Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My Letter to Ellen (2.0): A petition for Ellen to host a (Foster) Mother's Day show

Just hanging with two of my BFFs on a totally normal hair day.

If you know me well, you know that one of the beliefs I deeply and firmly cling to is this:
Ellen DeGeneres can make anyone's dreams come true.

Case in point: once she ordered 99 pizzas to feed some hungry celebs who were trapped for hours in theatre seating and probably uncomfortable formal-wear.
Among some of my friends, there's an ongoing joke (or hope) that we all have one wish Ellen will grant us, so sometimes we talk about what that wish would be- getting feedback to make sure we're holding out for the right one. One friend in particular would ask her to get Matthew McConaughey, whose name I just had to Google to spell correctly (I wasn't even close) to his wedding. I feel like that's a pretty solid choice- MM could probably deliver a killer toast.

For a while, I had a few wishes I tossed around. My top three (in no particular order) were that she would:


But these days things have changed. My sister recently broke the news that Josh Groban is in a pretty serious relationship, which I guess would make a blind date a little bit awkward. In terms of a Broadway audition- I have a child and house in Waco these days, so committing to rehearsal time in New York (because obviously I'd get the part*) would be pretty challenging. I'm not sure I have the skills to balance that kind of a schedule yet.

Obviously I'd still take a vacation (who wouldn't?), but since becoming a foster parent I have a new wish that takes priority.

If you've followed along on this blog for the past year- or if you just found it and have backtracked a bit- you know that last year I wrote a letter to Ellen asking her to dedicate her annual Mother’s Day show to foster moms. The letter was kind of long, but the main reasons behind this wish were 1.) foster moms are awesome, and 2) it would be such a great way to promote foster care- during National Foster Care Awareness month, no less! As great a a vacation would be, I can figure that wish out on my own. What I cannot do is magically expand my sphere of influence to match the level of Ellen's. She has such a positive impact on so many people, so for her to share the world of fostering with others would be incredible.

I don’t think my letter got very far last year, but I've decided writing one will now be my annual tradition in the hopes that, one day, she'll read it.

Obviously my personal experience makes me a little biased, but the concept of a Foster Mother's Day episode really just seems perfect to me. Ellen loves making the world a better place. Her last name has the word "generous" in it, for Pete's sake! Misspelled, perhaps, but all my last name has is the word "egg", so I'm pretty sure she still wins that one.

On top of that, her motto is "Be kind to one another," which is sort of like the unspoken motto of foster parents. And did I mention the episode falls during Foster Care Awareness month? Because it does. 


So anyway- that's my wish these days. And I think it will always be my top wish- even if Josh Groban were single again. (No offense, Josh.)

So here’s my letter for this year.

I’d love it if you considered reading and sharing it. As I said last year, if we’re all just 7 degrees from Kevin Bacon, we have to be only 5 or 6 from Ellen. She seems to know a lot of people.

Tweet out the link, post it on Instagram, share it 50 times on her Facebook page. Maybe if enough people share it enough times, she'll actually see it! (Or someone on her staff will, who would then maybe share it with her.) I'm all for beating the "third time's a charm" odds. Forget that noise- let's shoot for second time's a charm here.

Be sure to tag Ellen when applicable- and use the hashtags #BeKindToOneAnother and #FosterMoms4Ellen if you can squeeze them in there. Admittedly, I’m not very savvy when it comes to social media, but from what I understand hashtags are the best way for things to spread on the internet these days. (If that’s changed in the last few years, please, someone let me know. I’m too young to be so out of the loop with technology.) (Also- I'm open to other hashtag ideas- I just couldn't think of any  better/shorter ones.)

And if you happen to know Ellen personally, let me know. I’ll give you a hand written version to pass along to her directly.

*For those of you who don't know me personally, it feels important for me to clarify that I was joking about me obviously getting a part in a Broadway show.
____________________________________________________________________________

Hi Ellen!

My name is Kaley. I’m a 28-year-old social worker living in Waco, Texas, who loves spending time with friends, music, crafts, coffee, sweatpants, and (obviously) you.

