I never had a desire to search for or find my biological parents. But when my granddaddy passed away, I wanted to go to his funeral in support of my granny (my maternal grandparents). This would mean seeing my biological mom for the first time in about 18 years. Neither of my sisters were comfortable with attending the funeral, so I went alone. I walked into the funeral home and signed the guest book. As I was laying the pen down, I looked up at the name above mine and was shocked to see my biological dad’s name. I walked out of the funeral home to my car to try to gather my thoughts. I had prepared for the reunion with my biological mom, but not my biological dad. And both on the same night? It seemed like too much. But I thought about how any time I was in the area of Tennessee where I spent my early childhood, it was always in the back of my mind that I could run into either one of them. So, I decided to face what seemed to be the inevitable, and I went back into the funeral home.
My biological mom is on some medication to keep her stable (I was told she has schizophrenic tendencies, but I don’t know her exact diagnosis). She knew exactly who I was, but it was as if it hadn’t been but a day or two since we had last seen each other. I was relieved that it wasn’t the emotional scene I had imagined it would be. And everything went fine with other family members who were there as well. After the funeral service, I was sitting with my biological mom in a separate room designated for smokers when a lady came in and started talking to my mom. She then looked at me and said, “Charlie wants to talk to you.” I figured out pretty quickly that she was my biological dad’s wife. This caught me by surprise, but I said “OK” and stood up and left with her.
He was standing outside, waiting on us. I wasn’t sure what to expect at this point, but I never in a million years thought his first words to me would be, “Which one are you?” I told him which of his three daughters I was. We chatted some. I told him about the three of us all graduating from college and he said, “Well at least y’all got a good education.” Uh, yeah—and food, a warm home, and all the things he didn’t provide us. Anyway, when I told him I was a social worker, he literally turned in a complete circle and said, “I HATE social workers! There was a conspiracy against me in Washington County with the sheriff’s office and y’alls social worker!” Then he shared with me that he and his wife had adopted a young boy. So this is REALLY not going the way I thought most reunions of this nature went. We exchanged phone numbers and I talked to him a few times. I soon realized that having him in my life was toxic for me and I cut off communication with him. My biological mom wanted to continue having contact, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. The memories of her being a “scary” person who walked around talking to herself was still so strong, even at this point.
Fast forward about three years: I received a phone call from my sister letting me know that our biological mom had lung cancer. The cancer had spread to her brain and she was going to have surgery to remove a tumor from her brain. Her prognosis was that she would live for about three months, if the surgery was successful. My sisters and I went to the hospital the day of her surgery. She was happy to see us, and like the last time I saw her, there was no mention of the years gone by. I learned that my biological mom had a wonderful sense of humor and a very positive attitude. There she was, lying in a hospital bed, half of her hair shaved off, staples in her head, and one of the first things she said was, “Where is my lipstick?” And she had us all laughing, telling us funny stories about Granddaddy. She told me that I almost killed her, Granny, and Granddaddy when I was a baby because I had colic. She went from the hospital to a nursing home. I guess neither Granny nor my aunt were able (or willing) to care for her. She began chemo while she was there, but she continued to smoke. During this time, I realized that she was the same mom, but she wasn’t. She was medicated, so she didn’t go around talking to herself. But she loved fashion and she wore the cutest clothes. She loved jewelry, and during one visit, she gave me a ring of hers that I still wear often. One day, she asked my sister and I to go to her apartment to get something for her. What I learned that day was that she was a hoarder. There was a narrow path through the apartment and every square inch was piled up with her belongings. It was sad to see that she lived that way, but I suppose she was happy there.
Soon they had to stop the chemo and within just a few days, she grew unresponsive as the cancer continued to rapidly grow. They transferred her to hospice care and the three of us stayed by her side with our granny and aunt until she passed away. We became reacquainted with our great-aunt and cousin during this time. They invited us to come have supper and asked us if there was anything they could do for us. Like most adults with similar experiences, I asked for pictures—pictures of us, pictures of our biological mom, just pictures. We made plans for supper. It is hard to reconnect with people who know you and remember you, but who you have just a vague memory of. And then you’re not even sure that it’s them that you remember, maybe it’s another cousin or aunt. But we went to our great-aunt’s house for supper and had a wonderful time. Our cousin gave all three of us a past, present, and future necklace. We sat and visited and shared lots of laughs.
