Being a foster parent has not been easy. You get a phone call and hours later a child arrives, along with, if funds permit, a $200 Target gift card.

In our case, “Bear” arrived with a sweatshirt and a bottle of children’s Tylenol. Even the car seat was a loaner from the Department of Health and Human Services, and they took it with them. The social worker stayed for 10 minutes and had no information on what formula Bear liked, his last doctor’s appointment or how long he might stay. They were not even sure how to spell or pronounce his name. He was asleep. It was a very typical foster child dropoff.

Having previously been a foster parent to four other children under the age of 1, I did what any grown adult will if they can — I called Mom. We assessed the situation, took turns fawning over the babe and struggled to get through Target with the basics: food, car seat, clothes and diapers. We then put together a makeshift bedroom at 10 at night and realized that all of the clothes we’d just bought were the wrong size.

Then the first night began. The first night is always hard. The first night, babies miss their mamas, dads, grandmas and siblings. They cry out pet names of people I do not know. The first night, the depth of their cry pierces my heart. The first night, I hold them and weep with them and pray to whatever existential entities may be out there to please make it safe for them to go home. I pray to make their family strong because I know somewhere out there, someone is crying for this baby, too. Then my husband and I take turns all night in the baby’s room, comforting them to sleep and watching them breathe.

Inevitably, morning comes. After an average night’s sleep for people parenting an infant, Ben and I realize we have full-time jobs and no child care. We compare calendars and commitments. We negotiate days off with employers. We make phone calls. We call pediatricians, child care facilities and the DHHS. We attempt to piece together any information we can. Our employers are hesitant to give us our federal parental leave, and our family, friends and colleagues think we are crazy and headed for a heartbreak.

I had many assumptions about foster care before I became a foster parent. Ten years prior to Bear’s arrival I was in my office at work one morning, setting up appointments with adoption agencies. Ben and I had been given a definitive infertility diagnosis and, as they say, the clock was ticking.

A colleague came into my office and asked me for a minute. She had just completed her master’s degree and was smart, beautiful and articulate — the type of woman I always wanted on my team. She closed the door and told me she’d grown up in foster care and was never adopted. She told me that nothing is wrong with the kids in care and I would be foolish not to look into it. She told me that there were more kids like her than not, that they are there right now, waiting for people like me. She’d waited for people like me, but they never came.

I have met and talked to many people about foster care over the past 10 years: birth families, child protective workers, lawyers and foster parents, lots and lots of foster parents like me. Everyone was in agreement — something is very wrong with “the system.” We still live in a world where foster care and foster parents are demonized, birth families losing children are not allowed to grieve and adoption is a regular punchline in popular culture.

I don’t know how to fix “the system.” I just know I can’t walk away while roughly 1,800 foster kids try to negotiate a reality that few adults could survive.

So, a group of families with a desire to do something (though they’re not sure what) have organized a grass-roots group called Childhood Won’t Wait. We’ve invited people in foster care and people from some of our favorite programs to join us at the Hall of Flags in Augusta on Wednesday. We will be bringing a valentine for every kid in care to the Legislature, to be displayed in the hall (that’s a lot of valentines). We will be there from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. We want to answer your questions, share our resources, start talking about your assumptions and maybe — just maybe — get a few kiddos (maybe even yours) home.

Leah Bruns is a foster parent and a resident of South Portland.

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