‘Placement needed after all, kids are on the way. We’ll be there in 20 minutes.’: Couple shares foster care journey with sibling sets, teens, reunifications

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“My first introduction to the foster care world was in 2011, at a wonderful organization called Big House in Opelika, Alabama. This nonprofit organization aids foster families in the area in a variety of ways including, but most definitely not limited to, offering a fully stocked clothes closet for kids and families to shop, a holiday shop to pick up presents for kids in care, and a family beach vacation every summer. 

It was here I knew I wanted to have a house full of kids one day. It was also here my heart broke for the first-time hearing kids’ stories. I will never forget a sibling set of two that had just been adopted. The older of the two had been so abused by both her parents she was put on life support. Her biological mother was pregnant at the time and the baby was removed at birth and placed in what would soon become their forever home with his sister. I fell so in love with all the kids and families I met at Big House. 

Fast forward eight years. I have been an elementary school teacher for seven years. I am 28 years old, single, and halfway through a neuroscience program to make a career shift toward researching trauma and how it impacts learning. (Spoiler alert: I never finish and instead completely pivot to work in the addictions field as a therapist.) I attended a foster parent information meeting with every intention of becoming a single foster mom. Then I met Nathan in December of 2019. 

We briefly talked via the dating app, Hinge, about where to get good Chinese food in Denver, and made plans for a coffee date. The date was postponed throughout the day until coffee turned into meeting for drinks, and that turned into dinner. We agreed to meet up the next morning for an 8-mile run. It was a whirlwind romance, and while our love story is one of my favorites, this is a story about foster care. Long story short, I invited him to join me on a 10-day road trip with my childhood friends from Colorado to Los Angeles, with stops in Moab, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon. Nathan had no hesitations coming along on the road trip or jumping into the foster care world. By February 2020, we were attending our foster care certification as a couple. We moved in together in March of 2020 and got engaged in July 2020. We just recently got married in March of 2022. 

First Foster Placements

Our home was fully certified in August of 2020. We were open for two kids, preferably aged 4-10, even though we are certified 0-18. Our first call came in early September for a 2 and 4-year-old. They called back a few hours later saying they had found a family to take the kids. So, we left for a weekend in Crested Butte to run a 19-mile trail run. On our way home, we got our second call for a sibling set of three, ages 6, 8, and 11. We said yes and were shortly called back to be told they didn’t need placement after all. 

A few days later we were casually buying a bunk bed at IKEA, and we were told, ‘Placement needed after all, kids are on the way. We will be there in 20 minutes.’ Looking back on this now, we often laugh at how we handled that call. Rushing home, immensely concerned the bunk bed would not actually be built yet, worried about little details like the laundry we had left on the couch unfolded. 

foster parents and three foster children on a hike with their dog
Courtesy of Chrystina Thompson

The kids came with only the clothes on their back, a bin full of random school supplies, and stuffed animals that had been infested with bugs. The energy you feel with a first placement is surreal, staying awake well into the morning, rearranging to make room for a third child when you had planned on two, going to find any store open for clothes to make it through the next day, and laundry… there is always so much laundry. I remember laying in bed with Nathan that first night and both of us just being like, ‘Wow, there are kids in our house.’ 

Layers Of Foster Care

Since then, we have had 12 children come into our care. Some for extended periods of time, some for short periods of time. We have gotten really good at rearranging bedrooms, rearranging schedules, and keeping toothbrushes and shampoo for all ages on hand. Here is the thing about foster care, it is the hardest and best thing you will ever do. When I think of our foster care journey, everything is truly dialectic. It is love and it is frustration, it is depleting and it is rewarding, it is heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once. 

There are so many topics to cover when you think about foster care, I would need to write a whole book. We could talk extensively about relationships with bio families, which is one hundred percent necessary. Co-parenting with a biological parent is not easy, but it’s also a good reminder to be empathetic. Kids always want to go home, regardless of what happened there. Kids always love their parents, regardless of what they did, and it is not our job as foster parents to try to replace kids’ parents. We could talk about therapy. Go to therapy and get it for your kids. We could talk about being trauma informed. No, your kid is not ‘bad’ or ‘challenging.’ Behavior is communication and there are a lot of big feelings for little people in foster care. 

