She was 5-years-old with dirt stained, knobby knees protruding from shorts that were a few sizes too big. Her thick, black hair was caught in a pink, plastic barrette. The grime on her legs and arms was layers deep from being homeless and camping in the woods. I knelt down to greet her, but she spun past me and whirled unseeing around the entry way before she beelined for the dollhouse. Not a word, not a glance, and not a single acknowledgement of a new environment. She sat rocking and singing with a wooden doll in her left hand. Her play had no purpose, her eyes took in everything; but saw nothing.
DCS (Department of Child Safety) had called hours earlier about two children sitting in their office. A 5-year-old autistic girl and her 18-month old brother. They asked if I was the home who took in special needs children. The children had recently been placed in a foster home, but they said the girl child was too difficult to handle and…did we mention she was autistic? Against all reason and judgement, I said, “yes”.
I meet lots of families who have considered foster care and adoption. Many tell me things like, “I could adopt a baby, but not if they have been exposed to drugs or alcohol.” Or “It wouldn’t be safe to take in a child that has been touched inappropriately”. I once said these same things as well.
When we decided to do foster care, I quickly made a mental list of all the children and needs that I felt I could handle. I pictured a single school-aged child living in my home and happily attending school alongside my children. I was ready to jump in with selfless sacrifice, but I had a few conditions that needed to be met. I felt couldn’t handle a drug-exposed baby or special needs children. I was scared to deal with drug-addicted bio parents. It would not be safe to have any child that had been sexually abused or one that had been exposed to adult things. And if I wanted to get specific: no cursing, property destruction, attachment issues; my checklist was quite lengthy.
I highlight these embarrassing truths because I am not a perfect parent, nor am I a saint. I set out to do foster care with my selfish conditions to serve selflessly. I needed to be taught a huge lesson because God speaks in our conscience, but it would take experiencing pain to wake me up.
After DCS left, I decided to take the 5-year-old with me to the grocery store because, I needed diapers for her brother and I was out of milk. As we walked each aisle, she flapped and spun around my cart. She reminded me of a hummingbird, never still, searching, frenetic energy escaping a tiny body. My mind started to call her little bird, as she hummed to music no one else could hear. We stood in the check-out line and the cashier looked down and said, “Hi sweet girl, what’s your name”? The child stopped her movement, her gaze became intent on the cashier and she yelled, “my name is Jesus Christ”. And then she began flapping and rocking, and chanting ‘Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ”, over and over. The store became quiet as she grew louder. Funny thing with situations like this…. the louder she got, the quieter everyone became. I smiled red-faced, paid the cashier and headed out the door. Once safely sitting in our car, I turned in my seat and looked at her as she rocked back and forth, a nervous giggle escaped my lips as I thought, “wow, I’m fostering Jesus Christ”.
I have found with foster care, there is actually a routine to the addition of a family member. You add new children to your home and there is a jumbling and jockeying as everyone melds and molds to a new normal. There are moments in the beginning that you are walking on a shifting surface of fear, sorrow, and anger. With every kid, the first few weeks always felt like panic mixed with mayhem and doubt, and the days roll by where you are just surviving. But then, you wake up one day and you look at all the kids and it all seems to be working and everyone is not just surviving, but actually thriving. And it’s addicting. There is absolutely nothing you can purchase on this earth that can fill you like witnessing a broken, trauma-filled child settle into family and truly laugh, or genuinely love; that’s the stuff that keeps you moving forward.
And this child, our little bird who called herself Jesus Christ, started to calm down and her pace seemed to slow and steady out. We developed a new normal as she started Kindergarten and routine steadied her. She still had many moments where she would retreat deep into her mind, with flapping, and rocking. But she always returned and the moments became fewer and farther apart.
Months rolled by and this little bird began to speak and interact more with her brother and our family. She still was fearful and her eyes missed nothing. And through her voice, her actions and the court testimony of her biological mother; her story began to take shape. And when I heard what she endured, I tasted dark anger and fear.
Hers was a story of horrible abuse and terror. And we began to understand how the human brain will shut down and operate from the most basic level of fight or fight; and how these behaviors can mimic autism. Her five-year-old body had been abused and her little mind was surviving in the moment. She had lived homeless with her addicted mother who camped in the woods oblivious to the liberties being taken with her daughter. And my heart was horrified as she flinched every time I tucked her in, or she cried silent tears in the bathtub as I washed her hair. Just holding her 5 year old body and feeling it quiver with fear was enough to undo me. I ached to take her pain away, and it was a long process before she allowed me to truly hug or hold her. And painstakingly she began to trust and heal.
