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Derek Jennings

A Blessed Gift


Our Gift came to us in July. The cell phone rang not long after I touched down at RDU, its familiar, shrill chirp greeting me along with North Carolina humidity and dour-faced airport security on my return from an infrequent business trip to New York.

"Hi honey, we just landed ... be home soon."

"Derek," my wife said, "Human Services just called." Pregnant pause.

Cautious response: "Oh?"

"They say its real, this time. I'm not letting myself get too excited, though," Tricia replied. "They called while I was at the museum with the kids." She rattled off the names of four different social workers we knew and had worked with and told me they called to tell her that we'd been selected for a placement. And that they were all excited, shouting and cheering on the phone. Artificially even-toned, my wife ran off the few details she'd been given: They have a 9-month old baby girl, perfectly healthy, sweet and loving, who's in need of a permanent placement--a foster family willing to adopt. We'd been selected as those parents, if we chose to accept.

Inhale. Measured response. "OK. They're sure? What do we need to do?" The backdrop to my hopeful but hesitant reply was about two or three months of frustration and, more immediately, two or three weeks of false alarms. Stuff like, "We have a 4-day-old baby available for placement, and we may need you to pick her up from the hospital at the end of the day ... we'll call you back in another hour or so." No call. There was another near-placement that seemed really real--we told our kids about that one. They got excited like their parents. Then they shared our disappointment. Or that time in June when we were on high alert prior to leaving for vacation, expecting a potential call as late as 7 a.m. on the day we were supposed to get on the road. Nothin'.

So we played it cool this time around. Tricia told me that the social workers had assured her that this was the one. They acknowledged that some of the other calls were premature, and explained to her the key differences. The baby was already in a foster home, and had been there for all of her nine months, ever since she'd left the hospital. They'd already requested and received a TPR (Termination of Parental Rights) from the courts, officially severing the withered umbilicus connecting this child with the birth mother who'd bounced shortly after her delivery. Since this was an adoptive case, we'd been formally selected via a staffing meeting, held over in the big Wake County Department of Health and Human Services building over off of New Bern Road, in Raleigh. That's where the child's case worker, prospective foster parents' caseworkers, and their management reviewed the portfolios of several families to find the best placement.

Adoption. A baby? Wow.

Back in January, I wrote of our decision to become a foster family. My wife and I both have a "heart for kids." It's one of those deep down similarities we share, which predates and extends beyond the three children we had together, biologically. We feel blessed to be where we are, from where we started, and have always had a desire to share our blessings with another child who might not otherwise get the chances that will be afforded to our children. In October of last year, right after she'd literally walked away from a career as a manager at IBM in order to provide better care and quality of life for our kids, Tricia met the foster mother of one of my youngest son's teammates on the basketball team that I coached. From that initial conversation, a seed was planted that came to fruition when we signed up with the county as prospective foster parents.

After attending an orientation in November, we were convinced that this was the route for us, and registered for the next MAPP (Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting) training class, in January. Throughout the nine-week MAPP regimen we endured from January to March, we were repeatedly asked to consider two words: loss and attachment. Those two words form the very core feelings of people and families in the midst of transition, whether temporary, permanent or indeterminate. Through reading, exercises, role playing and discussion, we explored those feelings from a variety of vantage points:

What does a child go through if he wakes up, goes to school like it's a normal day, and finds himself being picked up from school by a social worker and dropped off at a foster home in the evening? How does a mother feel if her child is taken away? What does it take for a child to develop trust and even love for her "new" foster parents, brothers and sisters? Success of the foster placements depend critically on the children's abilities to cope with the loss of everything that was familiar to them and form an attachment with their new parents, and also on those parents' abilities to love those kids, and create (foster) an environment that aids the children's development.

Our desire was to help children who wouldn't otherwise be helped, and we took that to mean older kids. After completing the classes, filling out a bunch of forms, and writing our life stories (literally--you cover everything, detailing your own upbringing, and providing insight on your past and present familial relationships; Tricia finished hers first even though I cheated by appending a couple of old columns), we scheduled a "home visit." Terri, who taught the class, interviewed us as she toured the house, making little ticky marks on her papers as she saw the extra beds we'd placed in my daughter's room and the boys' room. Casually, Terri asked us if we wouldn't mind changing the age range we'd included on our paperwork from 2 to 10 years, to 0 to 10 years. We responded with a puzzled stare and she replied that there are very few "stay-at-home" moms in the foster care pool, and consequently they tend to get placement calls for babies. Umm. OK. We were always under the impression that infants were placed more quickly, and that the need was for older children, but Terri explained that as drug (and particularly crack) addiction becomes more prevalent, the number of infants abandoned or taken into custody increases.

