I smiled when I saw this question from Liz. It reminded me of our Home Study application, which asked, “How do you think adopting will effect how much money you have?” To which I snarkily replied, “We’ll have the same amount of money. We’ll just spend it differently.”
That’s both the whole answer and entirely unhelpful.
We’ve had two very different experiences in terms of where we were financially when we entered the foster care/adoption world, and let’s be honest: when it comes to finances, context is everything. When Princess Peach came to live with us, we were in a tough place, living paycheck to paycheck. Later, when the Cherubs came, we had more breathing room.
I’ll tell both stories (one today, one in the next post), because in both situations, figuring out our new financial reality was like trying to stack cats: there was always some moving part that made the whole thing feel unstable. And yet somehow it all worked out.
The first time we entered the foster care world, we were pretty sure we’d be kicked right back out once DCF saw our apartment. We were grateful to HAVE an apartment (more on that in a minute) But the building was missing half its siding, and there were stacks of scrap metal all over the yard. There was a skunk that lived under a shed, a gigantic opossum that lived under a pile of ladders, and pigeons from all over the region perched at the front door. Then there were the piles of food scraps our landlord chucked out into the driveway to feed this wild menagerie. (And once you’ve seen a pigeon eat a chicken wing and then get devoured by a hawk, you never look at the circle of life the same way again…) Things were better on the inside. Even though there was only one bathroom and it was off the kitchen such that you could practically cook dinner while taking a shower…it was fine. It was clean. It had three bedrooms. It was just best not to look out the window, because who knew what you might see?
As you might have guessed, we were struggling a bit financially. We’d moved into that apartment after a fiasco where we relocated to New York to join the staff of a church. We now refer to that brief time as “The year we summered in the Finger Lakes Region,” because we were back in Cambridge after just four months, only without jobs or a place to live. We were grateful for the apartment. And for the dear mentor of Steve’s who rented it to us without a security deposit…and then let us move a 3 year old in overhead. (He called her “Happy Feet.”)
We were surprised to discover that every person from the state government who came to survey our humble abode agreed that Princess Peach had landed in rather fine accommodations. Multiple DCF Social Workers, Princess Peach’s attorneys, her probation officer (yes, a child of three can have a probation officer. DCF had such a bad track record making sure kids were receiving minimally adequate care, the probation department checked up on their placements for the court). No one raised an eyebrow. This was a relief to us, but a bit depressing that this was considered high-level in this world.
Like most foster care transitions, Princess Peach came to live with us abruptly, with pretty much just the clothes on her back. I almost cried when her preschool told me I was supposed to leave two full backup outfits there in case she had an accident. Those first couple of weeks, I barely had enough clothes to get through all seven days.
I can’t tell you how much our family & friends came through for us. My mom took me shopping at Carter’s. My sister sent boxes of things my niece had outgrown. Friends left bags of used clothes on our doorstep. Those saved us. Because after we bought essentials – underwear, socks,etc. – and with the addition of Pull-Ups to our weekly budget, we were right at the edge. (I can’t tell you how much we spent on Pull-Ups. But I can tell you that kids who’ve been through trauma have a hard time holding it through the night.)
The other problem was that we didn’t have a washing machine.
Well, we did. But there was no hook up in our apartment, so when we moved back to Cambridge we donated it to the church. I thought maybe I’d do laundry there since I was often on site running classes and volunteering, but that never quite worked out. So I saved our quarters and took our basic laundry to the laundromat once a week or so. But Thank God for Steve’s parents, who lived three doors away and let us wash Princess Peach’s bedding almost every day. (She had accidents almost nightly, and Pull-ups only hold so much.) I don’t know how we would have done it without them.
Are you catching the It takes a village vibe here? It’s for real.
Another huge benefit to foster care is that daycare/preschool is often covered. They have vouchers at various providers and can help with placement. I naively thought I’d have some choice in this because Cambridge has so many preschools. Nope. I simply received a call one day from a place in Somerville (the next town over), asking me to come in at my convenience to complete her enrollment.