I’m also a foster parent.

I could probably write a novel about why I became a foster parent and the journey it's been since then, but- to save us both time- I'm just going to give you the Spark Notes version. About 18 months ago, I got my foster care license, and a few weeks later I received my first placement- a newborn boy. And when I say newborn, I mean 2 days old and straight from the hospital. While I’m still surprised the hospital staff let me walk out of there with him (like most new parents, I had no clue what I was doing), he's been with me ever since!


Having been a foster parent for only a year and half with one placement, I’m still relatively inexperienced in the world of foster care. But man… I have learned a lot. And I’ve gained so much respect for the people who have committed to taking on this role- some of whom have been fostering longer than I’ve been alive. Can you imagine the impact they’ve made? Not just on the children in their care, but in the world! It astounds me just thinking about it. And it’s one of the things that makes this responsibility so beautiful and rewarding.

 But at the same time, fostering is challenging- emotionally, mentally, and even physically. (These days, I'm chasing after a surprisingly quick and clumsy toddler. It's exhausting.) As a foster parent, you open your heart up to so much love and joy, which inevitably leaves it open to a lot of grief and pain. Fostering  requires a unique sense of vulnerability. You have to balance two very different truths, and figure out a way to carry them both at the same time. 

In one hand, you hold the truth that these children are your own. You open up space for them in your home and heart, and you care for them as if you gave them life and will walk with them through it from start to finish. You love them completely and without condition.


But then, in the other hand, you hold the truth that there’s another family out there- one they could return to any day. You have to accept that, no matter how much love you pour into them, they might not remember your name- or you at all- years down the road.


And those are hard realities to reconcile.


If there is a way to love my son completely while still protecting my heart from the grief of losing him, I haven’t figured it out yet. But, despite the uncertainty and heartache, I hope to continue fostering children- as so many parents around the country do- because there is such a tremendous need, and I know this is one way I can do something about it.


Which brings me to the purpose of this letter. Every May, you have a wonderful Mother’s Day show where you celebrate women doing something incredible- bringing a life into the world. Your audience is filled with women who are proudly rocking their baby bumps; it’s seriously one of the best shows of the year.

But over the past year and a half my eyes have been opened to the many mothers out there whose stories aren’t always celebrated- or even shared. From women who are led to foster care because they are unable (or choose not) to have children biologically, to women who become foster moms just so kids can experience safety and love before finding permanency with their biological or adoptive family- there are many mothers out there who don’t necessarily bring lives into the world, but they certainly work hard to make sure those lives thrive. Their stories are complex and challenging, but they are also beautiful and very much worth telling.

I think it would be amazing to host a Mother’s Day Show celebrating these women.  Not only because they deserve it for the love they selflessly give, but because it would inform millions of your viewers about a really important issue. Did you know that in the United States, more than 400,000 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system? And more children enter than leave each year.* There are so many things- big and small- that your viewers can do about this, but they may not even be aware of them.  They could donate items to children in foster care, volunteer with an organization that supports biological families working toward reunification, register to provide respite care for foster families, or even could become foster parents themselves.

 I’ve been amazed by how little most people seem to know about the reality of fostering. Many people tell me, “I could never do that!” without having an accurate understanding of what it’s like. I’ve become pretty passionate about changing people’s misconceptions by being honest about my experience- both the joys and the challenges- in my conversations and writing. But I know your voice can carry a lot further than mine. I also know you choose to use it to make a positive impact on the world- it’s one of the many reasons I admire you. I know you can’t support every cause people point you toward, but I at least wanted to ask you to support this one. May is actually National Foster Care Awareness month, too, so it could be perfect!

I’m not sure if this will actually reach you, but, if it does, I’d be so grateful if you’d even just consider this. Whether you think about making a change to the Mother’s Day show (it might be too late for that; I honestly have no clue how far in advance you guys prepare for each episode) or share this information in some other way, I think it could make such a difference for the kids across the country in need of safe homes and loving families.

