Most of the time, foster placements are just dropped off at your house. This wasn’t your run of the mill foster placement. The little seven year old boy that was our potential foster placement was currently living at a children’s shelter. He was severely traumatized, practically mute, and had special needs. To minimize the additional trauma, his case worker asked us to work with the shelter to “transition” him to our home. In other words, we would take him for short visits and outings to get to know each other so moving in wouldn’t be so scary for him.
Tonight was going to be our first try at bringing him to our house. We had a plan. We would pick up the boy from the shelter, bring him to the park down the street to meet our dog and play at the playground. Then, we planned to walk the short block back to our house and make our own tacos for dinner.
I put a lot of thought into this, ya’ll. Like a lot of thought. Too much thought. I planned a “build-your-own taco” bar thinking it would make dinner an activity and give kiddo a little control. I also wasn’t sure how he would feel about our dog, so I thought meeting her in the large, neutral, park would be preferable to our house. Kids love parks, right?!
I had also looked up tips for transitioning foster children from Shelter into your home. There’s not a ton out there on this. (Maybe I should write something!) But I did read it was helpful to show a child transitioning from one foster placement to another photos of your home in advance their placement. So, ever the overachiever, I jumped on Shutterfly and created a small photo book of pictures of our house, our dog, his bedroom. It was a little “virtual tour” or our home if you will. I was proud of it.
His caseworker told me that the staff had prepped him all day to get ready for his “visit.” I didn’t wait long in the lobby before a staff member escorted the little guy out to me. The staffer turned to him and said, “Ready for your visit?” He nodded.
I resisted the urge to fist pump. Kiddo even looked so much better than he did the last time I saw him. He still didn’t talk but he just looked happier and lighter.
We made our way to the parking lot and, after getting him buckled into his booster seat, we were on our way.
He was even smiling as he looked out the window to my car. I realized I didn’t know what sort of music to play – the normal radio stations I enjoyed weren’t what anyone would consider “kid-friendly.” It was early December so I found a Christmas music station and we listened to Christmas Carols.
“How was school today?” I peered into my rear-view mirror to catch a glimpse of him sitting in the back seat at a stop light.
He gave me a thumbs up and smiled. My heart melted. I knew that our little guy was in the second grade but given that he didn’t seem to read, write, or even talk very much, I wasn’t sure what the school day looked like for him.
“I made a book for you.” I reached back to the flap in front of him and behind the passenger seat where the small paperback photo book was stored and handed it to him in his booster seat. “This is where we are going!”
He stared at it. The energy in the car shifted. The tension was palpable. The light turned green and I kept driving – eying him occasionally through the rear view mirror. Something was wrong. Eventually, I heard the pages turn.
At the next stop light, I glanced back again. The book was open to a page with pictures of his future bedroom. The walls were painted blue and the room was filled with toys and games and books. His eyes were fixed on it. The rest of his body was frozen and still.
“Do you like it?” I asked him. It was a silly question. He clearly did NOT like it. Without warning, he crumbled the pages in his hands and threw the book across the car.
I grimaced watching my Pinterest-worthy photo book be destroyed so quickly. I chuckled nervously at him and he glared at me. “I guess that’s a no.”
We continued to drive in awkward silence. I looked back again a few blocks later. He sat with his arms crossed, staring out the window.
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say – and I was sorry.
“No.” He said without looking at me. “No house.”
I stuck to the plan and drove to the park down the street from our house first to meet my husband and our dog. The little boy wasn’t interested in either of them and tentatively went to play on the monkey bars at the playground. I followed him. He climbed up and climbed down – as if it was a perfunctory gesture; as if to say, “okay – I played; now what?”
“Can we go to my visit now?” He shivered as he looked up at me. He had refused to put on a coat. Even in Arizona, early December is chilly.
At first, I was just impressed he’d said a full sentence. But I was confused.
“This is your visit,” I explained.
He looked around the park. I thought I should explain more – go over our plans for the evening. I loved plans. I explained to him that we would play at the park with our dog, Millie, then go home to our house for tacos. Yum! Tacos! It would be fun! We could play games!
“My visit.” He said again.
“Yes!” I said, enthusiastically, “This is your visit!” I smiled and spoke with that goofy high pitched voice we always find ourselves slipping into when we talk with kids.
His eyes darted around the park frantically – like he was looking for something. I pointed out my husband and our dog behind us – thinking he might be looking for them.
When I looked back at the boy, he looked distraught.
“My grandma?” He asked. I thought back to my conversation with the boy’s case worker. He had lived with his grandmother before he was taken into foster care.
My stomach dropped as I realized what had happened. He thought his “visit” would be with his grandmother. It’s a fair assumption – most kids in foster care have regular visits with their families. He’d probably seen many kids at the shelter come and go from visits with their moms and dads.
I walked closer to him and spoke slowly. “I’m sorry.” I said, “Your grandma isn’t here.”
The boy stared at me; frozen in place in front of the monkey bars.
“Your visit isn’t with your Grandma.” I kneeled down in front of him, “Your visit is with us. You are visiting us at our house. You are not going to see your Grandma today.”
In fact, the little boy would never have a visit with his Grandma. He would never see his Grandma, the woman who had raised him since birth, again. His last memory of her, would be the memory of police officers ripping her away from his hospital bed.
Before we met this little boy, we had been warned that he may be have significant limitations in his cognitive functioning. But in that moment, from the look that flashed across his face, I knew he understood much more than I was saying. He looked behind me towards my husband and dog – who were watching us from a few paces back. He then locked eyes with me. It was as if all of the pieces fell into place at once; as if he suddenly realized why we were visiting him, and bringing him pizza, and playing basketball with him.
I nodded and watched his big brown eyes fill with tears.
Suddenly, the look of recognition turned to panic. He tried to run and tumbled forward onto the playground sand, I reached to help him up and he scrambled away from me.
“No!” He yelled and I stepped back, “Shelter!” He sounded terrified, “Back to the shelter!”
He bolted towards the parking lot where our car was parked and I scurried after him trying in vain to calm him.
He slowed and, for a brief moment, I thought it was working, but he grabbed his chest. He gasped for air but still tried to move towards the car.
“Do you need your inhaler?” I asked mostly to have something to say as I rummaged through my purse for his rescue inhaler. But before I could pull it out of my bag, the boy stumbled forward.
“I can’t walk!” I lunged forward and held him up as he started to slide towards the ground.
My husband, for his part, had caught up to us and looked the way I felt: confused and helpless. I told him to meet us at the house.
“No!” The boy yelled between gasps from my arms, “Shelter!”
He started to cry. Other families in the park stared at us as I half-carried the hysterical boy back to our car and tried to console him. It was only once I had promised, repeatedly to take him back to the shelter, that he calmed down.
After dropping off our dog at the house, my husband joined us for the drive back to the children’s shelter. We rode in silence for a few minutes before I flipped on the radio. It was still tuned to the Christmas music station. Silent Night was playing.
A small but stubborn voice piped up from the back seat. “No Christmas music.” He sounded disgusted.
I couldn’t help but laugh. I flipped to one of my favorite rap stations. Dr. Dre’s voice filled the car. “That better?” I asked him.
My husband rapped along with Dre as he drove. If I wasn’t mistaken, our little seven year old almost cracked a smile.
When we arrived to the shelter, he scurried back inside without saying goodbye.
“We’ll see you soon!” My husband said after him – even though the boy was long gone.