Tag: trauma

Part VI

The Dental Side of Foster Care

I know I’ve mentioned before about all the appointments and meetings that come along with saying “yes” to a child in foster care, but one of the harder things I’ve faced in the years we have fostered is the dental work itself.

Of course they tried to explain in classes about the appointments, and if you decide to work with an agency they will tell you that they like you to be there for your foster baby as often as possible for appointments, but will certainly assist in transportation for the ones you cannot be there for.

Because there will probably be so, so many.

I don’t know why the dental part is so overwhelming for me. I mean, all the other appointments are there, too: counseling or play therapy, FAPT meetings, VEMAT assessments, behavioral assessments, school meetings, psych evaluations, doctor checkups, immunizations, eye doctors, specialists and more. There are so, so many. And they all take time, planning, scheduling, (then lots of times re-scheduling), driving, stress, gas and money.

All the children in foster care have government health insurance which means that they have some type of Medicaid, with a provider company above that, ranging from Anthem, Optima, Virginia Premier, or others. You can also request a change in that provider if a doctor you need changes their policies or switches which companies they work with. That does not cost you anything, and your case worker does all the paperwork for you to make the switch.

We have never paid a dime for any one of our foster babies’ medical bills, and if I ever got a bill in the mail for something our foster kids needed, our case worker handled all of it from the minute I handed her the envelope. That part is really so, so easy.

Finding a doctor you love (or even just trust) that accepts the insurance your foster child has and is close to where you live can be the tricky part. Maybe it is because we live in a small town, about 45 minutes away from a big city, that we struggle with this very often, and maybe because we have to travel that far to see our dentist… maybe that’s why I have so much issue with the dental appointments.

But truthfully, we face that issue with every one of the needs I listed above… they are all in the big city, and when you find one you like and start building a relationship, you’d better hold on tight and pray they don’t switch practices or insurance policies or offices, because then you start over. And you’d better realize right off the bat that they are already over-booked, over-stressed and under-paid… and you will wait a VERY long time for your appointments.

Now I will say, once we have our appointments’ scheduled, we have seldom sat in the waiting room more than 15 minutes. Truly remarkable for the schedule they keep. But I have also gone 10 months out to schedule a 6 month cleaning, and waited 8 months just to get a newly discovered filling taken care of. Those times required more questioning phone calls back to the office to clarify if there was anything sooner, and analyzing the need to make sure it wasn’t an emergency… they are just so back logged, it is hard to take a number and wait in line, especially when you see so much neglect that you are trying to catch up on.

I LOVE our foster babies’ dentist. She is incredible at what she does, a tiny spitfire with an accent that gets harder to interpret the more emotional she becomes, and it’s all because she genuinely cares so much about her patients. She considers every one of them her “babies” and loves on each one she serves, even more so lavishly on our foster babies. (She calls ALL the foster babies her babies.) She thrives on giving them the best care, and genuinely invests herself into their situations, asking each time how things are going, and always ending with hugs and high fives.

I wouldn’t give her up for the world, especially when I know she has been there for us since Day One in such a complex case.

By the time Little Buddy got in for his first appointment to analyze his mouth, she explained that he would be better off with surgery to complete the work, he was so little and the worked was so complicated.

I had never heard of such a thing.

She explained that his insurance would allow the surgery only through age 5. After he turned 6, it would be through nitrous oxide (snoopy nose) in house for every treatment, broken down over the course of 18-24 months as he could handle it.

I signed the paperwork as fast as I could and she put him on the schedule as fast as she could. She promised to save as many teeth as she could, and I promised to take care of them the best I could.

The morning I brought him to the hospital, so early the air was still biting my lungs, he stepped over the threshold to the automatic sliding doors, stopped dead in his tracks, and looked up at me frozen in a pale-faced stare, clenching his minion blanket and said, “Wait, no, am I getting more teeth pulled?”

