Being a foster parent

As I’ve mentioned a time or two, my first wife and I adopted Colin and Ryan from foster care. The journey we took to become foster parents, and the roller coaster ride we took before we were done fostering, was a life defining experience for me. To tell the story properly, I have to go back to 1998; when I first met Wendy.

We met through a then relatively new and novel way: a dating web site: Match.com. Very soon after we met, Wendy told me that she was diabetic, and that she was also having some health issues related to fibroid cysts that included pain and bleeding. Her doctor had recommended she have a complete hysterectomy. So, about 6 weeks after we met, she went in for surgery, and our hope of ever having biological children together vanished.

At the time we met, Wendy was a nanny, and had been so for about 3 or 4 years. She loved children, and the only thing she ever really wanted to be in life was to be a mother. We knew right away that we would look into adoption after we got married.

Two years after we met, we were married. We had already begun looking at options for adoption and/or surrogates. We even had one of Wendy’s cousins offer to be a surrogate, but that turned out to be an empty promise. So, after looking at overseas adoption, and domestic adoption, and every other option you could think of, we decided we would be foster-to-adopt parents. We decided it would be a great way to help at-risk children in our own community while also being a way to possibly adopt kids that really needed the love we had to give.

We were “all-in” immediately. We asked to be placed on the “emergency foster” list, which meant we could (and often did) get phone calls looking to place children with us at 1 or 2 in the morning. We got children that were literally taken directly from their abusive home and placed in our home. We had children placed with us directly from the hospital a day or two after being born. We took any and all children Child Protective Services was willing to place with us. The only restriction we had was that we wanted children under the age of 5 since we knew that our ultimate goal was adoption.

Our first placement came less than 48 hours after being licensed. We went through the training classes in the spring of 2001. We had to move from a one bedroom to a two bedroom apartment before being licensed, so we did that in May of that year. CPS, moving with the glacier like speed they are known for, finally sent our case worker to do our home study at the beginning of September of that year. About a week after the case worker came out, 9/11 happened. That set us back even further. We should have known then how frustrating CPS could be, but we soldiered on.

The Friday before the week of Thanksgiving, we were out-of-town visiting relatives. That afternoon, we got a voice mail message from our case worker that our license had been approved! We were so excited, we cut our trip short, and rushed home. We knew things could happen quickly once we were licensed, and we weren’t disappointed.

We received a call for an emergency placement the next day; Saturday afternoon. The case worker told us that she had a child that was about to be removed from a home because of physical abuse, and she wanted to line up a home to place him in before she removed him. We gladly accepted, thinking our first placement would be in our home soon. Well, after about 16 hours, and after several phone calls all promising he would be there “soon”, Nicholas was brought to our home, complete with several bruises on his cheek and forehead, and a black eye. He wasn’t a happy camper, but the kid was tough (we soon came to realize that was a common trait among foster children), and he quickly was a very happy and healthy 6 month old baby boy.

We were sure we were going to adopt Nicholas. How could CPS send him back to live with that family? How could they think they were a better fit for him than us? Well, about a month after celebrating his first birthday, CPS sent him to live with his grandmother (who, by the way, tried to help her daughter escape from the police when they came to remove Nicholas from her custody).

That is when we discovered some things about CPS. They have certain belief systems that they hold dear, one of which, is that “blood relatives” always take priority over foster families.  That policy probably works for about 90-95% of families (MAYBE), but we felt in this case it was ridiculous. We also found out that most caseworkers are VERY over worked and under paid. This causes them sometimes to worry more about getting the case off their desk, instead of worrying more about what is in the best interest of the child.

Don’t get me wrong, I think CPS workers, by a LARGE majority, are wonderful people, who do a job that I don’t think I could do. But, some are just burnt out, and in over their heads. It’s a real shame when you run into those workers.

But, despite wanting to quit several times, we carried on. In just over 5 years, Wendy and I fostered 23 children ranging in ages newborn to 4 years old. We fostered Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic children, with almost an equal number of boys and girls. We had children in our home that had been born addicted to heroin, alcohol, methamphetamine, marijuana, etc.

The most heart breaking experience we had was one little girl who came to us at 6 months old, and she had over 20 different fractures. Her jaw was broken in two places, and she was in so much pain, we had to feed her with an NG Tube for over a week. Her wrist was so badly broken, that she didn’t crawl until she was 10 months old. She was also given back to her grandmother (who was letting the girl and her parents live with her during the time of the abuse).