Regardless of whether or not this letter changes anything, I am thankful for all you do to make the world a better place. You bring so much joy to so many people, which is why you always make my list when I answer the question: “What five people- dead or alive- would you invite to a dinner party?” There’d be so much good conversation and dancing.

Thank you for being kind.

All the best,

Kaley

(p.s.- I realize it may seem a little self-serving to make this suggestion given the fact that I am a foster mom myself, but I would be totally fine if you did this and I wasn't there- there are plenty of other foster moms out there who could fill an audience.)

(I mean, I wouldn’t complain if I was there, but I’d honestly be beyond thrilled to see others there, too.)


*AFCARS report, 2015: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/trends_fostercare_adoption2014.pdf

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Adoption Status Update

Wow! What a week it has been!

Our Fixer Upper episode aired on Tuesday evening, and we have been flooded with such incredible support ever since!    

Fun fact- before I went to the farm for this meeting, I a) sloppily trimmed my own bangs and b) discovered my car was broken into overnight. In case the person who stole my old iPod is reading this- that thing is too old to be worth much, so if you could return it, that'd be great. It stored my entire collection of Celine Dion's greatest hits, so my in-car karaoke has suffered tremendously.
Another fun fact- despite the smile on the left-me's face above, I was a nervous wreck watching myself on TV. I think I'm going to write about it sometime, because seriously- it was crazy.
Honestly, I’ve been shown tremendous love and kindness since the very beginning of this Fixer Upper adventure. Obviously there were Chip, Jo and their incredible team- who put such passion and thoughtfulness into designing my home. Then there was the crew, all of whom were incredibly encouraging and gracious- in spite of my awkwardness while filming. 
Just to be clear- I'm the three guys in this scenario.
Then there was my sister and friends organizing the GoFundMe to help cover renovation and adoption costs. (If you saw the episode, let me just tell you- that surprise was real. I was so confused and overwhelmed by it in the moment, and I am still trying to wrap my mind around it- so many feelings!) 
And then there are the thousands of people who have taken the time to follow our story here and/or on Instagram, many of whom have left such kind comments or sent thoughtful messages. And honestly- that means so much to me. 
Seriously, though.
The fact that thousands of people I’ve never met saw me for about 15 minutes on an episode of Fixer Upper and decided my life with Little Man is worth investing in- it’s incredibly humbling.

I once heard a quote from Scott Adams (the cartoonist who created Dilbert, of all people) that says, “Remember, there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” That has become so evident to me in the past 6 days.

So thank you. And please know that your kindness has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. I am so, so grateful.

In a lot of the comments  and messages I’ve received, people have asked whether or not I’ve been able to adopt Little Man yet, so I wanted to write a quick post to catch everyone up on where things stand currently.

But first I’ll have to rewind a little bit.

When I picked Little Man of from the hospital almost 18 months ago, I thought he would only be with me for a few months- four at most. But, without going into too much detail about his biological family’s story, things started to shift as the months passed. While they still hoped to be reunified with him, the reality of that being possible seemed less and less likely.

Now in a “normal” foster care situation, CPS would be involved and assessing the likelihood of re-establishing permanency with the biological family. They are actually required to hold permanency hearings within a child’s first year in care. However, Little Man was placed voluntarily, so CPS isn’t involved at all- meaning there’s no one who is obligated or able to advocate for legal action at this point. Except for me, that is. I wrote a little bit about this decision in a previous post, but- long story short- I contacted a lawyer to begin the process at the end of last summer. And, although in some ways it seems like a fairly cut and dry case, we’ve hit a lot of road bumps. Naively, I didn’t except the process to take this long. But we’re still in the midst of it, and we don’t have a clear end date in sight. (I am hoping it could be sometime this summer, but it seems like any amount of progress we make is immediately met with new roadblocks, so there are no guarantees.)

So for now, we’re waiting. We’ve met with the ad litem, completed the adoption home study, and taken all the steps we can at this point, so we’re really just stuck until the next door opens.

