Monday, September 30, 2013


This is the thing that many foster parents would like to ask about, but are afraid to. Most decent people who are foster parents don't want to be seen as one of "THOSE" foster parents. There are so many horror stories out there about foster families that neglected  or abused the children in their care. Kids have died in foster care. We have heard and seen plenty first hand to verify that there are indeed those families out there.

There aren’t any hard and fast numbers, but the average kid will cost about 190K for 18 years. The teen years are the most expensive, with clothes and gadgets and peer pressure. No teen wants to go around in second hand clothes all the time (well, I did, but I was weird and found solace at thrift stores).

There are some other estimates that a teenager will cost about $13K/year. 

I work, Leonard is in school, and Ziggy is in part time daycare. My salary plus a small inheritance is enough to keep our bodies and souls in the same place and pay for his classes. Starting soon, Leonard will need to take out loans for school. When we took on being foster parents, we had about a month and a half in expenses in the bank Not great, but we thought we’d be o.k.

The girls came to us in April, and then Joan (a girl who was with us for three months and caused considerable upheaval) came in May. By the middle of July we were both scraping the bottom of our bank accounts.

Foster agencies have a month long lag in payments. They do this because you have to fill in a stack of expense reports at the end of every month. This includes mileage, related costs such as any medically necessary expenses or other things, and a list over who stayed at your house on what days.

If the kid is not in your home, you don’t get paid for that time. This can be different if the kid is Therapeutic Foster Care level, but those TFC rules are different state to state.

You get a per/day allocation of funds, based on many factors such as where you live, the need of the child (TFC or not) and what the agencies keep to manage overhead costs. The State Agency that funds foster care pays the agencies, and then they pay their foster parents. Our agency pays pretty well, about $23/day.

That is $8395/year. Remember, the average teen costs around $13000 a year. This covers food, clothing, electronics, the increased water and electric bills, cell phone bills, personal hygiene (do you know how much teen girls need in hygiene care?), after school program fees, summer program fees, enrichment activity costs, room decoration needs, school supplies, etc.

This stipend is not designed to compensate your time. One of the reason that TFC rates are higher is the agency assumes that if you have TFC youth living with you, one parent is spending a significant amount of time taking care of the kids, and therefore unable to work. In the case of behaviorally diagnosed TFC kids, this also includes an increased level of payment to cover things like financial incentives for good behavior.

Now, all medical costs should be covered, which in the case of these girls is a huge blessing. But we’re still pinching pennies, and only just now after 3 months of looking at unsustainably low bank accounts, starting to see our savings build back up. Part of the reason for the long delay was because of ongoing arguments about what their rate should actually be, as well as a freeze in payments to the agency from the State. That’s right, there was actually about 3 weeks where the agencies weren’t getting paid their normal rates while the State held contract negotiations.

Just keep in mind as you get started as a foster parent that there may be a delay in payment. Be assertive, even pushy, if you think the agency isn’t being fair. At least at our agency, we’ve found that they are reasonable if you present them with something that’s reasonable.

Tomorrow we send Grace out into the world with some money to buy clothes. One of her family members is going to come and help her, and I’m sending her with a list. But I still worry… is she going to be able to do this, or are we setting ourselves up to head back for a returns trip on Wednesday? Money management at it’s finest.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Round and round we go

Now at:

I posted an update on our fundraising site on August 19th that was kind of the impetus for starting this blog. On there I had a few links to articles and research about attachment. As I've been noodling around this past week, I know now that there is a lot more to learn. There are various levels of attachment problems. I’m going to do more reading and get back to you.

What has been really on my mind the last few days is the cycle of poverty. What gets that going? What creates the kind of environment that makes it difficult to succeed and move forward?

We got a dose of it this weekend. Jill and Grace have a cousin (we’ll call him Keion) who has aged out of foster care. He has come by quite a few times, often staying for dinner and hanging out with us. He’s even been useful in situations when we’ve had fights with the girls. We know that he’s not doing well, and that he has some issues that keep him from moving forward with his life.

