‘Are you willing to take in two more boys?’ They were filthy, skeletal. ‘We encourage you to bathe them immediately.’: Mom shares the beauty and heartbreak of foster care

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“We’ve never been an ordinary family. But then again, is there any such thing as an ‘ordinary family’ anymore? With one daughter away starting her freshman year at Baylor and another starting her junior year of high school, it was time for a change. I’d stepped away from teaching full-time to be home with my family while my husband travelled across and out of the country for work. It had worked for us for a time, but I knew I wanted more. I talked to the Lord about what was next for me. I said, ‘Lord, I feel like there might be something you need me to do, but I don’t know yet what it is. I’m ready to be busy again, and I can go back to teaching if that is where I need to be, but if not, please show me.’ It was shortly after, through a series of dreams, I felt pulled to foster care.

Thus began a journey over the last six years much like a roller coaster: up and down, riding in circles, going forward and then backwards, sometimes even upside down, shaking you to your core, testing your strength, commitment, and energy, even your zero gravity. However, once you step off the ride and gather your wits, you realize how amazing it really was. We sent an email to an agency to begin the process, then went to an initial screening where we were asked a few questions and told when classes would begin. We started our classes in January of 2015 and received our certification for two kids, ages 0-5, on August 14, 2015. The classes were inspiring, and we found ourselves diving in even deeper to what we were getting ready to do.

Our first placement came three days later. Our lives forever changed the day we met this sweet eighteen-month-old baby angel girl. When I got the call, I was told a little about her background. Sometimes you receive an abundance of information, and sometimes you have to ask a lot of questions. I sat there on the phone stalling because I needed to think. I was panicked because this would be our first placement, and I had a million questions but couldn’t think of a single one. I finally asked if she had any known behavioral issues and was given an answer to my satisfaction, then I put them on hold and called my husband. We agreed to accept the placement.

Every time we heard a car, my daughter, Ariel, and I would run to the window to see if they had arrived. When she finally did, I couldn’t believe how precious she was. She was beautiful! As excited as I was, the reality of why she was there in the first place hit me hard. She ran around the house, laughing and playing with my sixteen-year-old, and we were delighted. We were told there might be family, and she might not get to stay long, but we were already in love. She was a bundle of giggles, sillies, and laughter. She sang while she played and loved it when we shopped for new clothes and cute PJs. She loved Ariel and waited for her to walk in the door from school each day, screaming, ‘Sissy!’ and jumping in her arms.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

About six weeks into our time with her, we were told she would be moving in with her great aunt and uncle. We were devastated. Knowing the goodbye was coming was hard. I teared up when I gave her baths or read her stories. We were only given a couple days’ notice. We celebrated her, prayed over her, and loved on her as much as we could. I wrote a letter to her family to share her schedule, and I hoped and prayed they would let us still see her sometimes. While we were finishing up packing her things the night before she was supposed to leave, we received our second placement call for a boy, five months old with nowhere to go. We immediately said yes and welcomed our newest little that evening, all scared, frightened, and sick. That first and last night was a long one for multiple reasons. We were filled with excitement, sadness, new baby not sleeping, grief, uncertainty on how the new placement would go, etc.

The next morning, my husband, Ariel, and myself said our goodbyes to our little angel and wept. Within a couple hours, my cell phone rang and as I answered my pulse quickened when I heard a voice on the other end say, ‘Hi, this the great aunt for the little one you took care of. We just want to thank you for all you’ve done, and we would love to have you still remain in her life if you would like to.’ I remember Ariel coming into my room with bloodshot eyes, having skipped school that day in tears over losing her little ‘sissy,’ and telling her about my call. To this day, we still get updates and get to see our growing little angel. She is happy and thriving and still the beautiful singing, silly little girl she was the day she arrived.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

cWe were blessed to see him take all his firsts—teeth, crawling, walking holding on, walking alone, first holidays, all of it. Around eighteen months old, while my husband was out of the country, I got a call from the caseworker to pack his things. She would come get him in the morning. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I couldn’t breathe or form a sentence. My oldest daughter, Sydney, drove home that night from school, and friends came over to be with me as I faced our next major loss with virtually no warning at all.