It’s frustrating to feel powerless in these moments. But it makes the support and encouragement we’ve received in the past week all the more meaningful to me right now.

So please keep us in your thoughts and prayers in the days ahead. I’m working on being patient, and trying to live in the moment with gratitude rather than wishing the next one would just hurry up and get here already.

And please keep Little Man’s biological family in your thoughts and prayers, as well. Little Man and I pray for them every night, and we ask they’d be filled with courage, comfort, strength and hope. The grief this process will inevitably cause for them- regardless of the final ruling- is not lost on me.  

I will, of course, continue to update here when there is progress, so if you want to keep up with it, be sure to follow me here or Instagram. Or just bookmark this and come back periodically if that’s more your style. You do you.


Again- thank you for journeying with us while we wait in the days and months ahead. As long as they sometimes feel, I know they are short. And there truly aren’t enough words to describe how grateful I am for your presence in the midst of them.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Ways to Get Involved with Foster Care

I love being a foster parent.  

Although I’m still relatively inexperienced (I’ve had one placement for about 18 months) I know it’s something I want to continue doing. Not only because I am passionate about working with children and families, but because there is such a tremendous- and often unnoticed- need in our country.
 In the United States, over 400,000 children are in foster care (in 2014, 650,000 children spent time in the system), and more kids enter than leave each year. The average “length of stay” for each child is about two years.



It's true. And it can’t be ignored- those numbers are a call to action. 

Unfortunately, though, oftentimes people don’t get involved with foster care because they don’t know where to start. It may seem like it’s an all or nothing kind of thing- you become a foster parent or you don’t. But choosing to foster is just one of so many ways people can help; there are a number of others that don’t require such a high level of commitment. As much as I love fostering, I realize it's not for everyone. So in an effort to highlight other opportunities, I've compiled a list of ways people can get involved- in big or small ways, across long or short periods of time, with a lot or just a few resources.

If you are interested in getting involved with foster care on some level, I hope it’s helpful- and I hope it opens your eyes to new ways to care for children and families in your community! If you have or want to try any of these things- or if you have questions about them- I’d love to hear them, so please feel free to leave a comment below!



·    Be an advocate
  • If you have limited time and resources, you can still be involved! Get informed about foster care, and share the information you learn with others! Whether it’s conversation around the water cooler or phone calls to state representatives, advocacy is important. Encouraging awareness as well as involvement is powerful- and it makes a big difference!

Support biological families
  • Most biological families involved with foster care are working hard to be reunited with their children, but the cards are sometimes stacked against them. (I wrote a little bit about this here.) Parenting is hard in any circumstance, but when you’re facing a lack of resources and support, it can go from being hard to seeming impossible. Because of this, it is imperative that we make efforts to support biological families. This looks different everywhere, though, so connect with a local foster care agency to find out specific ways you can help in your community. Here are a few potential options, though, to get you started. You could…
    • Help with a parenting class or support group (by providing snacks, transportation, space, your skills/knowledge, etc.)
    • Provide a meal for a reunified family (or toys for birthdays/holidays, clothes, etc.)
    • Provide respite care for parents (like any parent, sometimes they need a little break!)
    • Help with household tasks
    • Volunteer to lead a class on job skills, financial literacy, etc.
    • Invite families to community events
    • Provide encouragement! A few kind words really can go a long way.

Support youth aging out of foster care
  • This is a huge issue many people don’t know about, but in 2014, over 22,000 children “aged out” of foster care- meaning they never found a permanent home, but were now too old to remain in the state’s conservatorship. Apart from suddenly losing their main source of emotional and financial support, aging out leaves many kids without the skills, experience and assistance they need to achieve their college and career goals. More than 20% will become homeless, and 25% will be involved with the justice system within two years. The statistics are shocking, but here are ways you can help turn those numbers around: 
    • Help sponsor a scholarship for a student heading to college.
    • Sponsor a care package for a student who made it to college.
    • Knit a scarf, if that's your thing!
    • Donate things like interview outfits, grocery store/restaurant gift cards, or furniture, bus/transit passes used computers, etc
    • Provide job training and skills
    • Offer an apprenticeship to a youth transitioning out of care
    • Volunteer to tutor/mentor youth who make it to college

