Here’s What Happens to The Other Victims of The Opioid Epidemic
The children arrived in the dead of night, terrified, with nothing but the pajamas they wore.
Layla, a stick thin girl with a tumble of brown curls, seems more attached to my daughter than her brother Liam. At seven, he’s three years younger than his sister and a master at acting tough, but who could blame him?
Where he comes from, tough means survival. Not physical survival, because a seven-year-old, no matter how tough, can’t defend himself against a grownup bent on harm. Tough is for emotional survival; a buffer against hurt inflicted through neglect, indifference, and crazy unpredictability.
Into Foster Care, Into My Daughter’s Care
I meet Layla and Liam for the first time a month after my daughter, a foster parent, has gotten them. She tells me a little of what she knows. The father, according to case reports, is in prison. The mother, a drug user, is unemployed, homeless, and was arrested for giving drugs to another one of her children, a fifteen year old.
The children arrived at my daughter’s doorstep in the dead of night, barefoot and in pajamas, without toothbrushes, shoes or toys, after being removed from their home by DFACS (Department of Children and Family Services).
“They were terrified. They both wet the bed at night, and they didn’t even know how to use forks, they just scooped everything up with their hands,” my daughter told me later.
By the time I meet them, Layla and Liam are wearing new jeans and Nikes, the bed wetting has stopped and they’re eating with forks. But my daughter, I can see, is tired. Dark circles smudge the skin under her eyes, although she still moves with energy and purpose.
My son-in-law is a high school science teacher and my daughter stays home to take care of their three children and their small farm with its chickens, goats, dogs, cats, pigs, horses, and as of last year, a burro.
They’ve been foster parents for several years because my daughter says, “Where else will the children go? God calls us to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.”
With the sudden arrival of two additional children, they dig into their savings and buy a used Ford Explorer that can transport a family of seven. They also need more money to enroll Layla and Liam in the same activities their own children participate in. This is important to my daughter, who believes providing care means providing opportunity.
Princess For A Day
For Layla, the extracurricular activity is ballet. At the first dance recital she prances happily in a pink sequined costume and tiny ballet slippers, a tiara secured to her curls. She’s a princess for a day.
Liam, a natural at anything athletic, plays ball and skate boards for hours with my daughter’s youngest son.
After six months the children are thriving, although Liam is behind in school. My daughter meets with his teacher and brings home extra work sheets to try and catch him up on his letters, numbers, reading, all the things kids do in second grade.
She has to give up her organic gardening group, which used to meet on Saturday mornings, and her garden, which has literally gone to weeds. She doesn’t have time for it all.
Layla and Liam see their mother once a week during a supervised visit, which means meeting in a public place (usually McDonald’s) with a case manager present. The mother jeopardized these visits twice by bringing a boyfriend along, which is a violation of visitation rules and led to the intervention of the case manager, who told him to wait in the car.
“I don’t like my stepdad,” Layla remarks after one of these visits, referring to her mother’s boyfriend. “One time my mom tried to leave me with him, but he scares me.”
Layla and Liam return from the visits whiny and unruly. Sometimes their mother sends them back with bags of candy, but never with clothes,which they need, my daughter complains.
To regain custody of her children, the mother has to be clean for six months, get a job and find a suitable place to live. She hasn’t done any of it yet.
A Plan To Adopt
When the children have been with my daughter and son-in-law for eight months, my daughter tells me she wants to adopt them.
“I think parental rights will be terminated. The mother hasn’t made any progress, and everybody involved in their case says the kids are doing great with us,” she says.
They do seem to be doing great. Liam turns eight, and for his birthday he wants an Oreo cake, which my daughter makes, along with his favorite meal, hamburgers and nachos. Following the birthday party the children play in the yard until after dark, their laughter punctuating the night.
There’s supposed to be a court hearing the week after the birthday, but it’s postponed. Summer arrives, school ends, and the children have been with my daughter and son-in-law for a year.
My daughter sends all five kids to a week-long summer church camp where they swim, hike, do crafts and return at night exhilarated and exhausted. Layla and Liam have started calling my daughter mom, which she neither encourages nor discourages.
The Court Hearing
Another hearing is scheduled. The case manager is confident about the possibility of adoption, because the children have been in foster care for a year and the mother hasn’t made much progress. She might be granted another six months to get her act together, or her parental rights could be terminated at the hearing, which is what the case manager believes will happen.
“We’ll let Layla and Liam decide when they want to be adopted into our family,” my daughter tells me the night before the hearing. “It’s going to be traumatic, having their mother cut out of their lives. I want them to know we want them, but they’ll need time to grieve.”
But as it turns out, my daughter is the one who needs time to grieve.
In a move that stuns case managers, CASA workers, attorneys, and almost everybody else involved, the judge awards custody of the children back to their mother. He gives the mother three weeks to prepare a suitable place to live, and the children are to have three unsupervised weekend visits prior to the transition.
My daughter takes care of the children for three more weeks, which turn out to be the worst three weeks of her foster parenting experience.
Following the first unsupervised weekend visit with their mother, the children return ecstatic. “Mama says she’s going to get me a room to myself with bunk beds and a lava lamp,” Liam boasts.
“And I get a black light for my room, and a canopy bed and my own TV,” Layla adds. “My mom loves me.”
After the second weekend visit, Liam begins wetting the bed again and Layla wakes up with night terrors. My daughter rushes to the bedroom to quiet her shrieks. It seems the mother’s boyfriend punched a hole in the wall sometime during the last visit and Layla is terrified that burglars will be able to climb through the hole and get inside the house.
“I don’t like my stepdad,” she sobs.
Endings and Beginnings
The third weekend visit comes and goes and it’s time to send the children back for good. My daughter is packing their things when she spots the pink sequined ballerina costume and tiny ballet slippers wedged between the bed and the wall. “You’ll want to take these, to remember your recital by. You can give the pictures we took to your mother. She’ll think you look like a princess.”
Layla, unsmiling, says “My mom doesn’t like you.”
After the case manager has driven Layla and Liam away for the last time, my daughter feels as if her heart has been wrenched from her chest. She doesn’t want to talk about it, so I don’t call.
Finally, a week later, when she’s ready to speak, she says, “I can’t foster again. Not for a while.”
“You don’t need to. Take some time for yourself and your family,” I tell her.
But a month later, she calls with her news. “We’ve got two children, a brother and sister, thirteen and four.”
I’m dismayed, although I don’t say it. I believe two more children so soon will exact too much of an emotional toll. My daughter explains why she changed her mind. “No one else would take both children. DFACS could only find placement for the youngest, since nobody wants a teenager. And I couldn’t stand to see siblings get separated.”
Eight months later, as of this writing, the children are still with her. She’s more guarded this time, refusing to allow herself to get too emotionally attached. “I’m not expecting to adopt them,” she says. I’m going into this expecting reunification with the mother.”
The mother’s a user. The father is in prison. There’s a boyfriend or a stepdad in the picture. The children were born with drugs in their system, but they both seem fine now. They lived with another family member for a while, but there was a history of violence and abuse. The youngest one is already calling my daughter mom.
On any given day there are nearly 428,000 children in foster care in the United States.
A government report says the number of children in the U.S. Foster Care System has increased for the fourth year in a row, due largely to an uptick in substance abuse by parents.
Heroin is the drug of choice among parents. Other substance abuse drugs among parents include meth, cocaine and prescription medications.
As the number of American children in foster care increases, there is a concurrent shortfall in the number of foster homes.
Thirty to fifty percent of foster parents make the decision to no longer be a foster parent home.
Every twenty five minutes a baby is born suffering from opiate withdrawal.