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.