We could talk about what day one looks like. We could talk about how to handle kids repeatedly coming to your home with nothing but the clothes on their back. We could talk about boundaries and how boundaries are love. We could talk about how to become foster parents without giving up your lifestyle. My husband and I are big runners, skiers, and backpackers. Our kids have all been on skis, most of them watch us run and want to run their own race. We spend as much time as possible outside. We would talk about reunification and how foster care is not free adoption. There is so much to foster care there is no way to cover it all here. 

foster parents take five of their foster children skiing
Courtesy of Chrystina Thompson

Our Foster Care Story

So here is our story. After our first sibling set left to reunify with their mom, we got a puppy. I think we felt worried about what our house would look like without little people in it, so we tried to fill the void. She’s super cute, but our house didn’t stay empty for long. We said goodbye to our first babies in a King Soopers parking lot. The same place that had served as our pick up and drop off location throughout the previous 11 months. 

We gave the kids cards, hugs, and haven’t seen them since. Here’s the thing. You love kids as your own for a certain time, and then you send them home. You cross your fingers, hope for the best, offer to stay in touch, and are understanding when you don’t. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for a biological family to be able to close the removal chapter of their life, and honestly, while we miss those kids every day, I completely understand. From what we have heard, they are all doing well!

Not even 24 hours later, we welcomed a 16-year-old for a week. Wow, did he keep us laughing! Teens get a bad reputation in foster care, but we have never had a bad experience with teens. I highly recommend fostering teens. He left, we went (you guessed it!) up to the mountains, did an awesome 14-mile trail run, and then, on my 30th birthday, we got a call for a 2 and 4-year-old. This might be the case that broke me. 

We picked up the kids, much more leisurely and less panicked than with our first placement. All we had been told was the kids were in desperate need of placement. Not that they were both nonverbal, both in diapers, the 2-year-old barely walking, and both eating exclusively Pediasure from a bottle. So, what do you do? You meet them where they are at. We started with baby food purees, we talked to them nonstop, narrating everything we did. We started eating on a schedule at the table. We played outside a lot. We explored our world. We phased out Pediasure and replaced it with smoothies. 

The 4-year-old, we will call her Beth, excelled! Communicating with pointing, playing with peers at the playground, eating solid food with a fork, even picking up language! She began each morning with a drawn out and high pitched, ‘Hiiiiii,’ and began telling the dog (remember that puppy) to ‘get down’ when she tried to eat her snacks. We went to a wedding a few weeks after they came, and Beth sat outside throwing dirt for the entire reception. Within three months, she was making puzzles and playing with cars. This was huge! 

foster parents with three of their foster children after running a race
Courtesy of Chrystina Thompson

The 2-year-old, we will call him David, became a stronger walker, started engaging with his surroundings, learned how to play with toys, tried new foods (although, still from the bottle), and wow did he have the cutest laugh. They were growing after years of intense neglect.

We fought so hard for the kids. We fought for change when their parents showed up high to a visit. We fought for change when their parents repeatedly told us and the department they didn’t feel the delays were concerning, despite being told by medical professionals there was a finite time for the kids to catch up. (Your brain is a use it or lose it organ. If you don’t learn things as an infant there is a strong possibility you never will.) We put our entire soul into fighting to keep these kids growing and keep them safe. Note that safety did not mean taking them away from their parents, but it did mean parents needed to make some serious changes. They didn’t. They fought against having to do drug tests, they fought for more hours of unsupervised visitation (which they got), they fought us and threatened lawsuit after lawsuit. 

In the end, we lost. A few days before Christmas, we dropped Beth, David, and all their things off in a parking lot. Their parents didn’t speak a word to us. Didn’t allow us to say goodbye, slammed the car door as the other kids in our home scrambled to get out of the car to give hugs. Nothing changed and somehow those babies were still sent home. Since then, we have heard they are doing okay. Whether or not that is true, and I genuinely doubt it, is forever going to be a mystery, but sometimes you tell yourself the narrative you need to hear. Foster care is really a story of heartbreak and love. 

Not even two months after welcoming Beth and David, we got a call for a second sibling set, ages 2 and 5. They joined our home in October. By December (right before Beth and David left), we had four kids under 5 and a 12-year-old short-term placement. Five kids! Never again, we said. Things got quiet, and we had only two, the sibling set that had come in October and who are still with us today. And then, we got a call for a sibling set of three, ages 9, 14, and 17. We were told nobody would take all three. Siblings who had repeatedly entered care and been separated over the last several years. Siblings who desperately wanted to stay together, as they all do. We must have forgotten that whole never again thing because somehow, we found ourselves with five again – and yet another room rearrangement. 

foster parents stand with four of their foster children
Courtesy of Chrystina Thompson

Lessons Learned

Going into this foster care journey, we didn’t have many expectations. We truly weren’t sure what to expect. We have, however, learned more than we could ever imagine. We learned to pick our battles. For example, you are rarely, if ever, going to win the, ‘Bring nutritious foods to visits’ battle. To be honest, there are a lot of battles you’re going to lose, and we quickly learned expending our energy to try to make everything end picture perfect and wrapped in a pretty bow is useless. 

