A month after J came home, we received an official letter in the mail addressed to any parties with an interest in the child. We were invited to attend a staffing at the Department of Family and Protective Services – a meeting to discuss the future placement of J.
“So this is when they decide who gets custody of J?” I asked Laurie.
“No, its too soon,” she said. “More than likely they’ll proceed with reunification because they’re legally required to give the birth mom a chance to work her service plan. Then they’ll reconvene in a few months to reevaluate.”
Laurie and I arrived at the CPS building a few minutes early and had the front desk page J’s caseworker. While we waited, we reminisced about our first foster child who we brought to this office for visitations with her birth mother. We said goodbye to her in the parking lot when we dropped her off for her weekly visit, knowing afterward that her caseworker would drive her to a distant relative. I remembered wondering what she would be thinking after her visit when we weren’t there to pick her up.
J’s case worker, Jen, came to the front office and led us through a series of halls with small visitation rooms with donated toys and cartoon murals, past a set of doors with a sign reading “No Children Beyond This Point,” into a room with fold-out tables arranged to look like a conference room. Several people were already seated with notepads and file folders ready. No one introduced themselves to us or asked who we were. Jen, who was also Isaac’s caseworker three years ago when he was a foster child, is petite, soft-spoken, and awkward. Her demeanor seems better suited for work in a library rather than with troubled children. I hoped she might introduce us to the group, but when she sat down without saying anything, I waited until someone acknowledged us.
I’m not sure who initiated the conversation. More than likely, someone mentioned J and Laurie jumped in. She rarely needs an invitation to show off our kids. We might be in a meeting with adoptive families or at the grocery store with total stranger and, within seconds, she whips out the little photo album she keeps in her purse and passes it around. Ordinarily, I’m amused that she is so proud of them, but here it seemed unprofessional. These were hardened caseworkers who didn’t seem interested that he liked playing in the pool or that our dogs loved him for his many odors.
Finally, a woman sitting across from us said, “Well, let’s get started. Why don’t we go around the room and introduce ourselves and what our role is with the child.” Jen started, followed by her supervisor, a lawyer representing CPS, a lawyer representing J’s attorney ad litem, someone representing CASA, their supervisor, someone representing kinship placements, their supervisor, and an attorney representing kinship. The facilitator asked Jen how J came into foster care. Jen nervously cleared her throat, picked up her file folder, and pretended to look through it. She spoke for less than a minute and said “um” no less than ten times. At first, I thought she was being discrete, but when she didn’t even know if the bio mom was working her service plan, I worried that Jen had no idea what was going on. While she went to a lot of trouble to locate Laurie and me to place J with us, she also allowed Isaac to wallow in a neglectful foster home when he was a baby. Now, J’s fate as our legal child rested in her hands. With the exception of the birth mom Isaac and J share, I’ve never had more conflicting feelings toward another human being.
At first, I felt intimidated by everyone’s credentials. But after two minutes of discussion about the case, I realized Laurie and I were clearly the most informed people in the room. The group took twenty minutes before they got caught up on facts Laurie and I knew off the top of our heads.
I entered the meeting knowing that CPS is required by law to give the bio mom a chance to work her plan, regardless of her past. So I was not disappointed when they concluded by giving her the chance for reunification. After years of foster parenting, I’ve learned that CPS typically talks more about the rights of bio parents and less about the long-term well being of the child, although they claim the two are synonymous.
Jen walked us back through the maze to the front entrance. She and Laurie talked about J’s next visitation with his bio mom, but I was too distracted. While I may have been a little embarrassed when Laurie passed around the photo album before the meeting, I now worried I’d missed the chance to represent J. The group of caseworkers had been in meetings for hours and we were one of the last of the day. To them, J was another name on the page and I had failed to bring him to life. I wished I’d made a scene. “I want to be his Daddy. I’ll do whatever it takes.” I wished I’d shown them pictures of J on my phone eating watermelon and reading books. For that matter, I wished I’d have brought a slideshow, a PowerPoint presentation, or the frigging laptop, which has over two hundred pictures devoted just to his first week with us. “Here’s J playing with Oscar in our playroom. Here’s another one of him playing with Oscar in our bedroom. Here’s one of him playing with Oscar and Lucy. Here’s one with him, Oscar, Lucy and Vivi playing in the playroom. Here’s one with them in the back yard.”
In my head, I know this wouldn’t have made a difference. While these antics make good prime time drama, real life doesn’t work that way. Several in the group had used the word “reunification” with a wink and a nod, and someone even said, “We all know where this case is heading,” meaning that termination was inevitable. So until then, the fate of our family rests there.