When I saw the opportunity to interview a former foster child and adoptee who signed his own adoption papers, I quickly asked if I could be given the assignment. Having had personal experience with this topic, I was intrigued by the idea of hearing and sharing another person’s story. My husband and I were foster parents. Over four years we had 34 children in our home either in respite or long-term care. As we went through training, we saw the horrid conditions some of them were forced to endure. We saw the scared, little faces as they entered a house full of strangers and unknown surroundings. We also saw the relief once they realized they were safe and would be in a clean, warm bed each night. Our hearts would break each time we said goodbye and pray that life would be better for them after they left our home.
The foster care system can be a way for children to be in a secure environment while parents get the help needed to care for their children properly. Oftentimes, it doesn’t end with them being reunited with their biological family. In the best interest of the child, adoption may be the only option.
The phone conversation began with an unknown voice on the other end of the line. We had scheduled a time for me to call him and have the interview. I had my list of potential questions ready on the notepad in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. This man was a complete stranger who I knew nothing about other than he had been a child in foster care who was eventually eligible for adoption. I asked him what his name was and if it had always been his name. He told me that he had had a different last name at one time. When I asked him when it changed, his reply was that he had changed it himself when he turned eighteen. This brought up more questions for me.
As he began to speak, I knew it was going to be a story of triumph over tragedy. I was prepared to hear a story of sadness and sorrow about a childhood darkened by loss and uncertainty. Instead, I heard a man tell of his life with gratitude for his experiences. Although his young life found him in terrible situations that no child should have to endure, he describes himself as an optimist. He always looks for the positive side of things and struggles to find the negative. This trait served him well as a child having to live in less-than-perfect conditions.
Chris Pilder was born in New York City. At the age of 7, he was living with his “raging alcoholic mother” a year after his parents divorced. Chris ran away from home a couple of times in hopes of finding something better. When he was nine years old, he left during a snowstorm and went to his fourth-grade school teacher’s home. His teacher knew of his inadequate and unsafe living conditions and let him stay and kept him protected for two weeks. When his mother finally reported him missing, she claimed he had been kidnapped so that the police wouldn’t know how long he had been gone. She didn’t want them to know that she, in fact, had been so out of it that she didn’t know he was missing. Seeing the mother was not fit to take care of him, the police placed Chris with his biological father. They had not been in contact with each other and this was an awkward and scary situation for Chris. This is when Chris found out that his father had remarried. His father’s new wife wasn’t happy about Chris being there thus making it uncomfortable for him. When his father became ill with emphysema two years later, she divorced him and Chris was given the option to return to live with his mother or go into foster care. Neither of his parents was able to provide the necessary care and attention needed for a child to grow and thrive physically or mentally. Knowing she was still an alcoholic, and he would not be safe or taken care of, Chris chose foster care unaware of what the future held for him.
There were only two foster families in the town where Chris lived. It was a fairly large town, so homes were often crowded with foster children along with the biological children living in the house. He was placed in a loving, foster home: the ninth foster child to live there. The family was religious giving Chris the guidance and direction he yearned for. He remembers reading the Bible as a family each night. They were wealthy and provided a good home for him. The family had four biological children: an older daughter and two older sons, who were friendly to him, and a younger boy who wondered why he was there.
There was a foster care rule that a child was to only stay with a foster family for a maximum of 90 days so as not to become too attached. Because there was a bond and he had become part of the family, Chris was allowed to live with this family for two years. Also, the fact that there were few foster homes available for Chris to go to meant that he had a dependable place to stay. When a new social worker found out about the rule being broken, she planned to move Chris into a group home. Group homes were very crowded and proper supervision was not provided for those living there. She didn’t approve of the arrangement and singled him out. The day he was to move out, it was discovered that a family had been in court trying to locate him and adopt him. This had been going on for several months but the social worker had not informed the foster family of this possibility for adoption. Chris believes he had been “slighted” by the social worker. The family had children the same age as Chris and had attended and supported him at his sporting events over the years. Chris was good friends with one of the daughters and knew other family members well also. At the age of 14, he was invited to live with this family. They laid out the rules of their home and Chris agreed to follow them and decided to stay. But being selfish, his biological mother still refused to sign the papers relinquishing her parental rights that would make him eligible for adoption. So, Chris was not officially adopted for several years.