Support youth in care
  • When kids are placed in foster care, they generally don't have a say in the matter. They're removed from the home, people and environment they know- and no matter what is going on within that place, there is grief involved with leaving it behind. They enter into a life of uncertainty- they're suddenly living in a house with people they don't know, and they might not have any idea as to when or if they'll see their family again. Every story is unique, but they are each complex and layered. But as difficult of a transition as it can be for kids, there are ways to help make it a little smoother:
    • Be a mentor
    • Donate school supplies
    • Donate suitcases/bags- Kids oftentimes come into care with very few things- or nothing at all. Sometimes their items are thrown into garbage bags for easy transport; gifting new or gently used luggage can provide them with a little more dignity at a time when they feel voiceless and powerless.
    • Donate gently used toys, clothing, blankets, etc
    • Donate things like zoo or museum passes or tickets to local events. A few months ago, someone donated tickets to the circus to the agency I work with, so Little Man got to go for the very first time! (He slept through a good chunk of it, but I think he still loved it!)
    • Help sponsor a child’s fees for something like summer camp, sports teams, music lessons, etc.
    • Donate your skills. Are you a talented pianist? Maybe a computer genius? Or perhaps you know how to sew/cook/skateboard/any other things a kid might want to learn how to do. Offer to give a child lessons!
    • Are you a good photographer? Volunteer to take photos of kids in care! Many children in foster care don’t get an opportunity to have professional photos taken the same way other kids might- any many foster parents can’t afford to have this done for every child in their care- so this is such a wonderful gift to give! It helps document a time in a child’s life that might otherwise be lost. As a foster parent, I’ve been told that I’m the “memory keeper” for kids in my care. It’s a huge responsibility, so any help I- and other foster parents- can get is so appreciated!
    • Tutor a child- whether you help with a specific subject or provide help with SAT prep, academic supports are always important!
    • Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASA volunteers are empowered by the court to advocate on behalf of a child in care; it’s their responsibility to get to know a child- as well as the child’s biological family, foster family, teachers, social workers, and other people who interact with the child regularly, so they can help inform the court. Full disclosure- this opportunity is definitely time-intensive.  It requires upfront training, and regular meetings (you have to get to know the child, after all), and you do commit to see a case until permanency is established, which can sometimes go beyond a year. But, again, if you have the time for this, I definitely encourage it. It’s so, so needed, and can make a huge and important impact on a child’s future.

Support foster families
  • Foster parents have a lot to juggle. On top of jobs, families and friends, they make room in their schedules for things like home visits (from CPS workers, case managers, inspectors, etc.), visitations with biological families, a variety of appointments (for example: doctors, dentists, and/or therapists), court appointments, and so much more. From personal experience, I can say that having support from others is the difference between me juggling everything like this:
and juggling it all like this:

Okay, I might not be this good, but still- we're talking next level juggling.
Here are some ways you could support a foster family:
    • Help with household chores- mow a lawn, help with dishes, cook a meal… Personally, I know I’ve been so grateful for people’s help in this area. It gives me an opportunity to take care of something else on my unending to-do list- or, more importantly, gives me a chance to spend more time with my son. Honestly, this one is huge- especially when families receive a new placement. A friend arranged a meal train for me with Little Man arrived, and it was a lifesaver- I don’t think I would have eaten without it. So if you don’t know a foster parent, but you want to help- reach out to a local agency to get connected!  
    • Donate things like: diapers, baby formula, gently used children’s clothes, gently used children’s furniture, toys, etc. Again- from personal experience, I can say this is invaluable. Foster parents typically have very little notice about the arrival of a new placement. I was lucky and had two days, but sometimes it can be a matter of hours. As you can imagine, it’s hard to be prepared in so little time, so help a foster family stock up so they can be ready for anything!
    • Become a licensed babysitter! As a foster parent, I don’t have the same babysitter options as other families. Anyone who babysits my son has to have completed a background check and CPR/First Aid certification. So, admittedly, this option requires some time and effort.  But if you have the time and energy to do it, I am confident you could find some grateful foster parents! (Shout out to my team of babysitters- I really couldn’t have made it this far without you!)
    • Become a licensed respite care provider! This one is like becoming a babysitter, but more intense because it’s longer term (3+ days). Respite care exists to provide foster families with a break- to do anything from travel, deal with a family crisis, or just have a few days of self-care and recovery time. Respite care providers are essentially licensed as foster parents, but can choose to only provide care on a short-term basis.