We saw so many things that almost made us give up. It almost ruined my faith in humanity, as a matter of fact. But, we carried on. In June of 2004, a 5 week old little boy came to live with us named Jessie. A year and 4 months later, we adopted him, and changed his name to Colin. A little over a year after that, we adopted Ryan, and our family was complete. So was our journey of being foster parents.

I can say, without a doubt, the experience changed me forever. I like to think it changed me for the better.

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Ryan’s Story

Me and Ryan

Telling Ryan’s story is not easy. Not that his start was any harder or easier than Colin’s, but it is more…complicated. He was born to a mother who had been in and out of jail several times. She had two daughters that were removed by CPS and adopted by another family, but they were an older couple who did not wish to “start over” with a new baby. The fact that Ryan’s half sisters had already been removed by CPS is the main reason placing him in care when he was born. Ryan was originally placed with a different foster family who intended to adopt him. That family was later shut down for reasons of which we were not made aware.  

At the beginning of that year (2006), I told my wife that I was going to give foster parenting one more year, but at the end of ’06, I wanted out. We wanted to adopt one more child, but if it didn’t happen by the end of that year, I was prepared to move on. Wendy had begun getting sicker, and the emotional toll of bringing children into our home only to lose them later was beginning to weigh heavily on both of us (especially Wendy). Colin was our 18th child in 4 years. Ryan would be number 23 in 5 years.

The Friday before Colin turned 2, we got a call from our family caseworker, Regina (not her real name). She knew we had an opening, so she said, “Hey, I’ve got a little football player for you!”

Regina knew how much I loved football and she knew we were getting near our breaking point as foster parents. Ryan was a stocky little 1.5 yr old with the biggest brown eyes you’d ever seen. He was just a really cute kid; still is, actually. She told us CPS was about to close down Ryan’s current foster family. She said they needed a placement for him fast, and that he would more than likely be adoptable (though you never know with CPS). That was the clincher for Wendy. We took Ryan in to our home (at the time, his foster family was calling him Jeremy, but his birth mother originally named him Brendon). We didn’t like any of those names, so we changed it to Ryan (he looks more like a Ryan anyway).

For about the first month he was with us, we weren’t sure that Ryan could speak at all. He mostly just grunted and made other noises with his mouth. Turns out, he had a pretty severe speech delay (that he has almost completely overcome now, with the help of speech therapy). He also wasn’t the happiest of all children. Who could blame him? In 1.5 years, he had been in three different families (birth, and two different foster families, counting us). The poor kiddo didn’t really know what it meant to have a “stable” home life. Literally 6 months and 2 days later (a foster child has to be in your home for 6 months to be eligible for adoption), we adopted Ryan on National Adoption Day 2006.

This is where things got even more complicated. It’s hard enough to explain it to myself, or Ryan, let alone a stranger reading this blog. In his young life, Ryan lost his biological mother, a foster family, and an adoptive mom all within the span of less than 3 years. At the time, the only “stable” adult in his life, me, was overcome with grief and depression. Ryan did pretty much the only thing he could do in the situation. He started acting out.

The only other kid in his life that he was able to use as a role model was Colin. Since Colin was such a handful, I had to spend most of my time just making sure he wasn’t doing something he wasn’t supposed to (like leaving the house while I was asleep-another story for another time). Ryan learned that the best way to get attention was to follow Colin’s lead. By the time I met Sara, Ryan was having a lot of behavioral issues. He was probably very close to being diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder. He had a real mean streak to him sometimes, and he just flat out refused to follow directions when he didn’t feel like doing something.

Credit Sara for really sticking it out with Ryan. Today, about 2 years after coming into our lives, Sara has helped Ryan become a completely different child. He has really started maturing and growing into a great young man who is making A’s and B’s in school, and rarely ever has less than a “green” (or good) day at school. He recently became the first kid in his class to pass the reading portion of a standardized test the district gives. I am so very proud of him, and the turnaround he has made, but really, Sara should get most of the credit here.

Now, in mid-2012, our little family is beginning to blossom beautifully. We are pretty much the definition of “blended family”. Sara and I are both on our 2nd marriage, Colin and Ryan were both adopted, and Robbie is my step-son (who I will adopt sometime soon, hopefully). Ryan also has half-sisters who we keep in touch with pretty regularly, plus I keep in close touch with my first wife’s family (they absolutely adore Sara and Robbie). I don’t think we would have it any other way.