I pulled up to a two-story house with white vinyl siding, green shutters, and a rickety old fence surrounding the property. Nicole and Nina had been in this foster home for a little over a month, ever since their mother signed over custody to children’s services. I met their caseworker, Robin, at the curb. We planned to come together after she voiced her concerns about the foster home and wanted to know what I thought. I had known Robin for many years as we had previously worked cases together. Although we hadn’t always agreed in the past, we found a way to work through our differences. I liked her.
I knocked on the door and a petite woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt opened it. She held her hand out and introduced herself as Janet, the foster mom. In turn I introduced myself as the girls’ GAL. She led us inside and we took seats in a comfortable, cozy living room where two adorable little girls were sitting on the floor playing ‘kitchen’ with plastic food. They were carbon copies of each other. They both had jet black curly hair and brilliant blue eyes. Nicole, the three-year-old, was intent and serious with her play and barely looked up when her foster mom told her to say hello. Nina, age two, was all smiles, showing perfect white little teeth lining her gums like soldiers standing at attention.
I was always looking in kids’ mouths on the sly. Were there dark spots on their teeth? Chalky white spots? Parts of teeth missing? A pediatric dentist who was as passionate about kids’ teeth as I am about kids drummed it into me over the years: oral health is as important as medical health. Pay attention and make sure foster kids, an underserved population, are getting the dental care they desperately need.
“I just can’t do anything with her,” Janet dove right in before either Robin or I said a word. “She doesn’t listen. She’s a bad influence on her little sister.” Clearly she was talking about Nicole.
I glanced over at Nicole who was carefully stacking plastic pancakes on a pretend plate. She looked up and caught my eye then went right back to the task in front of her. Um, I think she listens, I wanted to say to Janet. Robin had warned me about this. Janet was constantly criticizing Nicole.
I hated when foster parents talked about kids like they weren’t even there, especially if they talked about behaviors or case plan services or biological parents. Little people come with awfully big ears and not enough common sense or skill to accurately make sense of what was being said. The imagination of a traumatized child can be huge and terrifying. Why feed it?
With that, Nina toddled over and handed me a toy cup. After pretending to take a drink, I asked her if it would be alright if I played ‘kitchen’ with them. She giggled and nodded her head. I slid down onto the floor and crawled over to the make-believe smorgasbord.
I’ve always thought someone should design a line of clothing that was professional and stylish enough to wear to court but comfortable and forgiving enough to wear while playing on the floor. It would need to be easy wash and wear and reasonably priced of course.
I digress AGAIN.
“My name is Holly,” I said as I slowly approached Nicole. “Nina thought it would be OK if I played with you. She made some delicious chocolate milk. Would you like a sip?” I asked her as I handed the toy cup to her. She sized me up for several seconds before she took the cup from my hands.
“I’m making pancakes,” she said as she continued stacking one round, plastic disc onto another. I was happy to hear her speak with such precision. I stole a glance into her mouth to see perfect white little teeth. Yay!
“I like pancakes,” I told her. “Here, would you like an egg? That might make your breakfast even yummier.” I held up a rubbery white circle with a yellow spot in the middle.
We continued on while I monitored the conversation between the adults in the room. Robin did a good job of keeping the conversation focused on what might be helpful for the girls.
“Nicole has been referred for a therapeutic preschool program where she will go four half days per week and work with a therapist on-site. We talked about this last week. The therapist hasn’t been able to get in touch with you. Did you remember they were going to be calling?” Robin asked.
Robin had previously told me Janet had many reports about Nicole’s behavior and they were all bad. She was ‘manipulative’, a bad influence on Nina, and had terrible meltdowns at nighttime. She also reported Nicole was a ‘bad girl’ because she often had her hand in her pants and was touching herself.
"I told you preschool was not going to work with my schedule,” Janet responded with a touch of irritation. “Like I said before, it is not good for Nina to be with such a bad influence. I think the girls should be separated. I’m willing to keep Nina.”
“Why don’t we continue this discussion another time?” I asked as I stood up. “I had a few questions about the girls’ schedules and how they are sleeping and eating. Other matters we can discuss by phone when you have some privacy.” Deep, deep down I felt my temper starting to flare.
Thirty minutes later Robin and I said our good-byes and left. We walked slowly to our cars with our heads bent low, talking.
“I’m telling you Holly, that foster mom is not right. I don’t feel good about this,” Robin said seriously. Despite my own heavy heart, I had to smile. Usually I was the one raising issues first. Robin beat me to the punch.
“I know,” I sighed. “I’m going to call her when the girls are taking their naps later and I’ll talk to her about my concerns with her discussing things in front of them. I think Nicole is taking everything in and she certainly will sense how they feel about her. I’ll make another visit next week too. In the meantime, make sure the preschool doesn’t give away her spot. Tell them we are working on it.”
“No kidding,” Robin said, “I made that referral three months ago when the girls were still with their mom and Nicole’s name just came up on the waiting list. By the way, I got Jason an emergency assessment for substance abuse treatment and he is, as we speak, getting processed for an in-patient drug treatment program.” I was shocked. The court had ordered the girls’ dad to complete an assessment and follow recommendations but that normally took weeks, even months.
“You are GOOD! How in the heck did you get that done so fast?” I asked her.
“I got my ways,” she said mysteriously and laughed. “All kidding aside, I was able to slide him into an open spot.”
“You rock. You are awesome. I love working with you,” I told her.
“Yeah, well, I’m working toward that bonus you know,” she joked and we both laughed as we parted ways. There were no bonuses for caseworkers in this line of work. None that came in the form of money anyway.
Two weeks later, Nicole and Nina’s lives turned upside down. Their foster mom refused to have Nicole participate in therapeutic preschool and subsequently gave her notice of removal for only Nicole. Robin and I agreed the girls should not be separated. As much as I hate moving foster kids, I knew it was necessary in this instance and I was a little relieved. Children know when they are wanted or not. They know when they are loved or not. Nicole was neither wanted nor loved in that foster home and that would kill her spirit which has already suffered enough damage to last a lifetime.
Around the same time, Robin called to tell me she had received a promotion and would become a supervisor. As happy as I was for her and although it was well-deserved, it meant a new caseworker for the family.
Foster care is a game of chance and the dice were being rolled not once but twice: the girls were up for a new home and a new caseworker.
Next Week Part 3: Nicole and Nina’s Next Home
*All names have been changed to protect identity.