More teeth? What was he talking about, more teeth? I had only told him that his dentist was going to “fix” his teeth or “work on” his teeth, we never talked about pulling anything, and she was going to save everything she could… I stumbled through some reply and got him to come with me, though his anxiety level was through the roof. (His behavior at any appointment has got to be left for a whole separate blog post, the anxiety and triggers and memories are so unbelievable.)

We got registered and made it to the prep room. I told them what he said, and they pulled up his file: Little Buddy had been in for surgery before, indeed: nearly TWO YEARS BEFORE when he had BARELY TURNED THREE.

He remembered it all, and there were actually notes in the file of how awful his recovery had been, a terrible scene with his parents as he woke up from his anesthesia. And here I was today, now graced with the task of re-wiring his mind to believe that this was going to be good for him.

I never prayed so hard in a waiting room in my life. And our dentist never worked so hard in her life either, I am sure. In the end, she did have to remove three teeth, one so badly abcessed she could not believe it had not ruptured up until that point. Truly it was a miracle that we got it out when we did. The rest were caps and fillings and repair to the surgery from before. They warned me he would be exhausted, irritable and possibly nauseous for the rest of the day.

We had known that Little Buddy hated eating ice cream when we first got him, but now we knew why. I was so mad at myself, feeling so foolish: why did I not catch this problem? I had already raised five kids… I should have known better. I wrestled over and over. I mean, he had NEVER once complained about tooth pain. The nurse in recovery told me that was very common for these babies: they have never known a life WITHOUT tooth pain, so how could they address the feeling they had grown accustomed to, and most likely built up a tolerance to?

I was overwhelmed.

I drove him home in silence, floored by this universe I had never known existed. My mind and heart with all the foster babies that live like this daily…

We pulled into the driveway at home and my sons were playing outside in the sun, an unexpected sunshine warming everything a little extra that day. They ran up to the vehicle to say hello and check on Little Buddy. I turned around to caution them all on his condition, reminding him to take it easy and come inside and rest…

He was jumping out of the vehicle, completely oblivious to me. “Tag, you’re it!” he shouted to one of the other boys. I started to call him back to me, then stopped myself to watch for a moment. He was doing fine. He hadn’t puked the whole way home and he was happy to be home. The boys were happy to have him. So many moments of his life had already been defined by “not normal,” I needed to take a moment to accept this miracle of recovery and let him have the gift that he so greatly needed: to be left alone to be a boy without a label, to combat a horrible memory with a good one, to let the sun melt away the darkness and cold he had come out of…

and let the healing triumph the pain he had come from.

The surgery was just enough to take care of immediate issues and address as much decay as possible.  She put caps on what she could so his mouth really looked great when he got home.

But the caps cannot cover the things underneath forever, and they cannot replace the brittle enamel from lack of nutrients and minerals.

Boys will be boys, and in time we had our share of more dental drama: caps popping off, crowns eroding, teeth chipping and fillings loosening.  To this day Little Buddy only ever told me one time that a tooth hurt, and that was when a crown broke off near the front and exposed a tooth pretty largely.

Back to the dentist we go each time, and each time she loves, analyzes, checks, double checks, makes notes, works hard, schedules more, gives high fives… and we go on with the next part of our life.

I think because my mother raised us to always take care of our teeth, maybe that’s why this part gets me so good.  She would daily remind us to brush our teeth, insist we do it again, send us upstairs to brush a third time if we were headed to appointments or special occasions…

When I was in grade school, we were already in the van on our way to school when she asked if we had all remembered to brush our teeth.  Ugh.  I could not lie to my Mama.  I choked out a “no” in the middle of my sisters’ cheery “yeses” and I saw my mother’s jaw clench from where I was sitting in the back seat and felt my stomach drop to the floor.  Without a word, she dropped off my sisters at school, drove me home, waited in the van while I ran up and scrubbed my teeth like the world depended on it and jumped back in the van a changed girl.  It never happened again. And it forever changed my opinion of the privilege of having beautiful strong teeth.

Little Buddy says he did not even own a toothbrush before we got him.

