Has Anyone Seen Sarah?
When the caseworker handed Sarah to me, she sat rigidly on my lap like a wooden doll. Her fair skin with fine blue veins was pale and puffy. Her wispy, blond hair and light blue eyes were a contrast to the brown eyes and dark brown hair of our family. She was frightened. So was I. Sarah was in our home through no choice of her own. I, on the other hand, had wanted a foster child. I stroked her head and drew her to me, but she remained stiff. She smelled different from my own child. My daughter, only a few months older than Sarah, was curious about her and why Sarah was sitting on my lap, her exclusive domain. Sarah reached out her arms and laughed as Kristen walked towards her.
Working in public schools, early in my teaching career, and seeing children who needed more attention at home, I often left school frustrated that I could not take some of my students home with me. I thought that helping a child in need twenty-four hours a day was the best way to make a difference. Being able to provide love, encouragement and guidance consistently seemed to me to be the most logical approach to rearing a child. When I left teaching to have my first daughter, my husband and I decided that this would be a good time to try foster parenting, too.
In the interviews before Sarah came to live with us, we learned the rules and regulations. Foster parents are paid to care for a child. The length of stay is uncertain but could be until the child is eighteen. Foster parents have no rights in deciding what happens to a child in the child welfare system. In fact, they are a part of the system and subject to review by the county agency. Parents, however, have rights. They can request that their children be returned to them. Parents also have visitation rights, meeting their child at the agency office where the child has been left with social workers so that the foster family’s identity is kept secret. Often parents want their children back for the welfare money they command. When a child is older, parents may want them back for their help at home as well. Parents also receive comfort from retaining legal custody of their child as evidence that they have done something worthwhile with their lives. Meanwhile, the child remains in the uncertainty of foster care with the possibility of passing through multiple homes over the years, less and less able to trust attachments.
We learned that Sarah was the older of two children. Her baby brother was in another home. When he was placed in that home, he was first thought to have Down syndrome because of the large size of his head compared to his thin body. However, it was determined that he was malnourished and this accounted for the misunderstanding about the disproportionate size of his head. Malnourishment also helped to explain the pasty, puffy quality of Sarah’s skin, which improved with better nutrition in our home.
Although Sarah was sixteen months old, she still drank from a bottle and needed help to feed herself. She was most familiar with cereal. She crawled instead of walked. The caseworker told us that she and her brother were often left in a playpen, and sometimes the two of them were left alone there while their mother went to a local bar. When Sarah felt insecure, she sat curled in upon herself with her legs stiffly in front of her and rocked her upper torso back and forth. Sometimes when upset, she rocked so furiously that her feet lifted off the floor with each rhythmic swing. At those times, her little face expressed such distress and distance that I was afraid she would not come back to us from the depth of her despair.
So we began our time of mutual learning. Thanks to my daughter, Kristen, Sarah learned quickly. Kristen, who had been walking since she was ten months old, got down on the floor with her and crawled. Sarah was delighted to have the freedom to explore as the two of them scrambled from room to room. She squirmed with delight she could hardly contain. When Kristen resorted to walking, Sarah pulled herself up and tried to follow.
Meals were now even more entertaining with two toddlers wielding spoons. With each new food, Sarah worked to master the utensil, grinning through squash or apple sauce. Sometimes the two girls regressed into banging with the spoons to entertain each other. Clearly, Sarah was learning faster because she had a child close in age to her to emulate.
Language was another concept she worked to achieve. Kristen helped to teach her words. We encouraged Sarah with cheers and smiles. Sarah struggled to keep up with us, sometimes frustrating herself with the silence she wanted filled with meaning. And she called me, "Mommy." She was not aware of another person whom she could attach that label to, and she knew I responded to it. After all, that name got Kristen smiles, hugs, and kisses. Sarah was too young for explanation about biological parents. Still, I loved and feared that label, "Mommy." I had to assume she would not always be with us, something a foster family must tell itself even before a child comes to stay. Breaking that tie and asking her to tie it again somewhere else, or perhaps many elsewheres, pulled at my heart. And, we, too, would have to let go.
We considered Sarah a member of our family. Equal treatment was the norm as far as we were concerned. The view of the world was different, though. I took her to our family physician for check-ups and when she was ill. The doctor, a good man, in fact, a religious man who wore a large cross around his neck, asked why I wasn’t taking Sarah to the public health clinic for treatment. We could not imagine providing her with anything but the same care we gave our biological child. Friends and family were less willing to interact with her. Offers to babysit faded, maybe because now there were two energetic toddlers to watch or maybe because friends and family did not want to become attached, something they feared for us. We were suspect for wanting to include a stranger’s child in our intimate family circle.
We made sure that Sarah had her own clothes and her own toys. I can see her in our back yard, sitting under the canvas roof of the sandbox, in a pale blue sunsuit, a red shovel in her hand, digging sand with her singular concentration. Each night, she went to bed with "Clownie" clutched in her arms. Without Clownie, a stuffed clown bought at a church bazaar, to cuddle, Sarah did not sleep. When we went on a beach vacation, we took Sarah and Clownie along. The girls had great fun on the sand and later would not go to sleep in their individual cribs in the cramped hotel room, calling out to each other with funny sounds and laughter. When we went to the university in the same state for my husband’s graduate study that summer, we again got permission from the children’s bureau to take Sarah out of the county.
