Adopting a Teen From Foster Care: The Good & Bad

Last weekend, I sat with my daughter talking through our shared disbelief that she is going to turn 20 years old in a couple of weeks. I realize this how-did-you-grow-up-so-fast conversation is a universal one that parents have when their children reach big milestones, but our situation is a bit different. As we talked, we realized it has been only three years since she came home to us after we adopted her from foster care. 

In September 2017, after five heartbreaking years in foster care separated from her biological siblings, Caitlyn had finally agreed to take a chance and see if someone out there would want to adopt her from the foster care system. She knew no one would. Who would want a sixteen-year-old girl on the brink of her seventeenth birthday? After an emotional rollercoaster of foster care for two years and adopting our youngest children the previous year, our home was officially considered full (with five children) by our state and we were not able to continue fostering. Once our eyes had been opened, though, we could not unsee the need, and as odd as state rules go, we were still candidates for state-custody adoption. We were too full to temporarily take in a child in need from foster care, but still eligible to provide a permanent home for a child through adoption. As illogical as it sounded, we kept our license open and continued to receive messages about waiting children. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. So many precious lives were hanging in the balance just waiting for parents to see them, to seek them, to love them. And then, there she was. In my inbox was a profile of a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl without a place to call home. She was gorgeous—a self-professed jokester who loved to sing and hang out with her youth group. I found myself reading the profile again and again. But why? She was a teenager and we had a full house already. We had a heart for teenagers but had agreed that maybe when our kids were grown, we would open our home to teens in foster care. That was a future prospect. But she had a current need.

I sent the message to my husband. His role, I assumed, would be to remind me how unrealistic this idea would be and assure me that we could not take on another daughter (adding just one to our world of boys had tested our parenting skills already), and particularly not one who would disrupt birth order in our family—she would come in as the oldest. He would have compassion for her plight but would anchor my romantic tendencies and settle the matter kindly. I would then pray for her, as I had for each child in each email I read, and I would trust the Lord to take care of her. Later that night, as I directed him to his unread email, my husband read about Caitlyn and he didn’t put the message down. Instead, he read it again. I froze—waiting for the scenario I had played out in my mind. “What do you think?” I finally asked to break the silence.

“I think she looks like she could have come from our family,” he responded, and my mind began to spin. That wasn’t what I expected and not what I had rehearsed, and yet, it began our unexpected journey toward our girl. As we took baby steps forward in a system that moves a tad bit slower than molasses, I wrestled to figure out what the Lord was doing. Was he showing me my daughter or just asking me to be obediently willing? One step forward, two steps back, we waited on delayed caseworkers, changes of goals and sibling arrangements, and a plethora of other unknowns common to the foster care system. As we waited, I worked out my questions on my blog through poetry:

“I don’t know you, baby girl, but I feel heavy-hearted for you. It’s not heavy-heartedness in the sense of pity because I don’t think you need or want pity. You are tough and strong; I can see it in your eyes. To pity you would be an insult to your character and courage.

This is not pity.

This is heavy-heartedness that comes with deep regret, deep disappointment, deep pain. This is the instinct that compels me to defend you because you’ve gone way too many years without a defender in this world.

This is the weight of responsibility that is, in some ways, not mine to bear. I mean, you are not in these circumstances as a result of my choices. That means this isn’t my responsibility, right?

It seems like a logical conclusion, but my heart beats out the lie of the logic.

You are carrying the weight right now, and you probably feel that you’re carrying it alone. You didn’t ask for this weight. It’s not a result of your own choices. You are burdened with loss upon loss upon loss, and you’re asked to stand beneath a weight that no human should have to bear.

I can’t save you, sweet girl. I can’t be your hero. I can’t fix all that’s broken. For goodness sake, I can’t even wrap my mind around all that is broken in and around your life.

One voice…one steady, droning voice says that can’t is the end. There’s obviously nothing more to say.

Lub dub

lub dub

lub dub lub dub lub dub lub dub

Like a strong and steady steam engine, my heart trudges on through the trauma, through the tears, through the tragedy, and the Engineer whispers into the night “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged…I am with you wherever you go…

Do you hear it, beautiful child? Do you hear the rhythm of hope that keeps time beneath the chaos?

I hear it. How then, can I entertain the lies of logic that say can’t wins and I’m not responsible anyway?

If many hands make light work, then why are so many of us standing by while the most precious among us carry it all?

I may not be able to bring a solution, but I am not called to stand by;

I am called to stand by you.”

My heart said she was my child. My mind said to wait and not rush ahead of the Lord. It said to not assume and to just be still. I’m not sure which idea scared me more—the thought of walking through this process of pursuing her only to find that we were not chosen for her or the thought of being in the process of bringing her home. Both were terrifying. 

Before even beginning the process of pursuing her, we had a family meeting and shared with our kids the direction we were considering going. It reminded me of our conversations in preparation for foster care. They were skeptical but willing—a bit mystified by our interest in further growing our family in the tiny home we share. They listened, tried to understand, and agreed to give it some thought and prayer. The day we received the call for our youngest kids, one son had challenged us saying, “I don’t know about babies. Seems like a lot of work.” We thought we would open our home to a school-aged girl but the call came for boy and girl siblings who were both under two. We assured him he would not have to change any diapers, and we proceeded to move forward with bringing our babies home. That time was different. Our sons were instantly enamored with their baby brother and sister and never showed a bit of irritation with opening our home and hearts to these little strangers. That time, we expected our foster care journey to end with our babies returning to their biological family. That time, we were fitting small bodies into a small space—turning a family of five into a family of seven. That time, we were maxing out a minivan—not exceeding its capacity. What we were asking this time was much different. Much harder. Much more complicated.

