Anyone who is involved with the world of adoption knows that adoption has lifelong implications for everyone involved: birth parents, adoptive parents, and, of course, the people who are adopted from one family into another.
Until very recently, adoption was almost always shrouded in secrecy. The link between the birth parent and the adopted person was held in file boxes on the shelves of adoption agencies, paperwork that connected the adopted child to the parent or parents they came from. In order to access that information, adoptees and birth parents had to pay money. Had to know where to start. And had to rely on the cooperation of whomever received their request for information.
Nowadays, we recognize the importance of transparency in adoption and the benefits of a child knowing about their birth family and even having relationships with them. Most adoptions today are open, with at least some sort of contact between birth and adoptive families, but that leaves thousands of adopted adults with gaping holes in their life stories. In response to this, in 2018, Amara, a foster care and adoption agency in Seattle, launched Project Search and Reunion, a ground-breaking initiative that aims to audit 3,100 of their own adoption files between the years of 1950 and 2000 to ensure that adoptees and birth families receive the information and support they requested, especially in regard to searching.
In March, just before the world shut down and we all went into quarantine, I had a chance to hear a presentation about this important work, and in the latest episode of A Fostered Life Podcast, I’m speaking with Rena Konomis, a Washington state court appointed Confidential Intermediary and Project Director of Project and Search and Reunion. Listen as Rena explains the goal of the project and why it matters for everyone involved with the world of adoption.
I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did!
During the last weekend in February, I had to bring my foster son to the emergency room. (He’s OK now, and he was probably OK then, but it was a better-safe-than-sorry situation.) My husband was out of town for the weekend at a cabin in the woods with a bunch of his best friends—it was his (and his twin brother’s) 50th birthday, and I was not about to interrupt it with a phone call to come home. So I called for reinforcements (a friend who let me drop my other kids at her house) and headed to Children’s Hospital.
In all of the hullabaloo, I was not thinking clearly, and I neglected to bring three key items that are crucial for any foster parent who is bringing her foster child to the hospital.
Don’t make the same mistakes I did! Here are my three tips to remember if you have to bring a foster child to the E.R.
BRING YOUR PLACEMENT AGREEMENT
You guys. I showed up at the E.R. with my foster son and no paperwork proving I had the right to consent to his medical treatment. What a rookie mistake!! If you have to bring a foster child to the hospital, for goodness sake, bring your placement agreement.
Fortunately—pro tip—I had scanned the agreement and saved it to my Google Drive, so I was ultimately able to produce proof that I was, in fact, authorized to consent to his treatment. But it took nearly two hours for me to access my Google Drive because my phone battery was dead when we got to the hospital.
Which brings me to point number two…
BRING A PHONE CHARGER.
For the love of all that is holy, keep a charger in your purse. My word.
I spent six hours in the emergency room that day, and most of that time, my phone sat on the communal charger at the nurses’ station on the other end of the floor from the room we were parked in. I needed to be in touch with the friends who were watching our other kids (did I mention my husband is out of town?!) and my teenager, who was out for the day and had no idea what was going on. I also kept receiving voicemail from my foster son’s previous foster parent, who had received a call from the hospital when I brought him in, because she was listed as his caregiver. Since I could not produce proof that I was his foster parent, they called her (naturally). She was worried, and we kept playing phone tag because my phone was off/charging when she called and then I missed her when I called back.
So I sat there watching mindlessly numbing cartoons with my child while my phone charged so I could turn it on, check in with everyone, and then turn it back off to charge some more.
Which brings me to point number three…
BRING SOMETHING TO DO.
I had nothing in my bag for my son or for me to do. No magazines, no books, no nothing.
There was a television in the room, which had a few cartoons to choose from, so my son was happy for a while. But when the remote control was not working properly, and he could not find his way back to the show he had wanted to watch, he grew frustrated. Then he grew bored and started acting out.
I really wished I had brought some crayons, paper, books, etc. for him—not to mention something for me to read! Without my phone, it was just me and my child in a tiny exam room waiting for an indeterminate amount of time. (We were there for a psychiatric evaluation, not a physical injury, so once he was calm, we were not considered high priority. Also, because our visit was a result of an incident that had taken place earlier at home, neither of us was in a great place emotionally. We were both on edge, which made sitting in a small room together all day hard.)
If you are a foster parent, you will likely experience an unexpected trip to the E.R. or urgent care at some point in your journey. Whether it’s a sprained ankle from falling on the playground, a bump on the head while a toddler learns to walk, an episode of violent rage, or suicidal ideations, it’s always important to be on the safe side and have a doctor weigh in. When that time comes, remember this list and don’t be caught off guard and unprepared! Remember to grab the placement agreement, your phone charger, and a good book or two.
We are now in our seventh week at home here in Seattle. It’s probably been about the same for you, give or take a week. For me, the initial shock has worn off, but that does not mean it’s gotten easier. A few weeks ago, my children’s schools started offering online instruction, which added a whole new layer of stress. I started out with a strong plan, but quickly realized it was totally impossible to implement for five children. I had to lower my expectations quickly so I didn’t lose my mind.
As I’ve been reflecting on these past seven or so weeks, I’ve identified some things that are helping me maintain my sanity and helping my family thrive during this time.
Have someone to talk to. Who are you talking with about what you’re going through? There had better be someone, because you need to process all of this.