You do what you can, while you can, where you can. For us this means we have clear behavior expectations for kindness, honesty, and being your best self in our home. It does not mean we think these expectations will be mirrored with bio families, because they won’t, and you will make yourself crazy trying to make it happen. Our priority is safety. We strive to see our kids excel mentally, physically, and emotionally. We want kids to sit at our dinner table and make big goals for their futures. Wow, has that table seen some stuff. Big goals and big meals, big messes, big art projects, big homework meltdowns, big tantrums, big science experiments, and big love. So much love. Big celebrations, big news, big laughs. 

When kids come into care they often come in without structure, without routine, without bedtimes. Our now 6-year-old literally asked me what a toothbrush was and why she needed it. We make our house as predictable as possible. We eat around the same time every day. We get outside and play daily. We go to bed at the same time with the same routine. This flexes a bit as we all get comfortable. But predictability is safe. And what kids need most is to feel safe. 

foster parents with four foster children in front of a lake and mountain
Courtesy of Chrystina Thompson

You are opening your door to kids who have learned to survive. Maybe they (usually they) took care of younger siblings, maybe they had to take care of themselves, maybe they were exposed to domestic violence or substance abuse. Kids come into care for various reasons. But foster care isn’t about pity. Kids don’t want pity. They want to be kids. They want to play and make messes. We often tell our kids not to come back inside until they have played in the dirt a little. That always makes them laugh, and then wow, do they take us seriously. 

As a parent in general, but especially as a foster parent, you set boundaries, you make rules, and you create expectations. You will have some really hard days. You will one day find yourself in Trader Joes while your 2-year-old has a massive meltdown and you just let it happen because you can’t identify the trigger. You will find yourself leaving the pool as your 9-year-old hits you. You will find yourself making a lot of crisis calls. You will hear a lot of awful abuse disclosure. You will have days where it seems nobody can regulate, and you feel completely hopeless. You will listen to a lot of people judge your decision to allow trauma responses because, ‘He needs a timeout.’ And you will hear, ‘This was your choice,’ or, ‘What did you expect?’ more times than you can count when you are having a hard day. You’re allowed to have hard days. 

foster parents skiing with two of their foster children
Courtesy of Chrystina Thompson

Celebrating Successes

But you also have so much to celebrate all the time. Like kids who don’t even know their letters when they come to your house learning to read! Like kids who are remarkably delayed make major milestones. You will see grades go up. You will see imaginations soar and confidence grow. You will see kids who never thought about their future making career goals. One of my favorite examples of this is our 17-year-old getting into college. I’ll say it again. Foster teens

Claire came to us in March with her two younger siblings. She was one class away from graduating high school with no plans for the future. We talked to her a lot about what she envisioned her future looking like. She had goals and we encouraged her to take the steps to reach them. While urging her to do this wasn’t hard, it also wasn’t easy. I will never forget the day she texted us her acceptance letter to community college. 

What we didn’t say, and never will say, is that community college has a one hundred percent acceptance rate. What we did say was, ‘That is amazing! We are so proud of you!’ We all went out for fajitas to celebrate! Because in foster care (and in life) we have learned to celebrate big! I am forever thankful to the waiter who was extremely enthusiastic with our big celebration and who was also, according to our teen girls, ‘super hot.’ Claire had been the recipient of a heart transplant when she was two. She lived life to the fullest for 17 years until she very suddenly and very unexpectedly passed away due to heart failure the following week. Always celebrate big. 

foster parents eat pasta with three of their foster children
Courtesy of Chrystina Thompson

A scholarship was recently set up in her name to provide financial aid to transplant recipients entering college. You can donate to the Claire Taylor Memorial Scholarship here.

Final Thoughts & Fostering Advice

Foster care never leaves you. People often ask us what it would look like to be done fostering. Well, it would be quiet in our house. But also, closing the door doesn’t make it go away. Every time a kid comes into your house your heart makes space for them. It grows and grows, and that space doesn’t close and heal just because your time together is done. There is no other role in this world where you have four car seats, two highchairs, and two double joggers (because you weren’t willing to give up running with 4 under 5) in your garage, and that’s normal because you might need them again but you’re never sure for how long or if you even will, so you keep them just in case. We currently have six beds. (Can we go back and laugh at when we said we were open for two kids?) A crib, two twins, and half a bunk in use, and a crib in our storage room. There is no other life where that’s normal. 

Foster care is a story of heartbreak and love. For anyone considering foster care, all I can say is, take the leap. Get too attached.”

foster parents on their wedding day with three children they are fostering
Courtesy of Chrystina Thompson

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Chrystina Thompson. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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