Four years after meeting my oldest son as his foster mother, after countless court dates, caseworkers visiting every month, quarterly visits from licensing workers, guardians, adoptions workers, fire inspections every year, board reviews, and having to complete hours of continuing education classes, legal complications, and finally hiring my own private lawyer, I was able to adopt two handsome little boys.
The saying goes, “It will be tough, but it’s worth it.” Well, that’s the truth, YES and YES. This is my foster adoption story.
Volunteering with Children
I always wanted to be a foster parent. My parents had fostered when I was a child and I carried that with me into adulthood. So I made a plan, and I worked the plan.
I started out volunteering as a big sister for the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. Every other weekend I spent a few hours with a little girl for two years. It was beneficial and always a good reminder to stay open-minded, that everyone is brought up differently and that’s their own normal. That revelation was just of the tip of the iceberg that I would discover through the Social Service System.
From there I became a Guardian ad Litem, to provide representation for a child in foster care that needs their voice to be heard in court. My task was to check on a child regularly and decide what placement was best for her. This time it was a baby girl directly removed from the hospital. It wasn’t a good situation, but of course I can’t reveal details. But the baby lived with her aunt, who wasn’t more than twenty-one, in an apartment in a poor part of town. Once a month on Sunday afternoons, I spent time with this baby while her aunt watched bad Lifetime movies. I held Baby Girl, and talked to her, and played with her as she got older. This went on for 18 months, and while the situation was by no means ideal, it was her family, and I hoped that she would have enough support among all of her family members to have a good life.
What’s important in this story is that the day of court the entire family showed up, including Baby Girl (which isn’t common practice), who was more than a year old at that point. Grandma walked into the courtroom and set baby girl on the floor, as she could crawl at this point. I saw baby girl and squatted down as she crawled over to me. Among maybe eight family members that sat in the courtroom, she came to me – and I held her throughout the hearing. And in that moment I knew that at less than a year old, she grasped that I cared and loved her. That changed everything for me. I was humbled to know that this little being understood and felt love in one hour each Sunday, once a month, and she remembered. If I could make a difference in baby girl’s life, just imagine what I could do with a foster child that I had all of the time.
Becoming a Foster Parent
I became a foster parent by myself in 2012. I’ve had about 12 children in my home off and on–some were short weekends and some were there for months. My intention then was only to foster, not adopt. I certainly had my challenges, and once again my eyes were opened to the habits and behaviors that are learned from such a young age.
I started out with older girls and then asked to change my requested age group lower and lower. I had a 3-year-old for nine months, and I’ll be honest, we struggled. She wasn’t where she needed to be developmentally, and I was trying to hurry her along to catch up. Later, I would come to understand that what she needed was to go backwards and be “babied” because she never truly experienced that from her mother. After reading a number of psychology books, I learned that a traumatized child experiences things completely differently. We have no way of knowing what triggers could cause an emotion or reaction that you never see coming. It’s also a fact that no two children experience and react to the same trauma in the same way, so what works for one child won’t necessarily work for another. Through that experience, I also learned a lot about myself and some of my own issues I had to face. They say God puts people in our lives for a reason, often to teach us something; those people can also be our children. I took a break for a few months, and then started again.
In April of 2014 I fell in love with a little baby boy. I’ll call him D here. For him, I was “Mother #4” and he was only 7 months old. Let that sink in for a minute. He was emotionless; he didn’t cry when he was hungry or when he woke up. I still remember the day that my therapist met him (probably day 1 or 2) and said to me, “This wouldn’t be a good baby to adopt, he’s too detached.” In that moment, I wasn’t planning to adopt, so it didn’t matter. But about 2 weeks into it he turned around and has been glued to my side ever since. My dad, who is a stern man of very few words, commented, “He lights up when she walks into the room, and vice versa.” I think we still actually light up to this day after we haven’t seen each other.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t all roses. He’s a “strong-willed child” they all say, but who isn’t at 2, 3, and 4? I’ve read plenty of behavior books and taken online classes. I personally believe that foster parents need a psychology degree to help these little children with big emotions. These children need much more than a roof, and bed and food, even love. He struggles a lot with his speech. We have two different speech therapists, and I still do a lot of interpreting. I have no doubt that the struggles he faces all relate back to the lack of consistency in his first seven months of life, and possibly the nine months before that. Despite all that, he melts my heart when he smiles at me.
In December of 2015 his half-brother arrived at our house at one month old. I had actually known that he “existed” in the womb since about August, so I had some time to physically and mentally prepare. Being an only child myself, if there was an opportunity, I wanted my children to have siblings. While a second baby absolutely did double the work and cut the sleep time in half, he is an absolute joy, and I love watching them grow together, despite the fighting. He is a smart, happy, and funny little boy. He’s talking in complete sentences, paragraphs even. We’re all amazed how different the two boys are, and the proof that those first few months of stability make such a difference in a child’s life.
Continuing on as a Family
They say that children are resilient, but I now believe that adults say that to other adults to make themselves feel better. Your soul doesn’t forget abandonment and fear and hurt, and your brain never forgets what hunger is when you’ve experienced it as a child. I’ve seen that firsthand.
While I may never see a reflection of my own eyes in theirs, I see something just as powerful. They are a reflection of my complete and unstoppable love, and we have grown in the midst of our tears and laughter; if any of us were torn from the others, it would be like losing our own self.
Now that my boys’ adoption is final, I’m excited for the next year to have all of the stress that goes along with just the foster process over with and be able to focus on being a family.
Leigh Ann Sweeny is the proud mother of two boys who were brought to her through the gift of adoption.