Have you ever had one of those weeks where you’ve thought: Well, it can’t get worse than this! only to find out it can, indeed, get way worse?
That’s the kind of week I recently had with L.
At 9:20 a.m. Monday morning, his school’s number popped up on my phone. I was in a meeting, so I let it go to voicemail. When I called back 10 minutes later, the principal very kindly explained there had been an incident. His gentle tone didn’t quite ease the horror I felt when he added that, as a result of the incident, L was handcuffed in the back of a police car.
It was a parenting first, for sure. I’ve never had to collect a kid from a cop. So, when I picked him up a few minutes later, I talked with the officer and the school social worker, because what else do you do in that situation? (I still don’t know.) They gave me a more detailed account of L’s morning, and—my very strong thoughts about handcuffing a child aside—I figured his one-day suspension was going to be our low point that week.
Until Thursday came, and he tested positive for COVID-19.
It started with another phone call from school. L was in the sick room. He hadn’t been feeling well. I immediately called his doctor, even though lots of people thought I was overreacting. A few hours later we were in the office, and the doctor reluctantly gave him a test, assuming, like the others, that it was just a cold.
But it wasn’t just a cold, and, when the results came back, a whirlwind of hellish realities engulfed me so fast it was hard to catch my breath. (I’m speaking figuratively, of course—but, I was also starting to feel symptomatic, so it actually was getting hard to breathe.)
As we walked to the car, I called one of his caseworkers to ask what to do next. In response, I got the phone equivalent of a long, silent shoulder shrug. “What, exactly, do you mean?” they wanted to know. Um, like, what’s the procedure here? What do I do? What processes do you have in place to keep him safe and to help me, since—at that point, I didn’t know if I was positive or not?
But it turns out that 8 months into a pandemic, the foster care agency that licensed me didn’t have a protocol for responding when one of its kids contracted the deadly virus that has been ravaging the globe.
To be fair, all of the individuals I talked to were gracious and kind and supportive. But the system itself didn’t help. My employer and my grad school both responded with timely information, but no one seemed prepared to walk me through how to isolate and/or quarantine a traumatized 11-year-old afflicted with COVID.
I was scared for him. I was scared for me. I was scared for the people I had been around without knowing I was possibly contagious.
I had to give a presentation in my grad class that night, and as soon as I got through my talking points, I muted my microphone and wept. Lots of things about fostering are overwhelming, but this was a new mountain to climb, and I wasn’t sure I knew which way was up.
Plus, at that point, the barrage of phone calls had already started. His doctor. My doctor. The health department. The school. The agency. My licenser. His therapist. The school again. My work. The school a final time. His doctor once more. Someone from HR. This supervisor. That director. It was endless and exhausting and confusing. Should I isolate him? Should I just assume I’d get it, too? Was I willing to physically sacrifice myself like that? Which, I’ll be honest: is a really hard, shitty question to have to answer.
And somehow, in the midst of all the confusing chaos, I had to figure out how to explain this to a kid I just met who was terrified, sick, and had absolutely no reason to trust me.
This is the piece that has me fighting back rage. Real, deep, blood-boiling rage. I’d use a few choice words, but my mom reads my blog and she hates it when I swear. In short, he’s a child. Nothing about his situation is his fault. Not his trauma. Not his behaviors. Not his COVID diagnosis. None of it. So, when L asked me why he was sick, I had to look him in the eye and explain that someone else was too selfish to care. That some people think their freedom from (oversight, regulation, etc.) is more important than our collective freedom to (health, safety, etc.).
Those conversation leave me feeling beaten up and stomped on. It’s exhausting. It never gets easier. And it fills me with rage. Rage at people who pat me on the back for helping “these kids” but who, in a few short years, will have no problem labeling them as dangerous threats for not having normal coping skills. Rage that people so blatantly disregard the collective good. Rage at anyone who has the audacity to talk about the sanctity of life but won’t wear a god damn mask (sorry, Mom, it slipped) to keep others safe.
And who knows if I’ve managed any of it well. I’m not claiming to have done it all right. But a week and a half later and still deep in the throes of quarantine, here are a few things I do know:
- I can do hard things. Even things that, initially, bring me to my knees. I’ve always known this, of course. But I don’t mind when life reminds me.
- Trauma sucks.
- The resilience and strength of kids in foster care will never stop amazing me.
- I’m an advocate, and I won’t stop advocating for these kids. I found out that L had been in a situation where he was in multiple public spaces without a mask. Apparently, this is something the agency allows. The kid can’t go in the family room in my basement because there isn’t an egress window, but he can be placed in a home where people take him around town during a pandemic without protecting him—before bringing him back to my house and endangering me. I am determined to change that.
- If you’re going to buy a kid things like a drone, a drum pad, or a solar robot to occupy him when he can’t leave his room, you should probably just order two of each to stave off your own jealously when he gets to play with them and you don’t.
- I absolutely have the very best people in my life. We have gotten daily phone calls and texts from so many people checking in. Care packages of LEGOS and art supplies (for him). Whisky (for me). Food deliveries and gift cards. Friends who have dropped off everything from a TV and an Xbox to batteries and groceries and other odds and ends. People who’ve run random errands for me and visitors who have stopped by to say hi through the window. To everyone who has leaned in close and made it impossible to forget that we’re loved: thank you. It means everything to me to be supported by my community right now…and always.