About this time, last year, Scott and I witnessed something disgraceful, as foster parents. Our 20-month-old foster baby girl (whom we nicknamed Banana and had been with us since leaving the NICU at five weeks old) was about to go through a devastation that her tiny, little body couldn’t handle. Her case worker, case worker’s supervisor, legal guardian, and bio family made the decision to have her reunified, by a court appointed date, at no cost.
It didn’t matter that Banana was thriving and happy in her current situation for the first two years of her life and fully bonded with the only parents she knew.
It didn’t matter that Banana immediately showed signs of PTSD by the time she was spending overnights with one of her Bio-parents.
It didn’t matter how many doctors stated their concerns in writing regarding Banana’s health and well-being. These doctors (four to be exact), did not agree with the way her needs were overlooked.
It didn’t matter that Banana lost hair, stopped gaining weight, had abnormal test results, a different illness every week (for several months straight) and even showed reported signs of PTSD.
It didn’t matter that every single request we made for her benefit regarding her reunification process was ignored.
It didn’t matter that the Division’s choice doctors warned about the physical risks in reunification, at the time it was done.
It didn’t matter, that Banana desperately needed something more to help her with this critical transition.
It’s actually very difficult to describe exactly what we observed and experienced during Banana’s reunification process. In a nutshell, she suffered. Horrifically. There’s got to be a better way (a reformed policy) to prioritize the needs and best interest of the foster child, who is in a foster home for more than a few months and/or is fully bonded with his/her foster parents, above an arbitrary reunification date.
Let’s talk statistics.
The number of children in foster care, has been on the increase for the past 5 years. According to the AFCARS Report, there were approximately 437,465 children in foster care by the end of 2016. (2017 will not be reported until October, 2018.) Neglect and drug abuse continue to be the top two circumstances associated with the child’s removal. Almost 75% of children in foster care are in placement for over 5 months. More than 50% over a year! That’s a long time for a child to be displaced. Especially during the critical bonding years of infancy and early childhood development.
Imagine yourself, for a minute, having a new mommy and/or daddy for one year. If you’re a baby, chances are you’re going to believe they are your only mommy and daddy. And, just like you did not like someone taking you away from your mommy and daddy, these little ones, who have no capacity to understand the “why”, are being torn from the only parents they know and the only home and environment they know with ZERO guaranteed support. Trust me. I saw it happen.
More factual information…
According to a study performed by the Child Trauma Academy.
The most important property of humankind is the capacity to form and maintain relationships. These relationships are absolutely necessary for any of us to survive, learn, work, love and procreate.
The systems in the human brain that allow us to form and maintain emotional relationships develop during infancy and the first years of life.
Banana was reunified in August of last year, on her second birthday. Banana’s biological family was thrilled to get her home, even though they may never know just how awful it was for her. It’s not like they’ll ever know if their child is the same child we saw. It’s not like they’ll ever know if her life, her level of trust, her interpersonal skills, relationships, etc. will ever be compromised as a result of the insensitive reunification process she endured. Banana certainly “seems ok” and “looks ok” to them and perhaps that’s all that matters. This is the reality of the reunification process that we experienced from our vantage point.
I’m not sure if there is a specific policy on reunification at the national level. I’m pretty certain it varies from state to state. I did find, on the national foster care website, an outdated study (from 2011) called Family Reunification: What the Evidence Shows. While it capitalizes on the needs of the biological family, it does state that Reunification preparation and post-reunification supports must be based on the needs of the children and family rather than on arbitrary timeframes. In Banana’s case, it was 95% the biological family’s needs and 5% (if that) based on her needs. And, there was most certainly a priority of an arbitrary timeframe over Banana’s needs for help in dealing with trauma.
As Scott and I began to build our case in hopes for someone to slow down the process and create a unified plan that would prioritize Banana’s needs throughout the process, the Division and those who’s main duty was to protect her, actually jumped hurdles to get the truth silenced. Here was a child that was suffering. Beyond measure. Yet, they insisted upon using their own doctors and showed up at these appointments (or called the doctors) to strong-arm them into saying whatever fit their agenda.
