In this episode we interview Sarah Sentilles, author of a newly released book by Random House titled Stranger Care. "Stranger Care" is a beautifully written book that captures the promise and often the failure of foster care. And it is a beautiful portrait of love with no promise of a future.
In this episode, we cover:
Beautifully written book that captures the promise and often the failure of foster care. And a beautiful portrait of love with no promise of a future.
· How did you come to the decision to become foster parents? And did you come to that decision or were you really trying to become an adoptive parent?
· Discussion of “ethically cleaner”.
· I appreciated how you showed Evelyn, the birth mom, to be human and to love her child. You did a good job of showing the nuances, which are hard to do, especially when you are the one losing the child. I very much enjoyed seeing how that relationship grew. What helped change it?
· Rooting for and against birth mom
· Love and yet not belonging to you
· The power of the state to remove kids should not be used without great care.
· What qualifies as good parenting and is “good enough” enough. Ex. of the car seat.
· Keeping siblings together.
· It is discouraging that organizations, such as Creating a Family exist to support people like you when you were first considering your options. And if we didn’t reach someone like you who is educated and I would assume someone who researches and gathers info then how in the world do we reach people. Education research focused woman are our demographic!
· How long has it been and do you know what has happened to Coco?
· How have you and your husband been changed by this experience?
· Is this book in part an attempt to reach out to Coco. Did you write it with an ear to her reading it later in life and you talking to her. Do you hope she will hear about it and read it?
· Did you decide to give up on fostering? What about adopting?
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Welcome to creating a family talk about adoption and foster care. I'm Dawn Davenport, your host as well as the director of creating a family. In addition to this show, we also have tons of resources on our website for you, whether you're thinking about foster care or adoption, and you can find them at creating a family.org.
Today we're going to be talking with Sarah scintilla us. She is the author of a newly released book by Random House titled stranger care. Her other books include draw your weapons and breaking up with God. She is a graduate of the Yale University as well as the Harvard Divinity School. Welcome, Sarah to creating a family. I am truly looking forward to talking to you today.
Thank you, Don, thank you for talking with me. I'm looking forward to our conversation. This stranger care is a beautifully written book in it captures both the promise and quite often the failure of foster care. It's also it just feels to me like such a beautiful portrait of love with no promise of a future I I truly enjoyed the book. And I mean this in a way, I hope you don't take it wrong. I wasn't sure I would. This is a I was approached about interviewing you and approached about reading the book. And I thought, Well, yes, but I live I swim in these waters. I you know, foster care is what we do and support here at creating a family. And I wasn't sure that you know, I thought it would just be another book by another foster parent that not not dismissing those, but But honestly, they're quite a few of them. This book was so much more. And it was, it was so beautifully written. It was just I truly enjoyed it. So thank you. Thank you for writing it. And thank you for capturing.
All that is foster care. Thanks for reading it, even though you weren't quite sure you wanted to. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it.
Well, I'm very glad that I did. We're going to start I want to ask you, how did you come up? I know it from the book. But I want you to talk about to our listeners, how did you come to the decision to become a foster parent? Or? Or perhaps the better question is, did you come to that decision? Or were you really trying to become an adoptive parent,
I became a foster parent kind of the long way around, I had always wanted to be a mother. And then I wasn't so sure if I wanted to be a mother because of the way that motherhood is framed in our culture, the cultural ether kind of as as both holy work and trap. And so I was scared of it. By the time I admitted to myself and to my partner that I wanted to be a mother that it was my deepest longing, I realized I was married to a person who did not want to bring another human being onto the planet, he thought that there were enough humans that humans were causing damage to the environment. And there were 500,000 children in foster care who needed home. So why didn't we do that? So you know, Eric, that's my husband's name. He wants to live in a world where we tend to the earth. And I want to live in a world where we tend one another. And so foster care became our common ground, and we decided to become licensed foster parents. Okay. And when you went in, were you thinking you were going to be a foster parent? Or were you thinking you were going to be an adoptive parent? Or was your thinking muddled? But I guess my thinking was muddled both. I remember that one of the first meetings I went to in the order, I lived in Oregon first, when we started the training. And there you could check a box if you wanted to foster in a box if you wanted to adopt and I checked both. I don't know if you were supposed to choose one or the other. But we thought that being far we understood we would foster probably first and that we might have many children or home before we found a child that we could be a permanent home for. But I thought that being foster parents who wanted to adopt would be a positive thing. I've done a lot of reading about how children in the foster care system are moved from home to home to home to home to home. And so I thought, well, if we can give a child a permanent place a forever family then even better. But what I underestimated was how fierce and immediate our attachment to our foster daughter would be when she was placed with us. And then I underestimated the difficulty or the the heartbreak or the terror, the helplessness when you're asked to hand a child back, it's not just that you're releasing a child, sometimes I'm sure you you return a child to a beautiful family situation and other times you're asked to return a child to a situation that may or may not be safe. And that that was much more challenging than I anticipated. And you know, honestly, I think the truth is