For me, the Marco Polo app has become my go-to. I can leave short (ahem, or not-so-short) video chats for my friends and they respond with video chats when they have time. This is great for busy moms and dads, who can’t always take a phone call (“Can I call you back? I’m wiping someone right now!”) My friend Robbin is single and is so encouraging to me. She listens, offers great feedback, researches cool educational videos for me to show my kids, and, above all, prays for me every day. My friend Cherie just got licensed last week to be a foster parent, and I’ve been walking with her through the whole process, so it kills me not to be able to really be there for her if/when she gets her first child—but at least this way we can keep in touch and send videos of things our kids are doing. Like my family, my friend Becky’s family is in the process of moving across the country—we’re moving to Virginia, they’re moving to North Carolina—and it’s been wonderful to swap packing-during-quarantine sob stories with her.
I also have my Flourishing Foster Parent support group, which meets online weekly and has been such a source of encouragement and information during this time. We have heard from experts in grief, adoption, foster parenting, and more on these calls, and shared experiences with how to manage overseeing our children’s virtual visits. Having someone (or a few someones) to talk with is vital to our well-being. Find your people and reach out to them!
Create a daily and weekly routine.I confess, my daily schedule has gotten much more lax in the past week, since we are now in the process of moving and I am packing every day while trying to manage everyone’s online school work. Posting my daily schedule has ceased for the moment, but we still have our routines (Morning Routine, Night Time Routine, How I Clean Up My Room, etc.), and they create a sense of stability and structure for everyone involved.
I also have a tip that has helped take back a huge chunk of my sanity during this time: ANYTIME SNACK BAGS. Each morning, I pack up a lunch box for each child containing all of their snacks for the day. Now, instead of coming to me when they want a snack, they know they can eat what’s in their lunch box. They also know that once these snacks are gone, they’re gone, so they have to budget them throughout the day. As I have shared before, finding ways to empower our kids is so important, and it turns out this is a great way to do just that, while stopping the constant, “Mom, I’m hungry, can I have a snack?” ten minutes after breakfast.
ATTEND TO YOURSELF. I have written about the importance of creating a robust and intentional self-care plan already, but this season of quarantine has made even some of those things really challenging. I saw this on Facebook and thought it was great. However you do self-care, remember this: it’s not just going to happen. You have to be intentional. Whether it means posting a list like this or downloading my (free) self care plan for foster parents, do something to prioritize your self care.
SEE EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS THROUGH THE LENS OF TRAUMA—INCLUDING YOUR TRAUMA. I have told several people that this season has brought out the best—and worst—in me. I have never worked harder to make our home a safe and happy place. But I have also had moments where the stress of it all got to me and I resorted to punitive, rather than positive, parenting methods, which is not how I want to do things.
The reality is, our usual opportunities to recharge our batteries and take a breather from the stress of parenting children with special needs don’t exist anymore. Likewise, for our kids, the opportunities to blow off steam on the playground or connect with friends in the halls between classes at school, or just get a break from us, are gone, and this is hard for everyone. When my kids are struggling, I need to see what’s happening through the lens of trauma. And the same goes for me. By doing so, we can give everyone (including ourselves) a little more grace and understanding. We will get through this, and life will feel normal again. Some day.
Review Positive Parenting techniques, and post reminders for yourself. As you might recall, I am a big fan of Positive Parenting Solutions*, and every so often, I need a refresher. Since I bought the lifetime membership a couple of years ago, I have re-listened to the entire program several times, and now I know which ones to revisit when I find myself sliding back into my punitive parenting techniques (which I abhor, but which are more instinctive for me). Shouting, threatening, swatting, taking away things like screen time, etc. are not how I want to parent, especially when I know my kids are stressed out and struggling too, but that’s where I go when my emotional rubber band is stretched tight. I have to keep written reminders posted for myself (PPS has a great PDF download of 37 Tools to use instead of punishment, which are all much more effective than punitive measures). Positive Parenting has never been harder, but it’s also never been more important than during a time like this.
Make a plan for virtual visits. As I have talked with more and more foster parents over the past few weeks, I have learned that managing virtual visits for our children in foster care has become a huge source of additional stress for many foster parents at this time. Some are doing really well with it, and some are resentful, bitter, and frustrated by the whole thing. I put together a podcast episode featuring five foster parents talking about how they are managing virtual visits, which I shared last week. I learned about the Caribu app as a tool some foster parents are finding really helpful (though this only works for two-way calls. If the call is being supervised by a third party, Caribu doesn’t work.) Google Duo is also used by a lot of parents for virtual visits. Whatever you use, it’s important to have a plan and structure for the visits, as well as a debrief/decompression plan for your kids (and yourself) afterwards. And if they’re really, really stressful, refer to my first tip above.
Make sure to have “Special Time” with your kids every day. This may seem strange to say, since we are with our kids all the time right now. But there is a difference between being in the same place as our kids and being with our kids. Make time to get down on the floor and play. Join them in hide and seek. Invite them to help cook. (My six-year-old daughter made dinner last night. Frozen lasagne, lima beans, pickles, avocado, apple slices, and scrambled eggs. It was perfect.) Take them one at at a time for a walk. When weather is bad, I take them one at a time to the minivan to sit and eat Little Debbie snacks and watch a show on the PBS Kids app on my phone. Read to them every night (even our 17-year-old gets read to! It’s become a sacred time for us!) Hug and snuggle them. I shared before that it is really important to empower our kids, but it’s also really important to connect with them. Make sure they feel seen and heard at this time when life is so very confusing!
My last tip is to keep a journal. Jot down highs and lows daily or at least a few times each week. Journaling has helped me see what is happening more clearly, which I’m not right in the middle of it. It has also helped me keep track of what all is happening during this time.
These are just some of the things that I’ve thought of that are really important for foster parents to be aware of and proactive about during this stressful time. What would you add?