I am learning on this journey that what I think I’m capable of, or what I believe to be safe is not necessarily what God is calling me to. In my minds eye, I was going to have children come live with me and love was going to fix them. “Sunshine and love”, that’s all they needed. And as with life, reality is a brick wall in the blind race of good intention. When you live with children from hard places, you will see things a lot differently and you will experience things you wish you could insulate your mind from. I remember visiting a possible foster placement in the hospital. Her nasal septum and her teeth had been pulled out by pliers. She was 5 years old and had lost her hearing because of the beatings she received. As I helped dress her for the day, thick scars laced her back and clumps of hair were missing. I gagged down my sobs and plastered a smile on my lips as she turned to me. All day I sat with her and played trying to hold it together. I drove home after the visit and sat sobbing in my shower. And I didn’t know where to put this. Is there a part of my brain where I could hide the unthinkable? “God!” I cried, “how do I fix this?” I wept over my ineptitude and lack of ability to help. And it’s taken me many years to understand that I can’t take it away, or fix it.
For a child, the pain and heartbreak is destructive and consuming. I realize that I am better equipped to bear pain, and by opening myself to their story, their tears and sadness, I help carry their burden. I had spent my whole life trying to avoid pain, not realizing that pain dropped me to my knees and drew me closer to God. And pain also afforded me the opportunity to be human; yes, broken and human before others. Ugly tears wading in the messes and brokenness shared. Reaching across a table and gripping fingers as I pour out my pain. Sharing on this blog, how the images, the knowing, the pain has at times rendered me speechless and lost. And how pain knows no race, no economic class, no borders… and when you’re sitting in the middle of it, it’s a wasteland of stumbling. And with children they need an adult to share their pain with; a place that is safe to unload and piece through it. Because there is now way to walk around pain and sorrow, it must be endured and lived through. And there’s no greater gift than to grip a child’s hand and walk with them through the shame, the guilt, the anger, the sorrow, the fear; because hope lies on the other side.
And here’s where I struggle, when I share my pain there are times I receive rejection. and it has been a conscious choice to continue to be open and exposed because I will not remain silent, nor do I care if the stories offend. Because people, we are absolutely called to wade out into the muck and the mire; not sit insulated and safe in a pew.
Foster care and adoption is a marathon of faithfulness, not a sprint of success and achievement. And there will be children that cannot be healed. Children who will never succeed in the classroom or on the ball field. There will be diagnoses that seem impossible and daily life that’s exhausting. There are hurts too deep to reach and wounds that are not compatible with family life. This is not something we talk about, because we might scare away someone thinking about foster care and adoption. But, I don’t believe that this means failure. I believe you leap into this with a measuring stick of faithfulness. And love is a choice, not an outcome based on performance. And success in foster care and adoption is measured in tiny steps of faithfulness through shadowy valleys and mountaintop highs.
Faithfulness is loving the child that may never truly love you back.
Faithfulness is realizing that the alcohol she was exposed to in-utero means she will struggle to hold a job, balance a check book and understand cause and effect; but you can see the absolute prize in her character and joy.
Faithfulness is sitting in a developmental clinic and hearing how the boy scores horribly low in achievement for his age, but you remind them that he sure knows a lot about loving others.
Faithfulness is walking the valleys with the 5-year-old child who never had autism. It’s standing in your driveway trying not to double over and ugly cry as they pull away. It is watching your heart peering over the backseat with a tiny, scared and lonely face as she goes home to family.
Faithfulness is sobbing in the shower, and knowing that God may not fix this.
It’s sitting in your car at midnight holding the drug-exposed newborn so his cries don’t wake the whole house.
Faithfulness is packing the bag and holding back tears as you fold the tiny t-shirt you have washed countless times and realizing it’s not yours to wash anymore.
It’s saying yes to adopting a child you have never met in a country far away, no matter the cost, no matter the outcome.
Faithful is embracing the child you were once afraid to have live in your home; and realizing how lucky you were to have the privilege of loving that child.
It’s taking Jesus Christ to the grocery store.
Faithfulness is foster care.
Faithfulness is adoption.