A week or so ago, Keion and Jill got into a HUGE fight. One of those fights between family that result in people being very hurt and saying things that they probably shouldn’t say to each other. Jill and Grace weren’t talking for most of the week, but (mostly) resolved their issues by Saturday. Saturday night Keion came over. He and Jill still aren’t talking, but were interacting. Grace heard Keion mutter things to try and provoke Jill, but we were upstairs or something and didn’t hear them. I came down to get something to eat and suddenly found myself in the middle of a good old-fashioned ghetto throw down. I screamed for Leonard to come and help and he ended up bodily ejecting Keion from the house. I was terribly upset, and only thankful that the baby was asleep upstairs. Then Grace said something that hit me;
“You just don’t know how to handle tension.”

Well, I made it clear that I had no desire to learn that skill. I am fine not having the ability to handle things like that. The thing is, they don’t really either, and Jill was in rare form all day Sunday. I did say some things about trying to be the bigger person, trying not to feed into their cousin’s negativity, yada yada. But it was like I was speaking a foreign language.

The theories of Cycle of Poverty tend to focus on access to education and access to resources. There’s a crucial piece missing, though. That’s how you carry yourself in the world, how you interact. Do you know how to shake someone’s hand? Do you know how to talk to a stranger who may be able to offer you a job? Can you be comfortable in a new situation? Do you explode with anger if someone says something or does something that hurts your feelings, or are you able to talk to the person who pissed you off and work it out?

Geoffery Canada and the staff at the HarlemChildren’s Zone have been taking a stab at supplying a community in Harlem with the resources to break that cycle. They provide incredible wrap-around services that help to break the intergenerational destructive cycles.

A large number of people who could be considered in a “cycle of poverty” are dependent on social welfare, such as disability or state assistance programs. Planet Money and This American Life did some excellent reporting on what happened to the welfare roles in the 1990’s, and I see the evidence supporting their hypothesis every day around me. They then have kids (often more than they can actually support) and those kids learn behaviors and patterns that aren’t conducive to being successful.

Grace had a person she was interested in dating visit one time. This young man could “code switch” with the best of them, jumping between a polished and respectful way of speaking with us and regular slang when it was just them. At one point in our conversation, Grace laughed and said “You don’t talk like that! Why you talkin’ like that?” He looked confused, and I explained code-switching to her. He could talk in an educated, polite way when he was talking to us. She had never heard of this idea, never even thought about it, which made me sad. It meant that she had spent her entire existence in a bubble of slang and name calling. Even if she turns out to be the smartest person in the world, teaching her code switching is going to be tough.

Tonight she confessed that I’m the first person she’s ever lived with who has a full time job.

Think about that for a minute. Her entire life, none of her caregivers have gotten up at the same time every day and gone to work. None of them have dragged their sick, sorry asses out of bed and gone to work with the sniffles. None of her role models have done the things they really don’t want to do because they HAD to do them.

I asked who in her family she most wants to be like when she grows up. She told me none of them.

Both girls love their family, but recognize that there’s something about them they don’t want to have in their lives. Every once in a while it seems that they recognize what it is they need to change, but then when they have to do something that’s tough or hard, they don’t want to make that choice. Of course some of that is teenager stuff, but it’s frustrating because it feels like the stakes are higher.

Because they are.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Fostering attachment

I started this post on Friday in the wake of some really heart wrenching conversations with the girls. They were actively comparing my parenting with their biological mother's. This created a huge wad of conflicting emotions; being upset at their stories, feeling good that I'm at least mostly hitting the kind of parenting notes that I'm striving for with them, and then horribly, unbearably sorry that they are put in a position where they have to consider that their biological mother may not actually be the caregiver that they need her to be.

I just read this little article about an elephant who was rejected by his mother. It nearly toppled me over the edge of tears that I've been balancing on  for the last few days.

Attachment parenting has been getting a lot of attention lately. The issues range from discussing whether you should sleep train a child by letting them "cry it out" to what is the appropriate length of time to breastfeed or carry your child in a carrier pack.Well, those are the elements of attachment that my cohort are talking about, at least. Educated, mostly white and middle class, we take for granted that a kid will be loved. We assume that a parent is going to sit down after dinner and take a look at homework. We think it's obvious that a kid will be shown a lot of love and respect, we just want to make sure that we do it the "right" way.

Fortunately for our girls, they don't have anything like the horror show attachment issues that some families have to face. But there are still some signs that they are trying to attach to us, emotionally.

