Every time someone mentions foster care my heart melts a little.
It's not something I ever thought about until my sister and her husband decided to become foster parents about three years ago. They went through months of training and then had to use that training right away to teach our entire family about the process. I think, immediately, we all felt uneasy. You're going to take these children into your home and you don't know what they've been through, and you don't know how long you're going to keep them, and we're just supposed to act normal? Can we play with them like normal kids? Of course. Can we spoil them like normal kids? Yes. What if we get attached?
Now, three years later my view of foster care has been transformed completely. It's addicting to want to reach out to those kids. It's amazing when it works out, it's heartbreaking when it doesn't, and it's an absolute roller coaster of emotions along the way.
Ahwatukee Foothills resident Donna Leeds knows even better than me. She fostered two young girls for two years in California, hoping to adopt, before social workers ultimately took them away from her. She went into a deep depression for years after that, but says the Garth Brooks' song, "The Dance," sums up her experience pretty well.
"I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance," Leeds quoted from the song. "The years I had my foster daughters were some of the best years of my life. It's a shame social services gets people's hopes up, thinking they could adopt when it's really a waiting game."
Leeds says in her experience there are two types of foster families. There are the kind that open their home and can take seven kids at a time, and there are others, like herself, who want a family. She had two sons of her own, but after working as a court appointed advocate she realized she wanted to do more for the kids in the foster care system. Leeds was told the two little girls she was taking into her home would be hers to keep, but somewhere along the way she says she "rocked the boat." As they walked in to the foster care office one day the girls were called away and four social workers escorted her out of the building without giving her a chance to say goodbye.
After more than two years of having the girls full time Leeds says even if she had been allowed to keep them they would have had to wait even longer before she could adopt. The natural parents have rights until the kids are 18, no matter what kind of parents they've been.
"You feel like you want to take this to CNN, and you realize you're just one of the stories out there," Leeds said. "Would I do it again? Absolutely. Do I think the system is screwed up? I do."
Years later, when the girls were grown, Leeds found them on Facebook. They were only 4 and 6 when they were taken from her, but she says they remember little things about their time with her.
"I think what these children got from me in those two-and-a-half years is going to stay with them forever," Leeds said. "They got things they never would have gotten in any other home."
It's been two years since my niece walked into our lives. I helped my sister go shopping for their new little girl the first day they brought her home. She didn't get excited about any toys or clothes, she just stared blankly at any adult who tried to get a smile out of her. At 1 1/2 years old she had no vocabulary, and she was so small. Now, two years later she's a different girl. It's difficult to get her to stop talking, screaming or laughing. She loves books, pink, Disney movies, and playing with her cousins. It's amazing to see how much she has grown and has become a vital part of the family. And, yet, we're still waiting. Recently, I've heard Rep. Eddie Farnsworth thinks foster families should wait even longer, and that courts should give the natural parents yet another chance to change.
But, even as we hold our breath waiting for an ending to my niece's story, in the past year I've also watched my sister adopt two little boys, brothers, one of whom was born with cocaine in his system. Being there when they were adopted and now being able to post pictures of them on Facebook, calling them my nephews, has been amazing. They still have some challenges ahead of them, but they have a family that loves them.
And so, I continue to have some faith in foster care. I'm not a foster parent myself because I don't have the means, and I honestly don't know if I could handle the struggles I've seen my sister go through. I'm glad she has gone through it and that our family has had the chance to fall in love with her kids. I'm glad my eyes have been opened to the struggles and also the joy that come from fostering.
It may be full of pain, but it's worth the dance.
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