‘Mom, we have to take them home.’ It was so hard to look at these girls and not cry. It was like looking into the eyes of my sister, eyes I had not seen in 8 years, eyes I would never see again.’

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“Our story started when I was 18 years old, 21 years ago. I was meeting my biological father and sisters for the first time. My sister Jessica was 10 and Sarah was just 5. Little did I know that day would change everything. That I would be on a roller coaster of a journey that would last for the rest of my life. From loss to love, from Aunt to Mom, but more so, I would spend my life fighting for justice, to keep the last of my family from being separated, and that I would help 3 little princesses go from being long-lost cousins to sisters in just 6 months.

Three girls sitting between tow men in tuxedos at formal event
Courtesy of Renee

Shortly after our father passed away my sisters and I drifted apart. We no longer spoke or kept in touch and we all went on with our own lives. I married Mark whom I met when I was 12 and dated in high school. He was in the army. We eventually got stationed in Texas and our kids began to grow. We had talked many times about having a child together, but it was never something we were able to do. My sister Jessica went on to marry Travis and have two more daughters, Madilyn and Lillianna. Sarah met her longtime boyfriend and had a daughter, Audri. Unfortunately, as the years passed life was not easy for either of my sisters. The opioid epidemic began to grow, and it had consumed both of their lives.

Then everything changed with a phone call from my daughter’s father. He mentioned he ran into some of my family. My sister Sarah had a baby a few months back and was involved with Child Protective Services. I wasn’t sure what to say about it. I didn’t know how to feel. Sarah and I hardly knew each other, but again, that baby was my niece. Was there anything I could even do? After all, I am in Texas and the baby is in Florida. I felt so torn and Mark had just left for a 9-month deployment to South Korea. So, we discussed it. We were no longer in our 20’s. Our kids were 12, 16 and 17. Were we ready to have a baby again? But before we got our hopes up, we didn’t even know if we could get involved. I called CPS and asked around until I found the woman who was in charge. She used to be military too, so she knew exactly what needed to be done to get the ball rolling to move Audri to Texas. This was not going to be an easy process, however, as Sarah still had rights to her daughter, and she was not going to be happy we were taking her out of state. After all, we were not close at all and I had never even met the baby. We felt after all the information was on the table though, she should be with family until a judge made a determination. We knew there were risks when we decided to take her. That there was a chance she could be returned to her biological parents. It was terrifying! Then I got an email, it was a picture of Audri. I burst into tears and I knew at that moment I loved her. Like when you find out that you’re pregnant, you’ve never met that child, but you know they hold your heart.

Woman's daughter sits in home holding hands with her baby cousin
Courtesy of Renee

It was going to be a long process to get custody. From intrusive home visits and interviews to fingerprints and background checks. But after 3 months we finally got notice, we were approved for placement as a foster family. But Sarah now had to be told that Audri was leaving Florida. As expected, she was not happy and put in an appeal to stop the process of placement. We were devastated. How could this happen? She hasn’t even tried to complete her case plan and she was still not clean. Then I got a message Sarah was finally reaching out to me. She was not the same person she was when I had left Florida years ago. I let her know we are not trying to hurt her, but Audri needed to be with family. The placement was delayed for 3 more months. Then on January 14th, 2016, Mykenzie and I (Mark was still in Korea) headed to Austin International Airport where we would meet our new little girl. She was so much smaller than I imagined for 15 months old and so beautiful. But our battle had just begun.

Close up of little girl who was taken in by her aunt she didn't know
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Over the next year, we went back and forth to court, visitations until finally termination of parental rights occurred. Due to Sarah’s severe addiction and failure to accept help, we had to step away. At this point, Audri was ours for adoption and my relationship to Sarah had to be set aside. It could no longer matter we were sisters. Because I was now a mom, and that had to take precedence. I had to put what was best for our daughter above and beyond anything else at that moment. That meant sealing Audri’s adoption and cutting off all communications with our family and deciding to not tell Audri we were related until she was an adult. Then the adoption process began.

Getting our home licensed for adoption, references, more background checks, and classes. It felt like it was never going to be finalized. The longer it took the more nervous I became. What if they changed their minds? But we continued to watch our beautiful baby grow and blossom. Overcoming so many obstacles that came to her. From delayed speech and fine motor skills to horrific night terrors, Audri did not have it easy. But more than anything she was so smart and creative, she found other ways around her struggles and was thriving. We celebrated 2, and then 3. Because of her, our family was thriving.

