We wrapped up our mandatory Department of Child and Family Services Training! It felt uncannily like traffic school. For most of the training, a DCFS social worker sat at the front of the room and read to us from a binder. We got through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Seven Stages of Grief, and a host of grim and off-putting statistics about foster care/adopting older children and the behavioral challenges of post-institutional kids.
The oddest thing about this training is that we are sitting in the ground floor conference room of an institutional foster home in east Los Angeles, effectively doing time so we can get the rubber stamp of approval from the child welfare bureaucracy, while above us there are seven floors of abandoned kids living in an architectural cross between a maximum security prison and a public grammar school in a bad part of town, with barred windows, locked gates, oddly deserted recreation rooms and lots and lots of security desks. I have a gnawing feeling that spending an hour or two talking to a small panel of these kids would probably yield a lifetime’s worth of insight.
Thankfully, the final two hours were spent with a guy who has been mentoring a child through the agency we work with, and who helped this boy look for a permanent adoptive placement. He was enthusiastic, emotionally engaged, and specific about what drew him to the boy he set out to help, and how their relationship built over time.
Which leads me to what I like about the agency we’re working with, Kidsave. They aren't an adoption agency - instead, they facilitate a program that introduces prospective adoptive parents to older children in foster care who are ready for adoption. The idea is that you "host" a child in your home on weekends, or (if you're interested in their summer program for kids coming from Columbia or Russia), for several weeks in the summer. You may also choose to advocate for and mentor an older kid who is looking for adoption, introducing the kid to people in your community without signing up for adoption yourself. That sounds a little odd, until you realize that a lot of these older kids really want to be adopted, and they are hidden away in group homes and foster facilities with little opportunity to meet and form relationships with adults outside the system.
You attend events where you plant trees or visit a museum alongside a group of kids. If and when a natural connection emerges, you check in with a kids’ social worker and find out what her needs are and what kind of life she’s looking for – adoption, a place to hang out on the weekends, a long-term mentor, etc. The social worker sees how the kid feels about you. And if you are getting on together, the kid spends weekends at your house. Over time, that might lead to the kid living permanently in your house through adoption. Or it might lead to a life-long friendship that defies bureaucratic definition. Whatever. The agency does a good job of staying focused on the bottom line, which is that kids need connections to adults who care about them, in whatever form they come.
The process is socially awkward, and I wince sometimes when I imagine the potential for the kids to feel like puppies in a pet store or worse while we jockey to impress them with what cool prospective parents we all are. Am I wearing the right kind of jeans? How do I start a conversation with a stand-offish teenage boy who has sequestered himself under his iPod headphones? Do I seem to "white"? Too old? Am I acting too interested? Not interested enough? At times it sounds like speed-dating. But the agency holds us at bay and gives the kids the right to choose. These kids have been shuttled between temporary living situations for most of their childhoods. It's only fair that these events be designed to make them as comfortable as possible, and that we feel like the ones on display.
We'll see how it goes. Next up, the DCFS home visit to get us approved for hosting a child overnight. Before the social worker shows up, we have to clean, get any household chemicals stored out of reach (even though these are older kids we have to comply with DCFS guidelines about child-proofing), and make an evacuation plan in case of fire in our home. Then we get to the fun part - getting to know the kids.