Meet the Czech-US couple who’ve fostered 12 babies in 12 years

Rob and Eva McLean

In the past 12 years Eva and Rob McLean, who live just outside Prague, have fostered no fewer than 12 children. All of them were new-borns who stayed with the pair for a year. What motivates them to devote so much care to often traumatised infants? How do their own sons feel about sharing their lives and home with a succession of babies? And how hard is it to give the children up after 12 months? I discussed these questions and much more with the Czech-American couple.

What prompted you to begin fostering? How many years ago was that?

Rob: “I guess we started 12 years ago. About a year before that, when our kids were, I think, about seven and nine, we were thinking, Is our family complete right now?

“I suggested that we could adopt a child and Eva was completely into that, had no problem with that, though she was more interested I think in temporary foster care, which is something I’d never heard of.

“The state basically has one year to decide what’s going to happen with the baby.”

“In any case, we started the training for it. A lot of the training for adoptive care, for foster care and for temporary foster care happens at the same time, and I guess the more I found out about foster care, and the more I saw couples who wanted to have kids and couldn’t, the more I started thinking, Well, what about these kids who can’t be adopted?

“That’s how we ended up getting into foster care, which I guess is what Eva really wanted from the beginning.”

Eva, why was that your choice, ahead of adopting a child for good?

Eva: “It’s very hard for parents in the Czech Republic who already have biological children to adopt.

“Because not so many children are available for adoption and there are thousands and thousands of kids who are in the system and cannot be adopted, but they need a place to live and they cannot live with their biological families.

“So the state is always looking for parents who can foster children.”

Is it the case that it’s more or less your job, being a foster parent?

Eva: “It definitely is for temporary foster parents, because they do what we call emergency care, when you really need to stay at home with the baby 24 hours a day and be available for the baby.

“So I cannot imagine the mother having another job.”

I presume you would get paid more if you did a different kind of job. Is your family taking a financial hit, so to speak, for you doing this good thing for society?

Eva: “Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. We do have some financial support from the state, but also we have to buy equipment for the babies. Sometimes you can hand down things; with every child you have in temporary foster care you don’t buy all the equipment.

“But I say, It’s like if you wanted to be a nurse and they made you buy a bed for a patient.

“Yes, you have to buy equipment for the baby, so it’s costing your family to become a foster parent.”

Illustration photo: Czech Television

You began as long-term foster parents and now you’re short-term ones. How long do you typically have a child?

Rob: “You mentioned we were foster parents first. It’s because when we first went into we took in a child and the state said, You will now be the permanent foster parents for this child.

“But it turned out that the biological mother of this little girl, who was just about two years old, eventually got her life back together, or created the conditions necessary for the child to go back to her.

“So the state ended up saying we were going to have to give the child back to the biological parents.

“With temporary care you’re only supposed to have the child for about a year at the most.

“Typically Eva will get a call a couple of days ahead of time asking her to go into the hospital, where a baby has been born recently. She then goes in and takes the baby home.

“The state basically then has one year to decide what’s going to happen with the baby: it could go back to the biological parents, it could be made available for adoption, or else, if that’s not possible, he will then be assigned to go into permanent foster care.

“The state has one year, officially, to find the answer to that question. It doesn’t always work out exactly like that, but for the most part it’s quite close.”

What age do the children who you foster tend to be?

Eva: “We only foster for new-borns. It was our decision to do so, because when we started our children, our boys, were still quite small.

“Even the new-borns are basically traumatised kids, because they were taken from the biological mom.”

“We didn’t want to bring a child who’d be older, so we asked for new-borns.

“Foster care is for every age, from zero to 18 years old, but for short-term foster care we only have new-borns.”

Who are these kids, anyway? Are they from socially deprived backgrounds, or something like that?

Rob: “There are a lot of different cases. There are instances where the parents perhaps don’t have the mental facility, basically, to responsibly take care of a child.

“There are cases – I don’t think we’ve ever had one – in which the parents simply don’t have enough money. But there are some that are essentially homeless.

“There’s also drug use. That’s sometimes an issue and the state says that’s not an appropriate environment for a child, for a baby, to live in.”

Are some of these babies in some sense traumatised? If so, how do you deal with that?

Eva: “Even the new-borns are basically traumatised kids, because they were taken from the biological mom, if the biological mom didn’t have the right equipment... if she didn’t give the baby the right environment in her pregnancy.”