Now I need to go back a little bit to tell the rest of this story. Our foster/adoptive parents ensured that we were at church every Sunday. We were angels, shepherds, and assorted other characters in Christmas plays. Church was an important part of our life. Early on in church, I read a Bible verse that quickly became my favorite: I Corinthians 13:4-8, 13:
“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.8 Love never fails. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
I highlighted this in every Bible I have ever had. Through the years, I have had bracelets, rings, necklaces, plaques, t-shirts, anything I could find with “Faith, Hope, and Love” on it. Having hope for the future, faith that there will be a better tomorrow, and knowing I am loved and have someone to love—those are the things I cling to.
But back to my great-aunt’s house. She told us that she had pictures for us, and I was so excited! I couldn’t wait to see them. She came in the living room, carrying a boxed set of photo albums. She sat them down on the table and imagine how excited I was to see that one album said “Faith,” one said “Hope,” and the other said “Love.” I commented on how pretty the albums were and how much I liked them. My aunt responded, “I could hardly believe it when I found these albums for you all. Your mom always said that you three girls were her “faith, hope, and love.” I was speechless. I knew right then that my mom, the mom before schizophrenia stole her from us, had always been with me, and that she always would be.
My dad is still in the far, deep background of my life. In what little contact I have had with him, he blames my biological mother for us being in foster care and accepts no responsibility. I have forgiven him because I need that peace in my life. My kids are curious. I haven’t shared with them the details that I have shared here with you. I don’t want them to know the hardships I went through as a child, so the story I told them is vague. From routine appointments to prenatal care to biopsies, any time I am asked about my family’s medical history, I always respond, “I’m adopted, so I don’t know.”
What I have learned over the past 30 years is that the story of a foster child never ends. It is always one chapter at a time.
(posted May 31)
I tried for an entire year to find a job that paid me enough to support my family. I had been a stay-at-home mom for three years and didn’t have any real work experience. One day at church, a lady told me that there was an opening at her office and that I should apply. Her office was a local Department of Social Services and the job opening was for a foster home recruiter and trainer. I was desperate for a job, so I applied. Underneath “experience,” I put something similar to, “I don’t know if this counts as experience or not, but I grew up in foster care.” I went for an interview and the very next morning, the director called me and offered me the job. I was excited to finally have a job that paid enough to support us. I was also unsure about going to work for DSS. I knew I didn’t want to be a social worker. But what’s a single mom to do? So I began my job as a foster home recruiter/trainer in 2000 and remained in that role for four years. I transferred to a Child Protective Services social worker position (now referred to as Family Specialist II) and was there for eight years before finally moving into the role of a foster care social worker (Family Specialist I) for two years. I was employed at the local DSS for a total of 14 years.
I left DSS in 2014 and started my life at DePaul Community Resources as a foster care specialist before transferring to DePaul’s Adoption program in 2015 and becoming an adoption supervisor in 2016. That’s 19 years total doing a job I was determined I would never do. There are days when I go home with my heart and soul heavy from the things we see and hear day in and day out. Sometimes I will say to my husband, “I love this job, but sometimes it is too hard on my heart” and his answer is always, “God has you right where he wants you.” And I believe that!
(posted May 24)
I remember in high school taking those career aptitude tests. I can clearly remember “social worker” being one of my matches and thinking to myself that I had been dealing with social workers my entire life, and there’s NO WAY I wanted to be one. I also remember looking at the salary for various occupations and seeing “social worker” at the very bottom, which only confirmed for me that I would NEVER be a social worker. I graduated high school still unsure of what I wanted to do with my life and enrolled in the local community college. I remember applying for financial aid and my social worker telling me to mark the box, “Ward of the Court.” Marking that box entitled me to attend school for free. But who wants to be a ward of the court? Did that mean I didn’t belong to my foster/adoptive parents? I didn’t like being a “foster child,” and I didn’t like being an 18-year-old “ward of the court” any better.
I changed my mind and degree about three times. I finally settled on just a general degree in education. I also got married shortly after graduation. When I enrolled for my Bachelor of Science degree, I chose to major in psychology simply because I had taken a psychology class and loved it. I planned to go further and earn a master’s degree in special education. So, during my senior year, I worked part time at a local elementary school—and I hated it. I was far into my degree by this point, so I just completed it and earned a B.S. in psychology.