Little girl who was taken in by her hand stands leaning against tree wearing pink shirt with flowers and white shorts
Courtesy of Renee

Then, tragedy struck our family again. Though I was still not in communication with my sisters, I began keeping tabs on what was going on in their lives through friends. I knew keeping my distance is what needed to be done for the benefit of my children. But I felt like I turned my back on my family after my dad passed away. I needed to be there for them just in case. I found out Jessica had finally made a change to better her life. She found out she was pregnant with Lillianna and entered a rehab facility for 1 year via drug court. A live-in facility that she could have her children at, so she could remain a mom. But everything was about to come crashing down, as Travis, Jessica’s husband, got diagnosed with cancer. On June 3rd Travis passed away from a combination of cancer and drug use. Jessica was destroyed. She had come so far. But still, it was not over. On August 18th, our baby sister Sarah was rushed to the hospital after her lungs collapsed while using drugs. When she got to the hospital, she was pronounced brain-dead and was taken off life support. Though Audri did not know her, our hearts broke for her. When we got Audri I always hoped in the back of my mind Sarah would get clean and eventually could be involved in our lives. But instead, I lost my sister. She was just 23 years old. I was the one who would have to look her child in the eye and someday tell her what happened to her mom. I felt as though I could feel Audri’s pain. But, what about Jessica? I was trying everything to get ahold of her, through anyone I could think of. Finally, I was successful, and she emailed me back. I was too late though – she had relapsed. I begged her to come live with me, to bring her girls, I would even come to get her. She told me she would think about it, because there was nothing left for her there.

On December 21st my phone rang it. Could it be Jessie? Instead, it was an old family friend I hadn’t spoken to in years, so I knew what was to follow. He told me Jessica was gone. She had been hit by a car crossing the street that morning. Again, I was left speechless. How could this have happened? How do I tell my family that she is gone, 4 days before Christmas? Then someone sent me the newspaper link. It was all over. My sister had been allegedly hit and killed by a local woman whose son had gone missing approximately a year prior. Her son was 14 years old. Everyone was reporting on it. Those that mentioned the crash said Jessica had walked in front of the vehicle. When no one contacted us after the initial investigation, we relied on what we heard. We thought she finally had enough and stepped into traffic. How much more could my little family take? A family I felt I never even got to know, was now almost gone. But they weren’t all gone. Where were Jessica’s kids? I spoke with relatives who said my sister’s children were with their Aunt (Travis’s Sister). I did not know her, but at least I knew my nieces were with family.

Soon January rolled around, and I got a message from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. The woman that had the girls was not at all family, but a friend of Jessica’s from church. The girls had been removed from her care and were in a foster home. After we got off the phone, I panicked – what was I going to do? Mark was on another deployment in Korea and we had just started planning our retirement. How would adding two more kids ages 5 and 1 into our home affect us, our family, and Audri, who was 3, whom we had already made a commitment too? We called a family meeting with the last remaining members of our family, my brother Chris, my cousin Shelly, and I. We asked each other, what would my sisters want? They would want their girls to be best friends just like they were. They would want them together. They would want them with family. After all, there is not many of us left anymore. In the end, it was decided I was the best choice to take the girls. I called CPS back and was informed I was not the only person who wanted custody. Family from Travis’s side and the foster family also wanted the girls. This was going to be a process, and not an easy one. These girls were so loved. But who was the right fit to carry on raising these children for the rest of their lives?

As time went on, we traveled to Florida. The day we had been waiting for was finally here, March 19th, 2018. Our 971-day journey was about to end. It was adoption day! Audri was finally going to be legally ours. While we are there, we would get to meet Madilyn and Lillianna for the first time too. Finally, I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel. What a magical vacation it was turning out to be. After spending the time with the girls, we dropped them off back to their foster home. When we got back to my Aunt’s house, Mykenzie, my biological daughter, looked at me with tears in her eyes and says, ‘Mom, we have to take them home.’ At that moment we became more determined than ever to bring those girls home with us.

Husband and wife stand at adoption court with their biological teen daughter and young niece they adopted
Courtesy of Renee

Finally, in May we got the call, we got the placement of the girls. We needed to come to Florida for integration and to bring them home. We wanted to have a few days to bond as we had another long adventure ahead of us. I rented us a nice hotel on the beach for 4 days of swimming and relaxing. Mark was at a training exercise in California and would not be able to go with us. Since I wanted to make this an easy transition for everyone, I thought it best to leave Audri home and just me and Mykenzie head to Florida. We settled in the hotel that night. But I didn’t sleep a wink, my emotions were all over the place. And in the morning, I became the new mom of 2 beautiful girls. Over the next few days, a lot of people came to see us. To wish the girls off to Texas, and swim at the beach. But as happy as the kids seemed, how well adjusted they were, I was struggling. It was so hard to look at these beautiful girls and not cry. It was like looking into the eyes of my sister, eyes I had not seen in 8 years, eyes I would never see again.