almost always no I shouldn't say that most of the time would probably be the majority of the time. You're returning a child to what feels to you as a less than ideal situation that is just that we're going to talk about that some in the in the as we move along, but that it just feels like it's not ideal. It's not perfect because families don't heal that quickly and sometimes
systemic and fundamental issues within family systems and within people. Part of the problem is that foster care is being asked to pick up after all these other systems that have failed, you know, structural poverty, racism, misogyny, lack of housing, lack of health care, lack of mental health care, lack of treatment for drug addiction. Now, there's so many things wrong that of course, it's not going to heal those this structural problems are what lead people into the foster care system. And it's not going to it's going to take more than six weeks or six months or six years to heal that broken this. Yeah. And so whenever the child is returned, it never feels, it's so often feels like there is no perfect solution there. Just you can see both sides. But it's the real loser always feels like it's the child which of course it is. Exactly. That's exactly right. Yeah. I want you to read a section from your book. Let's start with page 236. The last paragraph, yes, I'd imagined foster care as somehow ethically cleaner than private adoptions or fertility treatments. But it became more complicated. And I became more complicit by the day, children taken from parents who want them, children taken from parents who struggle with addiction, children taken from parents who are poor, children taken from parents who abused them, because their parents abused them, and their parents and their parents, and on and on and on. There's no innocent space, my professor would say, when I was in graduate school, nowhere to stand, but right here. I love that. And I thought it was such a perfect way
of capturing the complexity. And I think a lot of people go in thinking that foster care is ethically cleaner. And and do you believe I assume you think that that is a myth now, but but I but I'd love to get your opinion on it. having survived a foster care system as a foster care, survive? That's an interesting word. There's no
you know, what that quote from my professor at the end that there's no innocent space, there's nowhere to stand by right here. I think that's true that that any if we live in a culture, and I think we do we live in a country in a culture that is not pro family, that's not pro child, that anytime that you are trying to offer support, or be at home temporary or permanent, for a child whose parents can't or won't, or unable to take care of them at the time, then you are part of those structural problems as well. I don't think, you know, I think if we had if we had no racism, if we had no poverty, if we had adequate housing, if we had good family leave policies, if women were supported to be mothers, then we wouldn't probably have very many kids in the foster care system. And we probably wouldn't have very many children being placed for adoption. So parts of those systems are the effects of of the break, and other other structures that aren't working and aren't aren't pro child that you say. And in addition to all the other issues you raised, I would also say parent education. You know, we are trained to make that for foster parents. We are we go through a training. But I often think all parents should be I don't know, they're obviously this is never going to happen. And there's no way that requirement. But I do think that all parents need a certain level of training. I know when we left the hospital with our first child, I thought they should not be letting us go we do not know enough. And and they and but I think we all could use that. And I do think as you as you point out, there are generational issues oftentimes, and and quite frankly, a number of foster children who are taken into the foster care system are children of children who had are raised in the foster care system. Yeah, I think the other complexity is this relationship that I had with our foster daughters birth mother, you know, I will never forget that the day I met her. We were Coco is the name I give our foster daughter in the book and her mother's name is Evelyn and of course, I changed everyone's names for privacy reasons. But Coco we picked her up from the hospital when she was three days old. Talk about that feeling of picking up a child or bringing a child home from the hospital. Like we knew how to put her in her car seat that was about it. Yeah. We learned how to give her a bottle. We weren't infant CPR. And that was like the extent of what we knew. But you know, we were we were madly and fiercely in love with her from the beginning. foster parents are asked to love children that don't belong to them that aren't theirs, as if they are theirs. So I think that's the most beautiful part of foster care is that you have this expanded sense of what counts as family and who you're called to tend. Loving Coco was super easy. Loving, her mother was much more challenging and more profound. And I remember the day that I met Evelyn it was in the courtroom, which is another issue like Here you are. This poor mother gave birth two weeks before she hasn't seen her daughter and we meet after go
Going through security at a courthouse in a random hallway with nowhere to sit, no privacy at all. And Evelyn asked if she could hold her daughter which of course, I I handed her cocoa and watched her just cuddle her to her chest and whisper I love you, I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you. And that was my first sign. Okay, this is different than what I thought, you know, this is a different challenge than what I thought these are more complex relationships than what I thought and I need to learn to love Evelyn, as much as I love Coco, you know, and it's easier, in a way. And I certainly heard other foster parents say this, if you can demonize the foster I mean the birth parent, if you know if the foster parent has badly abused the child. But even in those situations demonizing them is, is not in the best interest of the child necessarily, but I truly appreciated how you showed Evelyn it to be a human a fully fleshed out human and to, and she also showed that she truly loved her child, perhaps inadequately not even perhaps, let's just say inadequately. And not always in a good and not always in a productive way, particularly towards the end. But you showed her and you did a good job of showing the nuance, which is quite frankly hard to do, especially when you're the one who stands to lose. In this case, you were fiercely in love with cocoa. I very much enjoyed seeing how your relationship with Evelyn grew and it seemed to it seemed to grow incrementally. And then at some point, it seemed to really deepen what helped you focus on that and what changed, if anything. Really good therapist.
