The Five-Day Conference

Here’s something I wrote last year, just after the girls were placed with us. Five days after a placement, the foster parents, biological parents, foster kids and social workers all gather for a big meeting. Yes, it’s as awkward as it sounds. Here’s what I wrote afterwards:

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4.6.12

She sucks at the cigarette like it’s her lifeline, and maybe it is. Two hours of seeing her kids means she puts her body — waif-thin and ravaged by cocaine, drugs, cutting — through nicotine withdrawal. She and the kids’ dad cry silently, tears seeping out as we strap their girls into carseats in our van. Their kids, coming home with us.

There was an incident a couple of weeks ago, we’ve figured out. The two girls were taken from the “home” (a fleabag hotel room) and given to an aunt and uncle for a few days. Now they’re living with us, the foster parents. Today is the girls’ first visit with their biological parents, after which three social workers will join all of us for another meeting.

We’re piled into a small room, one of the social workers just sitting on the floor. They ask the parents questions — what health issues do the girls have, when were they born, who are your relatives, where do they live, what are their phone numbers, what is your phone number?

“We don’t have any kind of phone,” she says. “You could call my cousin who lives in the apartment next door. She has a phone.”

Where do you live? Can we come check it out? “We’re remodeling our apartment. They brought paint, but please don’t come for our home study until Monday, when we have the cabinet doors back on.”

She had a job at Burger King, but lost it. Was supposed to get one at the Cadillac restaurant, but never went for the training. He got fired from O’Charleys around the time of the “incident.” They have no income. He lives with his mom, she lives with hers. They say they’ve made “bad choices,” hung around with the wrong people.

They love their kids. They’re not married — in fact, she’s separated from another man — but they have three children together. She struggles to remember their birthdays and birth weights, but she likes to hug them. There’s sadness in her eyes, under the drugs and pain, and there’s heartache. But is it enough? She says she’s just waiting to get into a substance abuse program. She wants her kids back. But is that enough to overcome the inertia of years of giving in, bad choices, chasing the next fix, trying to end it all?

They look so young. Not old enough for this. No income. No phone. No car. No hope? But wait, there is hope. The social worker reminds them — you have a case plan to follow. Have you looked at it? Do you know what you have to do? You need to do it and you need to do it now. There’s a law from 1997 that says your kids can’t just stay in the foster system forever. We’ve got about a year. In a few months, we need to see progress or we’re going to start looking at options. Adoption. Your rights terminated. This is serious. Think about it like a clock. We started at one, we’re going to twelve. You have to do something before we get there. This starts now.

She bounced in and out of foster care herself. His dad is dead. She hasn’t talked to her dad since she was 12, but she knows he’s in Jacksonville, Florida.

They want to know how their girls are doing, how they’re getting along with our boys. We tell them everything is fine, don’t worry, we’re glad to help. That’s the message — we’re glad to help.

There’s a deeper message, of course. They don’t have anything together — their lives are a mess. Their kids got taken OUT OF THEIR HOME. We look like we’re put together, able to buy groceries, respectable, khaki- and dress-wearing church-goers who are a world apart from people like them.

But here’s the thing. We’re not fine. We’re messed up. We have issues. But we also have grace, the beautiful, scandalous grace of God that saves us and makes us new. Yes, you’ve made bad choices, I want to tell them. So have I. That’s what sin does — it twists your will, makes you dark and evil and hard. And into that can shine the bright, everlasting love of Christ.

So it’s not us. It’s God. You need him too. Grab him and hold him and don’t let go.

I can’t tell them that here, with the social workers in the state office building, questions piling upon questions, their faces overwhelmed. But I think it.

We take the kids to the van, watch as their mom cries. We look over, see the dad astride a scooter, the mom standing beside him, already lighting up. She climbs behind him and they putt away, fighting the wind and their own private battles.

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