Support organizations

If you are interested in learning more about specific ways you can get involved, I’d encourage you to contact someone from a local foster agency. You can find one (or many) agencies in your area here.

If you have any ideas other than the ones above, please feel free to share them in the comments below! I'd love to hear more about what others have done or hope to do!

The foster care system can seem like a daunting thing to tackle, but there are so many ways to make a positive impact. Whoever you are, wherever you are- your skills, knowledge and resources can make a huge difference in the lives of children and families in foster care! And who knows? Maybe it will help pave the way for a day when we don't need a foster care system at all! 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Big- Time Update

Oh, hello there! Once again, I’m resurfacing from a too-long absence to give a quick update.

Guys. So much has been going on lately. Like… SO. MUCH.

That’s actually one of the reasons I haven’t written here in a while- I just haven’t even known where to start.

There’s one announcement in particular I haven’t shared because I was trying to figure out the perfect timing, buuuuuut….

Apparently I’ll be outed on national television this Tuesday, so it seems like the timing is now.

(Oh, p.s., I'm about to be on Fixer Upper. Nbd. I'll come back to that later.)

This was a super fun photo shoot that maybe never happened.


So rather than let HGTV make my announcement for me, I wanted to post it here. So....here it goes:



I’ve decided to petition for custody of Little Man.

When I tell people about this, the immediate reaction tends to be something along the lines of “That’s so great!!!”

And it is. It’s a very exciting decision.

But it’s also terrifying. And also sad.

Because it might not have the outcome I want. And because it means such significant loss.

Petitioning for custody essentially means I’m filing a lawsuit against his biological mom, asking the court to terminate her parental rights.

Deciding to do that was the easiest and most difficult decision I’ve ever made.

Easy because, of course, I care about my son, and I want to ensure he is safe and loved.

Difficult because I know his biological mom wants exactly the same thing.

There’s a big part of me that wants her to succeed. Although I don’t know much about her life, I know she’s dealt with losses and hardships I can’t imagine. I want such good things for her, because I really care about her.

But, at the same time and for many reasons, the best way I know how to care for my son is to try to terminate her parental rights.

And that weighs heavily on me- as it should, I think.

We’ve taken a few steps in the legal process, but we haven’t set up initial hearings yet, so I really don’t know what to expect in terms of an outcome. It’s  ultimately going to come down to a judge’s decision.

But, really, there’s no perfect option- whatever happens, someone’s heart will be broken. There’s a chance the judge will decide my son should return to his biological mom. And I cannot even imagine how difficult that would be to me. Honestly, I make an effort not to think about it.

But the other option is that the judge decides to grant me custody, and if that is the case my joy would be at the cost of Little Man's biological mom’s. There’s no sugar-coating or getting around it- it is inevitable that someone will wind up devastated.

And I’m making an intentional choice to invite that in, which adds a layer of guilt on top of the already thick fear and anxiety.

It helps me to remember the words Brené Brown wrote: “To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. But, I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude and grace.”

And so I wait- trying to accept my own vulnerability and allow the uncertainty of the future guide me to gratitude. 

Some days that comes naturally. Other days fear takes over, and it’s really hard.

And that’s where I am right now. I feel this need to wrap things up on a positive note- saying something like, “but things are great, and I know they’ll work out!” But at this point, I just don't know.
 So in an effort to be authentic, I’ll leave it in this gray space. And I’ll wait.