I know I gotta tell you, I loved your therapist, I thought, yeah, I think it Gosh, I wish she had given her name in the book I would have. I'll give you her name. Her name is Juliana Jones Munson. She's an incredible, incredible person. And she, she is what helped me walk through this experience. You know, I called her once I felt like I had the feeling and I don't know if other foster parents feel this, but I had the feeling like I'm gonna die if I have to give Coco up. Like I didn't know if I could survive it. If I had to return her. And I was talking with Juliana, my therapist, and I was telling her, I just want to keep her I just want to keep her I just want to keep her and she said that I needed to turn my thinking 180 degrees around that here I was I was hoping that Evelyn would fail. I didn't want her to be able to succeed in her treatment plan. I wanted her to disappear. And she said you can't wish harm on another person in order to get what you want. That's not who you are. That's not who we need to be on the planet, that that's not right human relations, you have to start supporting and rooting for this person who has been through so much pain, who's showing the desire to change your life in order to get her daughter back, you have to support that you have to do that for two reasons. One, you want to be able to walk away from this not bitter and mean. And two, if you get to keep Coco, you want to be able to look her in the eye and say your mother loved you. We loved your mother, she did everything she could we supported her in every possible way. But you know, she couldn't do it. And you have to be telling the truth. And then she said these two other things. Your Life isn't more important than her life, which is profound and ethical and radically true. And this child might save Evelyn's life, and you don't need your life saved. So that was the beginning of me really claiming my love for Evelyn as a practice. And it wasn't easy. It wasn't like oh, Juliana told me these hard truths. And then I was like, Oh, I love her. It's great. You know, I had to meditate it mindfulness practice, I had to like commit to champion in this other person. And I think Evelyn could feel when I made that switch. And when I started supporting her and wanting her to be well, and when I started loving her as much as I love Coco, and our relationship became really profound. And I remember when the foster care system decided we were headed towards unit reunification, and they suddenly sped up all the visits and they started overnights and it was very disorienting. And one of the first overnights was on Mother's Day weekend. And here I was, you know, I was thinking that Coco was my daughter, but she was going to spend Mother's Day with her mother, her actual mother, who was Evelyn, and nobody in the foster care system, saw me as a mother or saw me as a mother figure. I think they really saw me a staff as kind of babysitting time. And but Evelyn saw me as a mother and she actually gave me my first Mother's Day present. She gave me this tiny teacup, pink teacup with a yellow rose in it, and wished me happy mother's day. And that was one of the most beautiful gifts I've ever been given. I can absolutely see that. You know, it's it's something you said I want to go back to is the complexity of root you want to root for the birth parent, you're supposed to root for the birth parent. I mean that is your role as a foster parent. You know and you want to and yet if you root
For and if she, for lack of better word to follow the analogy wins, then you lose it. That's certainly a way you lose the child you love. On the other hand, if you root against her, are you really winning? right? Exactly. You're not gonna be able to walk away clean. Either way. I think winning and losing is a hard way to look at it. And I think there's some you talk on your on this podcast a lot about adoption. And I think open adoption has some really powerful lessons or some powerful models for what family can look like, that the foster care system could learn from, I think, if it wasn't that you hand your child over, and then now you can't go to court anymore. You can't have access to information. You can't talk to her unless the birth mother lets you. What if What if we kept that expansive sense of family? What if I always got to be part of Coco's life, I don't mean in an invasive way like Evelyn is required to be close to me, but in the sense that like, the more support a child has, the better. And so if we framed it differently, if we framed it like here's a community of support, and you can have lifelong access to this community of support, that would be incredible. Because Evelyn had so much support. While Coco was in our care, she had drug counseling, she had mental health counseling, she had social worker, she had cost as she had job help, she had housing help, she had someone to help her with her finances, and she had us taking care of her child. And then the minute reunification happened, all of those supports disappeared. And that's, that means Evelyn's on her own and even more distressing, it means Coco's on her own. You know, there's was legislation passed in 2018. That's kind of working its way to be implemented. Now implementation is happening as we speak. And it's called the family first stack. And in theory, it's supposed to address the exact point you just mentioned, which is that we imago further, that the point being that we need to continue to offer support to families, to prevent their children from entering foster care to begin with. And also that some of if we look at the fact that how much support both financial and cocoa was an infant, but if she needed therapy, if she was older and had needed therapy, our physical therapy or occupational therapy, whatever tutors or whatever, that would all be covered. And yet for birth parents, and for birth families who are struggling, there isn't support. You know, I guess it remains to be seen. We're too early in this is quite frankly, having been around in these alternate family functions, family, foster families, adoptive families, things tend to run in cycles. So it's, I'm just not sure I'm not sure how it will all play out. But in theory, it's supposed to address some of what you're talking about, which is that we need to continue. And there's also a real move. And you've probably were maybe part of this goes by different names, co parenting, partnership, parenting, shared parenting, was that something that was a part of your training? No, it's interesting. It's and and you became, you took placement of cocoa and what you're
in 2018? Yeah, that's what I was gonna say. Yeah, that was certainly shared parenting, going by any of the variations of names was around then and it is,
well, not for life. But it is part of what you were just describing that part of the role of a foster parent is to be for lack of better word, a mentor for the birth parent. Now, and honestly, this if there's extremely abusive situations, this is not really part of the equation, but in cases where it's neglect or substance abuse, things like that. But it doesn't go on for life. And and, and quite frankly, I don't even think the family first money goes on for life. So the root of the problem you just described continues.
