My son glances over at me, triggered and nervous, as we pull our masks over our faces and walk towards the entrance of the doctor's office. "Mom, remember when we had to come here like, all the time?"
A shiver, not from the icy winter day but from the remembering, runs up the back of my neck. Catching up on over a decade of inadequate healthcare, of no healthcare at all really. Hospital social workers at every appointment demanding to talk to him without me there with the door closed, taking extra precautions with the "foster kid". Extra copies of aftercare paperwork scanned and emailed to a whole team of people. An already stressed teenager begging in the car after school, not another appointment mom, I'm so hungry and so tired and I just want to go home.
I crinkle my eyes at him, a masked smile, and say "Don't worry. Today is just a checkup, your last one before you turn 18!" He smiles back, trusting me to know what to do, to know when to schedule the checkup and how to transfer the insurance and the primary care stuff to an adult clinic, how to wrap up all the healthcare loose ends and set him on a path for health and wellness as an adult. How to calm him on triggering days like today and support him in getting through it. As his mother, it's my job.
All the big people in our family (my partner, our oldest son, and me) hunch over my partner's laptop, our unalike faces united in an identical forehead wrinkling frown of concentration. The student visa application for our son's study abroad program next year is taking all of our combined brainpower to complete. The guys take his immigration photo and upload it, checking that it's the correct file size while I review the pdf forms over and over again for errors. We high five after submitting, a multi-week team effort finally done, a satisfying check mark on his college to do list. I look over at his relieved face, so excited for a bright future, and I think of the ones who have no parents to hunch over the computer screen and make sense of the baffling forms.
Who have to do it alone, ALL alone.
My son needs to complete an extension program to check off his last graduation requirement. Two days a week at the school, 4 hour sessions. He needs rides there and back, clean masks at the ready, and an encouraging listener when he gets picked up at the end of a long afternoon, a mom to pat his back and buy him Popeyes or McDonald's and listen to his play by play of the class and the practice test he took. A mom to practice the exam he has to take with him at home as well. I drive the long drives and console and buy the fast food and help with the practice tests and all the while I think: What if I wasn't here? What if no one was here to do these things for him?
A couple of years and what feels like a lifetime ago, our CASA sits at our kitchen table and explains to me that even though a safe reunification was no longer possible, it was unlikely that our oldest son would have the option to be adopted. She shrugs her shoulders, a kind lady but one who has unfortunately accepted the unfairness of the child welfare system as finite and unchangeable. They'll think he's too old, she tells me sadly, and that he wouldn't have any adoptive options, they'll probably recommend long term foster care. It's just what they do with older teens; there's so many in the system and nobody wants them.
She says it just like that, matter of fact, like she's telling me the weather. Nobody wants them.
My son sits across the table from me, eyes wide and scared at her words. Adoption has been his preferred escape route since I met him, his perceived ticket to a different life. And while I know that no label would change our commitment to him, which is lifelong no matter what happens, I also know that he needs and wants this permanency so that he can finally rest and not constantly live in the fear of what-ifs.
I look at the CASA and tell her, matching her even no-nonsense tone, that we will simply have to talk to the judge and make him understand that things are different for this older teen. He craves the permanency of adoption, hates being part of the system and wants out, and besides, somebody definitely wants him.
The fight doesn't end that day. I have to send emails and write a letter to the judge. Our son speaks to them as well, shoulders of an almost-man looking suddenly so small to me as he walks into that big echoey court room all alone, turning to glance at me in sheer panic before the heavy doors shut behind him. An encouraging smile on my face masks the fear in my heart. It's a fight that we fight together, and a few months later he gets his wish and becomes a Flynn on paper.
Nobody wants them, she said.
What about the ones who have nobody? What about the ones with no one to write the letter and speak to the judge on their behalf and make sure their wishes are heard, truly heard, in court? What about the ones with no one to drive to the tutoring sessions and comfort them through the doctor's appointments?
What will they do when that 18th birthday comes and the bare minimum provided by the state is yanked out from under them?
It's a harsh phrase and at its core it's inaccurate and yet the question must be asked: What about the ones nobody wants?
What about the ones who are thought of as too old, too intimidating, too difficult? Who are labeled hard to place, un-adoptable, too old to need a family?
Our son is about to turn 18, and his need for his parents won't suddenly expire on that day. If anything, he has needed us more during this pivotal time than he ever did before. Not every teen in foster care needs or wants to be adopted, but they ALL need a committed and stable family to walk them through their adolescent years and beyond. Someone to fill out the forms and schedule the appointments and make the transition into adult life an exciting challenge rather than a terrifying maize.
Many foster families (and many adoptive families for that matter) turn their backs on children ages 13 +, refusing for a multitude of (mainly ignorant) reasons to even consider them. They are the age group most prevalent in the foster care system, and the age group least likely to be welcomed into homes. I've never been good at math but even I can tell that that equation is unbalanced.
If you're curious about being part of the tail end of somebody's childhood, if you're a lover of learning new things and have a sense of humor, if you're brave and care more about doing what is right than you do about getting everything right, then you should consider parenting an older child in need of a home.
Because age is just a number and "un-adoptable" and "hard to place" are not phrases that should ever be used to describe human beings.
To this not-so-little boy, now almost a man:
Thank you for choosing to be my son despite the many ways I fall short as a mom.
Thank you for smashing my what-ifs and stupid fears about parenting a teen into a million pieces.
I love you always. Age is just a number.