You know how you have little kids who want to do absolutely EVERYTHING with you? Well, imagine having two little kids who want to do everything with you who are literally the same size you are. That's kind of what's going on right now. I'm not a professional psycho- anything, but from where I sit it sure does look like they're trying to attach to us emotionally. We went to DE this Saturday for a quick visit to my stepmother's. I wanted to just check up on her and make sure she was o.k. We were going to leave early and get back by the mid-afternoon, and I assumed the girls would want to sleep in. I didn't pressure them to come, and emphasized that they could stay home and that the trip would be quick and kind of dull. It was. Leonard killed some ivy growth and I fixed her computer. However, when we got back, we had two grumpy teenagers who were doing everything they could to piss us off... including sneaking around the corner and smoking cigarettes. After my freak-out over the smoking (I'm a former smoker... it freaks me out), we took them with us to Leonard's sister's house to have some pizza and help us transition Ziggy for his overnight with her. Our plan was to go on a date. Once we were at his sister's house, they started talking about how we need to take them on a date, how the four of us need to go our, how they want to go see a movie... nevermind that Leonard and I haven't had any time alone in over a month!

We got everyone involved in bathtime and snuck out. Bless Auntie for providing a diversion for all three kids. But sure enough, as soon as the movie was over, there was a message from Grace. I called her back.
Grace: Kitty, Motorboat be actin' strange. (that's the cat)
Me: Yeah, she does that sometimes, what did she do?
Grace: She runnin' up and down the stairs, like she all freaked out. And Lucca (the dog) is starin' and won't go upstairs. I'm scared cuz it's dark up there.
Me: Well, sometimes Motorboat just gets hyper. I think that's all that's going on.
Grace: No, Kitty, You don't understand. She actin' HYPE.
Me: Yeah, I'm sure. I think probably everything is fine. We just finished the movie, so we're going to keep going with our date now. But we'll be home, don't worry.

She tried to convince me that it was urgent that we come home. They are convinced there are ghosts in the house, and wanted us to hurry back to protect them.

The next morning we got a lot of ribbing from them for staying out "past curfew." One of them even said that we needed to do things with them. They planned to go to see some family that day, but delayed that so we could all have brunch together and then go to the pool for a little while. They just really, REALLY wanted to spend time with us.

This is a new development. In the past, they've been excited to see us leave, as it meant they could pretend like they ruled the roost. But since the NH trip and that miserable court date, there's been this new side of their interactions with us, one where they are making it very clear that they want to know we're invested in them, and that we're not going to give up on them. It's sweet, and it's sad, and it's a lot of pressure.

Most of the resources we're seeing about attachment for adoption have to do with babies. There's not a whole lot about attaching with teenagers. I'll try to do a post about adoption/foster care attachment in my next post.

Until then, I'm hoping for relatively calm waters ahead...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Cautious optimisim

Last Friday was a low point. We were all so heartbroken, and were whisked away to the magic land of central New Hampshire for revitalization. This week has been by far the best week we've had yet. I've been enjoying the heck out of all three kids, really getting into hanging out with them.

I called Jill's school today. She's going to an alternative high school where they work half days in the classroom and then can work independently at home using an online curriculum. I have to say, I'm kind of impressed. The staff person I talked to today said all the right things. They have a high graduation rate, a caring staff, and are used to working with kids who are emotional and have issues with authority. Apparently all the staff really like Jill. She mentioned today that staff that she's never talked to have stopped her in the halls to ask how she's doing. It's encouraging to me to hear her talk about wanting to be a studious person again. Before things went sour for them, she was a straight-A student and loved school. I'm starting to see that come about again. We've been talking about trying to set up some college visits in the Spring.

And she told me with great pride that she got 100% on the history test she took the other day. Apparently my hour-long synopsis of the Civil War was a great help to her in taking that test.

Grace's school is also giving me reason to be optimistic. In a school district beleaguered by massive budget cuts and endless stories about how horrible the outlook is for everyone, they seem to have a Special Education director who is earning her paycheck (and a few other people's paychecks, truth be told). Tonight Grace sat down and actually did her homework. She complained the whole time, but it's done and ready to be handed in.

