4 years ago, my friends Miguel (left in the photo above) and Chris (right in the photo above) decided to foster a child. Dede (in the middle) arrived to their lives two years later. I asked Miguel to answer a couple of questions about their journey. Here is what he had to say:
A few years ago, my husband and I started to play with the idea of expanding our family. It was the summer of 2012 and NBC just started airing The New Normal.
Week after week the seed kept growing until we decided to take action. This is how we found out about the foster care system and all the kids that needed a home.
The first thing we did was finding an agency, then we had to go through training, certification, and almost a year of waiting before someone arrived at our door and our lives changed forever.
Dede came into our lives almost 2 years ago. She was a beautiful 4 years old girl. She was also neglected and abused by her family. They were homeless and used her for panhandling. She was detained by the Department of Children and Family and placed in a few homes before coming to us. This is very typical for foster children: they jump from home to home. Some of them are lucky enough to find a forever home and others end up growing up in the system until they age out. Dede was very sassy and full or energy when we met her. You could see that she was a 4 years old going on 20.
What have you liked the most about fostering?
We were lucky in choosing the agency that we picked: SCFFAA, now called Extraordinary Families. Raise a Child recommended this agency because they had a good history of working with the LGBT community.
We felt right at home from the beginning. Extraordinary Families made us feel part of their community right away. Our social worker became our best friend and she always supported and guided us through the process.
But, the best thing about fostering is to witness your child’s life changing for the best. This previously strange person that has none of your genes, starts talking and behaving like you. Dede slowly became our daughter.
What have you liked the least about fostering?
Going thru the judicial system. It is hard to see how children struggle with it. Even though they are trying to protect the wellbeing of the children, kids suffer tremendously. The court days, visits with lawyers and social workers, the contact with their birth family and many other things are hurtful to them. It is too much for a four-year-old to handle!
I remember the first time that we went to court with Dede. We arrived a bit early and the building was not open yet. The line outside the building resembled the lines that you expect to see when taking a ride at Disneyland.
In this place, hundreds of kids with adults were in line to experience a 5-minute ride that could change their lives forever. You wait and wait and watch kids coming in and out of the courtrooms. Some leave in tears, others full of happiness. It is a heartbreaking situation that I had never experienced before.
When it’s finally your turn to see the judge, you enter and sit in the back of the room, barely hearing what is going on. You don’t even have time to blink before the judge makes a decision. After that, they asked you to leave the room and the lawyer has to explain what happened outside the courtroom.
You have to do this over and over again and as many times as they request you to come back to court. The cases are usually reviewed every six months, but you also have appeals, special requests, changes in lawyers or judges – which means you have to go back to court to update them on the case… it is endless.
Since Dede turned four at the beginning of this process, the court requested her presence every time there was a court day. After a couple of times doing this, she was really struggling, to the point where she would refuse to get out of the car to go to the court. This is when we started to figure out a way to get Dede out of these troublesome legal commitment and we did.
You have to learn to navigate the system to your benefit. At first you are very naïve. You believe in the system, but, once you realize this is hurting your child, you start figuring out loopholes to protect her.
As a foster family, you have no rights and no say in court, even though you are caring for the child 24/7. The judge only cares about what the social worker, who visits Dede once a month, or the lawyer, who talks to her for 5-minutes before the trial, have to say. So what do you do? You become best friends with the people that have influence in court. You become the father of the month for the therapist or the teacher and ask them to provide letters to help your cause. Things you would want to tell the judge but you are not allowed to say. Thanks to this effort, they excused Dede from showing up again in court.
The other difficult situation was the visits with her bio family. The court dictates in the first hearing the amount of time that the family is allowed to spend with the child. In our case, we had to facilitate 2 hours visits twice a week. Every case is different, but this amount of time is pretty standard. They don’t care how this affects the child. In our case, every time Dede had a visit with her bio family, she was reminded of her trauma and bad behaviors spiked. That was her way of telling us in how much pain she was. The worst part was that her bio family was constantly cancelling the meetings and giving her false promises that were never fulfilled. She was disappointed all the time. For us, witnessing these visits was hard. She was going full of expectation and every time those expectations were shattered and it was our duty to pick up the pieces and make sure to give her all the love that she needed.
What would be your advice to people who want to foster a child?
Follow every single rule to the dot and document everything.
Also, create tight relationships with lawyers, therapists, social workers, teachers and everybody else involved in your child’s life. I think that is the best advice to survive the process. Also, one good thing about the foster system is that they provide many services. Use all of them! For example, we got therapy for Dede; for us, individually; and also for the entire family. We got special support to help Dede with school: after school programs, parenting classes… you name it.
