and scared for myself that if I didn’t do anything to help her that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I spoke to CPS that day and asked what I needed to do to bring her home with me. She had been placed in a temporary living dormitory under a watchful eye but it was not a home. CPS referred me to a foster agency. I spoke to them to begin the process of becoming a foster parent. I expedited the process as much as I could so that I could bring her home. I was full of anxiety and fear about her well-being. Since she was a child with special needs there were extra classes I had to complete. I took off work to complete the required classes and go to court.
"At first i was afraid that someone
I went to visit with her as often as I could. She would smile when I walked into the room. Finally, after 30 days, I received my foster care license. Then I had a phone conference with doctors, case workers, and CPS which resulted in an agreement for her to come home with me.
The first night, CPS, the foster care case manager, and myself met where she was housed and I signed all the paperwork. We left to go home with a stop on the way for dinner and to pick up medicine. It was 9:00 p.m. before we made it the house where CPS had to come and check in on her. We ate, gave meds, and went to bed. I don’t think I even slept that first night and very much the first month. But with each passing day, our schedule got worked out and I finally felt like a bona fide foster parent to this adorable nine-year-old little girl.
I was introduced to Austin Angels through a referral from another advocate group to help me with clothing. I met my Love Box leaders and my case manager Kathleen, at Starbucks. Kathleen interviewed me to find out our interests and needs. Love Box leaders are volunteers who want to help kids in foster case. They donate time to spend with a paired foster family and they also put together a monthly Love Box of goodies for their family. We have met at the park and each others’ houses. They have even come over to fix a few of things at my house. THEY ARE AMAZING!
Additionally, Austin Angels also connected us with KINGS (Kids In a New Groove, music lessons), parent's day out events, overnight camping at Camp Glimmer, activity passes for the summer, and a bountiful basket of activities and goodies for Christmas. They have and continue to provide a community of caring, friendly faces and resources that I, as foster parent, would have never dreamed was possible or existed.
- Patricia, mom in Austin, TX
For many people, the holidays are a special time that is filled with decorating, celebrating, giving, and receiving (and maybe eating WAY too many treats along the way!). We associate this season with warm memories, exciting events, extra quality time, and family traditions.
But for children in foster care, this time of year can feel lonely and call attention to their current lack of normalcy. For some children, the holidays may bring back positive memories of time spent with their biological parents and siblings. They are reminded of their family traditions, holiday outings, their home, and special gifts they received. Despite the reasons they ended up in foster care in the first place, the child could still long for this quality time spent with their biological family and feel lonely or worried without them. And celebrating with their foster family could make the child experience feelings of stress, guilt or betrayal.
For other children in care, their memories of the holidays aren’t as fond. Maybe they never received any Christmas presents, and went without any special love or attention. Maybe they experienced something especially traumatic this time last year, that stirs up feelings of anxiety and makes them feel unsafe. Or maybe their biological family simply didn’t celebrate, and the child is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with their new foster family’s traditions.
Foster mom, Sarah (*names have been changed for privacy) said, “I could see Amanda’s face as we decorated the tree with lots of memories from the time I’ve had Ava (foster sibling), but nothing of hers. So I’ve tried to make it special for her since it’s her first Christmas home… I got the kids stockings, and Amanda a few of her own ornaments to give their special place. I think not having any real traditions, and mixed emotions, creates a lot of feelings that are hard for our kids to process.”
This time of year can become more difficult for caregivers as well. Parents are navigating the busy holidays, changes in family schedules, events for school, work and family. Adding in the additional responsibilities that come with fostering, such as case worker visits, meetups with the biological family, court dates, and other mandatory appointments, this time can become overwhelming. In addition, they may have to navigate increases in their child’s challenging behaviors and emotional stress brought about by this time of year, while also sorting through their own emotions. Foster mom, Savannah, says she would struggle with thoughts of,
"what if this is my only christmas with them?"
So how can you be there for a foster family or child in foster care this holiday season? Here are a few small but meaningful gestures:
Raising a child takes a village, especially when the child comes from a hard place. Not everyone is called to foster or adopt a child, but there are so many ways to support the people who do. Please check our waitlist below to see if there is a foster family in need of a sponsor near you, and contact us for more information.