When a Foster Placement Falls Through

The Initial Placement Call

We’d just finished our home study and were waiting to be officially licensed when I got a call early in the morning.

“Hey Sarah,” the voice on the other end was our family resource worker. 

“I just found out that a baby boy was born last night. His name is William. He has marijuana in his system but no other drugs I know of. He has no dad on his birth certificate, and his mom has already said she can’t care for him. I thought of you guys cause I know you want to adopt. Do you think you’d be interested in taking him?”

“Absolutely!” I responded way too quickly. 

Realizing moments after the words came out of my mouth that I should have said something like, “Let me talk to Micah about it.” Or at least asked one of the “20 questions you should ask before accepting a placement” I’d written down in my foster binder. 

But this just felt way too good to be true. And I didn’t want there to be any chance we’d miss out!

After trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for years, Micah and I had decided to pursue adoption. Initially, we’d been thinking domestic infant adoption, but after unforeseen changes in circumstances (thanks Covid) and talking to several friends who worked in Child Protective Services, we’d decided to foster first instead (here’s why, in hindsight, I think that was the wrong decision). 

We’d chosen to become what’s called an unrestricted foster home. This just means that we were working directly with the state and were licensed to take long-term placements of children within our chosen age range.

We were hoping that one of the placements we’d take would eventually turn into an adoptive situation, but I’d never dared hope that our very first placement would be a relatively healthy newborn whose case was most likely going to progress toward adoption. 

I felt like we’d won the lottery!

“I’m going to try to push the rest of your paperwork through as quick as possible, since technically you guys aren’t licensed yet,” our resource worker continued, bringing me back to reality.

“I’m pretty sure your file’s sitting on our director’s desk; she’s just been so swamped with all the removals we’ve had lately. But I’m hoping that, in light of this situation, we can get everything squared away before William gets released from the hospital in the next couple days.”

Our resource worker promised to be in touch. And I thanked her, hung up the phone, and then ran upstairs to tell Micah the news.

What I Did Wrong

Basically, everything I did from the moment I got that call onward, I’d do very differently now. 

Because I now know that when it comes to working with the system, NOTHING is a reality until it has literally already happened.

A placement is only a placement once that child is physically in your home.

And even then, that placement’s expected path can change at any moment, a million different times, and in a million different ways. 

I had heard this from several people before we started fostering. But the fact that William’s placement was everything I’d dreamed of clouded my judgment. After 3 years of struggling with infertility, it just seemed like the universe had had pity on me, and I completely accepted its generosity!

Looking back, if I had it all to do over again… 

Here are the things I would have done differently:

  1. I wouldn’t have considered that placement a done deal after the first phone call. 

    When I got that call, so much was still unknown about William’s case, and on top of that, we weren’t even licensed yet. I should have have proceeded with caution, mentally and emotionally holding the placement in open hands, instead of getting my hopes up and setting myself up for disappointment.

  2. I wouldn’t have bought or collected any newborn supplies until we’d been called to pick William up from the hospital. 

    Diapers and formula can be collected on the way, and everything else can be gathered throughout the following days. I understand wanting to be prepared. I am a planner and a prepper to my core. But the truth is that these kids are coming from very little and having to do without the full benefit of your prepping capabilities for a few days if their placement materializes isn’t going to phase them in the least. Whatever you do, just don’t start outfitting your home soup to nuts the moment you hang up the phone! That’s what I did, and I ended up with a lot of baby supplies that still are unused.

  3. I wouldn’t have canceled plans and shifted my schedule around so I’d be ready to pick up William at a moment’s notice. 

    Instead, I would have soaked up time with family and friends, knowing that either we’d get the placement and then have less time for them after, or we wouldn’t, and I’d be glad to have had their support.

  4. Most importantly, I would have spent time journaling and processing my feelings about the potential placement. 

    Getting my mind and heart ready for either a placement or a disappointment was so much more important than reading 3 parenting books in 3 days and buying out Baby’s-R-Us. And it definitely would have been a better use of my time than waiting by the phone when my obsessive prep was finished!

The Placement Falls Through

We’d gotten the first call about William on a Tuesday. 

And I’d been confident we’d have a baby in our home by Friday at the latest. 

When Friday morning came, and still nothing had happened, I shot our resource worker a text asking if there was any update. 

That’s when things started unraveling. 

She told us that her director still hadn’t had time to give the final approval to our licensing, and there wasn’t really a rush anymore because they’d found a short-term foster home willing to take William in the meantime.

She reassured me that the plan was still for him to be placed with us as soon as we were licensed. 

And I tried to be gracious as I reiterated that we’d really like to be placed with him and to please let me know if there was anything I could do to help speed up the licensing process. She assured me she would, and truly our case worker (whom I absolutely adore) did everything in her power to make the placement happen. 

But, in the end, our approval didn’t come for another 2+ weeks, and by the time it did, the short-term home William had been placed with had fallen in love with him and decided to transition to long-term care so that they could keep him in hopes of adopting him themselves.

To say that I was devastated would be an understatement.

It felt like I’d been offered the greatest gift ever – the improbable, perfect adoptive foster placement – only to have it snatched away. 

And my waiting-for-3-years, desperate-to-be-a-mom heart was crushed.

What I Learned 

In the almost year since that placement fell through, I’ve learned a lot about working with DCF and gained a whole new perspective on expectations, surrounding placements and every other step of the fostering process.

I now understand that anything and everything can (and probably will) change. 

I now know the importance of remaining present and holding expectations extremely loosely. 

I now know how hard it is to have a placement fall through. Understanding the system better doesn’t change how that feels; it just changes how I care for myself through that process.

But the most important thing I’ve learned undoubtedly is…

that I don’t know shit!

I don’t know what is good and what is bad. 

I can’t see the future. 

In William’s case, I didn’t know what was best for him, for Micah and I, for the family he went to, or for the little girl we were placed with a couple weeks later.

I knew what I wanted in the moment, but big picture, I didn’t know what was truly best.

One of my favorite stories is a Chinese proverb that reminds me of this truth: 

Once upon a time, there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” 

The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening, everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” 

The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again, all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

Alan Watts, Lecture on Zen, 1960

“Maybe” and “Yet” are the most important words to keep in mind when a placement falls through.

Maybe missing out on this placement was actually the best thing that could have happened to you.

Because though you haven’t received the child you’re waiting for yet, that doesn’t mean that the perfect placement for you isn’t right around the corner. 

The child you were meant to love, help, equip, heal, and empower.

The child that will allow you to grow and learn the most.

Maybe the child that isn’t in your home yet is actually the placement you’ve been dreaming of, not the one that just fell through.

Welcome to Inkwell Heart

This is where buried feelings find expression.

Where the dreams we labeled unrealistic are chased anyway.

Where we embrace new-mom-life with arms wide open,

while aspiring to personal greatness in the midst the everyday shuffle.