Rob: “It’s sort of an initial trauma of being taken away from, or separated from, the biological mother.

“At the time the mother may have been abusing some kind of substances. And also psychologists will say if you’re taken away from your biological mother that, in itself, is sort of a trauma.

“Every single day the baby sees the same faces and has the closest thing to a normal first 12 months of their lives as is possible.”

“But that’s the whole point of this temporary foster care: without it the state would not be able to send them back to the biological parents – but it’s way too early to say that the child can be adopted.

“That process of making that decision takes a while, so rather than put the baby into some orphanage where he will be taken care of by a series of nurses over a year, to reduce that trauma the baby wakes up, for example, every single day, sees the same faces and has the closest thing to a normal first 12 months of their lives as is possible.”

How is that trauma seen? What is it about the child’s behaviour that shows you that they’re traumatised?

Eva: “It could be that the children cry more than babies that are born to biological moms who love them from the first moment they see the baby.

“So these babies can be more fussy, crying more, and it could be that they are deprived.”

Rob: “I think it’s fair to say that it’s hard to know exactly. Because some babies are simply fussier; some babies cry more.

“Without temporary foster care the state would not be able to send them back to the biological parents – but it’s way too early to say that the child can be adopted.”

“But it seems logical that there would be something there and I suppose you wouldn’t really know until you’ve studied a big number of them after 10 or 15 years: how did they end up doing.

“In any case, I think there’s no question that they’re going to do better than if they spent the first two or three years of their lives in some anonymous institution, because that’s been proven to cause permanent types of damage or trauma to the child.”

You have two sons of your own, who I guess are both around 20 now. When they were younger, how did they feel about having to share their family, their home, with this series of outsider kids coming in?

Eva: “As we said, we didn’t start as a foster family. We took a little girl that we thought would live with us till the age of 18, so they were very, very excited to welcome their new sibling at home.

“It turned out differently. It was very sad and we had to talk about it with them a lot and explain why it is better for the girl to go back to her biological family.

Illustration photo: StockSnap,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“Just by explaining things… at the time they were 10, nine, so as they could comprehend you would explain things.

“We asked them whether we could bring them another baby. And of course if you do it with love and understanding, then they understand why it is important and why it makes sense to do things like that.”

Rob: “I think it’s probably like a lot of siblings, when they find out they’re going to have a little brother or sister it can’t be much different: they’re excited, they’re maybe a little bit jealous.

“We had boys and we were taking on a little girl and maybe they thought, Well, at least she won’t want our toys [laughs].

“I think they took it very naturally. Eva’s right – we tried to explain very carefully, so they would understand what was happening.”

Things like night feeding probably are easier in your twenties or thirties than in your fifties. Do you ever think you’re getting old to look after babies?

Eva: “[Laughs] We do now, because we spent the last 12 years of taking care of little babies. And, yes, we are a little bit sleep-deprived.

“But you get used it. It’s just like going to work at night [laughs].

“But also I don’t have to get up in the morning and go to a different job. I stay at home and if I’m really tired from the night before I take it easy – I’m with the baby.

“So you always find a way around it, if you want. If it makes to you then you always find a way around it.”

Today, I believe, you have been handing over a child. Is that correct? And how does that work?

Eva: “We are currently in the process of handing our 12th baby. It’s going to happen on Tuesday. We know that already, because we’re planning ahead.

“We’ve been meeting her new family for weeks now. It started very slowly – every other day we would meet for two hours. And only when I know that the baby is well rested and would be in a good mood.

“Slowly you start introducing this new person into her life. Now we are in a little bit more intense period of time. We already know that the court agreed with the person and we would have the right stamp for it, and it would be permanent next week.

“So next week we have already planned the steps: On Tuesday it will the first time that she sleeps overnight at that new person’s place, alone.

“We’ve been doing all these steps gradually – it won’t be a stress for her.”

Illustratuion photo: Honza Ptáček,  Czech Radio

Rob: “The idea basically is that the baby starts getting used to this new person and starts seeing them more and more, and it becomes more of a natural thing to see the new parent.

“The hope is that then when she wakes up for the first time in this new environment, and sees this new person, it’s going to be almost like waking up from a dream.

“It’s something that should be as seamless as possible. So you go to bed one night and we will be there saying goodnight, or maybe even not, and then in the morning she’s simply in a new environment – and hopefully it will seem as normal as possible.”

Do you have information about what has happened with all the previous 11 kids that you looked after?