My husband never got the chance to say goodbye. When you love someone with your whole heart, especially for the thirteen months we were given, it’s hard to let go. We decided to take a couple months off to grieve after loving a child for that time. I hadn’t had to navigate those waters yet, and we all needed some time. His mother had no interest in reaching out to us or allowing us to continue in his life. This added further devastation to our hearts. Our precious friends and family surrounded us, comforted us, loved us, and helped us get through that time. Still grieving, we opened our home yet again about two months later. Within minutes of opening our home, we got a call for another little eighteen-month-old boy.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

This guy arrived with the biggest hair and ratty clothes, dirty and shy. After bathing him and calling friends to help me with his mixed-race hair, we settled him in for the night and waited to see how this placement was going to go. Let me just say, not good. Not only did he cry, he literally screamed, open mouth, almost constantly, except for when he slept. My husband and I even got to a point where we walked around the house with ear plugs in our ears just to survive. He cried over food, cried over the dogs, cried if you said ‘no,’ cried over toys, cried because you said ‘yes.’ You name it, he cried. It was hard! But, as time went on, I prayed over him in the mornings, and I watched peace settle over him. My husband came home one night and said, ‘Something is different, you guys are laughing and playing together.’

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

We were bonding. His trauma was from a deep place, and he just needed to know someone would be there, someone would still love him. This forged one of my deepest relationships, because it was born out of pain and determination to love. A few months later, his baby brother, eight months old, joined our family from another foster home and the bond between blood was evident immediately. It was a huge leap for us, but they needed and deserved to be together. Ariel had said, ‘Why wouldn’t we take him in?’ How do you argue with that? About six months into the case, CPS asked if we would consider adopting them, as their mother wasn’t working her case or coming to visits. ‘Yes!’ could not come out of our mouths fast enough.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

Those boys became increasingly a part of our family, and we knew they were there to stay. Both my daughters came home just to see them. I’ll never forget the day, eighteen months into the case, CPS went to court, ready for the judge to order termination, and instead, she ordered they be sent back home to a mother who hadn’t worked a single part of her plan. This time, once the judge gave the order to return them, we were given four hours’ notice to pack them up and send them out the door. They were coming home from a visit with their mother when I got the call. As they walked in the door, I collapsed on the bench by the front door and wept. They hadn’t seen me cry at all before this, but the oldest one walked over to me and said with such kindness and affection, ‘Mama, are you hurt?’ He placed his little three-year-old hands on my face and waited for me to answer him.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

Our minds were blown to see the depth of his compassion in this moment, that may never have emerged had he not come into foster care. The loss of these two boys was by far the greatest loss I ever endured. They were leaving our home, their beds, the love of family and friends, to go live in a shelter, and I just could not see the justice or fairness in this. I was angry with the Lord. Over time, the Lord in His gentle grace and mercy, reminded me these are His children, not mine. His to worry over, His to watch over, His to rescue, and His to love. Loss is a part of this system, a system designed by man will always have flaws. He was showing me these are His seasons, not mine, and He is using us, but we may only get to write a chapter or two, and we may never get to see the ending. He has shown me the book can never be complete without these chapters and so they are necessary. He is the author of their story.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

After taking three months off, I couldn’t wait any longer, so we opened our home and waited three days before we got a call for placement. I woke up that morning and knew a call was coming. It was like the Lord was preparing me and asking me, ‘Are you ready?’ That night the phone rang. We said we only wanted one child this time, but the call was for two little boys, one was nineteen months old, and his baby brother was seven weeks old. I handed the phone to my husband, kind of expecting him to say no, but instead he quickly told them to bring them on. This time I had doubts. I was still grieving and missing my boys, and not sure about taking two more. I didn’t share this, but just quietly prepared for their arrival and had to trust whomever was coming was who the Lord needed us to take.

They arrived just before midnight. The investigator who brought them over encouraged us to bathe them immediately, because they were filthy. While I held a very fragile little baby and signed all the paperwork, I began to cry as I listened to the nineteen-month-old screaming in terror over my husband and daughter bathing him. I thought we had faced a terrified child before, but nothing could come close to his terror. Meanwhile, as I began to undress the baby from his heavy winter clothes in the middle of July, the tears would not stop rolling down my face. Underneath all those clothes was a baby so frail, so tiny and skeletal. I was so afraid his tiny little arms and legs would break as I was changing him. I was horrified.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

We quickly made a bottle and gave it to him. He emptied the bottle, so we made him more. That night, he slept and didn’t wake up to feed again. We thought this might be a good thing, and we were going to be lucky with this baby, but we quickly learned he didn’t wake up to cry because his cries were never met. We had a doctor’s appointment the next morning and he was admitted to the hospital to be monitored for ‘failure to thrive.’ The doctor ordered for him to be evaluated by the abuse clinic there in the hospital as well. He had a very serious diaper rash that, left untreated, could have caused sepsis. Our lives were turned upside down again. This time, we all took turns being at home with the oldest or being up at the hospital with the baby.