That's great helpful to know about those things. And I think Evelyn and I developed a good relationship. And we did have not I wouldn't say partnership, parenting or shared parenting, but she, she knew I loved her daughter and she wanted me to be part of her life. And she talked about that. But then you know, that was when she was doing well. And then when things shifted, she did not
know and that would be a typical experience.
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professionals, each course is free when you use the coupon code. JB f strong at checkout. So check it out. Thanks. Something else you talk about in the book and maybe even it's at the heart of the book. And it's it is on the eye. I'm not sure if it would be the subtitle or not. Stranger cares the title. But then those the second two section, a memoir of mothering, what is an hour's I love that it's, it's, it seems like the essence of foster parenting in a way that you're you are asked to love this child, and to love and commit to her in a way, especially from a newborn infant standpoint, that she needed to develop for emotional maturity, emotional health. And yet, there, she didn't belong to you. And there was no promise. And in fact, in the end, she didn't belong to you.
Yeah, yeah, I think I mean, that's the most beautiful part of cluster care and the most heartbreaking part which shows the human heart is capable of which is loving anyone, you know, I felt People always talk about well, when I had my kid, my heart expanded, I never knew love, like when I gave birth to my son, you know, whatever kind of language they use. And as a person who wasn't a parent, that always bothered me, because I don't tell me what my heart is capable of, you know, you don't know what I'm, what kind of love I'm capable of. or don't diminish my life by by saying that I'm missing that. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I think it's such a weird thing to say. But, um, when when Coco was placed in our arms in the hospital, I did feel that heart expands. But I don't I think we misunderstand that expansion. And we think it has something to do with DNA or biology or or just becoming a parent, but really, it shows us what the human heart is able to do. And I think my love for Coco I heard the universe saying, you know, here tend this, and I think we can we can have our hearts expand for anything it can be for the earth for a refugee, for stranger for neighbor, for enemy, you know, it shows us the kinds of love we're capable of practicing. And what I love about foster care is that it expands that sense of family, as his family as a practice mothering as a practice, you know, it's something you do not something you just are born into. But the system itself, champions biology over anything, you know, and Idaho. I know it's a reunification state. And so I think our statistics are 73% of children are reunified with their birth families. And then they think, you know, that's the end, I've done my part I've wrote, I've returned this child to their birth family, all supports and success, you know, but I don't think that biology guarantees anything. That's why the foster care system exists, biology doesn't guarantee that people are going to love one another or have the resources they need to love one another. So how can we? How can we have both that expansive sense of kinship and this very narrow view of family kind of championed by the same system? It's very perplexing. It is very perplexing. And it's something honestly I think about all the time, and it is so and no matter how you think about the solutions, there is no perfect solution. It's like we're working in it with with broken humans in many ways. And, and and to expect there to be a a rainbows and unicorns ending the happy ending we all want. I haven't I know I'm sounding awfully pessimistic right now, but I don't know that there is that, you know, I, I think and this, actually, this is going to lend itself I want you to read another section, page 241. Okay, I think that will enlighten this part of our conversation. Great.
I couldn't stop thinking about having to give her back to Evelyn couldn't stop picturing people coming to my door, making me hand Coco over watching them drive her away. We'd been told from the beginning that the goal was reunification. And now I could see that everything was designed to support apple and to protect her rights to make sure the state would not be sued for stealing someone's child. The process was not child centered. It was biological family centered. It was get this case off your desk centered. It wasn't about cocoa at all. Yeah, that sums up some of what you were saying before. I think that it didn't feel to you. And do you still feel like the the system is not child centered?
I 100% feel like the system's not child centered. I think that it is about protecting biological parents constitutional rights to parent their children. And I think that's important. You know, I think another section you want me to read this out that we don't let's let's move on. Yeah, that's a page to sit for the audience listening in. That's on page 261. Yeah, that's exactly what I want you to do.
a government agency with the power to take children away from their parents is dangerous. What is there to stop social workers from deciding parents are too poor.
Or to black or to gay or to political or to feminist or to atheist to be, quote, good parents. You don't want social workers who think they know what's best. And best is what looks like them, and talks like them and prays like them.
That gets to the heart of what qualifies as good parenting. And what is good enough is good enough. Enough. There was a section in the book that I thought I thought it was absolutely the perfect synopsis of this and, and I so appreciated that you included it, it was in the intersection. Evelyn and the person from the weather, state, but the person who was in charge of driving her around, bringing her to meetings and stuff, we're getting ready to leave and go to a coffee shop or whatever for visitation period. And you had brought the car seat and handed it to and the person who was with the the agency didn't have the seat the the base for this car seat. And you said, Do you have the base? And the person said, No, she doesn't need it. And she said, Evelyn, you know how to put it in and Evelyn strapped it in, you are watching, and she strapped the seatbelt over the car seat, not the correct way wasn't tight. And you were like, Oh my gosh, so you've called the you called your social worker. And you said, Oh, she didn't strap or incorrectly and you said that book. You could almost hear her eyes roll. And it was such the perfect thing. We are trained in our socio economic demographic, those of us who have read all the parenting books, or at least half of them, we know how to use a car seat that is that is important that makes a good parent and to not do so that makes you a bad parent. But I love that when you could just hear the social worker go Oh, get over yourself.
