May is National Foster Care Month. There are 463,000 children in foster care in the U.S. We’re honored to share Julie Cardamone’s story of becoming a foster mom to an toddler girl with no notice. Julie, who is a CX and Community Lead at Colugo, also shares resources to educate yourself and your kids about foster care and organizations to support.
We spent hours upon hours in training. We had dozens of strangers walk through our home, inspecting every inch of our physical home as well as every aspect of our lives, past and present. We did the research, but still - nothing can truly prepare you for the moment you receive a placement phone call. The following is a personal account of the rollercoaster that foster care took us on.
It was early on Sunday morning and we were getting the kids ready for church. My husband’s phone rang and he immediately gave me the look. It was a mere 30 seconds before he turned to me and said “1 ½-year-old little girl. She’s been at the police station all night. Yes, right?” I respond: “Of course.”
My wheels immediately begin turning to all the things we need to prepare for this little girl to arrive at our home within the next two hours. We were given absolutely no additional information (besides her name, which turned out to be incorrect), but we rallied and were ready to welcome her. Two workers walked in with a fragile, frightened little girl, who only came with the pjs she was wearing. After they saw that she was in good hands and had a bed to sleep in, they left. I asked my husband to take the other kids to church, so she wasn’t so overwhelmed with our normal household chaos.
For the first few hours, she didn’t speak a word. We gave her a baby doll, and she clung to it like it was the only safe thing she had in the world, because, to her, it was. It wasn’t until she got a bubble bath, fresh pjs, and we were playing with some stacking cups, that she began to talk - “7, 8, 9” - reading the numbers on the bottom of the cups. I immediately thought - this little girl is either a genius or older than a 1 ½. (We found out a few days later that we would actually be celebrating her 2nd birthday with her!). The next time she spoke was when the others returned from church and she called out my oldest daughter’s name, in excitement, that she had returned.
Besides a visit to the hospital for an initial medical assessment, the rest of the day was filled with playing and eating all the pasta and bananas we could serve! As long as we have the basics in place, we try not to worry about any of the logistics that first day. We knew that the next few days would be filled with phone calls and emails, setting up doctor appointments and visits with all caseworkers, but that first day is all about welcoming the child.
Then bedtime came. A bedtime that still breaks my heart, thinking about the trauma she was living through, right in my arms. No one was able to tell us if she was used to sleeping in a big girl bed or crib, so we opted for a crib - right next to our bed so I could be there if she needed me. She went down easily. It wasn’t until she had been sleeping for a few hours that the terrors began. It began with simple cries, but quickly turned into uncontrollable sobs and then wails of agony, unable to lay down as her little voice screamed out in pleas. Pleas for the images of the previous night’s events to leave. Because I was clueless as to the reason for her removal and placement with us, I was learning, directly from her, the horrifying reality. This went on the rest of the night. Though there was absolutely nothing I could do to make it stop for her, I just held her. I didn’t want her to feel like she was alone.
(The nighttime terrors went on for a few weeks. Gradually becoming less and less each night. Until she didn’t need to be held in the middle of the night. Until she finally felt safe with us. We knew we provided her safety from day one, but until a child feels safe, their behaviors won’t reflect that.)
The next morning, life outside continued on like a normal Monday morning. I was lucky enough to have just started with Colugo, so I explained the situation to the founders and they immediately said to take whatever time I needed to get settled. Once the others had left for work and school, it was just the two of us. Two very tired girls. One who spent some much-deserved time dozing off on the couch while she watched Elmo and one who drank way too much coffee in an attempt to handle all the logistics that come with a placement.
The following days, weeks, and months were filled with doctors’ appointments, therapy sessions - for both her and I separately, visitations with her birth parents, and an endless number of worker visits. But it was also filled with beach picnics, backyard bubble parties, and movie nights - oh, and lots of pasta!
This little girl taught us more throughout her time here with us than any training could ever come close to teaching us. I took a hands-on crash course in trauma parenting and while at the time I felt like I was failing, she showed me differently.
See, her story ends happily. The system’s purpose and goal were reached. She was reunified with her family. And on the morning she left our home - as we drove out of our driveway, I heard her little voice behind me, saying our family’s daily mantra: “You are brave. You are strong. You are smart. And you are loved.” She had never before participated in saying it out loud. She would quietly watch, all those months, as we would say it each morning. But that morning - that morning when my heart was feeling all the emotions - excitement for her and her family, sadness for the grief I would surely be processing - she showed me that my efforts had been worth it. That she was listening, feeling, accepting my love.
Yes, foster care is a rollercoaster. Yes, those first 24 hours are a complete whirlwind as you navigate being a parent to a stranger. But still - we answer the calls. We answer because that child doesn’t have a choice. They weren’t asked if they wanted to be on this rollercoaster. And if we can provide them with a small sense of stability and safety - we will.
If you can’t foster, mentor.
If you can’t mentor, volunteer.
If you can’t volunteer, donate.
If you can’t donate, educate.
We can all do something to ensure every child is reached.
Organizations that support children in foster care and their resource families:
Small Businesses that give back and support those in foster care:
Books for Kids:
These books are great for both kids in foster care and also a great tool to educate children not directly associated with the foster care system.
Books for Adults:
These are great books for adults that want to be more trauma-informed.
This final book is a fantastic resource for understanding the basics of foster care and adoption.