From the May 2018 issue

Loving and Letting Go: Being a Foster Parent

Families around southeast Michigan open their homes to children in their time of greatest need – selflessly and, often, silently. We talk to three of them who've experienced this process of pouring out their hearts for our state's most vulnerable young residents – and then saying goodbye.

Amy and David Noon had an intense desire to bring a child into their home, but Amy’s ovarian cancer and a subsequent hysterectomy left this Auburn Hills couple unable to conceive. They turned toward the foster care system as an opportunity to help a child in need and as a potential avenue for adoption.

The application, screening and training process involved in becoming foster parents was lengthy, but the Noons sailed through the process. All that was left was to wait for a call.

One early evening in January 2010, the phone rang while Amy, now 48, was making dinner. There was a 2-week-old baby girl in need of a foster home, and the agency required an immediate answer.

The Noons agreed to take the child and, within a few hours, they headed to the hospital to pick her up. They may have gotten there sooner but first they had to make a quick stop at the store; it was either Walmart or Meijer, recalls Amy. They needed diapers, formula and clothes for a 2-week-old preemie. By 11 p.m., the Noons had what Amy describes as a tiny, helpless baby girl in their house. She stayed for eight months before being reunited with her father.

“We fell in love with her almost instantly,” says Amy. “How could you not? Letting her go was the hardest thing we had to do. We absolutely went through an intense grieving period when she left. The positive side is that the goal of foster care, which is reunification, was met, and we are still in touch with the family.”

Fostering a future

Foster care is the temporary placement, by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, of a child who has been abused or neglected. That child is put in a licensed foster home until it is determined that it’s safe for him or her to be reunited with his or her biological parents. The role of a foster parent is to provide support by meeting the emotional, medical and educational needs of a child, according to the department.

The amount of time a child stays in the foster home varies from days to a year or more – depending on how long it takes the birth parents to resolve the issue that put the child there. And the process of becoming a licensed foster parent takes between four and six months depending on how quickly screening and training requirements are met, MDHHS notes. Its website adds that there are nearly 13,000 Michigan children in foster care and 300 foster kids in need of an adoptive family.

In 2010, Erika and Rick Jones were on a waiting list for a private adoption. The following year, they decided to begin the process of becoming foster parents. But then, in 2012, their daughter Samantha was born – and this metro Detroit couple was satisfied as a family of three.

It was hard to stay content, though, when the Joneses knew firsthand there was such a dire need for foster parents. Erika works as the marketing and communications director for Judson Center, a local social service agency that, among other things, assists families in meeting the requirements to have their child return home. It also recruits and trains prospective foster families.

“We had the room and the heart, so we decided to revisit the idea of foster care,” says Erika about their decision to become licensed foster parents.

The Joneses got their call 19 months ago. It was 3 p.m. on a Friday, a few days before their daughter Samantha’s fourth birthday. At 4:30 p.m., the Joneses picked up Samantha at day care and, two hours later, they had an 8-month-old baby boy.

For the first month, unless Erika held him, he cried 24/7. Her husband Rick kept trying to get the baby to feel comfortable in his arms, ultimately finding success by wearing him in an infant carrier.

“You don’t realize a child can be traumatized at 8 months old, but he can. We were strangers to him. At first we wondered, ‘How do we calm him down? How do we create that bond so he knows he’s safe?’ There was a lot of holding and reassuring in the beginning,” Erika recalls.

“Now he’s like ‘Rick, Rick,’ or ‘Daddy Rick, where are you?’ I think he prefers Rick. I disappear, no big deal. He disappears, it’s a big deal,” laughs Erika, who is called Mama Erika by her foster child.

A temporary haven

Tara and Juan Carlos Cruz took a different route when they opened their Madison Heights home to a 5-week-old baby girl. She was placed with them through a faith-based nonprofit called Safe Families for Children.

Unlike foster care, where a child is removed from his or her biological family because of abuse or neglect, Safe Families connects kids with those who can provide temporary care during a family crisis such as homelessness, hospitalization or domestic violence.

One of the biggest differences, Cruz says, is that the parent or caregiver has the foresight to get the child out of a potentially bad situation. They decide to send the child to another family, and they choose when it’s time for their child to come back.