I think she was saying that. But I'm you know, a couple of things that I realized is one anytime I tried to advocate for Coco like we had trouble with our Casa worker, she was lying on her official reports and not doing it more than trouble. She was it just yeah, terrible. Wrong.
But anytime we were we would call to say like, I think you know, Coco deserves the advocate that she's entitled to. We were accused of sabotage, like, literally, the head of Casa said, if we suspect you're trying to sabotage this will come right into your house and take that child away. And then there was these other smaller ways like, okay, that's not the right way to put a car seat. I'm not so psyched that you're blowing smoke in this baby's face. You know? That's another visual. Yes.
He concerns you know, and I remember the day that the social worker was arguing in court for reunification, arguing, arguing, arguing, arguing for it. And she knew Eric and I were upset. She kind of pulled us in a room after court. She said, I know you're upset. But look, she's doing everything we've asked her to do. And remember that the bar is minimal parenting ability, which is one step above do no harm. And I was very distraught. And I knew our social worker had kids, and she has biological kids and foster kids and kids she's adopted. And I said, Would you give any one of your kids to Evelyn? And she said, and I'll never forget this. I wouldn't trust Evelyn with my dog for an hour. And I said, but you're gonna give this baby to her his baby that can't speak that, you know, that can disappear that isn't in school that there'll be no eyes on her. And she said, yeah, that's not the that's not the rubric. That's not the criteria we use. And so I think, you know, that gets to this idea of what we don't want states taking, we don't want the state taking people's babies. And also we don't want children being put in unsafe environments. So how do you navigate those two things? What What do you do, and it is true, that children are taken from parents for not good reason. Poverty is it can often mimic neglect, and where there's their perfectly functioning family and children are removed, because the state comes in and sees what they deem, you know, a bunch of dirty dishes and and cockroaches. And they decide that that is what constitutes good at or doesn't constitute good enough parenting, or a mother who loses a one child and gives birth to another one I lose by losers. I mean, one who has taken into foster care and has not been reunified, and she gives birth to another one. There have certainly been times where without even much looking into whether or not she has changed whether or not she has been able to stay clean or whatever. And then the child is automatically removed because the state doesn't want to be in the position of risking another child. So it goes both ways. Mm hmm. It's interesting, because we've had, I love this sentence that you said, I just wrote it down. But poverty can mimic neglect. You know, it's so true. There was a really amazing article in The New York Times what that called foster care, the racism that operates in foster care, the new Jane Crow and talked about, you know how race, race and racism shape, how social workers whether they take a child into care or not, which it was was really fascinating.
But that idea that poverty can mimic neglect is really important. Well, you know, let's go back to the power of state there was, you know, I always remind people, but first of all, there is no crystal ball. And when a child is killed in foster care it of course, it makes us like the plane crash, it makes all the headlines and and then we all were convinced that these social workers are not being strict enough, they're not removing, but we, that is a very, I mean, imagining for sure they've experienced this where you, they didn't necessarily come in and take, but they insisted that you give back. And can you imagine a scenario for that for our listeners, where somebody comes in and says, For something, either true or untrue, that you are not a fit parent, I'll give an example. And this is a very minor one. This is a number of years ago, and I get a call from a friend and she is hysterical, and she had been out walking her son. He was less than a year old. He was in a stroller. And it was a very cold day. And it was it was a really cold day. And she had been pushing him because she was going stir crazy being indoors. So she was pushing them in the stroller. And he would not keep his socks on he wouldn't keep this gloves on, he was making a game of pulling them off chucking them on you know, so she kept telling us picking them up putting them back on. Finally, she thought, well, it's a little bit cold enough, and then we'll keep them on. And shortly thereafter, a woman was walking the other way and saw that her child was in a stroller and was not wearing gloves, or she are our booties of any sort. And she stopped and she goes, what type of mother are you and she pulls out her phone and says I'm going to call a DSS. I mean, you're walking this child, and this is in this unbelievable weather. You shouldn't be outside, it's too cold for a child and you don't have him dressed. Well, my friend panics and runs with the stroller gets back to her house. She is sobbing and she calls me and she goes, What do I do? What do I do? And I thought I said okay, look, I mean, realistically, I mean, I don't think they're gonna find you for one.