Little girls sit on beach playing with beach toys who will be taken into a foster home
Courtesy of Renee

As we began the adoption process, we found out more and more about the girls’ past and things we would need to overcome came to light. They had a hard life and I was bound and determined to make them feel like the princesses they deserve to be. I have always raised my children with this in mind. These children, especially Madilyn, who had already lost out on 5 years, deserved to know what it was like to be a kid, to be a princess. To not have adult worries and concerns, to have the only stress in her life be learning a new name. Through time and therapy, we figured out how Madilyn was getting through this time. How in the world has this child adjusted so well? We noticed no matter what the situation, she always has a smile on her face, a positive attitude, and is always talking about Elsa. We finally figured out Elsa is her coping mechanism. ‘Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show, one wrong move and everyone will know.’ We want to encourage her to talk and overcome her past. But to also encourage her to cope with her grief how she needed to. We wanted to encourage sisterhood between all the girls and of course, we wanted them to be our Princesses.

Husband and wife stand outside beside big tree with their two daughter and two foster daughters
Courtesy of Renee

When Audri was adopted we traveled to Florida. We had an amazing dinner and close family with us during the court process. These girls deserved the same welcome into the family as Audri got. But how would we make it just as special for them? On November 16th, 2018, (National Adoption Day) we arrived at the Drury Plaza Hotel in San Antonio. We took the girls up to our suite. Maddi had never seen a hotel room quite like this, and she lived in her share of them. I took them all in the bathroom one at a time. We spent Mother and daughter time, primping their hair and doing their makeup. When Maddi looked in the mirror, she said to me, ‘Mom, all I need now is a Tiara.’ We got on our gowns and headed downstairs. Waiting for us was Elsa and Anna. Elsa made her royal proclamation while Anna crowned our girls as princesses. She told them how important family and sisterhood is.

We spent time singing songs and talking about Elsa, Anna, and family traditions. How Elsa and Anna had to find theirs, it was Olaf! We decided we needed a new tradition too, one for our new family. The hotel surprised us with warm cookies and milk. Shortly after Elsa and Anna walked us outside for another surprise! A horse named Surprise pulling a horse-drawn carriage! We took a long ride through San Antonio and were dropped off at the Towers of America restaurant for an amazing dinner overlooking 20 miles of the city. The night could not have been any more like a fairytale. It was the happily ever after all of these girls deserved. The opportunity to have their only family left, by their side. To show them no matter what happens to you, your family will always be there.

Husband and wife's daughter and two foster daughters sit on couch with Elsa and Anna
Courtesy of Renee
Husband and wife stand outside in front of horse and carriage with their two daughters, two foster daughters, and Elsa and Anna
Courtesy of Renee
Father smiles and he sits on horse and carriage with his two daughters and two foster daughters
Courtesy of Renee

We soon found out that lesson was going to be one of the most important in our lives. As a family, we were about to take on more than I had ever imagined. A letter awaited me when I got home. It was a letter of settlement for Jessica’s accident. I needed to sign a release of liability to receive a settlement regarding the accident. But why? If Jessica committed suicide, why did I need to settle her estate? I got curious and pulled the police report. It stated in bold print DUI-Manslaughter. What did I just read? My heart sunk, and my stomach flipped. My sister was allegedly killed by an intoxicated driver. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t maintain myself anymore. I could no longer be strong. I broke down and depression set in. But I had to be strong. I had to for my girls, I had to for my sister, and I had to for my family. I began to make calls. Finally, I got ahold of the ADA supervising the case. She was the same ADA who prosecuted Jessica in Drug Court. I felt hopeless. I felt that to the ADA, my sister was just another dead drug addict and that prosecuting the driver wouldn’t bring my sister back. I was told that the law says if you hit another driver while intoxicated, you face a manslaughter charge. However, if you hit a pedestrian (even though you are breaking the law) the pedestrian’s actions are taken into consideration.

In this case, it was at night, and my sister was wearing dark clothes. She also had drugs in her system. Therefore, they had to add a 2.4% stop time for the driver to react. Even though my sister was following the law. Because of this, she would only face DUI and not a DUI-manslaughter charge. The same charge she would face had she been pulled over randomly. But she wasn’t randomly pulled over, she allegedly hit and killed a mother, a 33-year-old mother. Though Jessica was not a model citizen, she was trying to improve herself and deserves justice. Then I remembered what Elsa said, ‘As sisters, you form a bond that can never be broken, as you are brought together by the heart.’ She was right. I made a promise when I adopted her girls. To be the best mom I could, to always do right by them, to act in my sister’s place. We share a heart and my heart said I needed to fight for her and for these children. To see justice for their mom. We have just begun our next battle but unlike any other battle we have fought to this point, this time we have each other. We are bonded, and that bond will give us the strength to carry on. We may not be able to get the charges changed but maybe we can save another family the pain these girls have experienced.

It has been a long road to get us here, and I never dreamed that my life would be where it is at this point. I never thought I would be the mom to 5 daughters and 1 son. But above anything else, I never thought I would feel the kind of emotions I feel when I look into the eyes of my children. I feel everything happens for a reason, and this is my second chance to have a relationship with my biological family, as my relationship with my sisters will be carried on through the eyes, heart, and soul of these beautiful princesses.”

Husband and wife sit on bench outside beside their two daughter and two foster daughters between trees wrapped in lights
Courtesy of Renee

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Renee of Texas. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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