• May 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 4

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Putting Ethan First: A Reunification Story

Written by Denise Goodman, Ph.D., senior fellow at Case Commons, expert on foster parent recruitment, retention and training—and former foster parent

In 2012, four adults came together on behalf of Ethan, then 3 months old. Ethan had been removed from his mother, Kimberly, who was fighting a 20-year battle with addiction. He was placed with Berenice and Andrea, first-time foster parents in the reunification program of the Clark County, NV, Department of Family Services. Dahlia Espeut-McLean (now a supervisor) was the caseworker.

As Berenice and Andrea surrounded Ethan with love and care, his mother fought to recover. Ethan's foster parents sent pictures and kept the lines of communication open, with Dahlia as their champion.

It took many months, but it worked, and Ethan and Kimberly were reunited. Today, Ethan is a grinning 8-year-old who loves electronics, hugs, and his "cousins"—Berenice and Andrea's kids. In June, Kimberly will be 8 years' sober. "When me and Ethan talk about our family," Kimberly says, "we're talking about Andrea and Berenice."

A Different Kind of Foster Parent

"We should probably start changing the terminology," Andrea laughs. "Resource parents? Wraparound parents? How about reunification partners?" Berenice says.

The key to this kind of caregiving, Berenice says, is for the foster parent to understand that "not every child who comes into your home will be your forever child." This means helping "biological parents reunify with their kids when it's safe and appropriate" and getting all the adults to work and learn together and "focus on the needs of this child in this situation."

Recently, I spoke with Ethan and the four women in his life. I asked, "What's the best thing about aunties Berenice and Andrea?" "Nearly everything," he said.

This Q&A explores how everyone worked together for Ethan's sake. Questions and answers have been edited for continuity. For privacy, only first names have been used for mother, child, and foster parents.

Q: Kimberly, what was your biggest fear about Berenice and Andrea?

A: They were not my biggest fear. My biggest fear was that I'd never be able to get sober and I would lose Ethan and never see him again. But Andrea and Bernice were so supportive. They sent all those pictures of Ethan. During the hard times, as I was trying to get sober and create this new life, those pictures were my drivers. There was this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—this beautiful baby.

Q: Dahlia, what was it like to be the caseworker in this kind of arrangement?

A: This relationship was like lightning in a bottle—in the best way. I had so many questions in my mind and they all began with, "Am I allowed to …?" I had to figure out how to be flexible within our system. It was about constant communication with my supervisor, my manager, anybody who'd listen. I had a birth parent who wanted to continue having a relationship with these two wonderful people who had helped to raise her child. Ethan was bonded to everybody. My question was, how do we make sure Ethan doesn't lose anyone who cares about him?

Q: Andrea, it can be so challenging to love a child and let him go. What made this arrangement work?

A: (Andrea): The weekend he was due to go home, we spent 3 or 4 days with Kimberly so she would get a sense of what his routine was.

A: (Kimberly): You were willing to help with his transition so it wasn't traumatic for him. I mean, he had seen me a couple of times. But that was it. We all met at a hotel and played at the pool. He saw us all together. I could learn from you guys and see how you were parenting him.

Q: What happened next?

A: (Andrea): Berenice and I gave them a month or two to bond. And then we sent Kimberly a text message. And then we started having conversations. Then FaceTime.

A: (Berenice): When we first left Kimberly's house, we were heartbroken and crying. She sent us a quick little video. We saw he was happy.

A: (Kimberly): Now they visit every couple of months. Every summer, he stays with them for a week. It's a family tradition.

Q: Kimberly, any advice for parents?

A: If you are going through the process, see it as a blessing. At the time, it was my worst fear coming true. But it ended up being this opportunity. I got healthy and strong. At first, I wasn't bonded to Ethan. It was the pictures, texts, and constant information about Ethan that helped me bond to him, even though we weren't living together. In the meantime, I had this amazing family taking great care of my baby. This is not a time to be stuck in your fears. It's a time to be open to people who want to support you and love your child.

Q: Final thoughts, Berenice and Andrea?

A: (Berenice): We all need to remember: Other people loving a child doesn't take anything away from you.

Q: Dahlia?

A: Human services is about relationships. As workers, we don't always know what's best. If you think you have all the answers, you'll miss the nuggets of wisdom coming from all sides. I'd tell anyone on the CPS or caseworker side that this is one of the easiest cases I've ever had. Love is not a finite thing that can only come from one person.

Other Young People Share Their Experiences

Jasmine Snell (Tennessee)

With every new home comes a new environment and new experience. While it is important to embrace new customs, we should not abandon our cultures and create new identities. I was 13 when my identity was stripped away from me due to my biological parents' inability to raise me. Not having a working relationship between my natural family, foster family, and DCS workers resulted in major disconnections in the community and school. I have been fortunate enough to experience the opposite with my current family. My independence and success could not have been achieved without my biological and chosen families blending to become one for the sake of my well-being. I now know the meaning of family and community because of the togetherness of those around me. This is why a working relationship must be maintained between all parties who have or previously had an essential role in a young person's life.

Melissa Mayo (Hawaii)

I was fortunate to have a foster parent who not only supported my relationship with my mother while I was in care but also worked together with my mom to include her in my senior-year activities and holidays. Having my foster parent include my mom in my daily and school activities helped me feel a sense of normalcy. This gave me relief because I wasn't overwhelmed with worry and anxiety around issues with my mom and family. It gave me a chance to focus on things that I should, like school and extracurricular activities. Normalcy is crucial to a youth's upbringing, especially a youth in foster care. Without my foster parent's priority of keeping my mom involved in my life, I would not have the great relationship I have with my mom today.

Stefani Lazaro (Arizona)

When I was in care, I was in a shelter. On weekends, I would visit my four brothers and their foster family, who were supportive and even asked that important question every kid in foster care wants to hear, "Would you like us to adopt you?" They gave me an option. I felt happy.
My mother, caseworker, and siblings' foster mom worked together to establish a healthy relationship. My siblings would visit my mother and she would have dinners at the foster mom's house. The foster mom would give my mother parenting tips. I could tell my mother felt scared to be a single mom and felt encouraged when the foster mom helped her. The caseworker, foster mom, and my [birth] mother helped everyone get on the same page. It's as if the foster mom was teaching our mother how to be a mom.

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