For just a day, I’m a foster kid

I’m a 2-year-old girl with big brown eyes and curly hair filled with lice.

I had been sent home from daycare several times because of my poor hygiene. The daycare called my mom — again — and when she didn’t show up on time, the daycare workers called the child abuse and neglect hotline. My mom never arrived that day and I wound up in the foster care system.

This is where my experience in foster care began.

I, along with about 20 politicians and community leaders, spent Friday morning participating in the Journey Home foster care simulation, hosted by Foster Adopt Connect (formerly Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association). The simulation was designed to give the group a “tour of child welfare though the eyes of the child.”

Our journey lasted four hours. For most kids, it takes about three years to find a permanent home.

Before the tour began, we were given black trash bags.

The reporter in me — not the 2-year old I had been assigned —  knew what it was for. I had recently interviewed a former foster kid who told me about the black trash bags.

“I have to pack up everything I own into trash bags and put it in the back of someone’s car and I’m off to the next place. It sucks,” she said. “It really makes you feel useless, like a piece of trash. That is what trash bags are for.”

I stared at the bag, trying to imagine what it’s like for a child to pack “what’s important” into a trash bag and leave the rest behind.

Leave your toys. Leave your pets. Leave your home. Leave your family. Leave the abuse. Leave the neglect.

In addition to the trash bag, we were given a small card. On one side was the face of a child; on the other we found our child’s story.

For the day, we were supposed to be that child.

We started at Ozarks Community Hospital, where many of these cases begin.

Carrie Richardson, chief operations officer, explained the protocol when a child has been removed from the home.

“Every child that comes into care is required to have a physical exam,” Richards said. “Imagine what it’s like for a kid to go to the hospital without family.”

In addition to physical exams, when kids come from a drug home, they are bathed, given new clothes and toxicology tests.

We boarded the bus and headed to the Child Advocacy Center, where children are examined and interviewed for the purpose of a criminal investigation and possibly a trial that might not happen for a couple of years. The interviews are recorded so the child doesn’t have to tell the story over and over to law enforcement, to children’s division workers or to prosecutors.