About the difficulties of dealing with a foster child, we gave Dede a lot of love but also the structure that she never had before and in just a few months we started to see the difference.
When you get a kid from the foster system they are in survival mode. They have been neglected, abused, taken from their families and brought to a stranger’s home. They are not going to trust you. They are going to hate and blame you for what is happening to them. Their bad behavior is going to spike because this is the only way they can express their disappointment about their situation.
These are going to be tough times but don’t give up on them. Keep loving them, keep giving them support, structure and more love and sooner or later things will start turning around. Create new ties for them: new friends, new relatives, and new memories.
My husband loves to take pictures, we all suffer his hobby, but as we were getting closer to the one-year anniversary of having Dede with us, we created a collage book with pictures of that year. Chris and I spent nights selecting, printing, cutting and gluing a scrapbook of our family for Dede. It was heartbreaking. At first, she didn’t even open it. That one-year mark hit her hard. She was reminded of the long time she had spent with us, and how long she had been away from her bio family. One day, she decided to open the book and realized how much happiness it brought her to remember the beautiful moments we have had as a family. For months and months afterwards, she would read it before going to bed. She looked at every picture and made the same comments all over again. And every night, after she closed the book, she hugged it and gave it a kiss. There is no money in the world that can pay for that.
What did you wish you knew before you started fostering?
I wish I knew a lot of things that we didn’t know. Yes, during the training they explained you the process step by step but on paper it looks very simple in comparison to what it really is.
I always compare the process to a rollercoaster ride, you know what is coming immediately in front of you, but you don’t how many twists and turns come after that.
The social workers and lawyers will inform you of the next steps like the next court day but, like anything in our judicial system, the outcomes are always unpredictable.
One of the things that I would recommend is to be part of a support group. I wish we started sooner doing that. The experiences, the fears, the doubts of every foster parent are the same so it was great to share these with others.
Knowing what you now, would you do this again?
No doubt about it. The joy of seeing a child thrive is priceless.
The unknown was always the scary part, now that we know what happens, now that we have ridden the rollercoaster, we could go back again and enjoy the ride.
How is your daughter doing?
The first year was a bit tough for all of us. I am not going to lie about it. As much as we provided the structure and love that she needed it was a rough ride.
Dede didn’t adapt well in school. She spent more time in the principal’s office than in class, but once the visits with the bio family ended and she learned that she was staying forever with us she totally changed. Her attachment to us, to her support system, her school, teachers, and classmates grew. If you meet her now, you will never know that that she was neglected and abused two years ago. She is a child full of life, silly and lovable, always laughing.
During this process she also grew a tough skin. She can deal with any bullies at school and she is not afraid of talking about her past, her homeless family and her two dads. She doesn’t care if kids laugh at her, she is not afraid of confronting her reality. There is nothing to hide, nothing to be afraid of and that makes me so proud of her.
What was the hardest part of being a dad?
There is nothing too easy about being a dad, especially for me. My husband is a natural with kids but for me this is a different story. I never dreamed of having kids, so when we were thinking of adoption, I doubted myself many times but here I am. I don’t think I am the best dad ever but I try to be every single day. I have learned so much from my husband and from my friends!
When you become a dad, your life turns upside down, your priorities change, and your child becomes the center of your life. I don’t think this is any different from a biological child. It is true that there is no genetic bond with an adopted child but love works its magic in ways that create those same ties around your family.
What is the best part of being a dad?
The joy that Dede brings to our lives. From the moment that we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, those moments are priceless. Being a dad is exhausting, but well worth it.
What have been your biggest fears?
During this process, especially for us since our intention was always to adopt, we were fearful of loosing Dede. When you take a kid from the foster care system, the idea is for that kid to eventually return to her/his bio family. You are supposedly taking care of him/her for a short period of time. As my accountant told me once, you are just a glorified babysitter paid by the government, so the fear of her returning to her family was always present. And not only fear of losing her but the fear of seeing her going back to living with a family that abused and neglected her, placing her life at risk again. She didn’t deserve that. She didn’t do anything to anybody to be treated that way and Chris and I needed to do everything in our power to make sure she wouldn’t suffer anymore.
Would you recommend fostering to others?
This process is not for the faint of heart. It is long and time consuming, but every single second is worth it. In LA, there are 30 thousand kids in foster care right now, and if you have the power to change the life of just one of them it is well worth it. The rewards are infinite. It is amazing to receive a hug of your daughter every morning when she wakes up or hear her scream “daddy” across the hallway when you pick her up from school.
Thanks, Miguel! You and Chris are amazing parents and reading your answers made me cry.
Also, a post about criticizing how others do parenting, being called by your husband’s first and last name, and myths about women.