Banana had an abnormal EKG from one of the Division’s doctors. While the doctor urged that the process of reunification not take precedence over Banana’s health, the Division (with the support of the Biological Family) manipulated the factual evidence of Banana’s trauma. The truth is that if she was suffering from epilepsy (which their doctor did not rule out) the reunification process could have induced a seizure. They put her life at risk to stick to their time-schedule. All the while suggesting that the judge would never ammend a reunification date nor support the need to put supports in place prior to reunifying.
I recall writing about Baby Banana throughout better times. How she was able to overcome the pain and trauma caused by withdrawal from opiates and having zero contact with her biological parents, for her first 5 weeks. After she was brought to us, those first few months were difficult and heartbreaking.
Scott and I did everything we could to help diminish the withdrawal symptoms. We altered our lives and put our dreams on hold to give everything we could to Baby Banana. She was so needy. I remember her nurse asking me to provide skin-to-skin contact. I thought it was strange and outside of my duty as a foster parent. But, I did it because I believed it could help her, and it did help. Our bond started early. By ten months, Baby Banana did not want to leave my side, nor Scott’s.
In spite of fully cooperating with visitation schedules by ten months, there was little evidence that Banana was ever going to be reunified. Scott and I allowed Banana to call us mommy and daddy, because at that point, she wanted a mommy and daddy. Later on, we were told that this upset the bio-parents. But, we did this for their child.
Banana was thriving by her first birthday. Every sign of withdrawal dissipated. She hit every developmental milestone with flying colors. And, she loved her home. Her room. Her family and community. Maybe if she wasn’t so happy, things wouldn’t have changed. Because it was only then, when the goal was changed to adoption, that the biological family came together and did everything right, to get her back. Banana was 15 months old at the time. Fully bonded. Fully thriving.
Honestly, Scott and I didn’t suspect she could be leaving us until mom had another baby. At that point, we began refocusing our efforts on at least helping Banana with the reunification process. Of course, we figured the family would work cooperatively with us. Of course, we assumed that they’d embrace us and at the very least say “thank you” in one of the several notes we received during those final months.
But, it became clear that the biological family felt threatened by us. As if we’d do something more than advocate for their child’s needs. This definitely concerned us, but we did not feel that the Division was helping us all to come together. Even for the sake of the child. Scott and I were always looking out for Banana’s needs above our own desires. Of course we dreaded the day we’d have to give her up, but in spite of that reality, all we wanted was to know that Banana’s needs were being met.
The division and law guardian patronized our requests to provide Banana with an evaluation and services. We would always get, “We are addressing your concerns.” Yet, Scott and I never saw a single action regarding these concerns.
Tell me something. Do you feel a two year old child deserves more than just increasing visitation before leaving the only people she knows (as parents), the only room, the only home, the only community? Do you feel that a psychological evaluation is too much to ask for? Do you believe that if a child suffers physically and emotionally that the “reunification plan” be modified in some way? Do you feel that the biological family and foster family should meet and work together? Do you believe a reunification can be adjusted even if it means adding on a few more weeks to get answers regarding a child’s unknown diagnosis? Do you believe a “successful reunification” should include supports for the child?
It certainly seems like those in charge of Banana’s reunification would say NO to all of the above.
The reality is that the Division and those who’s job it is to protect these children are causing more harm than good for the children.
When it was all over, the county that represented the needs of Baby Banana was able to report a “reunification with the biological family”. And, you know what? That’s a good thing in their book. In our book, it was a disgrace and injustice at it’s finest. But, then again, if “reunification” is all that is required to report, perhaps that seems like a success?
If you are upset at this reality, I urge you to share this post with your friends. I hope it will end up in someone’s hands, someday. Someone who can make a difference so that other foster babies do not have to suffer this atrocity. Someone who can create or modify policies so that the phrase “in the best interest of the child” includes the reunification process. The child’s needs should be paramount. Beyond an arbitrary reunification date or a reunification quota.
Success in my book does not look anything like what we observed for the four months Banana transitioned out of our lives.
Thank you for reading.