“What if you’re a single parent entering a drug rehab program and you don’t have any family around?” says Cruz, a 43-year-old bookkeeper and homeschooling mom. “This program is designed to come up around this family and say, ‘You can comfortably give your child to this other family.’

“As a host family, we underwent a comprehensive background check,” she adds, “so the agency can say to the family: ‘We’ve background checked them and your child will be OK while you are gone. You can talk to them, you can see them, and you can get them anytime you want.'”

Becoming a foster parent can be challenging, because the role is to care for a child on an interim basis. Furthermore, that care involves driving the child to parental visits multiple times a week in addition to other appointments and check-ins with case managers. The application process is intrusive – to protect the child – and the emotional toll on a foster family is undeniably large when the child leaves.

“I don’t know how you don’t fall in love with a child,” says a tearful Cruz. “Having her was easy, as easy as having an infant can be. The hard part was giving her back. When they leave, you’re kind of relieved to sleep again and get back to a regular routine, but then you miss them. You worry about them and you wonder where they are. That was a really hard thing to do. This wrecked me emotionally.”

Navigating transitions

The Cruz family does not have contact with the mother of the baby they cared for, but some foster families do, depending on the preference of the birth or custodial parents.

The Noons have had a total of three foster children in their care and remain in touch with two of those families. Their first baby is now 8 years old. In addition to seeing her and her dad at holidays, birthdays and even funerals, they also text and talk frequently.

A year after that baby returned to her father, the Noons briefly cared for another newborn. They knew the placement would be short; relatives needed some time to become certified to take care of him. They are not in touch with this family.

Another year went by before a third baby was placed in their care. In 2012, a 1-week-old went from the hospital to their house, and she stayed with them for a year before returning to her mother.

During that time, the Noons adopted their daughter Kate and, for a short time, had two babies just seven months apart. Kate obviously doesn’t remember this, but the families still see each other occasionally, and the girls each enjoy being together.

“It was hard knowing that she was going to go back to her family but comforting in that we got to know and become friends with the family. I think our situation is unique, because relationships between foster parents and birth parents are not always easy,” says Amy. “As hard as it was to let go, it’s wonderful to see the child thriving at home because, after all, reunification is the goal of foster care.”

The Joneses hope they can stay in touch with the family of their foster child, but ultimately it is not their decision. Right now Erika and the mother of her foster child exchange text messages and the Joneses see her when they drop him off three times a week for visitations.

“She’s young. She likes to text,” says Erika. “Sometimes I hear from her often and sometimes it’s out of the blue. It’s uncomfortable, if you think about it from her perspective. We have her child. I want her to feel comfortable but I understand, it’s an uncomfortable situation. In general, these parents are not bad people. They just need extra support in place to help them as a parent.”

Lasting imprints

For those foster families with children already in the house, there is the added layer of preparing those kids for the arrival and ultimate departure of the foster child.

Five-year-old Samantha Jones knows that the toddler sharing her home and her parents’ affection will eventually leave. From the beginning, Erika and Rick have been honest with their daughter, explaining on a level she can understand.

“She knows we’re helping him since his mommy and daddy aren’t ready to take care of him right now. She’s met his parents, and she gets him excited about seeing them. We don’t know how she’ll process it when he leaves, but we also know it won’t be a surprise for her either. I think he’s going to have a hard time without her too. He’s her shadow,” says Erika, who talks about possibly taking the children to Build-A-Bear Workshop so they can make a stuffed animal to remember each other by.

The Cruz children, Sofia, 6, and Graciela, 11, said goodbye to their foster sister a year ago. The girls keep a picture of her in their room, and her round face is the background photo on their iPad.

“It’s their loss too,” says Cruz, adding that Christmas and Thanksgiving were especially hard on the family as they recalled previous celebrations with the baby.

Despite the emotional attachment and lengthy and intrusive process involved in becoming a foster parent, each of these families say it has been worth it.

“You never want to hope it doesn’t work out and the child can stay with you, because that means the parent in his life isn’t succeeding,” says Erika. “You want the parent to do well because that will benefit the child in your care.

“If there’s a bond, you’re doing it right. You want to care and nurture this child, but you have to keep in mind he’s not your child. We are treating him as our own knowing it’s not forever, but that’s what foster care is.”

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