I am a strong woman. I come from strong people, people who moved to the remote West to build a life for themselves out of the rugged wilderness of Montana, people who knew the power of harnessed fear.
Moving into the raw, unexplored places of Montana required a strong measure of grit and tenacity. There were, no doubt, places of unknown that challenged their resolve but they continued to press forward. They found themselves compelled by a sense of possibility that far outweighed the fears.
When I chose to trek into my own unknown, to be my own trailblazer, I found myself eager to move to the city to attend college. I told my parents that I would likely never come back. (“Never” is easily said when you are 19.) Without fully knowing what lay ahead, I stepped into new: new church community, new friends, new streets to become familiar with, new employers, new people to fall in love with.
I made my home in the city and soon found myself enveloped by a community of dear friends. After I finished college, I decided to fulfill a dream that I had had since high school of opening my home to children who were in foster care.
As an adolescent I had fallen in love with a brother and sister at a daycare where I worked. From the moment I met those sweet toddlers, I knew there was something very special about them. I could sense their vulnerability.
Within a short time, I became someone that they could look to for support when they were frightened. I started to help with babysitting in the evenings, and it became clear to me that they were not being well cared for. Even at 16, I questioned how stable their home life could be, when I found cheap beer cans littering their home. About a year after I met the children they ended up being removed from their home by child welfare, and were later adopted by a family in the community. Their story broke open my heart, and I came face to face with the harsh reality of children being removed from their homes.
As I stepped into providing foster care, I bought my first house across from an elementary school, in hopes that a child would find a safe place to blossom within its walls. A few months later, on a dreadfully rainy night in January, I welcomed home a tiny girl who would become my daughter. She walked in with a child welfare caseworker, looking even younger than her 6 ½ years. All of the items that she held dear had been tossed haphazardly into twelve garbage bags that the caseworker casually sat down in the living room.
After she had fallen asleep, I sat on the couch holding multiple bottles of medication that came with almost zero instructions, and wondered what I had gotten myself into.
The next morning, my mind raced with the reality of everything I needed to know, but did not. It was not until we were driving to her school on the far side of the city, that I realized no one had told me the school’s location. Once we finally arrived, I quickly introduced myself to and became friends with the most knowledgeable person in the school, the school secretary. She made sure that I knew some of the background that helped me understand my daughter’s story. Her kind presence gave me the courage that I needed.
Even in that feeling of insecurity and unknown, I fully embraced becoming a mom. I embraced waking up in the night to make sure that she was still sleeping. I embraced clumsily answering her questions. I embraced advocating for and falling deeply in love with my girl and all the complexity that makes her her. From deep within my soul there was something in me that desired to open my heart to someone who needed to be loved, who needed to be protected. In her short life, she had already lost so much. Lost the life that she knew with her mom and dad. Lost living in the same home as her older brother and sister. To lose so much in a short time would be a lot for an adult to process, and almost unbearable for a kindergartner. I held her as she grieved, and in those moments I knew in a deeper way what it felt to be held and loved.
Shortly after our adoption, my husband-to-be stepped into our lives. I found myself drawn to his complete authenticity. I loved that I did not have to guess at what he was feeling. I loved that, like me, he wrestles with the complexity of God, love, and hope. And we became a family of three. We became a family rooted in adoption, choosing to cling to a love that holds us all together, through sickness and health, through poverty and wealth.
Two and a half years after our wedding my husband and I welcomed home a seven-month old baby boy through foster care.
We welcomed him home, even though we knew that abuse allegations had been made against every caregiver before us. We said yes even though we were his seventh placement in seven months. We said yes to falling in love. And fall in love we did.
We fell in love with his tenacity. We fell in love with his unquenched thirst for life. We fell in love with his tender heart that was afraid to fully love us, a heart that had already lost so much.
After countless days of living life together, we became Mama and Papa and our daughter became Sissy. We fought for M’s voice to be heard. We begged those in authority to protect him from yet another loss. We asked them to believe in the power of love. We felt strong when we believed we were being heard. When we received the first exception in the state to be considered as a non-relative adoptive placement, we felt strong. We felt hopeful that love would win. And he flourished. He made gains in his development. Made gains in his language delays. Made gains in his social skills. Made incredible gains in his ability to trust and love. We embraced him as part of our family, and embraced his mom and dad as family for two and a half years. We said yes to welcoming home a newborn shortly after M’s second birthday, and embraced both boys with a deep love.