I mean, come on, I think you're pretty okay. But it's stuck with me all of these years. And I thought she was the most attentive, quite frankly, almost a paranoid really attentive mom, in our friend circle, you know, and I thought, I mean, it could happen, it could happen that somebody would come in and say, where you walking your talk, even if the chances are good that she would the child would not have been taken away for too long. But yeah, that kid could have been put in foster care, she would have had to go fight to get the child back. And that's we have that is a very, it's a huge power that we're giving the government and we don't want them to misuse the power. But on the other hand,
you know, what makes good enough parenting, it's just, it's really hard. And that's, I think, you know, that's, that's part of why that sentence is important. Poverty, commitment, neglect, which is that we have a system filled with social workers who I'm sure went into this work for the best possible reasons, you know, they're good people who see the worst that we do to one another every day, and they're overworked and underfunded, and under resourced. And, again, we've asked foster care to pick up the pieces of these other systems that don't work. So when if we if we were if you want to fix foster care, then let's fix poverty, if you want to fix foster care, let's let's fix housing if you want to fix foster care, let's fix mental health systems. But the time as a family ends up in foster care for the most part, so much has gone wrong. It's so far down river, you know, we got to start much, much further up river. But you know, I've had we were we started the process in Oregon, we ended up getting licensed in Idaho, and we had Coco come into our care in Idaho. And now she she's in back in care, but in another state, which I'm not allowed to name, but I've gotten to see three different states, our foster care system, and they are wildly different. That's another thing I thought it would be better I think, to have these federal or something that that unifies across state lines. So the ways that Idaho worked really well, this other state fails at the way that Idaho did not work. Well, this other state does. Well. So, you know, Idaho is a super reunification state. This other state is known as a baby snatcher state. They take people's kids for no reason. So it's there's every it seems like every every foster care system has its own own struggles. And here are the most vulnerable families, the most vulnerable children are trapped in this system. And it was hard. It was hard for me to navigate as a white woman over educated with money and resources and social capital. Like it's not really about me, it's about the children that are in this system and trying to navigate and trying to be safe and think the question that we have to ask ourselves is are we going to be a society that takes care of the most vulnerable?
And what does that look like? And what does that look like? And you and your points are well taken that here you are a I wouldn't say over educated but I would say an educated white woman with money and privilege. And and you found the system overwhelming. Can you imagine what Well honestly, what Evelyn must have felt but also Exactly, yeah, that you know, and here
The other thing is that we often part of the for those who don't know, part of the foster care system when a child is taken away, the birth family is given what usually called euphemistically, perhaps a plan. And the plan involves getting their act together basically, to be able to parent the child in a successful way. It often has things like taking a get, you know, go into rehab, or if that substance abuse is an issue or, and committed to a 12 step program, or some type of program, getting housing, getting a job, getting transportation and things like this, but it also requires visitors showing up to your visitation, and things like that. And I will say Idaho seem to do a fairly good job of this, of realizing the the difficulty that that working the plan can place on birth parents, perhaps not so much understanding the burden that places on Foster, but other states don't do that. And they may have taking a parenting class, I know of situations where the birth parent is expected to take a parenting class in one part of town. And then at the same day of that parenting class, they need to be going to substance abuse class. And then another part another time, they've got to be going to visitation and they have to get there, the birth parent doesn't have transportation. So the birth parent is taking buses, they don't they don't live in a place where there's easy public transportation. So all of this for them to get to that substance abuse class, it may take them an hour both ways. And then to get to visitation, both and then they miss work for this and they get fired. And and it's a it's a compounding problem. And the system doesn't take that into consideration. And the whole time they're doing this they risk losing their children permanently. That's I'm so glad you draw attention to that I think of sitting in the court, we were in Twin Falls, Idaho where the court would happen and sitting in that courtroom where they you're supposed to be there at 9am. Okay, so I live two hours from twins. So I had to get up very early and get there. But everyone who's called to court that day has to be there at 9am, you don't know if you're going to be called into the by the judge at nine, or 905, or 10, or 11, or one or two. And so here, you know, I'm a writer, and I'm a teacher. So I have a flexible schedule. And I also have a partner at home who could take care of Coco when I went to court, here's Evelyn who's has to work, who has to go to all those counseling appointments, you've talked about parenting class, she has to take classes about addiction, she had a very, very full schedule, but she has to spend three to four to five hours sitting in this random courtroom hallway waiting to be called by the judge, that to me captures the kind of double bind or the catch 22 of being in this system where there's all these hoops you have to jump through. And the hoops get in the way of other hoops. And you're supposed to keep a job but you better not get fired because you're waiting in court and you're supposed to go to these parenting classes, but you also have to get a job and you're supposed to make enough money to support your kid. And you also have to find housing and show up. It's just like, it's a kind of a no win situation. And especially without the support Evelyn had some support, but in certainly had some support from you. But foster parents are not intended to be that functional of a support of, of how they get whether they get cars, whether they get transport to me, and how do they get? How do they keep a job? How do they get more than a minimum wage job and, you know, working 40 hours a week and not making enough to meet your plan.
Yeah, and that's, that's structural questions. You know, when, at one point, she was working a job, she wasn't making enough money. And so she pulled Coco out of daycare to save money and then ended up inviting someone into her home who was not safe to act as daycare. And so she made a decision an economic decision that she thought was gonna be good for her family. But it ended up being another than the kind of beginning undoing of this careful support structure that she had, that she had built. And that's because we we ask so many families in our country to live on the edge, the edge of poverty, the edge of the edge and one tiny thing concerned the whole the whole structure falling, even you're teetering on the edge. It doesn't take much to blow you over. It just doesn't. And and somebody these families,
they they no matter what that you as a foster parent can do. They're still going to be on the edge. Yeah.
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I wanted to talk about without giving everything of the of the story away. Although you've
shared some of it already. But the idea of keeping siblings together, Coco had an older I assume it was a half brother 12 years or 1311 to 12 years older than her. You know, and this may be still very tender for you. But it is very much a part of the foster care system now that we keep siblings together, that's almost become a mantra that, that that it and I think you would probably say overrides all else, but it very much. And it's based on some decent research of you know, a genetic continuity and genetic mirrors and things like that. So let's talk a little What are your thoughts on the keeping siblings together part?