They agreed, but not without questioning, not without us pushing them to their limits, and not without conflicts of opinion. I was so terrified of losing what we had in favor of something we didn’t have to do. I wanted them to be on board with us, but I knew I was asking too much of them. They needed us to lead, and they agreed to follow—with a couple of caveats. We had to find a way to get a bigger vehicle—the older boys’ long legs were already overcrowded in our minivans—and we had to get a kitchen table that could accommodate us all. We assured them that if God wanted us to do this, a table and a van were not too much for Him, and then we prayed. A wonderfully sweet woman we have never met—the mother of a virtual colleague of mine—was moved by our desire to open our home to another child and she overwhelmed us with a generous gift that allowed us to purchase a beautiful table that seats 12. This was before we even knew for sure that we would be chosen for Caitlyn. 

As weeks turned to months, our baby steps led to our baby girl—our sixteen-year-old baby girl. As we nervously approached the meeting place where her foster mom would hand her off to us, I texted to ask her, “Can we hug you when we meet?”

“Duh” came her response. Minutes later, with open arms, we embraced for the first time and said, “Welcome home.” 

And we all lived happily ever after.

Nope. Wrong line. That’s the fairy tale version, and this is reality. It may be more accurate to say, “And so far, we have all lived, and sometimes everyone is happy at the same time.” As you might expect, we’ve encountered some bumps in the road on our three-year journey together. There have been times of sweet fellowship and fun and there have been times of intense battle and strife. We have supported one another and hurt one another. We’ve succeeded and we’ve failed. We’ve become a complete mess together, but it’s a beautiful mess. I’ve never felt more contradictory feelings than during this time of our lives. I’ve never been so wedged in mental warfare, conflicted in thought and emotions, and broken and mended in spirit. Even as I search for words to describe this experience, I am torn. I want to be positive because my daughter is a precious gift, worthy of honor, and I want to be honest because trying to learn to parent her is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I don’t want it to sound to her or anyone else like I regret anything, and yet I want to be real about the hard questions I have wrestled with. 

On our first day together as we drove to where the rest of our kids and family would meet her, our daughter asked, “So…like…what are you going to do with my name? Are you going to rename me or keep it the same?” We were dumbfounded. 

“Um…what are you going to do with your name? We think you’re old enough to decide that yourself. We’d love for you to take our last name when we adopt you, but that depends on how you feel about it.” 

“I’d kind of like to change the whole thing,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’ve never really liked it.” And so began the search for a perfect name. She liked old names. Back and forth we went throwing out ideas until she finally settled on one she loved. “Josephine,” she said, “but I’d just be called ‘Josie.’” We decided it sounded nice coupled with a shortened version of her original name as Josie Cait. I liked the idea of honoring her birth family by keeping the old and honoring her wishes by claiming the new. We were amazed to find that its meaning was significant, too. The Lord has added to the family…and He certainly had.

Our days together came with challenging and exciting events. To start, we came home with her at Christmas to find our furnace had gone out, so we spent several days in the homes of friends until it could be repaired. We also introduced some of our expectations and restrictions on phone usage, which none of her recent foster parents had done. It was a tough adjustment. On the positive side, she began school, attended a school dance alongside her brother, whom she clearly admired, celebrated her seventeenth birthday with grandparents, and enjoyed time watching indoor soccer and getting to know our family. She continued in a relationship we were not convinced was good for her, and we made every effort to support her by arranging surprise meetings with the boy and his parents and welcoming him to our town to attend an activity with her. We had many late-night talks about her past and her fears. We talked at length about how she just didn’t know how to handle being parented and how she loved us and liked that we wanted to guide and help her, but she was so used to doing as she pleased that the adjustment was difficult. We shared laughter and tears and clung to hope that someday we would be able to persuade her of our love.

Over the past three years, we’ve struggled. We’ve dealt with dishonesty, disrespect, and defiance we had never encountered before as parents. We were trauma-informed and she was coping much better than most teens from hard places, but it was still extremely difficult. We’ve responded with gentleness at times and we’ve reacted with anger that shames us. We’ve yelled and argued and allowed our home to become a battleground instead of an oasis. We’ve watched our teenage sons withdraw from the chaos and retreat to their own spaces. During this same three-year period, we’ve also celebrated milestones, laughed until we cried, played games and gone on adventures, and watched our daughter blossom into a precious young woman. We’ve seen sweet connections form between her and other family members and church friends. We’ve watched her graduate from high school and begin to pursue her goals by attending cosmetology school and moving out to experience life on her own. We can’t believe she’s turning twenty. Our baby has grown up so fast and we missed way too many years. 

Adopting a teen from foster care is not all beautiful and happy. Kids from hard places need an extra portion of love and grace and a great deal of help to process all they’ve lost. The hard parts make some people shy away from considering bringing a teen home. For us, adopting a teen from foster care was a calling. We cannot say it has been easy, but it most certainly has been worth it. She is worth it. It may have only been three years since she came home to us, but we will love and treasure her for a lifetime.