Permanency Hearing Report
Permanency hearings are convened by Family Court every six months. They’re the time when judges make (or don’t make) decisions about permanency for kids in care. Foster parents in New York have the legal right to attend permanency hearings and receive permanency reports for kids in their care.
Carrie and I hadn’t received permanency reports or invitations to permanency hearings since we moved in 2012. (2012 is also approximately the last time I wrote anything on Fosterwee. Perhaps my 2014 post will be about the difficulty of changing one’s address with ACS, the DOE or any of the alphabet soup bureaucracies we work with. Despite the privilege of phone service, email access and flexible schedules and professional competence that serves us well in many settings, it’s darn nigh impossible to successfully change our address in any system. We’re almost always told that Blitzen lives in Queens with a woman we’ve never heard of. Blitzen’s address is frozen in 2007.)
After a few requests our Case Planner sent us copies of Blitzen’s last two permanency reports. They’re no joke. The most recent is 39 pages, filled with an intimidating array of legal and procedural details. It lists the names of all 18 case workers involved and documents the number of times they made contact with kids and parents. It outlines the service plans for all six children. It details family visit attendance, therapy, doctors appointments and school records. The main course is a section called Permanency Plan where the permanency goal for each child is unveiled.
I read all 39 pages carefully, then emailed Carrie with my reactions. My first line was: “There are fewer errors in this report.” Previous permanency hearings had been riddled with mistakes, including misspelling the kids’ names, missing their ages by many years and listing them at incorrect schools and foster homes. This time the basic factual data seemed surprisingly accurate.
The second line in my email to Carrie was, “Blitzen’s permanency goal is ‘Placement for Adoption’.” It sounds crazy, but we didn’t know Blitzen’s permanency plan. We knew that a judge had declined to terminate parental rights but hadn’t heard how that might translate into planning and action. The permanency report made that clear: “The goal for Blitzen is Placement for Adoption. She is in a pre-adoptive home.”
Both of my email assertions were wrong. Our Case Planner informed us that the judge at the permanency hearing changed Blitzen’s goal to “Return to Parent.” The 39 page legal document has it wrong in multiple places. Due to a “systems error,” family court was/is unable to change the goal on the legal permanency hearing report, which continues to show the opposite goal.
The way we discovered the new permanency goal feels representative of our experiences with foster care. Words written and spoken are powerful and regularly reflect the opposite of what is real. It’s hard to know who or what sources of information to trust. You wait in line for an hour with your electric bill to change your address and find out that the person who can do that no longer works there. You wait for months to learn a permanency plan, which is neither permanent nor a plan.
Our interactions with child welfare have impacted my ability to function within this system. Two-plus years ago I was eager to trust and build authentic relationships with our social workers; now after cycling through staff I’m not interested in listening, trusting or making friends with the new workers. I used to believe things I heard or read about our case; now I’m skeptical. I used to have confidence in my senses and intuitions; now I doubt my experiences and perceptions. After two years of intermittent reinforcement and little connection between cause and effect, I lack confidence in my predictions. After two years of not being in control of my parenting narrative, I feel more dependent and less able to coherently organize my thoughts and memories. After two years in a constantly adversarial system, I’m ready to do battle at the drop of an allegation.
To recap: I’m a straight, cis white man with money, family, love, no history of trauma and a fully developed adult brain. I dipped my toe into the child welfare system from a position of power and privilege with the ability to step away from it any time I choose. My limited exposure to these systems, have made me less trusting, less attached, less confident and less able to plan for the future, not to mention flustered, frustrated and furious.
Blitzen has spent her life in this world. Like most 10 year-olds, she’s powerless to make important decisions about her life. Unlike most 10 year-olds, whose universes are lovingly crafted by parents, Blitzen knows she’ll never meet the people who control her life. Blitzen watches her powerless mom jump through never-ending Sisyphean hoops hoping to reunite with her children. She observes her foster parents asking permission to do things that every other family just does. She listens to 18 social workers ask her what she wants and knows that they can’t make any of it happen. She wonders why the judge is taking so long and nobody will tell her.
Meanwhile, the foster parents and social workers she attaches to inevitably leave her. Meanwhile, she is often at our agency around people yelling or crying, triggering trauma. Meanwhile, the people she loves most tell her completely different things about who she is, where she’ll live next year, what she’ll do, who she’ll be.
How do you grow up like that? I guess you play hide-and-seek under the covers, sing “Let it Go” at the top of your lungs, drink homemade potions and hope you wake up as a mermaid, beautiful and powerful on land and at sea.