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A foster parent reflects on loving — and letting go of — the children in his care

Mark Daley is the founder of <a href="https://thefosterparent.com/">The Foster Parent</a>, a national platform to connect interested families with foster organizations.
Mark Daugherty
Simon & Schuster
Mark Daley is the founder of The Foster Parent, a national platform to connect interested families with foster organizations.

When Mark Daley and his husband, Jason, became foster parents to two brothers, they fell in love with the children right away. He says the boys, ages 3 months and 13 months, thrived in their care.

Daley and his husband lived with the uncertainty that their family could change at any moment. Several months into the foster arrangement, the boys' birth parents decided to initiate court proceedings in an effort to reunify their family.

"In foster care, the goal is always reunification," Daley says. "And it should be. I really, wholeheartedly believe that."

But Daley also felt torn; he worried about returning the boys to their birth parents, who were dealing with mental health and addiction issues, and who, he feared, might be unable to meet their needs.

"The last thing I'd ever want to do is make my family on the back of another family," he says. "[Realizing] that for my family to stay together meant that another family had to break apart."

Eventually, the court of appeals re-evaluated the case, and sent the boys back to their biological parents. In his new memoir, Safe: A Memoir of Fatherhood, Foster Care, and the Risks We Take for Family, Daley writes about the foster care system at large, as well as the joy and pain he and Jason experienced as foster parents.

Daley is the founder of The Foster Parent, a national platform to connect interested families with foster organizations. He also founded One Iowa, the state's largest LGBTQ organization. He and Jason are now the parents of three adopted siblings.

Interview highlights

On the information he initially received from the foster agency about the two brothers who needed placement

When we first met with the social worker who came to our house, I wanted to ask a million questions, but ... just because you're caring for someone's children doesn't really give you courtside seats to their life. ... These people are obviously experiencing the most difficult time of their life, and you have to be respectful and mindful of that. But there was also a curiosity factor to it, of course. But even more than that, really was this idea that if the children had been exposed to anything, I wanted to make sure that I could get them any specialized help or care that they needed.

/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

On living with uncertainty

I'm not a person who does well with the gray. I like to have certainty. ... You're sort of living at the mercy of whether or not the system decides they're staying or going. There were certain things the parents did where they were having real successes. And you would have to be a heartless individual to not root them on when they're having those. And we certainly were supportive in that sense, but there are other things that you would experience when you were with them that you were like, "Oh gosh, I just don't know that if they go home, they're going to be safe." And it was a really difficult challenge. Plus, the moment you see these babies, you fall in love. That's just what happens.

On whether foster parents see their arrangement as permanent or temporary

I think that there is definitely a divide there. I hope that we are able to attract more people who see it as temporary: I'm helping a family going through a really difficult position. But that being said, not all kids do reunify. And so we do need families that are willing to open their homes and lives to a child in need. ...

One of the major pushes in the system is to try to keep kids within their family. And I think what they find is that children who are moved to an aunt and uncle, a grandparent, they tend to have fewer moves. And also just from a trauma standpoint, the idea of being removed from your family and your school and moving into a stranger's home is just traumatic. Where if you're going to stay with your aunt or uncle, it's not as traumatic, in that sense.

On dysfunction within the foster care bureaucracy

We had a couple social workers who were just remarkable. ... They were very professional. ... They arrived when they told us they would be there. If they were running late, they called. All the paperwork was submitted on time. The things that we asked for, they got us answers to. And then we had one who wouldn't respond to emails or calls. One day she scheduled a visit at our house at the same time, she scheduled a visit with the biological parents. It's like, how are the kids going to be in two places at once?

On their grief after the kids were reunified with their biological parents

We lived in a house that had little boys running around making a ton of noise, and now it was just empty. And you could just hear the silence. It almost felt like the walls had sympathy for us. And we waited. ... They were so young. ... There were no teachers or doctors or nurses or anything they were coming in contact with regularly who would lodge any sort of complaint, and we obviously hoped that they would be OK.

On how he adopted his kids

A little over a year [after the brothers were reunified with their birth parents], I woke up to a text message from a friend of mine [that] said, I'm not sure you're ready for this, but my adoption worker was at the house today, and she has three kids that have just been assigned to her ... and they're available for adoption, if you're interested... And a few months later the kids moved in with us.

On being asked later to take the brothers back in — and deciding not to do it

Ten months after our children moved in with us, we got a call from the county that the boys and [their new] younger sister were now back in care. And would we consider taking them [all] in. ... So we would have gone from 3 to 6 kids. ... I think our initial reaction was, yes, OK, let's do this. ...

We talked to the social worker and the kids have been through a lot since they left our care. And the boys are much more aggressive than they were. And all I could think about is the children that we have adopted ... they're very petite and any sort of roughhousing would really hurt them. And I had to protect them. Would I be doing what was right for the other three kids, bringing them in, knowing that my attention would be divided amongst six children? All of them have their own needs and things that we need to take care of and the help that we need to get them, the therapy appointments, the doctor's appointments, the school, ... the fun stuff.

And not to mention they're in a situation now where they could still go back to their biological parents and we'd have to go through this again, but only this time ... if we [had] bonded as a large family...

On the complexity of the decision the courts have to make

It is not fair to compare what we have and what they, [the birth parents], have, right? I have been very fortunate to have grown up in a loving, working-class family. And I've been afforded opportunities that these parents have never had. I don't deal with the intergenerational trauma and the abuse that they've gone through and experienced or the mental health issues that they struggle with. We didn't start this with a level playing field. That being said, they should never prioritize folks like myself over families that can get it together and keep their child safe.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, Beth Novey and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.