Grace's story from last school year is especially bad. She has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that calls for emotional support in the classroom as well as remedial work in core subjects. She's clearly intelligent enough, but she's been moved so many times that her special education services have been severely disrupted. Her reading level is at least 4 grade levels behind right now. Last year, when going to The School From Hell (TSFH for short), she was inexplicably placed in a classroom that is designed for students who are not likely to ever be able to be gainfully employed because of their mental and emotional disabilities.

This has only added to her already pretty significant trauma around school and institutions. She is convinced that she's stupid, and that she's good for  nothing but getting on welfare and SSI. Though her school is being supportive, they were not able to count any credits from last year since her classes consisted of things like "wear clean clothes". She basically spent a year languishing in this crappy classroom. Now she's re-entering school as a freshman, which is always demoralizing.

At TSFH, the staff often provoked or otherwise exacerbated her attitude. There was a lot of yelling and belligerency, but it seems that is not the culture at her new school. TSFH was also over an hour away, and the new one is all of 4 blocks. These things all add up to a significant improvement.

This week has been awesome, but I am sort of bracing myself for the inevitable blow up. Eventually they will both be fed up, too tired to get up, pissed about some element of the program or otherwise unwilling to go to school/do homework, etc. I hope that Leonard and I can keep our cool and weather the storm.

The other thing causing me some cautious optimism is the renewed buy-in that they seem to have with us. After court on Friday I was worried that they would explode on us, but it seems the road trip did some great therapeutic work there. I can't wait for us to be able to buy a car so we can take these road trips whenever we need to. There are so many places we want to take them, and so man places they want to go.

All of us are pretty excited about the home improvement projects that are finally underway. To get the bikes out of the house and improve the counter space/layout of the kitchen will be like dreams come true. And next summer- bbq on the deck!

Right now we're on an upswing. I hope and pray and want it to last as long as possible.

Monday, September 9, 2013

First day of school

It is with great trepidation that we sent the girls off to the first day of school today. They are both starting new schools, which is always a scary thing, and they're both facing some big hurdles.

We left Philly on Friday immediately after court on Friday, and that may have been the best thing for all of us.  We went to a dear friend's wedding in the rolling green hills of New Hampshire where we were surrounded by happy, healthy, supportive people in a really gorgeous environment.  I half expected the girls to spend the whole time on their phones and laptop bu i was pleasantly surprised to look out the window Saturday morning and see them playing Risk with a friend of mine and a cherubic 7 year old. They even seemed to be having fun, and have started knitting and crocheting lessons with me. Grace astutely figured out that if she knits in class, she may have an easier time following what the teacher is saying. I'm hopeful that I can convince her teacher of that.

Grace was hyper on the way up. This was overheard going towards the tappan zee bridge:
G: daym! Look at that jint!
    Oh, nooooo... I don't like this bridge. It's too close to the water.
There was a lot of fun had, including board games, swimming in the river, petting a donklet and dancing to accordion music in a barn. They even stayed in a tent for the first time!

We all talked on the way home about revising the allowance structure. Currently there is a set maximum, which is pretty low, and they lose money if they don't accomplish certain tasks. The structure we're proposing has a pretty low base minimum, and then they add to that by performing certain tasks.  The way we envision it, if they make it to school everyday and do their chores, they'll be able to make about twice as much weekly as they do now. We're going to all think on it, decide what things we want to see worked in as incentives, and try to solidify the structure this week.

We all had a blast with the developmental leap that Ziggy made over the weekend as well. He is now clearly asking for things he wants (apples, water, nursing) rather than just pointing and yelling. In the car both ways he had so much fun hanging out with the girls, playing with them, giggling and them and enjoying himself. We joke about getting him registered as a therapy baby. He earned his keep for sure.

Apparently the Philadelphia School District put Grace into a regular classroom today instead of in the self-contained room that she has been in since 3rd grade. And so the endless battling for a decent education begins…

Last night we saw a major breakthrough with Grace. On her way down into the basement she knocked over a bag of powdered cleaning agent that was on the stairs. This was at around 10 the night before the first day of school after we had spent the day in the car travelling. No one was happy about it. But she picked up the broom, and then the shop vac, and she gamely tried to clean it up. Leonard came down and helped her, and it was mostly taken care of in about 30 minutes. This might seem like nothing too exciting, but the Grace we had in the house 3 months ago would have immediately started cursing and yelling as soon as anyone said anything to her about it. She would have stormed off, not only not helping, but stressing out as many people as she could in the process.