And you could decide how much you want to share of the ending of the story? Yeah, sure. I do have I do have a complex relationship with that idea. Of course, if it's better for children to be with their siblings, I'm in support of that. I don't know what genetic continuity is. I'll look, I'll look that up. But what's it? Yeah, it's the idea that our genetic mirrors where you, you have connection to those who share your genes or you know, share your background, your history, your culture. And again, that's one of the ways where that the system asks us to put biology aside but champions biology in this fundamental way, I think it's important to keep siblings together that have relationship or that have had a relationship. Before that seems like how heartbreaking You know, I think, I remember we did in our training, an exercise about expected loss and unexpected loss and how foster children in the foster care system, everything is unexpected lost, they lose their house, they lose their parents, they lose their school, they lose their neighborhood, they lose, you know, everything that's familiar to them, they lose everything. And so of course, if you can make it so they don't lose their sibling. How powerful and important and healing Yes, keep siblings together. You know, we got so many calls for sibling sets. That's what the language in the foster care system they call sibling groups, sibling sets. So I think that that's very important. And Coco's case, she has a brother who was in foster care in another state. And the reason that Evelyn ended up in my state is because she was fleeing that other states foster care system she wanted, she didn't want this baby to be taken into care, even though she was really struggling at the time that the baby was born. So she fled to another state. And this is another way that we could make amends in the foster care system, which is improving state to state communication. But of course, she ended up giving birth early and cocoa was taken into care anyway. So at that point, Idaho did not pursue her relationship with her brother in this other place, they kept cocoa in Idaho, and the brother remained in this other state. But when things started falling apart, again, for Evelyn, after reunification, she started moving back and forth between the two states again, and in Idaho. There were many open CPS reports on Evelyn. But in Idaho, if they don't locate the parent, within five days, they close the report, which is that it's unbelievable. Mind blowing, it is mind blowing. So all Evelyn had to do was stay out of sight for five days, which is I could stay at a site for five days. You know, I don't think that's that hard. But so she was going back and forth. But eventually Coco got taken back into state care and this other state, and they placed her with her brother, with whom she had no relationship at all. And I never had he had, she was born, she had never even seen they'd never met. I think they'd met once for two weeks. And then she had never met this other family that that she was placed with. And so I just think that that raises questions about family, like, we were the only home she'd known, she had lived with Eric and me longer than she'd lived anywhere we had raised her for the first year of her life. But this this non existent relationship that she had with a half brother counted more than our, our relationship with her, which, you know, listeners can decide what they think about that. Of course, Eric, and I would have been happy to to support her developing a relationship with her brother, we are now trained and open adoption, and I have a very expansive sense of, of what counts as family and what relationships are important. And I'm open to tending and supporting all kinds of relationships. But it's been difficult. It is difficult, and it's the role and you know, back in the day back, maybe 20 years ago, foster parents who develop too close of a relationship, that child was taken from them because they didn't the system didn't want to have the the issues that have the the complications that love and attachment would would produce. And we don't want to go back to that because we do know how important it is that you and Eric are able to love so deeply and what we guess we don't know. But I can tell you that it does matter to eventually it will have had some impact on that on Coco's life. So we don't want to go back to to just regarding that, but then we
we penalize will then the focus on biology over all else, in some ways discourages it's,
again, so many of the things we're talking about don't have easy answers. No.
You know, and as I was reading the book, in some ways, as creating a family, the organization that I am with you our demographic, and our mission is to be able to reach out and help and support, foster and adoption as well as kinship families. During this time in so many ways. When I'm reading, I was reading the book, I, it was hard, I felt discouraged, I felt like we failed you, we didn't get there. We were not we, we could have helped. I mean, I don't, we couldn't have taken away the pain, we could have helped you recognize the risk going in, although it sounds like you were in some ways aware of the risk. But it was, and I'm assuming that you did your research and and you were reaching out and trying to so it was a it was a kind of a wake up call that we have a long way to go. I'm so glad to know about your organization now. And you know, I, I didn't do as much research as I should have even given the fact that I'm an academic you think
I was so I was so set on being a foster parent. And so Eric and I were so set on adopting that there's a kind of denial, you know, you can hear the information and you're like, well, it won't work that won't be that way for me, or it can turn out differently for me. But you know, I wrote this book, I hope that I hope your listeners will will read this book. I don't mean this as a plug for the book, although that's what it sounds like. But I read it so I will plug.