I had my oldest son shortly after graduating, which is what led to my sisters and I being formally adopted. We changed our names to our foster/adoptive parents’ name when we entered permanent foster care. But on my son’s birth certificate, they asked for my name as it appears on my birth certificate, and I did not want to use that name! So, they decided to adopt the three of us at that point, and legally change our names on our birth certificates. When we went before the judge, he said, “This is the first time I’ve ever had three grown adults asking to be adopted.”
I was in foster care until I was almost 21 years old. Both of my sisters were in foster care until their 21st birthday and graduated from the same local private college. From the time we entered foster care (the second time) to the day we left foster care, we had the same social worker. I loved her and trusted her completely. I give her much credit for our success. I saw her about 10 years ago. She told me that at one time, my sisters and I were the state of Virginia’s biggest foster care success. To have a sibling group of three all graduate from high school, much less college, was unheard of.
My husband at the time was in the Army, and soon after the adoption, we were sent to Hawaii for his next duty station. My twins were born about a year and a half later. When they were 9 months old, I left my husband and came back home. He was verbally abusive with anger management issues, and I did not want to raise my boys in that environment. When I left Hawaii, I had 9-month-old twins, a 3-year-old, whatever I could fit in my luggage, and $100.
(posted May 17)
We had to go to court and I was so nervous. This would be the hearing to decide if we could live with our foster/adoptive parents forever. I can remember sitting on a wooden bench in the hallway, waiting and waiting. Finally, our foster/adoptive parents came out of the courtroom and hurried us out of the court. We were about halfway down the hill from the courthouse when I heard my biological mom yell. I turned around to look and she was standing at the top of the hill, waving and yelling, “I’ll never forget you girls!” It was a time of mixed emotions—happy that I am with this family forever, and sad that I betrayed my mom. Since we were now in permanent foster care, we changed our last name to our foster/adoptive parents’ last name.
Life moved on after the court hearing. The three of us thrived in the care of our foster/adoptive family and life was relatively uneventful. We participated in high school sports, attended the prom, dated, had sleepovers with our friends, and learned how to drive a straight/stick-shift. We also had three meals a day, plus lots of ice cream and Little Debbie snacks. We always had heat in the winter. We had clean clothes and a clean home. I knew that I had a life with them that I would have never had with my biological parents. I am positive that our lives would have gone down a very different and troubled path if we had not been removed from our biological parents. I knew my biological mom loved us, but I also knew that she would never be able to give us the care we needed. I did worry about what would happen to her now that the three of us were in permanent foster care. It’s my understanding that our biological dad wasn’t involved at this point because he had outstanding warrants. I’m not sure what he was wanted for. It always seemed to me that my biological mom couldn’t take care of us, and our biological dad wouldn’t. We did still have some limited contact with our maternal grandparents and our maternal aunt and cousins.
(posted May 10)
The phone rings. It’s our social worker, and she wants to talk to me. She tells me that she has exciting news for me. She has found a home for all three of us—and it’s with someone we already know! We were so excited to find out that the gym teacher at our former school wanted us and that we were going to be living with her (and I wasn’t going to have to go to another new school). It was truly a miracle. At least, it was to me. It was all I had hoped for.
I don’t remember being sad about leaving the foster home. I think we were just so happy that we were going to be living with someone we knew. But can you imagine what it was like when we pulled up into the school parking lot and came walking in with the gym teacher? And not only did we ride to school with the gym teacher, we also had on new clothes, new coats, we were clean, and our hair was brushed. I’m sure it caused quite the stir among our classmates. And I’m also sure that we were asked a million questions that day. How do you answer questions about why you’re living with the gym teacher, or why you can’t live with your own mom and dad? I’m not sure how I answered them, but I know that it was embarrassing to be so different from all my classmates.
We had regular visits with our biological parents and sometimes our maternal grandparents during this time. All things considered, we adjusted well to our new family and were very happy there. They took us to Disney World and Daytona Beach our first summer with them. We learned how to garden (we pulled up all of the carrots because we thought they were weeds) and how to ride a riding mower (now that was fun!). Christmas was just like I remembered it being when we were little and life was simple. Around fifth grade, visits with our biological family grew sporadic. When it was time for school in the sixth grade, we had to change schools. So that fall, I started in my twelfth school. Life was as normal as it can be when you’re in foster care. My friends would ask me why I called my parents by their first names instead of “mom” and “dad.” I never really knew what to say, so I just learned to call them “my parents.” This pattern continued for the next several years, only the visits with our biological family ceased. When I was in the seventh grade, our social worker came to our home and talked to us about living with our foster/adoptive family forever. I can remember all three of us smiling and nodding our heads “yes.” I also remember feeling a pang of guilt, a twinge of betrayal that I didn’t want to go live with my biological mom and dad. After all, they were my mom and dad. But I also knew that they couldn’t and wouldn’t take care of us, and I did not want us going back to the life we used to live.