It’s the little victories you learn to celebrate.

Friday, September 6, 2013


We just left court.  It was a discouraging experience all around. The caseworker for DHS was recently reassigned, so the representative didn't know anything about our case. Our agency social worker tried to advocate, but in the confusing and highly scripted world of court proceedings the argument for PLC wasn't made clearly. The case was postponed until December. 

This is hardest on Jill. It means that her 18th birthday will be weeks after the court date, which almost certainly doesn't leave enough time to make the arrangements. For her, PLC is increasingly less likely on that kind of time frame. 

There is the option of a board extension, which continues foster care until the child is 21. This could be very beneficial. But it does mean she has to stay in Philadelphia. 

For Grace it just means that she has more time to consider what she wants to do. It also means she has more time to be confused 

For us it means more dealing with social workers, dr. appointments, therapists and DHS/agency shenanigans.  The latest is that apparently the agency isn't getting paid ahead of contract negotiations. That means we're also not getting paid. 

For all of us it means more uncertainty and more open questions. This is perhaps the biggest concern. If we're not a permanent home, how invested is everyone in making things work? 

All in all, this is a pretty unhappy group of people. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Fostering permanency

Tomorrow we find out the fate of our family for the next few years, at least. The girls have a hearing in front of a judge tomorrow, and on the agenda is for them to ask (or not ask) for PLC.

"PLC" stands for "Permanent Legal Custody", which is neither permanent nor full custody. It means that instead of going through an agency to provide their care, we're solely responsible ourselves.  This has many benefits; We can choose their doctors, therapists, schools, sign off for medical procedures and move. We don't have to put up with DHS and agency workers needing to access our home or coordinating with us multiple times per week. We can set incentives and do discipline in a way that makes sense to us without sending pages long emails whenever something happens. However, unlike adoption, the girls' parents are still legally considered their parents. Their rights have not been terminated, and if things straighten out with them the girls can go live with them again with a minimum of legal headache. However, if things don't work out there, the stipend continues until they are 21, which gives us the financial support needed to help them get their adult lives started.

To be honest, we have mixed feelings about this. We love these girls, and they are nice to have around much of the time. But they are undeniably a lot of work and take up a lot of emotional and physical resources. There are some issues that sometimes make life in our house incredibly stressful, and those issues won't go away with permanency. There are reasons these girls have gotten to mid-late teens and still in the system. There's a lot of emotional trauma to address, and problems to work through. Being foster parents on top of biological parents, an employee and a student has taken a toll on our relationship as well.

But when you care so much about a young person, you love them and see their potential, you want to help. Without PLC, Jill will be cut loose from "The System" in January when she turns 18. She will have to rely on family help and public assistance, and will probably not get all of the supports that she needs in order to live up to her potential. She has a lot of potential. She's one of the most intelligent young people I've ever met, but she has not had the advantage of museum visits, music lessons or academic support. Grace is one of the most emotionally intelligent people I've ever met with a near psychic ability to pick up on the moods of the people around her. She loves working with children, and wants to get into Early Childhood Education.

It's that fantasy that keeps us slogging down this path and working through the issues as we encounter them. I want to see Jill finish High School and get a job somewhere that expands her horizons. I want to see her around good people who won't disappoint or hurt her. I want to see her get into music lessons. I want her to make friends, friends who will support her and encourage her to grow into her curiosity and passions. I want to see Grace learn how to control her anger long enough to make friends with the "nerdy people" that she really wants to hang out with. She has expressed a desire to become a good student, and I think in a different environment she would have learned those skills already. I want to see her get her ECE certs and use her immense capacity to love and be compassionate to nurture and care for little ones. She has an incredible affinity with animals as well, and as soon as she turns 16 she wants to start volunteering with the SPCA.

It's hard to hang on to that fantasy when Grace is cussing us out or Jill is storming upstairs slamming the door. I know that my fantasy has a statistically high chance of not being fulfilled.

But it's worth a shot... right?

We'll find out tomorrow if the girls themselves and the courts think it is worth the effort.

Then we're off to New Hampshire for wedding and camping!