One time he shared that he was so scared that his new teeth would grown in broken and black and yucky.  I reminded him of all his hard work he has been doing, brushing all the time, flossing, visiting the Dentist and letting me help him.  I pointed out his two front teeth, now coming in strong and white.  We talked about vitamins and how we get strong teeth, and that our appointments were almost done to get all the work done he needed to get him on the right track. Then I told him how he’d only need appointments twice a year for cleanings as long as he kept taking care of his teeth, and we would help him do that.

Of course there are conversations about spacers and braces and jaw alignment and all the things.  Those will come in time.

But we have been working so hard to heal his mouth for two years now, and to see the Finish Line and almost “normal” appointments on his list of reminders as he leaves the dentists’ office feels like a real victory in ways I cannot explain.

What I took for granted as a young child was truly a gift in the way I was raised, and I am so close to reaching that place with a child that seemed was impossible to happen.  And if we can give him just one more gift of “normal” that he never had before, I count that privilege as my gift.

And I know my mom and our dentist do, too.

 Part 3

Tell Yourself to Set Aside Three Years of Your Life

I sit here this evening telling myself this is a biased statement.

I mean, when you go through training and they tell you state law mandates one year before a decision must be made for these children in care, you think, “okay, that’s cool, no matter how hard it is to see it through, it will only last a year.  Anyone can hang in there for a year, right?”

But just because a law is in place on paper doesn’t mean it plays out that way in the system.  Especially a broken system.

Our case worker, our Family Consultants, even our guardian ad litem have all commented over and over again at what an unusual case we have, and how this never happens, and hopefully it will all be over soon.

They are trying to be supportive and kind and all the things because they know they can’t fix it.

I appreciate that.  I really do.  I have never seen people more invested in the well being of children that are not their own.  The hours they work, the things they have to do that were never listed in their job description, and the stuff they have to put up with sometimes in indescribable.  They can’t unsee the horrors.  They can’t undo the abuse or neglect.  They can only stand in the space of the in-between with that child and hold that moment with them so that they are not alone.  That is what our case workers have done, and I thank God for them every day.

Three years in the foster care community and I can now say “I have seen some stuff.”

I have friends in Pennsylvania that have finalized their adoption after three years and one month.  I have friends here in town that have gone two years and eight months. I have friends online that had two girls given back to their father, only to come back into care to her for another year and the conversation is heading back to dad again, but no one knows because it’s all uncertain.

I have another beautiful friend who took in a baby girl shortly after we said yes to Little Buddy, and that little girl is now completely adopted and that foster mama went back in the ring to give another yes to a brand new baby boy, though we cannot know his future outcome yet.

And here’s the thing: we did not say yes to our Little Buddy thinking he was The One.  We did not say yes with the condition that we could keep him forever.  As a matter of fact, there were days I prayed that God would send a relative or open a door where someone more qualified or someone who could give him more attention would want to take him, and there would be an instant connection and I could just play a part in his journey.

Mostly, I prayed for his biological Mom and Dad.

I prayed for them as I tucked in Little Buddy, and I prayed for them as I hit my knees in the morning.  I knew their lives were hanging in the balance, and I knew these kids’ futures were at stake.

A child is designed by God to be with his or her parents.  To sever that tie and separate that child from their parents creates a trauma that no child should know, and creates a grief that cannot be undone.

To be the one to try to graft that child in to another family is the work required by a craftsman gardener trying to create a special hybrid of a one of a kind plant. It takes, painstaking patience, perseverance, constant care and attention, and a willingness to keep trying even when it seems impossible.

When the twelve month window in care came up and bio Mom and Dad were unable to care for the children, the day came when their rights as parents were legally terminated and the permanency goal changed to adoption.  It was what we wanted because we knew it was best for the kids, but it was everything we didn’t want because we knew a God-designed family was about to be broken up forever, and the pieces were going to need to be painstakingly put together in other places.