I was reduced to tears again when that sweet precious baby, a baby no one held, no one loved until now, smiled up at me. For the life of me, I could not understand why he would want to smile. As I smiled and talked to him, he smiled and cooed to me and I thought, ‘Only Jesus.’ Only Jesus could bring peace to a baby who had never been loved and teach him how to smile and light up the room. After a week, we finally went home. His heath remained fragile for three more months. He was severely allergic to formula and began losing weight again. We were in and out of doctors’ offices and in therapies and evaluations. Yet, his brother’s needs also needed to be addressed, but kind of got pushed aside because of the dire needs of the baby. I learned about sensory processing disorder once the light was finally shining on big brother.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

Bless his heart, he was very active, almost spastic-like, tripping and falling, constantly pulling up and trying to hang on things or spin or unable to sit still for a minute, and boy, were we exhausted, all three of us adults. Once again, right when you think you are at your breaking point, the therapies and help begin and the hidden personalities of these sweet children inside begin to emerge beautifully, little by little. Again, we were asked if we would be willing to adopt, as there were no family members willing or able to take them. This time we took a breath and talked it over, knowing this case was different, and we were older and wanted to think through if we could handle their teenage years. Sensory needs can be managed, but they don’t just go away. We said yes and headed into court for the termination trial once again.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

This trial was by jury, and it took an exhausting five days to complete. The jury awarded them to a family member. We knew it was a possibility, but with all we had been through with the children, we really thought we had a chance. I was home from court with the boys, and my husband called to tell me we only had 30 minutes to pack them up and say goodbye. Once again, the loss was unimaginable. I wasn’t sure I would ever take in another child again. I really didn’t want to. I wondered if we were built to deal with this much loss. This time, I did grief counseling through our agency for about two months to process it all. Not just these last two boys, but all the loss. In that time, I drew closer, instead of further, from the Lord. I knew in order for me to let go of all of our babies, I was going to have to trust Him more, which meant handing HIS children back to Him and trusting He loves them even more than I do.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

As I let this sink in, I saw this journey wasn’t about me. What a blessing it is to love these hurting and helpless children and watch them blossom right in front of your eyes. We can see the difference we get to make and how the Lord gets to use us, and it matters. We currently have one little boy, and we are waiting to see if, after thirteen months, he is going home. I’m not ready, and I never will be. I know loss will be huge and felt throughout every single part of my day, but I know who is walking beside me. This journey has been different, in that we have been able to love on the parents as well. Because of COVID and lockdown, visits with parents are virtual. This meant I was letting his parents, the very parents not deemed good enough to parent their children, into my home.

I was not at all excited about this prospect, but it allowed everyone to pull the curtain back a little and get a glimpse inside. For them, they got to see their son interacting with me. They got to see his room and his bed and all his toys. On one hand, that couldn’t have been easy, but it gave them a sense of peace that their child was going to be OK and he was loved. It allowed me to share with them how special I thought their son was and to encourage them through the process. Throughout the duration of the case, his mother has reached out to me for pictures, or wanting to share her own, updating me on how she is doing and rejoicing in the love her son and I have for each other. They have worked hard and done all that the courts have asked them to do.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

However, we are having to prepare for our little love bug, who loves us fiercely and is only two, unable to fully comprehend he has a first family, that he may be going home from the home he loves and a home that loves him. It’s bittersweet! We don’t want to lose him selfishly, but they have fought hard and they deserve to have their child home with them, even if it means we endure another love loss. There is peace in knowing he will be loved and kept safe, but we will grieve. Along the way, many people have asked, and if I’m honest, we have had to ask ourselves, ‘Why keep doing this? It’s painful.’ There are two answers. The first is the Lord has asked us to, and He has proven He will always equip us with what we need, especially when it is beyond what we are capable of. After all, His word tells us repeatedly to take care of the widows and orphans. We get to be the hands and feet of Jesus. What an honor and privilege it is that He would entrust us with such a calling.

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

The second answer is children need attachment. They need to know they are enough, worthy of love, safety, and care. They need to feel it and grow from it. Research shows children who come into care, due to intense trauma and stress, have, in a sense, an abnormal wiring in their brains. In our loving them, providing safe places for them to rest and heal, their brains can begin to heal and re-wire correctly. If our loving them and giving all we have to them helps to save them, we will suffer the loss. We will keep going until we know it is time to stop. Yes, the loss is great, but the reward is amazing. For now, to love these children for any amount of time, duration, circumstance is a blessing. It’s not always easy, but the reward of their love and witnessing the development of their character and strength is absolutely beautiful. With that said, for every one we have loved and lost, we would do it all over again, in a heartbeat. Beauty from ashes.”

Courtesy of Michelle Pritchard

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Michelle Pritchard of Dallas, Texas. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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