“Whoa!” I set a bag of groceries down on the counter along with my keys. “DCF already got back to me about our application!” I quickly scanned the email on my phone while I wrestled a carton of eggs out of a paper bag with my free hand.
“You got an email already?” Dan looked up from the game he was playing on the Xbox. “What’s it say?”
I turned so I was facing him and read aloud from the kitchen, “I received your application and am working on processing it through the system. We have a class starting in Leominster tomorrow night. It will continue the next ten weeks into November, every Wednesday night from 6-9 pm. I know it is very short notice, but I already received a clean background check on you. Could you make this next round of classes if I can get you in?” I looked up at Dan, who had joined me at the counter.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute”, Dan shook his head, trying to knit the pieces together. “We can’t do Wednesday nights, for one thing. I have bowling.” His forehead wrinkled as he reached for my phone. “Joyce Reynolds… what, is she our social worker?”
“I guess?”, I replied with a shrug. “I’ll email back with a ‘no’ for tomorrow, and ask when the next round of classes starts. I think I saw something about Saturday classes in Worcester.” With that first email, we had started “the process”. It happened the day after I submitted our application.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons pre-adoptive parents are put through the foster parent process is to root out the people who apply on a whim.
In Massachusetts, whether you plan to adopt a child or provide temporary foster care, the steps for approval are the same and each one can be tedious. It goes like this:
- Pass a background check — because, duh.
- Pass a DCF household physical standards check
- Attend the Massachusetts Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP) training program
- Submit all required documentation (for us, this was the most tedious step)
- Your social worker writes a license (home) study
- DCF reviews your license study and approves you for one or more children
Our first step was to schedule our physical standards check with Joyce. On a Friday in September, Dan and I both left work early to meet Joyce at our home so that she could confirm we weren’t running a meth lab, hadn’t adorned our walls with decorative swords, and didn’t have a bevy of illegal slave children hiding in an upstairs closet. I had cleaned like crazy that week – but was careful to not make things “too perfect”. I wanted Joyce to believe she was getting an accurate picture of our home life.
“Well, obviously neither of you have a drinking problem, since there’s liquor in all these bottles.”
I raised an eyebrow at Dan as Joyce walked around to the front of our basement bar and opened the door to our garage, “Is there a lock on this door?”, she glanced at Dan and I.
“No, but we can easily add one”, Dan replied.
Her lips pursed, “Mmmm, yeah it would probably be a good thing to do.”
Joyce was a petite, greying brunette with a weathered but pretty face anchored by piercing blue eyes and a no-nonsense expression. There was a hardness about her, although I got the sense that it was acquired through circumstance and not temperament. It’s a strange thing, having a stranger in your home with the sole intent of judging it, and you. We joked once or twice in an attempt to lighten the mood, but got nothing more than a tight half-smile as Joyce measured the bedrooms and checked the smoke detectors.
The DCF Physical Standards Check accomplishes a few things. First, it allows your social worker to record the square footage of your bedrooms, which helps the state determine how many children can be placed in your home. Second, as I alluded to earlier, it provides your social worker an opportunity to “kick the tires” and make sure the foster parent applicants aren’t obviously unfit. Finally, since this is typically the first meeting, it’s an introduction for the social worker and the applicant family. Often, it’s the very first conversation about what type of child the family is looking for. I was excited to finally be having this talk!
“Why do you want a daughter instead of a son?”, she directed this question at Dan first.
He shrugged, “I just tend to be more comfortable around women, and I think I could be a better parent to a girl. Plus, Mindi has sisters who are 10 or so years younger than we are, and I found myself playing the role of big brother to them a lot, so I feel like I got some good practice there.”
Her eyes moved to me, “How about you?”
I paused, trying to think of a good response, but realizing I couldn’t articulate one. I shrugged my shoulders, “I’ve just always imagined having a daughter.” That seemed good enough for Joyce.
“Would you consider a sibling group?”
“No”, replied Dan. When he said this, he drew the word out into three syllables, so it sounded like “No-ho-hoo”.
“That might mean finding a match is a little harder”, it was clear she had said these words before, “Girls in the 5-8 age range without bonded siblings that match your criteria do exist, but everybody wants to adopt them. They don’t last long”.
We both nodded. “That’s OK”, I said. “It will take as long as it takes”.
With the first big milestone behind us, it was time to enroll in MAPP class. Having attended various classes throughout my adult life, I had a picture in my mind of what to expect on that first day.
Nothing about MAPP class was as I imagined it would be.
On the Saturday morning of our first class, it was raining, and we stood outside with another couple waiting to be let in as we pulled our jackets tight to keep out the raw October-ness of the day. “Are you guys here for the MAPP training?”, I asked. They nodded in affirmation and introduced themselves as we saw a woman through the window walking towards the door to let us in. I would later learn that the woman’s name was Sheila, and that she would be leading our class. She let us in with a warm hello as we hurried inside and out of the rain.
Our class was held in the Worcester Social Services building, right in downtown Worcester near the famed Palladium. The building was built in 1930, and was drab even by Worcester standards. As we took a loud, lurching elevator up to the 5th floor, I tried to place the smells. I smelled mildew, paint, and frustration. As we exited the elevator and walked through the double doors leading to the classroom, I was surprised to notice another smell: breakfast. Breakfast?
Sheila, along with two other social workers and a volunteer foster parent who were helping her teach the class, had made us breakfast. I’m not talking just coffee and pastries; although there was an abundant selection of pastries and 2 full pots of coffee. They had made us breakfast. On a buffet table covered with a white table cloth was… well, a buffet. There were bagels with 3 different cream cheese spreads, muffins, donuts, fruit, homemade breakfast potatoes, several different types of eggy casseroles, a disposable tray filled with bacon and sausage, and brownies. It was less like a mandatory government training, and more like an office party. It was so unexpected and thoughtful that it endeared these women to me immediately.
