This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on December 7, 2003.
The baby boy squished banana chunks between his tiny fingers before he shoved them
in his mouth. He pointed to the banana peel and said, “ba-ba.” His foster mother
handed him a few more chunks. He looked at me, smiling at his great accomplishment.
Four little white teeth had emerged from his gums.
As I looked into his innocent eyes I marveled at how far “Raymond” had come in the
eight months since my sister became his foster mother, after his birth mother left him at a bus stop with a stranger and never came back. My sister’s was his sixth foster home. He cried constantly because he was battling a heroin addiction and alsosuffered from an anal fissure, ruptured ear drum and thrush.
His medical problems were treated and his tiny heart – one bereft of love – was filled. He learned how to laugh and play and gained the confidence to flirt with strangers like me.
My sister is a foster parent who specializes in babies from birth to one year. In the five years she has been fostering babies she has sent most of them to loving adoptive homes. The child welfare system mandates that babies go to their blood relatives – if they can find them. If no blood relatives are found, a baby becomes eligible for adoption by a certified adoptive family.
Prior to Raymond, my sister fostered another baby boy, “Travis,” for a year before he was available for adoption. She worked with his new parents to make the transition as comfortable as possible. The adoptive parents came to my sister’s house for dinner. A few days later they babysat while my sister and her husband went out for the evening.
Travis met his new parents for the first time on his own turf. He had a chance to get to know them while he sat in his own high chair. They fell in love with him immediately. Once he was comfortable, his new parents took Travis home to a fully furnished nursery, with tons of toys, a permanent Mom and Dad and a childhood full of love and attention from people with whom he did not share one drop of blood.
Raymond isn’t so lucky. His grandmother wants to raise him. She made this decision in spite of the promise made by Child Protective Services that Raymond’s adoptive parents would welcome his grandmother as part of their life – complete with pictures and visits. Couples that long for a child are willing to do what it takes to adopt a baby.
Raymond’s transition was not smooth. When his grandmother arrived, they went to a fast food restaurant. Amid the chaos of children and burgers and fries, Raymond was put in the arms of his blood relative. She stayed the weekend and then left. Life as Raymond knew it was over and this well-meaning stranger was now his guardian.
None of the myriad of professionals involved in Raymond’s case paid much attention to my sister’s concern about his placement with his grandma. Raymond’s psychiatric evaluation said that his transition should include preparation and association with the new family to transition his bonding, in light of his early trauma. If the transition was abrupt, he might just give up on bonding entirely. Child Protective Services had a “placement” and needed to move on – bonding be damned.
Just like Raymond, my sister was denied a smooth transition. Her voice, the one that knew Raymond best and cared about him the most, wasn’t heard.
As Richard Gelles, Dean of the Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work said, “We drive people out of the foster care system by giving them nothing other than a check and thank you very much, but by the way, if you complain, we’re taking the kid out”.
After she spent months nurturing a damaged child so he could once again trust adults, my sister was forced to betray his trust – in the interest of reunification. I looked at the pictures she took of him the day before he left, sitting in a grocery cart with a sad look. Everyone at the store knew he was a foster child and made a point to say hello and to give him a balloon or a hug.
A few years from now, will Raymond sit on the porch with his grandma and watch the other kids learn how to ride a bike with their Dads running along side, holding on till they get their balance? By the time he is learning to drive a car, will his grandmother be up to the harrowing experience of sitting next to him as he careens down the road, as all new drivers do? Will her blood tie to him replace all the things he will lose because he’ll never have a Mom and a Dad?
Because the child welfare system insists on family reunification, loving adoptive families won’t be able to provide the kind of home babies like Raymond so desperately need. Foster parents who want to care for a child until he can move to a permanent home, instead hand him over to a blood relative whose intentions may be good but whose actions hurt the child they claim as their own.
Until the child welfare system recognizes that the bond of love is more important that the bond of blood, loving foster parents will watch their tiny charges go off to homes that cannot give them what every child deserves – a Mom and a Dad of their own.
Kathleen Vallee Stein