October 13, 2014
She was wearing a lime green tank top, faded black jeans, and pink fleece boots. Her hair, which was cut a thousand different lengths, was coarse and crawling with lice. My oldest two boys and I were sitting in a dingy DES office, waiting…
It’s a strange feeling. You get call after call from your agency. “We have a four year old Hispanic boy, would you be willing to take him? His biological mom has been stalking his current foster mom, but don’t worry. It’s her extended family and that often happens. She won’t bother you.” “We have African-American two-year-old twin girls. Are you interested?” “We have sibling boys, ages four and seven.” “We have a girl, she’s five. No health or behavior issues, no lice.” (They actually said that! “No lice.”) You get all these calls, you say yes to most of them, and then you never hear anything back. After the first call, on a Monday, I was on pins and needles, waiting for the call-back, which never came. By Friday, I was getting used to not hearing back, so my heart skipped a beat when I got a follow-up call, this time from CPS. They confirmed that we’d be willing to take our girl, and got some more information from us. They called back a little while later with details on where to pick her up. I asked them if she had anything with her and they said no. I asked if she seemed to be a normal size for a five year old girl, and they said they supposed she was. That was also when they informed us she had lice. So we went to Target and picked out a few outfits and some lice shampoo, and we hit the road.
And then we sat in that dingy office, with no idea what to expect. It took a little while. I had to speak to a couple people first, sign some papers, receive a packet of “information” (quotes because we got basically no info on her to start). She finally came out, looking like the little ragamuffin she was, smiling sheepishly. She immediately settled herself in a chair between my two boys and offered them some candy. One of the last selfless acts she would show them, but it was a promising start. We finished up the clerical stuff and were on our way.
On the way home she talked incessantly, mostly nonsense, but with little helpful tidbits about herself and her family sprinkled in. We listened and chatted but didn’t ask too many questions. When we got home, I asked if I could help her take a bath. I was a little worried about this, knowing that lots of kids who come into care don’t want to wash the smell of home off of them, and not knowing if she would be uncomfortable with my presence while she bathed. But she was happy, even excited, to have a bath, and seemed at ease with me. I washed her hair and got a good look at all the creepy crawlies, of which there were plenty.
She spent the rest of the day exploring the house, and we spent the rest of the day trying to get to know this new little person. She didn’t want to read any books at bedtime, but asked if she could fall asleep watching cartoons. We obliged, letting her watch Netflix on an iPad once she was settled in bed. She didn’t want to be tucked all the way in, though, but slept with a blanket (one of the only items she had brought from home) on top of the bedding on her bed. When we checked on her she was sucking her thumb.
By the time that first day ended, we felt certain this was not her first go-around in the system, a fact that was confirmed for us by a caseworker a few days later. She just seemed to know the drill a little too well, but we couldn’t get a clear picture from her of what her history had been. I don’t know if she had a clear idea of what her history had been, or that there was anything out-of-the-ordinary about it.
That first day feels distinct in my memory, but the following days are blurry looking back. We were told to expect it to feel a bit like the days after giving birth, and I’d say it feels more than a bit like that. I felt happy and excited, but also sad and emotional. I cried a lot, without always knowing why I cried. Friends came and brought clothes and toys and meals. We tried to get to know our girl, to affirm that we cared about her a great deal, to find ways to bond and make her feel safe.
We registered her for school, bought her the necessary supplies, and took her to school just a few days after she came. She loved the first day, but on the second day I had to peel her off of me screaming and crying and hand her into the loving arms of her teacher (an absolutely wonderful woman who also fosters), who told me to go, just go, that everything would be fine. I walked away, drove away, pulled into the nearest parking lot I could find, and cried my eyes out, wondering if I had betrayed our girl’s trust in some critical way. A few hours later, when I went to pick the kids up, she came running to the car, happily announcing that she had had a really good day, and I realized then that this girl was going to put me through an emotional ringer, and she would have no idea.
These kids, man. There are so many of them, sitting in CPS offices, knowing or not knowing why they’ve been taken away from their own families, not knowing if the family coming to get them will be kind or unkind, not knowing when they’ll get to see their biological family again, not knowing if they want to…
It’s weird and it’s hard and it’s confusing and it’s exhausting, but these kids are there, needing somewhere to go. They need solid families who will love them unconditionally and make them feel safe and let them know they have value. She sometimes talks about the hours she waited in the CPS office, before she met us. She talks about how she didn’t know who was coming to get her, and how she wondered if we’d be nice. She says she’s glad that we turned out to be a nice family. I start to think about how scary that must feel for a child, but I can’t think about it too long. So then I just think about her, and how whatever comes of all of this, I’m glad we’re the family that came to get her.
P.S. The lice. Our licensing worker referred us to a wonderful company called The Hair Angels that sends someone out to the house to comb through the hair of the infested person, using some unique and thorough technique, and they guarantee their work. It cost a couple hundred bucks, but as far as I’m concerned, it may be the best couple hundred bucks we’ve ever spent.