That was back in March. We were the second parents to complete all of our other prerequisites, including more paperwork, obtaining physicals for all family members, character references, and authorizing criminal background checks. Then, somehow this whole process, which was moving so fast, came to a halt. After over a month of wondering what was going on, we found that our fingerprints had been lost by the state. Whether this mishap was due to employees overworked due to job cuts or attrition, or was merely attributable to bad luck, it delayed us by several months. In the meantime, we continued to talk to people about foster care, and even spoke at a seminar at our church encouraging other families to consider the option.

Of course, after a couple months of well wishes from friends and family aware of our decision, the constant, "Did y'all get a foster kid yet?" questions became trying. Not as trying, though, as the false alarm calls that we began receiving when we finally did receive our license and were added to the system.

Still, it was worth it, when we got the call about our new baby girl. We made arrangements within a day to visit her, and that took us on about a 35-minute drive south, where inexplicably (save for Raleigh's relentless annexation onslaught) we drove into Johnston County, briefly, and then back into Wake County and a part of the city we never knew existed.

Her foster parents were an older couple, very sweet and caring, who were veterans of the system, having served on the front lines for 25 years taking care of children for the state and county. The foster mother and the baby were particularly attached during our first visit; we couldn't hold the little girl for more than a few seconds before she'd throw her head back, wail, and reach for "mommy." On our next visit, things were much better, and she would come to me for short stretches. It became apparent, though, that she and my wife weren't clicking (when Tricia would pick her up, if she started to cry, foster mom would take her right back and hold her). The transition plan for the baby was very vague initially, with her "mommy" suggesting that it could take up to three months of us visiting every day or so. Of course, the potential for this long-term, open-ended situation was upsetting to us--we felt that the longer the transition dragged out, the more confused the baby would be (two sets of mommies and daddies), and the greater likelihood that the adoption would not happen, setting us and our existing three kids up for an emotional blow we didn't think we could take.

Additionally, Patricia, as a mother, was very distraught over the thought of taking the baby from a home where she was already very well loved. We prayed over the situation, and subsequent meetings went much better as both mommies came to the conclusion that what was best for the child was to come with us. An unspoken weight was lifted, and things became incredibly easy. We bade our daughter's foster mother a tearful farewell, she and my wife hugging in the doorway, and drove north, toward a new direction in our lives.

After less than two weeks in our home, our new daughter's connection with us is seamless. We get all of her hugs and kisses and smiles, now. Our other children adore her, and fight to sit next to her car seat in the van, so that they can alternately give her a bottle, tickle her feet or make goofy faces. In such a short time, it's almost impossible for us to imagine that she hasn't always been with us. We said "yes" to her sight unseen, yet friends and acquaintances say that she "looks" like us. When she wakes up from a nap, she stands up in the crib and bounces, laughing, like our oldest son used to do. When she smiles, she scrunches up her face like her big sister. And she gives crunchy hugs like her other big brother.

It's amazing, beyond ironic, and wonderful. There are people who have waited years through traditional adoption agencies for a healthy infant, and, without having asked, I can't have dreamed of a better addition to our family. The only word we can use to describe ourselves is "blessed." We're on hold now with Human Services for a few months, until we're completely settled down, and after that we'll go back onto the foster care list. We can't, of course, adopt all the children. But there are things we can do to help them. Like answering this calling to let others know about ways in which they can help children. We can help by working with Human Services as well as child advocacy groups to ensure that the policies in place for our kids are both efficient and beneficial. Those are pressing matters, but there's time for it.

For now, I'll just content myself to watch my wife whispering to our new daughter: "You are so beautiful. And blessed. You have three mommies. One who loved you so much, that she gave you up. One who loved you so much that she had a hard time giving you up, and one who loves you so much that she'll never give you up." EndBlock

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