Well meaning friends and family would congratulate us, and we knew what they meant: we knew they were happy that these kids would not have to grow up in abusive or neglectful situations.  We understood that, and it was probably the best they could say.

But in my broken heart and emotional wreckage from sitting in courtrooms for hours and hugging a woman as she sobbed on my shoulder to please take care of her babies… it felt NOTHING like a congratulations should feel.

We did not win ANYTHING.

In time, we realized once again that we did actually win something: we won the chance for these children to be raised safely and securely.

But have you ever heard the cry of a mother who is being told that she will not legally be the mother of her babies anymore, nor see them again…?

I did for the first time that day. And I had to stand in the space that held those children between what family they were being taken from and stand firm until they were ready to walk into the family we were offering.

They were grieving.  They were petrified.  They were so conflicted.

And so was I.

The next year was a play of a broken system that we are still tripping through and over.  There were paperwork snafus and court appeals and lots of strife and confusion. There were kids settling in to a new normal where, even in their grief, they were starting to move away from fear and into laughter and joy.  We saw smiles and felt relief. There was hope.

We were heading in to year two, so why were we not out of this system and contemplating what type of party we would throw to celebrate the adoption, and did we want to remain certified foster parents?

I remember the day I was home visiting upstate New York, and my mom and my sisters and I chatted over tea, cooked lots of food, corralled lots of kids and tried to catch up on life.  I blitzed through some pieces of the case to give the highlights of where we were at in the adoption process, explaining the appeals process and overburdened court schedule full of delays and dates scheduled months out, and my older sister looked at me incredulously and commented, “Geez, Tara… and we wonder why more people don’t foster or adopt?”

Her comment shook my world because I knew it was true.  And she could see the reality from six states away.  Here I was, trying to set the world on fire for foster care awareness and adoption through foster care, and my very own journey was showing a harsh reality that I could not imagine anyone would want to sign up for.

The longer the kids stay in the system, the harder it is to heal.  The kids (as well as the adoptive family) need permanency, closure and peace.

The monthly home visits from the caseworker can’t stop. The bi-monthly visits from the Family Consultants from our agency can’t stop.  The weekly reports of trauma behaviors can’t stop.  The monthly reports of Medicine Logs and Money Disbursement can’t stop. The counseling, therapies and paperwork on those can’t stop.

So you see, our newly created family is not excused for the next leg of the journey and cannot turn the corner until the madness stops.

My eight year old daughter arrived in our home knowing she would be adopted and here “forever.” She knew it would take time for the paperwork, though we never gave her specifics, and months after she continued to struggle with calling us “Mom” and “Dad,” she explained flatly: “When I see the paperwork, then I will cal you Mom and Dad.”

She wasn’t being rude.  She wasn’t being unreasonable.  That was her established mile marker of trust that she was using to acclimate herself.

Ten months officially in our home and at least six more to go before any sign of paperwork is complete, and we are in a log jam. How can we move on when her mile marker is nowhere to be found on the road signs???

The tension of the Unknown is unbearable in our home these days.  We are in the waiting time for more appeals and the kids cannot know or process what they are standing in. They are longing for finality and permanency and the chance to be kids without appointments or visits or different last names.  My biological children want their mother back, because they see that she is so immersed in it all that her shoulders are aching from keeping such a widespread family together.

I imagine that the Master Gardener had to negotiate for more strength in his body as his aching back tried to make him give in and quit as he grafted that branch in to a tree that had never been placed together before. If he gave up on the branch, it would die, the healthy cut tree would be forever damaged and scarred, and the world would never know what the hybrid of adoption and what could be created when you graft one in to another.

I know that I know that I know that God has called us to run this race and finish this course. I know then that He will grace me, equip me and strengthen me to do the very thing that He has called me to do.

The walking it out part, the longer than twelve months part, the unusual circumstances of our situation… all of the hard stuff, that is the faith part.

And that is why I say, plan on three years.

Because truth be told, it is a lifetime journey, but stepping out of a broken system into a new lease on hybrid life is a gift that only the Master Gardener can give someone.

