Years ago, the visit supervisor for my foster daughter chased myself and the birth mom down the hallway in the Ministry of Children and Family Development building after a visit. It was about minus 30 degrees Celsius, and the birth mom wore nothing but a hoodie, track pants, and runners.

“I have some extra coats in my car. I’m sorry, I have two Terilynn’s on my caseload right now, what is your last name again?” she asked.

This was the first time I had heard the name, Terilynn Shultz. This was not the birth mom to my foster daughter, but I would see her around the Ministry office during visit times, and her baby was the same age as my foster daughter. My initial thoughts were that she was so bubbly and very pretty. Our paths would cross infrequently over the next few years, but I had always wondered how she was doing. One day, I responded to an ad she had placed on Facebook for some homemade bath bombs. I went to pick them up from her home, and we started to chat. This sparked a friendship, and also an incredibly deep respect on my part for a person who has not only undergone one of the most painful things I can imagine in life—a disrupted adoption—and bounced back, but who has also gone through tremendous trauma and healing. Terilynn graciously allowed me to interview her for this article, and share her message, something I think every single adoptive parent needs to hear.

A Deeper Dive into Her Experience

Terilynn lived with her brother in the home of her biological parents until she was 3 years old. Her dad was very abusive, and her mom was an addict and was unable to care for the children. Terrilynn doesn’t know if her birth mom “gave them up,” in her words, or if they were “taken away” by MCFD. I asked Terilynn how she felt about not having access to this information and to her own file, and she said she did get some information once but that it was not complete. “How do you feel, as an adoptive person, to not have information about your past?” I asked. “S*****! I would love to have that information!” This, I understand. Who we are, and what our roots are, are critical things that all of us as human beings wrestle with. Early on in the interview, I recognized that this is critical: adoptive parents must advocate for their adoptive children to have as much information as possible about their past. If we aren’t asking, as the adults, and gathering information to save for later…who will? Pictures, family stories, and the facts about why a child was permanently removed from the home are so important.

After Terilynn and her brother were removed, they were placed in a foster home. While she doesn’t have many memories of her foster home, her brother does. And they are not good memories. To protect the identity of her brother, we will leave it at “it was not a good place to be.” Brother and sister lived in this situation in Ontario for about a year, and charges were never laid against the offender.

Terilynn remembers being adopted—she remembers what she was wearing, and she remembers having to take a ferry to Sooke (Vancouver Island area). Terilynn recounts that she did not talk for about a year. She would relay information to her brother, and he would talk for her. I reassured Terilynn that this is normal, and I had heard of this. She was surprised to hear this. I explained the honeymoon period in adoptions, and that children who are adopted can feel like their whole world has been pulled out from underneath them. I talked about fears adoptive children can feel: Will this last? Will they keep me? Do they love me? What will happen to me? Adoptive parents, take note: odd or unusual behavior from your adopted child needs grace, understanding, and maybe counseling. Terilynn, feeling that her brother was her safety and her security, was doing what she needed to do to survive her new situation, but her behavior was often met with frustration from her adoptive parents.

Her adoptive parents had wanted to adopt a single male child but were somewhat talked into adopting a sibling pair. “I found out later that they wanted to adopt a boy, but the only one available at the time came with a little sister. So I kind of always felt that from them,” Terilynn says. During the interview, this brought tears to my eyes. Not only had she experienced early childhood trauma, removal from the home of origin, moving across several provinces to a new home, but she also knows that she was not the chosen one and was not totally wanted.

“He always looked out for me, so that made it easier,” she says. There were two older biological children, both girls, in the home. “It was a whole weird situation,” Terilynn says. If I think about how I would feel right now, as an adult, to be uprooted from my home, put in a temporary home, be uprooted, and moved again…I would feel out of sorts and like I was just a guest in the home. Terilynn agreed and said that feeling doesn’t really go away. She thinks it might be partly because she was older when she was adopted. I was thinking to myself, about this time, of all the kids that are 8, 10, 12, 14, and older when they are adopted, and how they must feel. In this interview, we are getting real information from an adoptee who has lived it, and I want these words to sink deeply within me. I want to be receptive to the possibilities here, and my own misperceptions on adoption.

Shortly after Terilynn and her brother were adopted, her adoptive dad left the family, compounding the trauma. “He didn’t want to adopt kids, and she did,” Terilynn said. Terilynn describes feelings of the older biological children being mad that their father left and felt some of the blame fell on her for being adopted and “causing” this. The oldest biological daughter wound up later leaving the home because of how upset she was with the adoptions. While modern-day home studies seek to find out such discrepancies in the home as far as opinions and readiness for adoption, this is a sad look on what can happen when both caregivers are not fully ready to adopt and on the same page. Terilynn’s adoptive mom went on to remarry to a man who was a really good dad to her in that season of life.

“I know you said your adoption didn’t really end well,” I said.