When I first saw the facility, I was horrified. It was an old brick building with wire mesh in the widow glass. The kids had to walk six blocks through traffic to get to a playground. It was even worse inside – dark, musty and shabby, like an abandoned government building from the 1970s. I called my social worker and said, “Are there other options?” To which she sweetly replied, “Well if that placement doesn’t work, you can apply for a $50/week subsidy to cover alternative child care!” So in we went to the grim brick house of doom. I prayed that Princess Peach wouldn’t see the parallels I saw between this place and Miss Trunchbull’s school in Matilda.
A week later, I loved that school, and those teachers, like they’d been hand selected for Princess Peach by God Himself. Yes, the setting was grim. But the teachers who worked in that building ran that place like a haven of calm caring order. No matter what time of the day I came to pick her up (Princess Peach was in the custody of a particularly chaotic DCF office, and her social worker always seemed one half step away from complete breakdown, so she had appointments and visits and meetings at all different times of day) I never once walked in on anything but purposeful, directed play and learning. It was incredible.
Princess Peach was so happy there! She had a best friend, along with a posse of other buddies. She made huge strides in every area (she didn’t even know her letters when she came to live with us), and came home each afternoon singing and telling me funny stories of things that had happened. There were students from Tufts who taught the kids reading, and the kind of true diversity folks were paying thousands for at fancy schools on the other side of the city. All that to say, if you use a daycare placement from DCF and it looks unthinkably grim? Give the people inside a shot, because they’re the ones who set the real atmosphere of the place. That school was such a bright spot for us.
Okay, back to finances. Having Princess Peach in preschool should have made it possible for me to have a job. But there were so many appointments due to the chaos in this case that there was no way I could have held any sort of a scheduled employment. I don’t think that’s the norm, though. We made the mistake of offering to help with some of the transportation, in the hopes we could develop some sort of partnership with the DCF office. This actually made things worse. I suspect that Princess Peach would have had a much more stable schedule if we’d left transportation to them and stayed out of it.
The good news was that we didn’t have to pay for any of those appointments. Children in foster care are covered 100% under Mass Health, and that includes medical, dental & mental health. (This coverage remains even after adoption and continues through their childhood.)
So the the primary specific expenses for Princess Peach were clothes, Pull-ups (all praise to God for the Market Basket brand, which were just as good as the others at 2/3 the price), a car seat (we bought one at Target. I don’t know if we got a good deal or not), gas (there was so much driving. We put thousands of miles on the car that year, just driving to meetings and appointments.)
She was worth every penny.
Things that cost less than they might have: Furniture (We saved hundreds here by accepting hand me downs from my family. Which worked out doubly well, because old furniture made of real wood withstands temper tantrums better than new fiberboard) and Toys (I thought this would be a big expense but it wasn’t. Princess Peach is an artist, so we set up a little table handed down from my brother to my sister to me, with boxes of crayons, markers & colored pencils. That and a stack of paper were really all she needed. Most of her other toys came as gifts.)
We lived on Steve’s salary which was enough to cover our bills if we kept things tight, and the foster care stipend we got from the state, which covered Pull Ups. (A slight exaggeration, but not much). As the foster parent of a young child, we received just under $19/day to cover expenses. There was a quarterly clothing allowance (about $100), along with $50 for Christmas and her birthday. I could have made more than that working two hours a day at any minimum wage job, but I won’t lie, it helped.
All told, it wasn’t that expensive. It was just stressful because we had no margin. But millions of families live this way. It just required us to develop some different skills. And let’s be honest – taking a three year old out to dinner and calling it a date is like walking your dog around the block and calling it a safari; it’s not like we were having expensive nights out. So this was entirely doable. Had we had a better experience with the legal side of the case, I actually don’t think the financial piece would have been stressful at all. Again, so much of talking finance is talking context.
And the good news is, had we been able to adopt her, there would have been be no costs associated with that at all. When a child is free for adoption, the state covers all the costs – lawyers, court fees, everything. So if you don’t get into a nasty tangle with a completely dysfunctional DCF office, you can do foster care and adoption even on a tight budget.