I am believing for your hybrid journey today.



July 8, 2019

Today would have been my Grandma’s 85th birthday. Her death just over four years ago was the heaviest grief I had ever encountered until that point in my life.

I knew it was coming. She had been unexplainably sick for quite some time, and though she was the strongest woman I knew, she was fading fast. She was serving Meals on Wheels, donating time and money to every cause that came her way, all while champion cheering for her entire family of six children all with multiple children.

Her life was a beautiful mess, and even after I moved six hundred miles away, she answered the phone every time I called to catch up, filled up my soul’s bucket with phrases like “You’re such a mess” and “For cryin’ out loud” and always ended with an “I love you, my doll face.” If I got her laughing good and long, she would say “You are a peach.”

I lived for her words, and they soothed me when I was so homesick and feeling far away. Every thunderstorm I was home, I would sit on my porch and call if I could. She gave me a love for all things in the garden, camping and bare feet, though I cannot tolerate a fraction of the outdoorsy hard work she did. She was tough as nails and made each child feel as though they were her favorite.

I remember the night I was sitting on my couch watching a movie with our whole family. All at once I felt this weight come on me, so strongly and I knew it was about my Gram. I excused myself from the movie and went upstairs to my bedroom, shaking and asking God what was going on. It was so strong and so real, I felt that at any moment I was going to get a call that she was gone, but that just didn’t seem right. I sat there until I could control my voice and called my aunt who had been spending the most time with her. She was very kind, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that things were not looking good. I hung up in disbelief, trying to reconcile this news with my invincible Gram?

It wasn’t a few weeks later that I knew I had to go see her. Tim didn’t even bat an eye lash, kissed me and the kids good bye and let us go on what the kids thought was an early summer vacation.

In many ways, it was.

My parents work so hard to make every moment count when we are together, even if that means having pedal cars and snacks on the driveway as we drink tea on the porch and watch the sunset.

My mom kept my kids at home that day so my sister and I could go visit my Gram, resting at home about 50 minutes away. We sat on the porch just like old times, laughed and caught up, but she was so tired she asked to go for a nap. I had never heard that before and pushed through my frozen fear to fake an obedient smile to make her comfortable. I changed her sheets and helped her upstairs, kissed her good night, scrubbed her fridge while my sister cleaned the yard, and we left in quiet awe.

I went one more day that week, taking my daughter Abby. Gram had gifts waiting for Abby that she still treasures to this day, and we sat and visited until my aunt came to pick her up and bring her to her own home because Gram was just too weak to be left alone. I saw her car pull up the driveway and the tears just sprang out of my eyes. I wasn’t ready to say good bye. Even writing this memory now unlocks more tears at the reliving of this moment. She must have seen the panic in my face and I reached down to hug her good bye, trying to be brave. She pushed me back to look me square in the face. “It’s okay, darlin’. We will see each other again. We will see each other again.”

A week later I was driving my two oldest babies back to NY to plan her funeral.

After the first tidal wave of grief washed over me and I had to begin the next chapter without her, I found a new, huge void in my life as I began our journey in to foster care. I had no one to call to hash my fears out. No one to give practical common sense advice. No one to remind me that I had a secret weapon, my biggest fan. She was gone, and I grieved and limped along some more, reminding myself that I knew “what she would have said,” and that had to be enough.

When our foster buddy came in acting more like a wild animal than a child, I missed her to laugh with me through my tears of unbelief and exhaustion. As the battle raged long and ugly, and we were asked to consider keeping him, she wasn’t there for me to ask how I could live a life like this so hard for so long, and did she think it would ever get better? When they told us his sister would need a permanent home as well so would we consider that, she could not answer the phone to hear me out, let me cry, then tell me to take a deep breath and put my big girl panties on and save the world.

Through those dark moments of grief and loss, I remembered her last words to me. Even as I sobbed until my eyes were swollen. I could still see her face so clearly, so assuring I couldn’t help but believe her.