Okay, thank you. But I wrote it as a love letter to Coco. I wrote it to this mother her when I'm not allowed to mother her anymore. And I also read it as a love letter to foster parents. You know, I want people people sometimes think because my experience was so difficult with the foster care system that I'm somehow anti foster care. But Eric and I keep our license open, we we are open to becoming foster parents again, of course, we keep it open, because we're trying to bring Coco home, we want her to come back to us. But we I also do it because I think being a foster parent is the most risky, and the most beautiful, and the most profound thing you can do when else can you answer the phone and someone needs help. And you can offer it. I mean, it's very direct, and it's very beautiful. And it's it will show you kinds of love and relationships that you you might not be able to experience any other way. So you know the other the other thing is where I found support, I wish I had known about your organization, I think I would have felt very supported by it. But I also felt support in the natural world. So I do a lot of writing in the book about the mothering that happens in the natural world and the tending of strangers that happens in the natural world. I took Coco on walks every day, and I got to introduce her to the world. This is the moon, this is the wind, these are mountains, these are wild flowers. These are elk. And I found when she was with us, I found solace in this idea that we all come from stars, and we're all made of the same material. So wherever we find ourselves, we're home. And when she was gone, I found solace in the natural world to where it held me in my grief. So part part of the book is that offering to remember that the world is a place of love and that we can learn from nature, how to love each other better. And we can learn from the foster care system how to love each other better. And we can learn from these children in our care how to how to better love one another. So my hope is that there's a there's a message of love at its heart. There very much is and I was going to ask you and you've already answered it. It felt like this was an impart and attempt to reach out to Coco and let her know how much she was loved. And when you were writing it did, were you hoping that she at some point will read it and understand what the love you felt for her. I hope so, you know, at the very end right before the epilogue, I said I hope I hope someday I'll read this to you in person or we'll read it together in person and I wrote it for her I wrote it back so that she might know she's loved and that she might know she belongs here on this planet and that she was that we fought for her. And I liked writing it people have asked me like how did you write it? This is so hard and you kind of wrote it in real time. But when I write or when I talk about her it brings her close to me I feel her close and and that that feels good to me so it felt like an exercise of possibility.
This show as well as all the resources provided by creating a family would not happen without the generous support of our partners. And these are agencies that believe in our mission of providing unbiased education and support to those who are on an adoption or fostering journey. One such partner is Spence chafin. As a recipient of the Human Rights Campaign, all children's all families seal of recognition. Spence Chapman is committed to equality and adoption and is proud of the many children that have placed in loving, stable, same sex households. It's been shaped
international adoption programs in South Africa and Colombia encourages applicants from all types of families. You can get more information by going to their website, Spence hyphen, shapen.org, backslash l g DTQ. Adoption To learn more, enjoy.
Do you have an A Can you share? Do you know what's happened to cocoa?
I can't talk about it that much. I can say she is back in foster care. And it's very complicated. And she's in another state, I can say that we're continuing to fight for her that we'd like to be her permanent home, if that's needed. And then the good news i can say is that we zoom with her every Thursday morning. So we get to see her and she's happy and giggly and delightful. And we wear funny hats. And we play we've sent her games and toys that we have as well. So we can do parallel play over zoom, and we play hide and seek and we read books, and it's this beautiful 30 minute connection, we've been doing it for several months now. And
it's, it's really, it's a real gift to me, of course, you know, when the screen goes dark, it feels like losing her all over again. But it's worth it to get to see her. And well. And by establishing a relationship, you may be able to be a support for her foster or adoptive family, and then they will be less frightened of you. And and so you know, by doing that you may be opening doors or keeping doors open that that will pay dividends in the future for her as well as for you. So did you have you accepted any other foster placements? I know you said you kept your keeping your license open, in part because you want to be able to be a place for Coco if the need arises. Or maybe the need is there. But if the stars align, but would you accept another foster placement? And then my next question, but so the foster one first, I wanted to talk to you about adoption. But first, the foster placement? Yes. We have not said yes to another foster placement yet, although that's not out of the question. So what about adopting you went in wanting to Mother, I would hate to see you quite frankly, give up on the idea because your love for Coco was so profound. And so and Eric's as well. I mean, it really brought tears to my eyes. No, thank you, Don. I'm glad that came across because we love her and we continue to love her. And like you said it will always champion her whether she's with us or not. We're here to support her. That's our our goal. We ended up working with an adoption agency, a nonprofit adoption agency in Boise, Idaho called a new beginning, which is an ethical, incredible supportive, I can't say enough good things about this agency. They were fantastic. They also have a foster to adopt program. But we adopted an infant. And this infant was born three weeks ago. Yesterday, we matched with a birth mom, his birth mom is extraordinary, just like one of the most beautiful, amazing, generous, kind, funny, loving humans I've ever met. And we have him home. And he's actually in the other room right now. I'm doing bookstore stuff as a brand brand brand new mom, but it's worth it. It's wonderful to have so much joy. And it's just been a really, so much joy, so much love and such an expansive sense of family. open adoption is a beautiful thing, you know, our child will always know he's adopted, his middle name is for his birth mother, he'll always know his birth mother and her daughter and her mother. And it's it's just been really a powerful experience, when we tell people is that there is no loss, the more love that is in your chart, the more people in your child's life that love them, that can only be good. So your son,
your son will be surrounded by love in many different ways. Well, Sarah syntel is thank you so much for writing the book, the book is stranger care, I cannot recommend it enough. In fact, not only is this book great, but I have added to my must read list, draw your weapons and breaking up with God or two of your other books. He has a number of other books as well. In addition to those, those were the ones whose titles have attracted me the most. So I thought okay, I've already added those to my list. The writing is superb, the emotions, you captured in a very profound way, the essence of both the good as well as the struggle of foster care. And I will say that when I was finishing the book, I had my clinics out and I'm bawling.
My husband is looking over going Why do you read books like this?
I've got to read this.
So thanks for talking with me. Yes, thank you and for our audience. Thank you for listening and I will see you next week.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai