Fostering a new generation of love and care

“Daddy’s hands were soft and kind when I was cryin’
Daddy’s hands were hard as steel when I’d done wrong
Daddy’s hands weren’t always gentle, but I’ve come to understand
There was always love in daddy’s hands.”
“Daddy’s Hands” — Holly Dunn

The late Holly Dunn was the daughter of a preacher and a painter and just months older than my own parents when she hit the height of her recording career in the late-1980s and early-1990s. She had a pair of No. 1 singles in her career, but “Daddy’s Hands” was not one of those.

It was, however, her most critically-recognized song, earning her two Grammy Award nominations, a nomination for song of the year by the Country Music Association (CMA), and was part of her songs released in 1986-1987 that led to her being named the top new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music and winning the CMA’s Horizon Award, which is now known as the New Artist of the Year.

The song’s lyrics, which have been cited in a previous piece but never as the focus song, come from the perspective of a woman who is examining that her father may not have shown love in what many would see as traditional or even romantic, but that his acts of love were providing for his family and ensuring she was safe.

Today is National Adoption Day, which was originally begun in 1999 by a network of national adoption-focused partners. The day was originally begun to bring awareness to the more than 113,000 children waiting to be adopted through foster care in this country.

November is also recognized as National Adoption Month, with multiple agencies throughout the country holding special events during the month to recognize adoptive families and to encourage more to open their heart and their home to children in need of the love that birth parents were unable or unwilling to offer.

We will celebrate five years of being “official” parents on Dec. 3, as that is the fifth anniversary of the first adoption in our family. Three months later, we adopted three more children, all four coming to our family through the foster care system.

Annie Todd of the Argus Leader and Makenzie Huber of South Dakota Searchlight have recently put together a tremendous series of articles examining the over-abundance of Native American children in the foster system, noting that 73.9% of the state’s more than 1,500 children in foster care are Native, while only accounting for 13% of the state’s overall child population.

All four of our children are enrolled members of a tribe, so this is absolutely an issue that hit home with us, and my wife and I, along with our three girls, sat down with Annie and Makenzie earlier this week to discuss their path into our homes.

One of the questions that stuck with me that was asked was what would we have liked to get more of - training, support, etc. - regarding raising Native children?

I had a quick answer, stating that a lot of the work that my wife and I have done to seek out cultural educational opportunities for my children could have been coordinated through a state office, whether that is tribal relations or social services, so it wasn’t an additional burden placed on foster and/or adoptive families to seek out their own cultural training and experiences.

Added support for families after the day of adoption from foster care was also mentioned, both in staff assistance with coordinating medical and counseling services that are more utilized by those children who have been through the foster system and financial assistance, as an adoptive family is paid a monthly stipend upon adoption, but that number is locked in at the point of adoption and never changes, leaving some adoptive parents to wonder if they would have been better off not adopting children that they loved simply because the foster system provided better support in finances and staff assistance - and it’s hard to believe the goal would be to incentivize not giving a children a loving, caring home rather than leaving them unattached and subject to whims of the system.

However, after I talked with Annie and Makenzie, my brain was spinning on something further that would have been significantly important to me, and it’s something that very well could help with the extremely high turnover rate in foster care.

Real talk.

The blessing that our family had was that we had Department of Social Services (DSS) case managers who were with our children from the beginning of our involvement with them until they were adopted.

Three years with the same case manager handling the children in our household and working with us allowed for continuity of relationship that many foster children and foster parents never get the chance to enjoy.

Perhaps because of our length of relationship with those case managers, we skipped over the “pretty words” often doled out early on in a foster parent’s training, when someone who has signed up with a heart of love to offer to a child is told that any hardship will be able to be overcome with love and rainbows and sprinkles on a donut.

Not even close.

We were blessed with staff who saw difficulties we were having with our children transitioning to our home and addressed the issues head-on, rather than attempting to placate real struggles. They walked alongside us to find real solutions, rather than suggesting a book or handing us a printout to read.

Quite frankly, until you’ve been in the foster system, you simply don’t get the difference. Every child within the foster system has some level of displacement trauma after being removed from the home, from infants through teenagers. That trauma can manifest in a host of ways, but it will manifest.

Straight talk during training about finding resources for emotional stability within the foster care community within your town, developing a solid structure of support for you among friends and family who are understanding and able to provide a shoulder to lean on (or cry on) during the really emotionally- challenging moments.

Quite frankly, one of the major causes for the loss of foster care providers in the state is due to burnout.

With more than 1,500 children in foster care in South Dakota and 865 licensed foster homes in the state, every foster home taking two children each would just barely cover the need, but it also would mean no ability to take a family vacation, attend family holiday gatherings - especially those out of state, and certainly no “date nights” with a significant other because of the rules and restrictions about who can provide care for the children, even for one evening.

Families we’ve known who have left foster care cite issues with employers due to often, short-notice for parental visits, lack of communication about upcoming appointments that suddenly require foster parent coverage rather than DSS staff, and the “emergency” nature of getting a new child set up in the household with daycare, school, and other basic care needs upon placement, which can often can require a day or two, and during which, focus is simply not going to be great at the office.

The support of coworkers and supervisors goes away quickly when a lot of the family adaptation end of organizing is put on the shoulders of the foster parents, not on DSS.

Being real with prospective foster parents about what to expect from day one could allow them to prepare their work environment and family/social environment for the challenges to come, rather than creating even more stress on the foster parents, predominantly for children who won’t be theirs, because the goal of foster care in the first place is (and should be) reunification with birth parents, whenever that is feasible and safe.

There are great foster parents out there, and there are amazing parents who worked through the foster system and have given adoptive homes to children. There are many more who could fall into those categories, with the right support in place within the system.

I will still support foster parents and adoptive parents through foster care as it is absolutely a role in society that is needed. Encouraging those who are interested to head into a system that has some flaws without giving them a heads-up about what they’re going into simply isn’t something I’m going to do, though.

Noted author and family therapist Virginia Satir once quipped, “So much is asked of parents, and so little is given.”

One of my daughters was recently asked about discipline in the house, and she referenced that “Daddy has a loud voice when he hollers.”

As she was pressed on how often that happens and what that means to her, she discussed sometimes needing a “holler” to “snap out” of being stuck in a behavior, but then quickly stated, “but I always know Daddy loves me.”

She was then asked how she knew that, and she replied, “he tells me all the time (heavy preteen emphasis added), and he shows me with hugs and kisses and listening to me.”

Five years into this dad gig, and I’m still working on getting things right and learning along the way, but if, in the end, I can ensure my children have that message of love in whatever I do, I’m doing something right.

Hopefully, it leads to them being loving, caring parents to their children one day, who in turn are then loving, caring parents to their children, and so forth for generations to come.