And I knew exactly what she meant.

She wasn’t speaking about seeing her again at 20 Calais Avenue in Cheektowaga, NY. She was explaining that we would be together again in the next world, and the peace I saw in her face told me it was as true as any promise I’d ever heard. It was my eternal hope that I would see her again.

And I held on to that with everything in me.

Instead of calling Gram on her landline (716-824-8003), I looked up to Heaven with my broken heart and swollen eyes and asked the Lord what it was He wanted, what it was we were supposed to do. I cried and listened and waited and listened some more. Moment by moment, He was faithful to meet me there and answer me. Although I was still grieving and lonely and afraid He filled in the gaps and kept me together when I would have fallen apart.

The book of Hebrews talks about the great cloud of witnesses that are the ones who were faithful to have gone before us, and that they can look down and see and cheer us from Heaven. (Hugely Paraphrased.) But as I sought the Lord to strengthen me and tell me what to do, you’d better believe there were moments I knew that I knew that I knew that I heard my Grandma’s voice, what she would have said and always her cheering me on.

Time went on and God met me in tangible ways too. He brought my tribe together, better and stronger than ever before. A family who rallies around to love and support these kids as their own. A church family that has stepped up and out of their comfort zones to accept my foster children as if they were my own, and miracle after miracle that turned bare survival to a hope and a future that I could dare to believe I could not just live with, but build a legacy with.

Today she would have been 85 years old. I nearly forgot what day it was in the holiday haze and traveling shenanigans and exhaustion of summer juggling of work and kids at home…

“Good morning, M-O-M,” peeped my foster buddy around the bathroom corner where I was getting ready.

I froze and tried to play it cool. “What did you say?” I teased.

“Good morning, M-O-M” he said louder, more clearly.

I could barely scarce to hope today was the day. Seriously, less than 18 hours before, I had hidden myself in that same bathroom to steal an uninterrupted phone call with my mother and chatted about a Disney trip I had shared I wanted to take the kids on. “I just don’t know” I told her, conflicted. “All the money and supposed to be the trip of a lifetime, maybe we’re not ready yet? I can’t bear the thought of going through all of it to be walking down the road to Magic Kingdom and hearing “Tara?” or “Miss Tara?” along with “Mom.” I just don’t think our family is ready yet. Mom sympathized and encouraged and listened and cheered me on. We would discuss it another time when I could think about it better. But the conversation was a raw truth on my broken heart that evening.

Now here stood this glowing, smiling face, still a little sleepy but so nervous and excited, non-matching pajamas and holding his stuffed panda he had “won” at the video arcade with my parents last week.

“I don’t know who you’re talking to,” I teased some more as I chased after him into the kitchen. “Are you talking to me?”

“Yes!” he shouted between giggles! “M-O-M! M-O-M! Mom! Mom! Mom!” he could barely get the words out for his nervous anxiety and happy giggles and wiggles that come with big emotions when you’re six and scared.

I could hardly process the reality of what I was standing in. His little voice didn’t even sound like his own because I had hardly heard him use that word in the twenty-some months he had lived with us. I had held him in my arms since he was 4, and he will not even share our last name until he is well past 7, but here he was, trusting us enough to call himself a member of our family. Today.

My other sleepy kids that were around to hear him cheered and laughed and teased. “Hello, Brother,” my sons all mocked. “Hello, Sister,” they teased back and forth. I exchanged glances with my daughter Abby over and over in those moments. Was this actually happening? Was it just a fleeting moment? Would it end?

Who knew? And who can even promise any one tomorrow?

I’ll take this moment while it lasts, please.

I stepped off the porch to walk to work, four of the kids playing marble works outside on the porch as I said good bye.

A chorus of “Bye!” “Bye, Mom!” and “Love you!” all followed me down the stairs. And then, the smallest voice of all spoke up so clearly: “Bye Mom! Love you, too!”

Happy Birthday, Gram. Love you, too.