“No, it didn’t,” Terrilynn replied. “It did for my brother, but for me, I was kind of like, … I did good for a while. But then when I hit 12 I was like, … I don’t want to blame anybody, but I was constantly hearing how my new mother had saved me from my old life, how my birth mother was a junky and she did this, and she (my adoptive mother) would even fabricate stories that weren’t even in the file about how we were found. And it just wears on you, and it makes you think, ‘I didn’t want anything to do with it,’ and I started running away.”

I mentioned the “savior complex” to Terilynn, something adoptive parents should be aware of. Terilynn identified with this happening in her own story. “It wasn’t, ‘This is my daughter.’ Everyone we’d meet, she would tell them the whole story of how she adopted us. Does she have to tell everyone that? We want to fit in! We want to be under the radar.

“Once I started running away, they {the adoptive parents} just sort of gave up. There was a short period of time where I went back, but it was so weird and awkward. They washed their hands of it—of me—pretty quickly. They moved away right after, and I never saw her again.” We went on to talk about how it didn’t really feel like unconditional love. Of her brother, she said, “He didn’t really act out the way I did. So he did pretty good there. I think he still has a relationship with them, little bit. He knows she (our adoptive mom) is really phony and manipulative and so he kind of keeps his distance too.”

After Terilynn’s adoption ended, she became a ward of the Ministry again. Back into foster care. “I was always just trying so hard to fit in, and I don’t know, … mentally, I always knew that something was missing, you know? I think that is normal for adopted kids.” I talked with Terilynn about how some children of adoption can feel a deep hole inside, especially when they don’t have all the information about their own pasts.

Statistically, children who are given little to no information about their origins struggle the most. Terilynn says, “I was skipping school and crack was the first drug I ever tried. My friend’s uncle gave us drugs.” I described men like this as predators, and Terilynn went on to say that these types of older men are everywhere. They don’t care that it is a child and that it can ruin someone’s life. Terilynn describes feeling like the failed adoption was her fault and that she had messed up. Terilynn, rightfully so, feels that her adoptive mom could have tried harder to find resources to help both herself and her struggling adoptive daughter. I told her that I had recently posted on Facebook that 56 percent of adoptive families are facing challenges.

Terilynn and I discussed how the events up to this time in her life were incredibly formative for what was to come. From ages 13-18, Terilynn went through a cycle of running away from group homes and foster homes and then landing in juvenile detention as a result. She admits that at first, it was not scary and that she actually liked juvenile detention. “I liked the people. You’re with a bunch of weirdos that are just like you. I felt like I fit in. The structure was really good, and I needed it. I got really close to some of the staff. There are some good people there. Juvie was not a negative experience for me,” she says. “When I was in juvie, I was safe. I wasn’t on the street.”

Mixed in with whatever little good there was, there was also a lot of bad. “I was sent to a house outside of juvie, three months into a yearlong sentence. I was sent there for good behavior. We put regular clothes under our uniforms when we went to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and we took off. She (the friend I ran away with) was from East Vancouver, and we hitchhiked there together. I was 14. It was scary. I survived by selling myself. It wasn’t hard, emotionally—I was just trying to survive day by day and didn’t think about it. Totally numb. I would come down and feel some of those emotions, and then just get high again to deal with it. I was so close to death sometimes. I remember coming to on the sidewalk, and I’m being revived by paramedics. I remember being in dingy hotel rooms, rats the size of cats running by you as you are smoking crack. I felt like I was supposed to be alone.

“I didn’t start to get clean and sober for a long time. I was 29 or 30. I was shooting needles, and I had Hep C from it. I never learned to shoot properly so I had bruises head to toe. I had about seven abscesses, and I still have huge scars from it. They were so infected and gross. I had to have one surgically cut out. I almost lost my arm. I remember thinking, ‘I am going to die.’ I have two girls that were born while I was using. My first daughter, I did good for a year when she was born. Her dad is really good, but we broke up because I didn’t stop using. If it wasn’t for him, she would have been in foster care.”

There were tears in my eyes as we ended our interview because Terilynn had to go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting as she is the local chapter head for the group. She has her youngest daughter for most days out of the week and has her older daughter in her life. Her dog, Willow, is from a rescue. Terrilyn works, drives, makes bath bombs from home, and is still as vibrant and beautiful than ever. Her story breaks my heart, and I look at her in awe and wonder. She attends church and gives back to her community. No child should ever have to endure what Terilynn did, but Terilynn has come back from a death sentence. Terilynn is a success story, and she has a message of hope and survival for those still on a journey of brokenness. I look out over the sea of children in foster care, those waiting for forever homes, those who have been crushed by abuse and neglect, and I am reminded that they are not destroyed. Terilynn’s message is one of hope. There is always hope. My job as a foster parent and adoptive parent is to teach hope, give hope, and promote hope. Always.