Eva: “We do, actually, yes. Those families are in contact with us. Some of them just send a picture once a year; some of them are in more regular contact.

“But we do know what happened to them, and how they’re doing.”

I guess the children don’t remember you at all, do they?

Eva: “They don’t. I would say that there’s always something where they know I’m close to them.

“Actually our first new-born had very, very serious health issues and she is mentally retarded. She wouldn’t like other people, but when I would come she would always come and give me cuddles.

“You feel more bonded with those kids than with different kids.”

“They know that they were always somewhere where they were loved and wanted.”

Rob: “I think part of that is their foster parents talk about their past. They talk about the fact that they’re not the biological parents but that as soon as they were born they went home to a family that loved them very much. They talk about us.

“They get pictures of themselves, but also with us, for example, so they know that they were always somewhere where they were loved and wanted.

“So I think part of the result is that since the foster parents do speak about us it’s more a more natural thing. And that adds to when we actually see them – it does feel like there is something a little bit special there.”

Obviously you’ve been through it a lot of times. But what’s it like giving them up? That’s the bit that I can’t understand – how you do it.

Rob: “I actually think the harder part is imagining it. A month beforehand, when you know which direction it’s going in, there’s a bit of sadness; I don’t know if it’s nostalgia.

“But honestly you just feel like you’re part of a really great story, something that’s great for the child.

“That being said, Eva is much better at the whole thing than I am. She’s a bit more pragmatic about it, I think.”

Eva: “I would say it’s not as hard if you know from the beginning that you’re going to do it. You’re there just to give the best of yourself to the baby, but you know it’s only for a limited period of time.

“And you actually need to be looking forward to the end of the story, when the permanent family will come and basically give the baby a future.

“I’m just a very small part, for a limited period of time, in the life of the baby. I always have to remind myself, I’m here for now and I need to be looking for the rest of this story.

“Yes, it’s not that it’s not sad, but you always need to be looking forward to something.

“So when I know that the year period is going to come I’ll start to looking forward to the break [laughs]. We know that we’ll probably get a month off and we could go on holiday, or I could go to a hairdresser without my husband taking care of the baby. We could go to a movie, or to the theatre.

“You’re there just to give the best of yourself to the baby, but you know it’s only for a limited period of time.”

“So you always need to keep looking forward to something nice. And also I know that there’s going to be another baby.

“That also helps, because there are always babies who need temporary foster care and that also helps – because you know that when you are without a baby, there’s always going to be another one that’s waiting for you.”

Rob: “I just do want to say that it’s not traumatic. It’s a bit sad and you worry about it a little bit, but once you hand over the baby you see how happy the baby is and how happy that new family is. It’s not a sad event.”

I hope this question is not too negative, but did you ever sense when you were handing over a child that the situation they was going into maybe wouldn’t be ideal for them?

Eva: “Yes. You don’t always find a family with the same lifestyle as you and sometimes you doubt whether it’s the best conditions for the baby.

“But you always have to remind yourself that things are what they are. What do we know?

“And you need to remind yourself that those are the families that were somehow in the whole system.

“There were social workers who went there, who checked on them. You know they are good families, they are functioning families, they’ve been through training, they know how to talk to kids with trauma.

“So you have to always believe that everything happens for a reason and things are what they should be.”

Rob: “Personally I’ve never had any serious doubts. I mean, there are differences in style.

“You might think that the family could one thing a bit differently, but I think you’ll find that with all families.

“Anywhere you go and visit people with kids you look at how they’re taking care of their children and there are always going to be some kind of comments.”

All parents criticise other parents in some way, it seems to me sometimes.

Rob: “The only thing worse than them are people who don’t have kids and tell you how you should be raising your kid [laughs].”

My final question for you both is, what do you feel this experience of fostering has given you over all these years?

Eva: “For me, it’s basically a joy. I really love taking care of little babies. There are some difficulties, of course there are, but it’s fulfilment for me.”

Rob: “I think I’ve come to understand empathy on a bit of different level. Being able to become involved with this person – it’s a different sort of love, in a way.

“It’s different with your own children, in a way, because it’s love but you also feel like you’re responsible for everything they do in their future; if it’s good, it’s a reflection of yourself, and if it’s bad, it’s something you did.

“Whereas this is someone you can love almost with… it’s not with no strings attached, but it’s just being involved with the person purely because of who the person is.

“So it’s a different dimension of empathy, in a way.”