(posted May 3)
From my point of view, my childhood started out very typical. I had a mother and father. I was the oldest of three girls. My dad worked, and my mom was home with the three of us. But when I was in the first grade, something happened. I was too young to understand. I still don’t fully know. I do know that moment began a chain of events that were tough, emotional, and many times beyond my control.
We moved out of our home and into another house. The house beside ours was sitting way down in a sinkhole, and our house was way up on a big hill. They had chickens everywhere (in and out of the house), and even at my young age, I knew they were poor and that they weren’t clean. I remember our landlord coming by once and being mad because my sisters and I were sleigh riding down that big hill and right out into the road. No one was watching us. Not long after that, I remember hearing that my mom was “sick” and then she was gone for a few days. Then it wasn’t too long before we were evicted from our house. It was the first time I lost everything I owned. I remember my maternal grandparents came and picked up the three of us and our biological mom. It was a confusing time to me because I couldn’t understand why we were having to leave everything behind. I will never forget being in the back of my granddaddy’s car, up on my knees looking out the back window, crying and begging him to stop because my dog was running after us as fast as she could. It seemed to me like she knew we were leaving, and that we weren’t coming back.
We lived with our maternal grandparents for a short while. I’m not sure why, but we ended up moving in with two of my paternal aunts. They lived in a single-wide trailer, so it was crowded. I was in the second grade by this time. We changed schools so many times that my sister and I almost failed. One day at school, they called me to the office. There was a police officer and some other people (social workers, I’m sure). They loaded us up into the police car and took us away. This would be the second time in my life that I lost everything I owned—except this time, I lost my parents. They took us to a group home that had boys and girls of all ages. There were little kids like us, and rough teenagers, too. When the other residents came in from school, this older girl came to our door and said, “Hey, this is my room!” I puffed my chest out, stood up, and said, “Well this is our room now!” I had become my sisters’ protector. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be with my family, but I knew I had to keep my sisters safe.
I’m not sure how long we were in the group home. We were eventually returned to our biological parents and we moved to Virginia. One year, a social worker came in at Christmas and said, “Look, girls, I bought you a Christmas present!” She had our biological dad with her, who had been in jail. I knew that she meant he was our present, but my sisters thought she had an actual gift for them so they were pretty disappointed. My dad spent time in and out of jail. In the fourth grade, I watched police pull him out of the closet where he was hiding so they could take him to jail. Around that same time, my mom got “sick” again, but this time it was worse. She was scary. The mom who fussed over us, fixed our hair, and made pancakes for us was gone. She slept all day. At night, she would walk around the house in the dark, talking to herself. I tried to take care of my sisters. When we had food, I cooked. Many days, the only thing we had to eat was school lunch. We were often cold in the winter because we couldn’t afford heating oil. Our extended biological family didn’t come around much at all. I only remember seeing my maternal grandparents a few times. I’m not sure why they didn’t help us—and things just kept getting worse.
One day, while I’m sitting in my favorite teacher’s class, I got called to the principal’s office. Again, I am puzzled because I love school and I never caused trouble. In the principal’s office, I find a police officer and our social worker. They load us in the police car and take us to a foster home. This is the third time I’ve lost everything I own. And I start over again with my eleventh school.
Our foster parents were OK. I think they did the best they could with us. But we had been running wild for years without any supervision. We went to bed when we were sleepy. We got up when we woke up. I’m sure we were a handful for parents trying to get us in a routine. Eventually, I was told by our social worker that we were “too much for them” and that she was looking for a new home for us. That’s when the reality hit me—my sisters and I could be separated. Already, I’m not even 10 years old, and I’ve lost everything I owned three times, my parents twice, and now there’s a chance that I am going to lose the two people that mean more to me than all of those things combined.
A Foster Child’s Journey is a six-part series tracing the trials and triumphs of a personal foster care experience. A new chapter will be uploaded each Friday in May.