On a sunny Tuesday morning, everything changed. I had been anticipating a call from M’s caseworker to give approval for taking him on a trip outside of the state. We had been planning a trip to Disneyland to celebrate the recent decision choosing our family as M’s adoptive placement, and to have fun after all the difficulty of the year. Little did we know, the struggle would only become more difficult in the coming weeks and months. When I finally connected with the caseworker, rather than receiving a thumbs up for the trip she told me that she and her supervisor needed to meet with my husband and I right away. She did not want to tell me why, but after I pushed back she admitted that they were coming over to discuss the transition of M to a new home. To say that I was shocked is an understatement. I was stunned. I was completely sideswiped.
Six weeks earlier, a stranger had made a call indicating that she was concerned that M was being harmed in our home. We were told by the child welfare investigator that the person who filed the complaint later changed her story multiple times, and the investigator told us that she did not have any safety concerns about our family. We were told that these things happen all the time to foster parents, but that we ‘’needed to trust the system.” We were also told that it is an extremely rare case when children are initially left in a home only to be removed weeks later. We had no idea that, behind the scenes, the new caseworker had already assumed the worst case scenario about our family, and had made multiple presentations to those in administration, making the case that M could no longer stay in our family.
Our case had already been highly visible after receiving the first exception to be considered as a non-relative adoptive placement after the rules had changed a few years earlier. At the first sniff of trouble, they fled. They fled to a good enough placement with relatives. The same relative placement who had initially placed M in foster care two and a half years prior, but who fit neat and tidy within their existing policies and seemed to present the least amount of risk. They ignored their own rules, stating that efforts to preserve the placement must be the top priority.
Standing on the sidewalk that Tuesday morning, I was completely stunned and had no idea how to feel after I hung up the phone. I immediately called my husband, and we alerted our attorney. Sobbing, I called one of my dear friends who rushed over to be with me as I digested what I had just been told. A few hours later, the caseworker and her supervisor came to our home and they stated that although there were no safety concerns, they felt that we could no longer meet M’s needs.
When we asked them what their plan was they sat in silence. Two hours later they left our home, and we sat in complete confusion with very little information about what lay ahead for our boy.
Later we found out that the caseworker had assumed that we would be so volatile that they would have to swiftly take M and his foster brother out of our home for their safety. Their understanding of our family had deteriorated so much, that they had created scenarios that had nothing to do with the reality of our home. In spite of multiple attempts by our family, by the *CASA, and by the judge in M’s case to halt the decision, the removal of M and baby N from our home, took place a week later.
Immediately, the caseworker and assistant attorney general moved to strip us of our identity as parents. We had been involved in M’s case for two and a half years, had always been referred to by name, with dignity. We had often been praised by those in authority as amazing advocates, amazing parents. After they chose to view us as a risk, they tried to dehumanize us. We were no longer the adoptive parents, but were referred to simply as the former foster parents. We were… Discarded.
The countless sleepless nights were discarded. The months of nursing our youngest to health evaporated. The thousands of hours spent in court, completely forgotten. The endless days spent advocating for the needs of our boys, completely dismissed. The tender moments of love whispered in their ears, tossed aside.
I was no longer a “real” mom.
The days after the decision to remove M and baby N from our home are a complete blur to me. My husband and I did our best to protect our daughter from the trauma unfolding in our home. Even as I write this, I feel in my body some of the same feelings of complete powerlessness that I felt at that time. We lost friends who were swept up in the confusion. We have been unable to attend the church that we had been involved in for more than ten years. The thought of worshipping with empty arms has been far too painful. It has been a very dark night of the soul.
Even in the midst of this incredibly dark time, I have also experienced tremendous love. Incredible friends dropped everything to come and be with me in my time of deepest need. A group of friends came and planted flowers the weekend after the boys were taken, a reminder that “Spring will come.” A dear friend still shows up and walks with me every week, often reminding me that God is love, especially in the midst of suffering. My friend from college has listened to me rant and rave each week, and loved me through it. I have received tender texts from people reminding me that I have not been forgotten.
I still believe in love. Even after all that we have been through. As I look around and see shattered dreams, I still believe in love. When we see our 3 year old, I am stunned to see the cord of love still strong between us. I have seen the love between my husband and I deepen, even as we deal with a grief that neither of us can put into words. I believe in a love that is stronger than fear. A love that stands up to bullies. I believe in a love that conquers all.
What I really want you to know about Not Being a Real Mom, is that there is no such thing.
I am a real mom.
My heart really loves those sweet babes that were placed in my arms. My heart longs for them to feel our love across the painful, confusing, and unjust space that separates us.
“The love of a foster mother for her charge appears absolutely irrational.” Winston Churchhill
*Court Appointed Special Advocate