When Chris turned 18, the people who had become his family took him to town hall and he signed his own adoption papers legally changing his last name. They were his family and had given him a home. Asking for nothing in return, they loved him unconditionally as if he had been born into their family. He had chosen foster care and he had chosen his own adoption: two decisions a child should never have to make.
When Chris was 14, he was taken by his foster parents to visit his biological mother. He remembers being in a park with her. There wasn’t much said between the two of them. He had paid for her to go to rehab, but she was still an alcoholic. He never saw her again. His biological father passed away while Chris was a junior in college. There was little interaction between them over the years.
As an adult, and after years of not speaking, Chris received a phone call from his half brother asking him if he would be the best man at his wedding. This request came as a shock to Chris. This same brother had been abusive to Chris as a child and he wondered why he would even ask this from him. Chris promptly refused the invitation.
Chris calls himself a survivor. He says his life created who he is today. He considers his life a gift and is so grateful to his adoptive family. His adopted father has passed away but he remains very close to his mother.
Today, Chris is striving to find a way to help children in the foster care system. Due to legal hurdles, it is difficult to make a difference. Nevertheless, he wants kids in the system to know that there is hope and to always look for the positive in any situation. He hopes for a brighter tomorrow for children living in the foster care system.
Chris is now 55 and living in Connecticut. He is married with three grown children of his own and two stepchildren. He considers his life one of success. Although, if you were to hear about it you would wonder how he can be so happy and content. He believes life can be good no matter what your circumstances. There can be no darkness if you choose your own path and that there is “only hope in the world.” He wants his foster and adoption story to provide hope to kids going through the worst experience a child should ever have.
According to the most recent federal data in 2021, there are currently more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. They range in age from infants to 21 years old (in some states). The average age of a child in foster care in 2021 is over 8 years old and there are slightly more boys than girls. Each year, over five million dollars is used nationally for the child welfare system. Many organizations believe that if more money was used to educate and prepare adults for parenthood, the foster care system could be better utilized and more children would be able to stay in their own homes or with other family members. When it is not safe for a child to do so, the child may be placed for adoption in a safe home as soon as possible. Every child should have the chance to grow up in a safe and nurturing environment. Every child should have the opportunity to be loved unconditionally and given the freedom to reach his or her full potential.
We had no idea the impact being foster parents would have on our lives when we began our journey. I would close my eyes at night and see hundreds of children’s faces of all races and colors. When we didn’t have a placement, we would wait with anticipation for the phone to ring so we could love someone new. Most of the circumstances were very difficult but we always tried to make it a good experience for the children. Infants would come from homes of drug use in just their diapers so as not to carry the toxic poison with them. Teenagers would be hesitant to leave their mothers alone having been the ones who took care of them. Enrolling them in school was hard knowing that it would just be for a short time and they would have to soon leave new friends. When they were reunited with their family, we would pray that their lives would improve and they would be safe and healthy. Some goodbyes were more difficult than others. Seldom did we know what became of them once they left our care. We were fortunate to adopt our daughter from our state’s foster adoption program. She came from a very traumatic background and even as a young adult she faces challenges stemming from her childhood experiences. We hope that through her adoption we have provided her with a secure and loving environment to continue progressing.
Chris had a difficult childhood that led him to make hard decisions on his own. Luckily for him, he was able to find people who would love and protect him. The foster and adoption system can provide safe homes for children during difficult times in their lives and transition. Chris was blessed to eventually find the happiness he searched for and deserved. No child should have to endure the kind of trials he faced during his childhood. We desire that all children can be safe and protected and find the happiness they too deserve.