They look scared when they arrive. My dogs announce that someone is here, and I go to look out the front door. They always look scared. They are being reassured by their foster caseworker, “This family is very nice. They have pets, and other kids for you to play with. I think you are going to like it here.”
I go out to the front porch. The place of introductions, where I meet my children. Not in a hospital nursery, or an adoption agency office—my front porch. Dogs file out, smelling and whining, other children pour out or peek out windows. Who is here? What do they look like? What color are they? Are they big or small? Do they look mean? I try to look welcoming and nice. I try to not overwhelm them with names and rules. Just come in and set down your things, or sometimes there are no things. Just come on in. These children of mine.
Oliver* was found wandering at the lake. He came in his swimming trunks and nothing more. He had the talent of touching his nose with his tongue. He won our hearts with his chubby cheeks and love of cuddling.
I apparently have more than my fair share of maternal instinct. My husband says I cannot save them all. He is right, but I think about the story of a little boy who was walking along the beach, tossing starfish that had washed ashore back into the water. A man sees him and says that he cannot possibly save all the starfish, he cannot make a difference. As the boy tosses another into the ocean, he replies, “I think I made a difference to that starfish.” I cannot simply watch these children hurt, suffer, try to survive, try to become something more. It makes me hurt.
Craig reported his own father after decades of drug use. He just wanted someone to take care of him and be there for him. Craig was the one taking care of his sister, being the parent for her.
Being a foster parent is not for the faint of heart. My heart gets a constant workout—it swells, loves, breaks, and heals. But these are more than starfish. They are the children of the world. They are everyone’s children. They are children no one has wanted enough to do what it takes, to be there day in and day out. But a foster parent can be that someone, can say, “I will do what needs to be done, if only for a little while. I will love and hold and lose and die a little inside every time.”
Allen’s mother was killed by his stepfather. He was angry. He and his two sisters were all separated into different foster homes.
They become my children. Sometimes for a little while, sometimes forever. During the 16 years my husband and I have been foster parents, we’ve adopted four children from the public system, and protected, fed, held, loved, clothed, disciplined, and advocated for many, many others.
Matthew and Anna had a little sister. She was killed by their mother’s boyfriend. Then their mother lied to the police, protecting her boyfriend. The children were placed into an adoptive home, but the parents changed their minds.
I dream of a society in which all children are loved and treasured like the gifts they are. Where all parents choose to love and provide over drugs, over violence. A place where children can run and play, not fearing what they have to go home to. A place where no child will hurt, because he’s so hungry, and where every child will sleep peacefully, rather than have nightmares as he re-lives what happens when the sun is up. A place to be a child, to grow and become.
Chase was taken to the emergency room because he was sick. His sister left to go to work. No one came to get him. He entered the foster system, but was placed in a home that was not really a home. At school, he becomes friends with my son. He says to his caseworker, “I have a friend and they do foster care. I want to go live there.”
The rewards are immense. The children are like butterflies who have been in a cocoon and are now allowed to spread their wings—to fly, even to fall, because now someone will catch them. They have been stifled, but now they grow and develop in leaps and bounds. People we see only occasionally don’t recognize children they’ve met before, when they first came to us. The resiliency is amazing. How do these children do it? I wonder. Grades that were failing are now on the honor roll. Health problems that persisted for years are treated and fixed. Bedwetting stops. Weight that is too low or too high comes under control. Love and stability, structure and discipline, and then more love. The beauty and potential were there all along, but someone had to see it.
Baby Mitch came home from the nursery to us. We rocked and sang, cuddled and talked. Watched him grow, find his toes, start rolling over. He soon went home, however, and will not remember us.
These children are all around you. You see them but you don’t. It’s easier that way, it hurts less. You pretend it doesn’t happen in your town, in your schools, in your neighborhood. What if you stopped pretending? What if you could see them? The good that could be done—the life that could be changed, the future that could be re-written.
Travis was a “lifer,” in and out of foster homes his entire life. His mom stopped trying. His dad was in jail. He was hard to love at first, but then, as the layers came away, we saw the boy he was meant to be.
What sacrifice is worth helping a child attach, to love and grow and achieve things he never thought possible? It’s all worth it. Every heartache, sleepless night, all the tears, the utter exhaustion. I will never wish it away. I only wish I had more hours in every day, more days in every year, and a hundred more lives to give—to save them all.