By this time, Sarah had learned the joys of cuddles and kisses. She became a sponge for affection. Long deprived of frequent touch, she reached her arms up, demanding to be hugged at every opportunity. No longer the wooden girl of the first day, she melted into cuddles and vied for attention, now able to push Kristen aside. Sarah scared us at one point when we realized that she so valued personal contact that she did not distinguish between good and naughty behavior as long as the outcome was personal attention. This called for new discipline strategies. She understood separation. Sitting in a chair in another room was the worst indignity for her, and her outrage screamed in our ears.
After several months, her parents, who had not asked for contact with her previously, notified the agency that they wanted visits. At first, these were supposed to be a few hour visits. This required dropping a crying Sarah off into the care of social workers, as required by the agency, for her parents’ later arrival. I returned home only to receive a call that her parents had not appeared. Sometimes there was no explanation. Once the reason was because they did not have money for gas. I came back for Sarah to find her stressed and anxious. The rocking reappeared. On one visitation afternoon, I accidentally met Sarah’s mother in the parking lot. She was a small woman, young I am sure, but her age was hard to tell. Her face was drawn, her eyes dull, her hair limp. She approached me and told me that she loved her children. I believed her about loving them. But, I did not believe that she was able to care for Sarah or her brother. The social worker later told us that Sarah’s mother had given birth to a third child in the time that Sarah had been living with us. This child was stillborn, probably due to the mother’s alcoholism.
During these months, I, too, became pregnant with my second daughter. I suffered a persistent bout of sciatica. The pain from my lower right back down my right leg was aggravated by movement and lifting. My doctor advised two weeks of bed rest. I nodded, knowing that I would not be able to follow his directive. I had two active toddlers at home.
At the same time, Sarah’s parents began telling the agency that they thought they were ready to have her back with them. Based on her parents’ track record of no-shows, both to visitations and to counseling sessions, we were faced with the uncertainty of whether this was real or not. The social worker seemed resigned that this was how it would go. We began to prepare ourselves or, more accurately, to protect ourselves. This would not be easy for any of us. We worried about Kristen who would lose her friend and soon have a new sibling to adjust to. We feared mostly for Sarah’s well being.
Sarah’s parents had decided to take her for a trial weekend. I packed her clothes, including disposable diapers because I thought that they might not be able to afford them. Clownie went along with a note about Sarah’s habits and asking that they make sure that Clownie, her bedtime buddy, come back. With her absence, our house was silent and tense. We moved about quietly, excessively careful of each other.
When Sarah was returned to us after only two days, she had regressed. She was rocking fiercely. In just two days away, she had developed a bad case of diaper rash, and the folds of her flesh in that area were filled with small balls of tissue, probably from attempts to clean her. The social worker said that Sarah did not have a crib to sleep in there. With her new mobility, her parents were unable to keep her on the mattress that served as her bed. She was exhausted. Her parents did not remember to return Clownie, and Sarah was inconsolable at bedtime. Calls to the agency to retrieve her clown friend produced no response from her parents. Ultimately, we found a reasonable replacement at another church bazaar, ending fretful bedtimes.
Over us all hung the question of when Sarah would be taken away. Weeks of indecision pressed on us. Although Sarah appeared to recover the composure and skills she had lost on the weekend home, there was that nagging memory of how quickly her gains had been supplanted with only a two-day visit. The agency could not tell us any kind of time frame, only that it looked like Sarah would be going back to live with her parents after more and more frequent home visits. Ultimately, the strain on me, my pregnancy, our marriage, and on Kristen, forced a decision to let her go to another placement for the transition.
On that last day, I tried to keep Sarah’s routine normal until the social worker came to take her to the next placement. I had steeled myself to remain outwardly calm while crying inwardly. I thought, then, that making the transfer as unemotional as possible was the best thing for Sarah. I have had years to ruminate over the effects of that decision on her, Kristen, and me. I had packed her clothes, her toys, and, most importantly, her new Clownie. We could not send pictures with her because neither she nor we could know about each other in the future. When the social worker came for Sarah, she was surprised to see her leaving with anything but the clothes on her back. She said in all her years as a social worker no one had ever sent the child’s belongings along with her to her next placement. I grieved for Sarah and other foster children who would have no pictures of their childhood, no favorite childhood toys, no people to turn to for the endearing details of their early years.
I grieved for us. We comforted Kristen. Her silence and my sadness haunted the house. We would know next to nothing of Sarah’s progress, but we did know that her parents did not reclaim her. She remained in foster care. At Christmas, we sent Christmas gifts to the agency to be sent along for her at her new placement. On her birthday, we did the same. The following year, we sent money to the agency so an appropriate gift could be bought for her. Always, Sarah was in my heart. She was my child for a time. I thought about how old she would be and what she might look like. I looked for her in stores when I saw a child with blond hair. One year, when Sarah, would have been about five years old, I again called to arrange a gift for her, but the social worker told me that she had been adopted. What lightness filled me! Her parents had released her to live in a home where she could make permanent attachments.
Now, Sarah would be twenty-seven, and as I have over all the years since she was with us, I wonder what she looks like, what she is doing with her life. I periodically check the wedding announcement pictures in the local paper to see if there is anyone with the same first name who might look like her. If there is, I silently rejoice, hoping Sarah* will feel the love and good will wherever she is.
*I have changed the name. Like many of the foster parents we met during our experience, we would want any foster children reading this to know that they were loved, long after living with their foster families.