6 p.m. on a Friday in May
The 12-year-old we’d been fostering for the previous 8 weeks, whom I’ll call Bri, informs us there is a concert at school where the “staff band” performs — and the kids apparently join in. Having been through the middle/high school thing twice with our own children, both of whom are off to or out of college, my wife and I are pretty well done with this sort of thing. It’s a Friday night after a long workweek. I’m making pizza… But we live in semi-rural Maine and our charge, the charming and talented if somewhat moody Ms. Bri, is generally starved for entertainment here, with us. So we scarf down a couple fresh-hot slices, drop her there at the education-plex two towns over, and head to a movie. Rocketman, listed at 7, doesn’t start till 8 apparently. So we opt for Booksmart instead. Not half bad.
Home again, post-concert, we watch the finale of Killing Eve, which is probably, ahem, not appropriate for all three of us. Were the state to know we’d shown it to this 12-year-old, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) might just take her back. It’s a bit gory but remains high quality television, we reason — unlike her current obsessions, Riverdale and Vampire Diaries.
Sharon notices that DHHS has in fact just called us. Somehow, in discussing the abrupt ending to Killing Eve, we’d missed it. Turns out our friends with the state have not checked in to take issue with Bri’s TV viewing habits. They’ve got a 6 month old and her 8-year-old brother both in need of a place to stay this weekend. Sharon and I look at each other. This is the “respite” exercise, the temporary care of foster kids and would-be foster kids on short notice for short periods. This is what we signed up and trained for. We call back and leave a message.
[To catch you up: Sometime last summer the Portland Press-Herald published an investigative series on the lives of children in the Maine foster care system. Household conversations ensued, mostly centered around how we as a society (and Maine’s worthless governor at the time) seem ever more and even deliberately indifferent to the plight of these and other kids, the least fortunate among us really. The 2016 election had also radicalized each of us in our own ways, effectively focusing our empty-nest minds on what we could do to make a difference, directly. An encounter at the mailbox — with our neighbor, who leads an agency that provides services to special needs kids in the foster system — led to an informal back-porch coffee, then a more formal information session in Biddeford. A series of training classes followed, then fingerprinting and ultimately a license from the State of Maine to serve as “resource” parents (recently rebranded from the more familiar “foster”). Sharon and I do respite care, the ad hoc, short-term care of kids between homes, kids just received into state custody, or kids whose long-term resource parents just need a week off. What you’re reading here is an account of one of the half-dozen experiences we’ve had so far in 2019. More families are needed, for the record; kids are still being housed in motel rooms. Do reach out if you’re foster curious.]
The state calls right back. On speaker, Haley (I’ve changed all these names) sounds to my middle-aged ears impossibly young, flustered, disorganized and why not? These two kids have apparently just been taken into the state’s custody from a Portland homeless shelter; it’s 10:30 on a Friday night and they need a place to stay, a place that isn’t a motel — through Tuesday. We explain we can take them through Monday morning, when we both go to work. Haley seems relieved and grateful at this news. They need our address. Halfway through Sharon’s providing it, I interrupt and ask for the phone — Haley’s uncertainty, her inability to answer some basic questions (What sort of provisions do the kids have with them? How many diapers are they bringing, how much formula, what happens on Monday?) did not sit exactly right with me. “Sorry, Haley, but I have to say, this all sounds a bit dodgy. Can you provide us the name and number for your manager, or the state case worker on 24/7 call?” Not unrelatedly, our 12-year-old has a bio-mother whose parental rights have been terminated but remains determined to stay in touch with her daughter and ultimately reunite, which is impossible until she turns 18 — but here we are. Social media and phone use are total minefields… For a brief moment on the phone with DHHS, I thought this might be a ruse to find out where we lived, for future surveillance/stalking. Upon hearing my doubts, however, Haley snaps back into sober bureaucrat mode, indicating that it was she who was in charge so late on a Friday night; she reels off a bunch of other stuff that ID’s her as a legit DHHS employee. We provide our address.
It’s half an hour’s drive to our place from the DHHS mothership, in Portland, and in those 30 minutes we ready as we can: pulling the antique bassinette from Sharon’s closet, making up a bed for the 8-year-old, pulling out clothes that might fit him. Throughout, Bri, who generally alternates between sullen and charming — because she’s 12, and because she doesn’t know where she’ll end up when the school year ends, when the summer ends — is fully energized and engaged. She proves a huge help, doling out advice about the sort of clothes they may or may not come with, cleaning her room and offering the second bed in there (if the boy doesn’t want to crash alone). We agree she’s the one who has the most recent baby experience, vis a vis her younger siblings, who, she explains (for the first time), were still very young when her homeless mom bounced from place to place, when the state finally took possession of them after 3 second chances, when all three kids moved from foster home to foster home. More than either of us, Bri knows what this sort of exercise entails.