“I’m not eating any of that”, Dan muttered in my ear as he glanced in the general direction of the buffet. I chuckled and grabbed a plate as I joined the others who were milling around the food, making awkward conversation as I went. Dan has a very strict and simple rule around communal food: he doesn’t eat it. The less familiar he is with the diners, the lower the likelihood that he will break his rule. I admit that the homemade casseroles were a bit too adventurous, even for my trusting nature, but I did grab a pastry with fruit and some coffee before I sat down with Dan.
Class began and to be honest, it was comically disjointed. I’d like to say it got better, but the next five Saturdays were spent in a state of amused confusion: we were given books that didn’t match the materials the panel was teaching from, the members of the panel constantly veered off topic and delivered long-winded personal anecdotes, and there was heavy reliance on group activities that seemed to be more about filling time than actually learning. The ladies leading the MAPP training were so well intentioned and nice though, that I didn’t really mind the disorganized nature of the classes. It was clear to me that they were doing their best to make a necessary chore more enjoyable for everyone involved; for them it was more about welcoming foster and adoptive parents into a community and helping them feel supported. I did take away 2 very important lessons, which I’m going to talk about a little here. They are crucial if you’re contemplating foster care or adoption.
#1. The excitement you feel for welcoming a child into your home will likely not be reciprocated.
I did a lot of imagining what it would be like for a little girl to move into our home – the excitement she would feel about seeing her bedroom for the first time, or meeting our dog, Max. I was so excited to show a little someone around the house and teach her where to find things and what our daily routines were. I was completely caught up in this fantasy of instant mother/daughter bonding. One of the things that the MAPP training helped to do was to break down this fantasy for me. The reality of the situation is that the dominant emotions felt by children who are in the system and moving into a new home are anxiety and distrust. This manifests in a variety of behaviors; they may be overly clingy, regress to a baby-like state, or even become hostile and refuse to join your family in your norms. The early days are not full of warmth and bonding – they are full of behaviors designed to test where your limits are, and what is truly acceptable and not acceptable in your home. If they have been in the system for a long time, they have learned through necessity how to manipulate. You may think you are gaining ground only to have it pulled out from under you again. The only way through this period is patience, consistency, and love. It will get better but you have to wallow in the adjustment for a while, and not take it personally. Your child is doing what they think they need to do to survive unscathed, and they will adjust at their own pace.
#2. You’ll need to find a way to humanize the birth parents, no matter what they’ve done to hurt their (now, your) child.
This is a really tough pill for many people to swallow.
Let’s face it, there are people who are not deserving of your grace. However, your child deserves to feel understood and supported. Each child who has been through the system has very complicated emotions when it comes to their birth parents. If you can’t see their parents for the complex humans they are, you won’t be able to help them understand why they’ve been hurt so that they can begin to heal.
For me, this has been extremely important, as our daughter talks about her birth parents (particularly her father) often. She looks to us to reinforce her feelings that she’s safe, and to help her process and understand the moments in her life when she didn’t feel this way. Here’s how I approach this subject: I remind her that being an attentive parent takes a lot of responsibility, and it’s not a skill that comes naturally to everyone. In the same way that I’ll never be a math-lete or an olympic swimmer, there are people who will never be good parents; it is not part of how they’re put together. This doesn’t mean that her birth parents didn’t love her very much, or that she’s not a great kid. They were just not good at being parents — sometimes people become better with help and time, but sometimes they just can’t do it. I tell her I’m sorry that she had to experience the hurt that came from her parents’ shortcomings, assure her that they wish they could have done better, and let her know how glad I am that I have the privilege of being her mother now. Then I simply give her a hug.
After MAPP class, there was the paperwork. Sweet baby Jesus, there was the paperwork.
I won’t go into much detail here, because it’s boring. We had a lot of paperwork to fill out and it took us a really long time. Probably longer than it should have taken, to be honest, but show me someone who doesn’t drag their feet (at least a little) on submitting paperwork. No really, show me.
That’s what I thought.
The list of required documentation is lengthy. Feel free to just scroll past this part (I won’t be offended!). If you’re curious here is what I believe to be the full list (shudder):
- Birth Certificates
- Marriage Certificates (if applicable)
- Divorce Decrees (if applicable)
- Driver’s Licenses
- Well water certificate (if applicable)
- LTC/FID card and list of guns/registrations (if applicable)
- Dog license(s) and proof of rabies vaccinations (if applicable)
- Name of car insurance and home owner’s insurance companies
- Extensive financial information, including: outstanding debt and the nature of the debt, cash in all bank accounts, all assets, monthly income, monthly living expenses
- References: medical reference from your PCP, employer reference, personal reference
- Family Profile (very personal, and must be filled out by both parents – questions include childhood experiences, family relations, past romantic relationships, drug and alcohol habits, best and worst attributes of your spouse, etc)
- Child Behaviors Checklist (what behaviors would you be willing to tolerate in a child)
- Fingerprinting (must be fingerprinted within 6 months of approval; our process went longer, so we had to do it twice)
Then there was the waiting.
When we finally got the news that we had been approved to be foster parents, it felt like a monumental achievement. It had been months and several follow ups since we submitted the last shred of documentation, and about nine months since we stepped foot into our first MAPP class. “Don’t get too excited, now you’ve got another long process ahead of you”, Joyce warned me. I wasn’t hearing it; we were licensed to be foster parents in the state of Massachusetts!
Our search could begin in earnest; we were ready to find our daughter. Over the next three months we created flyers to pass out to adoption workers and inquired directly about several children. Then one night we saw a photo, glued to a piece of poster board, that would change our lives forever.