The village, not the state

It takes a village to raise a child, or so the cliche goes. And I believe this saying with all my heart, using it unsparingly to remind teachers, principals, and camp counselors that kicking a child out for misbehaving is not in the child’s best interest. It has worked for the most part. But when that village also includes lawyers, social workers, and omniscient therapists, the village can get a tad annoying.

I do subscribe to Kahlil Gibran’s words when he states that: “Our children do not belong to us. They are life’s longing for itself.” But if I have to fill out another consent form so we can take our kids to a vacation out of state, I am going to scream!!!

We have been parents to our children for the last 3-5 years of their lives. They are now 11 and 7, respectively. When we first signed up for the six-month foster parent training over five years ago, we had been clear about our intentions: we want to adopt.

I found a DCFS-approved agency online that was not too far from where we lived, and we made the first step by calling and having the director come in to measure our house. “You can take in two kids!” Two? Wow. We were only thinking of one, preferably an infant to a five-year-old.

The First

We fell in love with him instantly, this child who was turning six the week he was brought to us. There were challenges then, as there continue to be now. Initially, he was “reunited” with his biological family within a year of being with us. My husband and I were devastated.  One moment, we had a son and the next, he was gone! Just as we were starting to understand each other’s cues and quirks, when to laugh at the other’s jokes, when to show affection, or when to step back and give the other space.  He was a stubborn little boy who would not take no for an answer, but in time he softened and relented, realizing that yes, we can be trusted to know what is best for him. There were tears in his eyes when his caseworker took him and the four boxes of clothes and toys he had accumulated in a year. We hugged him ever so tightly and told him that we will always be here for him and that we will always love him.

Within five months, he was back in the system, but by then, we had already taken in a beautiful and precocious three-year-old girl. Unfortunately, while we wanted him back, we only had two bedrooms, and DCFS rules that two kids of different genders cannot stay in one room together.

Almost a year later, the agency told us that he needed a permanent home. Well, hasn’t he always? Doesn’t every child? We did not waste time. We bought a bunk bed, put it in the sun-room, curtained the area off, and voila! an extra room. We have since moved to a place with three bedrooms and he has been with us for the last 2 1/2 years non-stop.

From the beginning, the agency reassured us of the possibility of adopting right away, raising our hopes up with every administrative case review, every change of goal discussion, and every permanency hearing. But it has been five years of being told that, “it will just be six months” or “the most would be a year from now.” Meanwhile, our children cannot have an MRI, go to a water park across state lines, or get their ears pierced without getting a consent form signed by DCFS. The kids have become well-acquainted with the terminology: “Mommy, I scraped my knee; shouldn’t we fill out an incident report?” or “Oh, my other mom did that, you know, my biological mom,” “When is the next court hearing?” or “Why did my case worker come to my classroom!!! It was embarrassing!”

I have also gotten tired of being addressed to as Mrs “(my son’s last name)” or Mrs “(my daughter’s last name)” by teachers and administrators at their school or by their friends.  And while I never did try to correct them, it is a heart-breaking reminder that, legally, I am only my children’s caregiver.

We understand that the system is not perfect. Our own caseworker handles over 30 children, placing them in homes, visiting and checking on them at least once a month. Agencies are encouraged to push for reunification with original family, arranging visits with biological parents who may still be struggling with heavy drug or alcohol use and are still unable to care for themselves, let alone their children. At times, these visits could prove traumatic to a child, whose emotions are caught between loyalty and the desire to live a less stressful life, or between love for their biological parents and their own longing to be loved and cared for in a more consistent way.

Many have warned us of getting entangled in this imperfect system. “Why not just adopt a poor child from the Philippines?” my relatives had suggested, when we said we are thinking of fostering. But having worked with Chicago’s inner city youth and children, my husband and I understand that the third world exists within the first world, and that all children, no matter what race or economic background, deserve to live in a happy home.  Lilla Watson, an indigenous woman artist from Australia, referring to social workers and other do-gooders at a conference, stated:  “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Well, we have chosen to take this route because we know that our liberation is bound up with our children’s.

In the end, all we want is to be seen and treated as a real family, living in a village of our own that includes close friends and family and our own trusted health workers and caregivers. A family that we know in our hearts we are.

About filinthegap

Lani T. Montreal is an educator, writer, performer, and community activist. Her writings have been published and produced in Canada, the U.S., the Philippines and in cyberspace. Among her plays are: Panther in the Sky, Gift of Tongue, Looking for Darna, Alien Citizen, Grandmother and I, and her most-toured comedy drama about gender and immigration, titled Sister OutLaw. She is the recipient of the 2015 3Arts Djerassi Residency Fellowship for Playwriting, 2008 3Arts Ragdale Residency Fellowship, the 2001 Samuel Ostrowsky Award for her memoir “Summer Rain,” and was finalist for the 1995 JVO Philippine Award for Excellence in Journalism for her environmental expose “Poison in the River.” Lani holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University. She teaches writing at Malcolm X College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago and writes a blog called “Fil-in-the-gap”. (filinthegap.com.) She lives (and loves) in Albany Park, Chicago with her multi-species, multi-cultural family.
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