There’s a knock at the door; I go to answer it. There stands a young woman with a big smile and a car running in the driveway. “Hey there,” I say, walking onto the porch. “Let’s go get these kids; they must be exhausted.” Her smile gives way to a puzzled look: “I’m here to pick up my kids.” For a moment, I’m thinking this is the mom who’s just been dispossessed of her two kids in Portland by DHHS — but how did she get here so fast? How did she even know how to get here? Then I think maybe this is perhaps some agent of Bri’s bio mom… Our driveway is some 700 yards long, back into the woods. We share it with a neighbor who rents an apartment above the garage. Turns out this young woman had stashed her kids for the evening with her mother-in-law, who’s renting the apartment. When you share a driveway, you get misguided visitors all the time: UPS folk, Census-takers, political canvassers, Mormons. But we rarely get them at night, and it was freaky to have one show up looking for two kids when we’re waiting on the delivery of two from DHHS.
At some point we’ve done all the preparing we can do. Sharon, who had a glass of wine at the movie and another during Killing Eve, is pounding water. I’m just looking out the window, looking for lights shining through the Maine jungle only now coming to full flower. Bri, thoroughly sleep-deprived now, is bouncing off the walls and getting sillier by minute.
Uneven shafts of light finally shine through the forest separating our home from the main road. We greet Haley, accompanied by another 20something, Ursula, in the driveway. Both kids, baby Belle and her brother Paul, are crashed hard. Their mother had been dispossessed of them in a West Coast state apparently; it’s not clear exactly when or why she’d abducted them and fled so far from home — as far east as she could travel while remaining in the contiguous U.S. [We later learn that she and Paul had been granted asylum here after having arrived from an African refugee camp, where Paul was born. She arrived there having fled her native country. That “flight” response is what had likely kept her alive. However ill conceived, this reflexive response to danger is what moved her to bring her kids across the country, to Maine.] We had assumed the three of them had taken the bus; the mom had no car when she had shown up at a Portland shelter, where an ID check revealed the situation. The state took custody of the kids just before 9 p.m. They’d had a very long day, a couple very long days, one imagines… Sharon snags Belle en carrier; I pick up Paul and carry him straight upstairs to bed. He wakes up only briefly as I removed his shoes. “Good job getting your sister here. You guys are safe now. Get some sleep.” He goes back out like a light.
We debrief Haley and Ursula re. some of the details above but they’re clearly exhausted themselves. “I’m off in two minutes,” Ursula says with an exasperated smile and off they go, back into the night… Sharon takes the baby with her to our bedroom on the first floor. I crash upstairs in our daughter Clara’s old room — to be close by, should Paul wake up.
3 a.m. on a Saturday morning in May
Sure enough, in the middle of the night, young Paul does get up. In his disorientation, he manages to knock over the bedside table. I hear this thud, followed by the sound of breaking glass. When I stumble in there he is sitting on the edge of the bed disoriented, naturally. I check the floor quickly for glass, then his feet. “Do you need to pee?” Nope. I coax him back into bed. Again, he goes out like a light. I look around with my phone flashlight, still disoriented myself, for whatever had broken – because I definitely heard a shattering-glass sound. Nothing to be found. I go back to sleep.
Sharon gets up with Belle, walks into the kitchen only to find shattered glass all over the island counter and kitchen floor. Apparently, when Paul knocked over the bedside table, it fell directly onto the floor above a light fixture in the kitchen. Unbeknownst to us, this fixture had a screw-in glass sheathing between the bulb and decorative metal shade – a sheathing so loose, apparently, the bedside table impact from above had dislodged it (Sharon checked its twin fixture and sure enough, that one was incredibly loose as well). So she starts her first morning with Baby Belle sweeping the floor of broken glass.
Paul is up and wolfs down some food. He also takes his ADD medicine, the prescription for which we’d been handed the night before: one tablet at breakfast, half a tablet each at lunch and dinner. By 7:30 a.m. he’s asleep on the couch. It’s strong medicine, this ADD stuff; so many of the boys we encounter in the foster system have been prescribed this sort of thing. Every time Paul gets into the car over the weekend, he’s out like a light… At the same time, by dinner time each night, he’s got more energy than he knows what to do with.
Sharon and Bri head off to soccer (Bri’s routine seems, well, routine in light of those required by our new charges). Sharon also goes shopping for diapers, rice cereal and some sort of baby facemask — to attach to our son Silas’ old nebulizer — because Belle is asthmatic, apparently, and we have two cats, a dog, and a shameful layer of pet hair most everywhere. I’m well up by now, so I vacuum the floor to be sure there aren’t any pesky shards of glass laying about. Belle proves a very happy, thoroughly charming baby. By 09:00, she has been fed, changed and is back to sleep. Clearly, I’ve still got it (!). In so doing, and while getting Paul more breakfast, I overcook a rasher of bacon.
It’s been roughly 10 hours since we first even learned of these two kiddoes. A patina of calm has fallen over the house. Paul I pick out the not-so-charred bits of bacon and eat them with our juice.